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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Only lapping water and birdsong break the silence at Roscommon’s Lahan Island

Lough Key in County Roscommon has more than 30 islands — several of which have appeared here — and they have had enough of interest to satisfy any historical conference.

The islands which dot the lake are heavily wooded and the lake itself is surrounded by a huge wood which comprises the Lough Key Forest and Activity Park.

McDermott’s or Castle Island has the ruins of a castle that looks like the set for a Gothic horror film; Hermit Island has a hermit’s cell where a lone monk once worshipped his maker; Trinity Island has the ruins of a monastery founded by the 12th-century Premonstratensian order or White Canons.

However, historical interest is but one approach to an island’s appeal… and its geographic location is at least as interesting. Lahan Island (or Garrarinch), to those navigating the Boyle River from south to north is the first island they will meet on entering Lough Key and thus is an important marker. The island has a lovely canopy of oak, beech, hawthorn, and several other native species. It is just under four acres in size and as far as is known has never supported human life as no traces have been recorded there. Then again, with ample fishing, proximity to the mainland, and plenty of shelter it is a lot more hospitable than some of the islands visited for this series off the coast. There is however, a small jetty on the north side of the island demonstrating regular contact with the outside world.

In the 1960s and 70s the entrance to the lough was by means of a lock, whose keeper a Mrs Conlon, often opened it 25 times a day to allow boats to pass back and forth. One voyager wrote that after tying up at a convenient quay ‘you must go walk half a mile along a tow path in search of Mrs Conlon’ in a description evoking a gentler era than the present.

The name of the island comes from the Irish ‘Leathan’ meaning ‘broad part’ and is a perfect description of where the lake broadens out to reveal its plentiful number of islands.

A description in the Westmeath Independent in 1960 of the lake and its magnificent woods mentions the former grand mansion of Rockingham designed by John Nash but which was destroyed by fire in 1957 which succeeded another fire.

“For three hundred and fifty years they have applied the principles of silviculture, planting and thinning out the woods as prudence might demand, and the result is a monument to their good taste and enterprise.”

The writer goes on to describe the route through the lake for a cruiser: “Having left the bay at Rockingham do not be tempted to pass between Orchard Island and Green Island. Instead, pass the round red buoy off Swallow Island. A black marker off Bullock Island clearly indicates the course and then comes Lahan Island, a place of dreamy woods with a swamp to the north where ducks abound.”

On a recent spring visit to the lake, probably the best time to visit, the trees were just coming in to bud, and the floor of the wood was a balm of bluebells with here and there pockets of wild garlic, like drifting clouds in a blue sky. The site was so attractive that others had visited and the remains of a campfire and even a bench were seen.

Another writer for the same newspaper writing 12 years earlier described the route sailing northwards from Carrick-on-Shannon and on to Knockvicar before arriving at Lough Key and Lahan Island: “As one comes abreast of the woods on Lahan Island, the lake suddenly presents itself to view. It proves to be a breathtaking sight, beautiful beyond belief.”

At a remove of 75 years from the aforementioned reference it is a pleasure to report that the lake, island, and woods of Lough Key are still as magnificent now as they must have been then. Silence, apart from the lapping of water and the occasional birdsong, reigns.

How to get there: Kayak from the lakeshore or take a tour with loughkeyboats.com (summer)

Other: Westmeath Independent 10/09/1960; Roscommon Herald 28/05/1972


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