Islands of Ireland: Voyage along our shortest river to Bernard’s Island

Lough Gill is famous for Yeats’s evocative and transcendent masterpiece ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’
Islands of Ireland: Voyage along our shortest river to Bernard’s Island

Graham Robertson of Adventure Gently on the Garavogue River, Co Sligo near Bernard’s Island.

Lough Gill, or the Bright Lake, is the lake that keeps on giving. Several of our large lakes have many islands but few can be as compelling as Lough Gill (especially for island hunters). It is famous of course for Yeats’s evocative and transcendent masterpiece ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. 

The poem was penned after his imaginary sojourn on the tiny island in the eastern end of the lake which is in Co Leitrim (the bulk of the lake is in Co Sligo). Imaginary, as some have claimed that it was Church Island on the other side of the lake where Yeats wanted to plant his nine bean rows and have a hive for the honey bee and live alone in the bee-loud glade.

The Garavogue River flows from the lough for about 3km to Sligo Town making it one of the shortest rivers in the country. Short but sweet. Bernard’s Island (Oileán Bhearnada) lies at the meeting point of the river and the lake. With a starting point in Sligo town, a delightful boat trip along the Garavogue can be made past a narrow part of the river known as The Narrows, and onwards through an avenue of trees past the old Hazelwood demesne which was owned by the Wynne family.

Dan MacCarthy: 'The perimeter is heavily wooded but the interior has some lovely glades with towering trees thrusting towards the heavens.'
Dan MacCarthy: 'The perimeter is heavily wooded but the interior has some lovely glades with towering trees thrusting towards the heavens.'

A reader in Sligo, Joe, was in touch to say there used to be a ferry across the river along this stretch at Cleveragh. “This ferry operated up until the 1920s. My dad went over on it when he was eight or nine years old and that would have been between 1918/1920. The ferry took passengers, livestock, etc over and back to the Wynne estate.” Gradually, the riverine environment changes to lacustrine and it can be a dramatic change if the wind is high as the river opens out into the lake which is 8km long.

This is Nut Point and it separates Bernard’s Island from an island of equal size: Wolf Island which was once home to the lupine species. Running trails crisscross the Hazlewood estate out as far as Bernard’s Island. The island is very close but separated but a substantial barrier of reeds. Bernard’s island is uninhabited though the neighbouring Cottage Island was once home to the redoubtable Beezie Gallagher who lived alone there up to the 1940s and who would have daily rowed past Bernard’s Island into Sligo town.

Without a pier, landing is a little tricky, and kayakers need to nose in under low-hanging branches to find an entrance to the island. The perimeter is heavily wooded but the interior has some lovely glades with towering trees thrusting towards the heavens. The island has several limestone walls that look tantalisingly like the manmade walls of a house but which are just outcrops.

About half of Lough Gill’s islands are located at this point including the large island where Beezie lived. A large expanse of water needs to be crossed before reaching the huge Church Island where there is a medieval church site.

Bernards Island, formerly known as Oileán Bhearnat, Bernard’s Island, Oilean Mhearnait was under the ownership of John Wynne of Hazelwood House one of the huge estates on the lough. These estates were responsible for planting much of the expansive deciduous woodlands including the strawberry tree (arbutus) and varieties of yew and oak.

Graham Robertson of Adventure Gently has been running trips in his Canadian canoes for years on the lough. He says the fact that it is so quiet there is a huge part of its appeal.

Throw in some “wonderful scenery, superb history such as the steamer that used to go from Sligo to Dromahair, Parke’s Castle, Beezie’s Island,” and you have a magical place.

As with Dick’s Island in Roaringwater Bay in West Cork, the placename identity of the eponymous Bernard has remained elusive. It has been suggested that the link is a reference to St Bernard.

Or, it is possibly linked to Oileán Bhearnat, the island of the gap, which makes geographic sense as the island is situated at the ‘mouth’ of the lake. The island is a magnificent place to lose yourself for an hour among the leafy splendour and maybe to seek inspiration for a Lake Isle of Innisfree mark II.

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