By Frank Rogers (October, 2013)
On 13 March, 2002 President Bush met with representatives of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the White House and he ended his address with the following beautiful blessing:
May the Irish hills caress you, may her lakes and rivers bless you.
May the luck of the Irish enfold you, may the blessings of St Patrick behold you.
I was born in Co. Fermanagh within sight of the winding banks of Erne, and the lakes of Ireland have always held for me a deep and enduring fascination.
In the year 2006, when I was aged 69, I undertook to canoe round the lakes of Ireland to raise funds for the Share Centre in Lisnaskea, Ireland’s largest residential outdoor activity centre catering especially for disabled people. The centre provided me with a top-of-the-range canoe and I undertook to donate any sponsorship money I raised to the centre.
My target initially was to canoe around, along or across 32 lakes in 32 counties in 32 days. In fact I canoed 39 lakes in 32 counties in 21 days, and if I had been better organised I could have done it in far less. It was never my intention, however, to set records but rather to enjoy the beauty and tranquillity and savour the historical and literary associations with which so many of our lakes are endowed.
I began my odyssey on a lake 200 feet below the ground at the Marble Arch caves in Co. Fermanagh and for good measure canoed the same day from Enniskillen to the ancient monastic site of Devenish in Lower Lough Erne. In Dungannon Park a fisherman pulled an 8½ lb trout from the lake and at Church Island on Lough Beg in Co. Derry an ex-internee recounted stories of Roddy McCorley as if he had been hanged at the Bridge of Toome that very day. There is a perfectly formed crannog on a gem of a lake in the lea of Fair Head in North Antrim, but the waters of Lough Neagh around Ram’s Island were among the stormiest I encountered.
Castlewellan Lake in Co. Down was peaceful and tranquil but sadly the following year it was the scene of a fatal drowning when two young cousins perished in a boating accident a short distance from the shore. The lakes of Ireland are beautiful and scenic but can also be hazardous and deadly.
The warden of Coney Island in the Co. Armagh sector of Lough Neagh is a past-pupil of mine, a great, gentle bear of a man called Peter McClelland. ‘Monarch of all he surveys’, he pulls his own teeth, and the birds come and feed from his hand.
Louth, Meath and Dublin are poorly off for lakes. Drumcah, near Knockbridge, was difficult to access, but luckily Gerry McKenna had switched off the electric fence surrounding it. Bracken Lake in Meath has a lovely secluded setting and Knock Lake near Balbriggan is jealously guarded by the local fishing club. Lake Muckno in Monaghan and Ramar in Cavan are two of the finest lakes in counties which abound in beautiful fishing lakes.
Sean Flannery and members of the local area met me at Ballinafagh in Co. Kildare and made a very generous donation. Pallas Lake in Co. Offaly was my next destination where I was met by my good friend, Harry Hume from Clough, and at Granstown Lake in Laois, Harry, Matt Doyle and his two sons helped me carry my canoe almost half a mile so that I could fulfil my pledge to canoe at least one lake in each county.
There is one small lake in Co. Kilkenny in the Castlecomer Estate Yard, but despite the fact that ‘Carlow’ means ‘Four Lakes’ I was positively informed that in fact the county had no lakes. Well, that was until I got in touch with Pat Foley from Garryhill who has excavated a 7 acre site and made it into an artificial lake generously stocked with rainbow trout. May fortune shine on your enterprise, Pat!
No boating craft are allowed on the lakes at Glendalough, but then I imagine if an intrepid canoeist were to launch at 5.0 am, all honest men would be fast asleep in their beds and the stillness of the morning air would only be shattered by the barking of sleepless dogs…
Lady’s Island Lake in Co. Wexford is at the extreme south-eastern tip of Ireland and its windswept brackish waters proved a tough hurdle, but Belle Lake in Waterford was straightforward. Joe Egan at the water’s edge mischievously assured me that there was a rescue service just over the hill complete with helicopter and full survival equipment!
Tipperary, surprisingly, has few lakes but I managed to find one high up in the Knockmealdown Mountains – Baylough – a beautiful corrie lake, reputedly bottomless, but charming in the cradle of its rhododendron-clad hillsides.
Gougane Barra in Co. Cork is one of the most beautiful and enchanting settings in all of Ireland and the night I stayed there I was privileged to attend a performance of Eric Cross’ timeless masterpiece, ‘The Tailor and Ansty’, by two Abbey players, Ronan Wilmot and Nuala Hayes. Due to the possibility of the introduction of the troublesome zebra mussels with craft such as mine I was gently informed that it would be best if I did not canoe on the lake, so the next morning I canoed across nearby Lough Allua and then drove to Killarney where I canoed from Lord Brandon’s Cottage, along the Upper Lake, down the Long Range, underneath the Weir Bridge, and glided gently down to that lovely stretch of the lakes known as ‘The Meeting of the Waters’.
It is a place of exquisite beauty with classic scenery made magical by the subtle shifts of light and colour and the sun dancing on the shimmering water. Semi-tropical plants and fragrant shrubs fringe the water’s edge and beyond that, serried ranks of mountain ash, birch, oak and holly sweep up the verdant hills to merge in the golden gorse and purple heather of the distant mountains. At Muckross Lough, close to the Colleen Bawn Rock, mink scuttled away along the shore and at Brickeen Bridge a boy sat dangling his legs over the parapet in a scene that might have come straight from ‘Deliverance’. All that was missing was the banjo.
In Limerick, I traversed Lough Gur, the cradle of Irish civilization, in Clare, Lake Inchiquin, in Galway, Kylemore, and in Mayo, Lough Carra, where on an island I came on a monument to George Moore who immortalised the area in his novel, The Lake. In Westmeath I picked Lake Derravaragh because of its association with the Children of Lir, in Longford, Lough Gowna, in Roscommon, Lough Key, and in Sligo, Lough Gill, because of its Yeatsian connection and the Isle of Innisfree. Late on a summer’s evening I crossed the beautiful Glencar Lake in Leitrim whose setting and charm inspired Yeats’ ‘The Stolen Child’:
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glencar
In the pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star.
I finished my journey at Lough Derg in Co Donegal – St Patrick’s Purgatory. The Prior, Monsignor Mohan, graciously joined me for a photograph and thus ended my memorable three week sojourn around the lakes of Ireland.