The history of Lough Mask through its own isles

 Inishmaine Abbey

Inishmaine Abbey

Throughout the centuries the islands of Lough Mask have stood silently and helplessly by as they played host to many extraordinary events. This week I am able to touch on just some of those events chronologically.

The lake island of Inishowen briefly held the interest of archaeologists in 1973 when a 300-million-year-old fossilised stone was found there by a Ballinrobe publican. In Ireland’s prehistoric mythology, the Battle of Moytura was fought to the south of Lough Mask between the early settler groups, the Firbolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Firbolg are said to have pursued the Tuatha Dé Danann up the east side of the lake where they put them to the sword. Later on, in the sixth century AD, Eoghan Buidhe, King of Connacht, had a castle on the island that took his name, Inishowen. In the early 14th century, a son of Richard Óg de Burgh, Earl of Ulster and Baron of Connaught, was drowned by two Normans at Earl’s Island. Known as the Red Earl, de Burgh’s daughter Elizabeth married the famous Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. 

Before the lake was drained in the 1800s, there were more islands dotting Lough Mask. Some have now ceased to be islands – Flag, Kid, Heath, Priests’, and Doneen islands to name just five. The names of some islands point to their past. Whiskey Island was no doubt a haven for bootleggers. Tree covered islands that were difficult to access were perfect for clandestine activity. The illegal poaching of fish was also of concern to the authorities. An inhabitant of Inishmaine Island and his friend from the island of Aghinach had, in 1906, set nets between two islands to poach trout. They were both fined for their actions. Shortly after the Civil War (1922-23 ), armed detectives and gardaí searched the lake’s islands after ammunition and military equipment were found on the mainland nearby. 

Fishermen and day-trippers often disembark at the lake’s many islands and use them as staging points and docking stations for rest, eating, and shelter from inclement weather. Fishermen who stalked the contents of the lake for hours at a time were best placed to see the more unusual side of lake life. In 1935, two avid Castlebar fishermen, TP Flanagan and JP McCormack, were on a typical outing when heavy rain forced them to shelter on a small island. On a neighbouring island, about 20 yards away, the two men spotted a large hare being chased by a weasel. The hare took to the water and made for the fishermen’s island with the weasel in hungry pursuit. On reaching the island and seeing the men, the hare ran at them and jumped into McCormack’s arms. Equally unfazed by the human presence, the weasel continued to charge after its quarry and though McCormack got a shot off from his gun, the weasel kept coming. Shot number two put an end to the drama.

Lough Mask is the sixth largest lake in Ireland and is the second biggest in terms of volume of water which has made it a well-regarded destination for quality fishing. Since 1953, the World Cup Trout Fly Fishing Championship has been held on the lake. Since that year up to 1956, 14 tons of pike and over four tons of perch were removed from the lake by the Inland Fisheries’ Trust in order to control what it called vermin and to allow trout numbers to increase, which in turn attracted more recreational fishermen.

The lake’s islands have witnessed tragedies and many averted disasters. In 1977, a boating trip by a Dublin couple turned extremely dangerous when their craft slipped its moorings on Sandy Island, leaving the couple stranded for 15 hours in torrential rain and high winds. If you would like to learn more about the islands of Lough Mask, visit the Ordnance Survey Ireland website, osi.ie, where you can view old and current maps of the lake.

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