Loop Head: A Destination of Excellence

Of the 1,400 destinations nominated for ‘best place to holiday in Ireland’, Loop Head has been chosen by the Irish Times as the overall winner. According to one of the judges,Rosita Boland from the Irish Times, “This competition was partly about finding lesser-known places, and also acknowledging what’s being done in areas to make the best of what they have. Loop Head does that really well, has a diversely beautiful landscape, is remote, and has great tourism initiatives.”

In Catherine Mack’s blog about Loop Head in Co. Clare she talks about the EU Destinations of Excellence or EDEN scheme. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first time I have heard of this scheme, but I totally understand why Loop Head is one of five such destinations in Ireland.

Catherine travelled the peninsula on bike, following the Loop Head Cycleway to take in the breathtaking scenery and sights such as the Bridges of Ross and the Shannon Estuary dolphins.

Catherine was disappointed that she couldn’t stay in the Loop Head Lighthouse, an Irish Landmark Trust property. I was fortunate enough to spend three days there in November 2010 during some very wild weather. From Catherine’s beautiful photos I can assume she got better weather than we did!

My photo of Loop Head Lighthouse. Don't be fooled by the blue sky - it didn't last!

My photo of Loop Head Lighthouse. Don’t be fooled by the blue sky – it didn’t last!

If you are planning to head west anytime soon, check out Catherine’s blog and you will definitely be adding Loop Head to your itinerary.

Loop Head – going in search of Eden, and finding heaven

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Killaloe and Brian Boru

We were very happy to get an invite to Killaloe this June bank holiday from our good friends T & C. Of course this made me think of my last visit there when I was conducting the research for my book. Killaloe in Co. Clare and Ballina in Co. Tipperary lie on opposite banks of the river Shannon at the southern end of Lough Derg. The towns are connected by an 19th century bridge that used to have 13 arches, but 4 were removed to insert the navigation section. The settlements developed at an important fording point (now submerged) that has been utilised since the prehistoric period. The approach to these twin towns is spectacular. The lake narrows below Scarriff Bay, and is enclosed by the Slieve Bernagh mountains to the west and the Arra mountains to the east.

The River Shannon at Killaloe-Ballina

The River Shannon at Killaloe-Ballina

Perhaps the most famous son of Killaloe was Brian Boru, High King of Ireland from 1002 to 1014. His palace of Kincora stood on the hill in Killaloe where the Roman Catholic church, the green and some of the nearby houses are today, but there is no trace of Kincora to be found.

Brian Boru was the leader of the Dál gCais sept of Co. Clare. In Irish he is called Brian Bórumha or Bóirmhe, which are variations of the word bóraimhe which means ‘cattle-tribute’. However, Dáithi Ó hÓgáin in his book ‘Myth, Legend and Romance’, mentions a poem that refers to Brian Boru as ‘Brian from Bórumha’. This could be Beal Bórumha on the right bank of the Shannon just north of Killaloe. This translates as ‘the port of the cattle tribute’, and Brian may have grown up there. Brian and his brother Mathghamhain (Mahon) battled constantly against rival septs and the Scandinavian invaders commonly called Vikings (although they referred to themselves as Ostmen). It is the struggle against the Vikings for which Brian Boru is probably most well known. Brian became leader of the Dál gCais on the assassination of his brother in 976 and went on to become the High King of Ireland. His reign came to an end in 1014 at the battle of Clontarf in Dublin.

Brian’s power in Ireland had remained unchallenged until a revolt by the Vikings and Leinstermen under Mailmora and Sitric of the silken beard (the son of Gormlaith who had previously been married to Brian Boru). The Vikings enlisted aid from the western isles of Scotland and from the Isle of Man, but to no avail as the forces of the elderly Brian Boru and his son Murrogh defeated them at Clontarf on Good Friday 1014. On the night before the battle a lady of the otherworld called Aoibheall came to the aged Brian and told him he would be killed the next day. As Brian’s forces were beginning to subdue the Leinstermen and their Viking allies, a fleeing Dane called Brodir saw Brian praying in his tent and attacked him. Despite severing Brodir’s leg with his sword, the Dane manged to smash Brian’s skull with his axe, killing the High King. The descendents of Brian Boru, the O’Briens, held the high kingship of Ireland for a while after Brian’s death, but eventually lost it to the O’Connors. The O’Briens remained Kings of Thomond for centuries, until they allied themselves with the English, when they were granted an Earldom. Brian is described in the Book of Armagh as Imperator Scotorum, ‘emperor of the Irish’.

Spencer Harbour Lough Allen

Spencer Harbour is one of my favourite spots on Lough Allen. The first time I visited the harbour it was shrouded in thick fog and we couldn’t see the jetty or the water. The November sunshine quickly burned through to reveal the lovely scene below.

Spencer Harbour Lough Allen

Spencer Harbour Lough Allen

Spencer Harbour is named after John Poyntz Spencer, the 5th Earl of Spencer (1835 – 1910) and Viscount Althorp, also known as the ‘Red Earl’ thanks to his flowing red beard. The names Spencer and Althorp are probably ringing a bell, and that is because he is an ancestor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales whose family home is the Althorp Estate in England. The 5th Earl was Lord Lieutenant or Viceroy of Ireland twice, first for 6 years in 1886 and then for three years in 1882. His second term as Lord Lieutenant came about when the Chief Secretary for Ireland resigned following the release of the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell from prison. Spencer’s other political duties were neglected so that he could take charge of the government’s Irish policy. Spencer was a close friend of the British Prime Minister William Gladstone and an early supporter of Irish home rule.

Spencer Harbour Ironworks

Spencer Harbour Ironworks

A solitary red brick chimney stands in the middle of a field behind the harbour. It is all that remains of a 19th century ironworking site. Although there are no facilities to speak of in Spencer Harbour, the harbour has beauty and peace to offer the boater who manages to make it this far north on the Shannon. Lough Allen is not a widely used section of the Shannon navigation, so if it is peace and quiet you are after I can highly recommend a visit.

The Shannon-Erne Waterway

I spotted a lovely blog recently by Andy and Sally http://nbthepuzzler.blogspot.ie. The account of their travels along the Shannon-Erne Waterway reminded me how interesting I found the story of the construction of this canal.

The waterway was originally called the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal  and work started on it in 1846. The construction of the canal employed around 7,000 people during the great famine.  With picks and shovels these 7,000 souls cut through the soggy Leitrim soil and bog, and toiled for 14 years to build a canal that was of poor quality and that became redundant after a very short period. During the 14 years of construction the railway had come to Leitrim, making the canal system redundant, so that during the 8 years when the canal was in operation, only 9 boats travelled along it.  By 1869 the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal was no longer in use and fell into dereliction.

The Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal was renamed the Shannon-Erne Waterway in 1994 when it was reopened as part of a cross-border flagship scheme. The £30 million sterling project involved the governments of Ireland and Britain, The OPW, Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, the International Fund for Ireland and the ESB. The Shannon-Erne waterway stretches over 36 miles of remote countryside in Counties Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim. The waterway makes it possible to travel over 400 kilometres from Limerick to Belleek in Co. Fermanagh, making it the longest leisure navigation in Europe.

Andy and Sally’s narrow barge The Puzzler on the Shannon-Erne Waterway at Ballyduff Lough

Lough Key Forest Park

The Lough Key Forest Park has been developed in recent years into an activity centre consisting of the Lough Key Experience, Boda Borg and Adventure Kingdom. Part of the Lough Key Experience is a 300 metre long tree canopy walk that brings you through part of the forest, 9 metres above the ground. The tree-top walk emerges at the waters edge, just next to the Waterways Ireland mooring facilities, where there are excellent views across the lake to Castle Island.

Tree Canopy Walk Lough Key Forest Park

Tree Canopy Walk Lough Key Forest Park

Another interesting part of the ‘experience’ are the 19th century tunnels which lead out to the Moylurg Viewing Tower. The Tower stands in the place of Rockingham House, which was designed by the architect John Nash in 1809. The house was destroyed by fire in 1957, and the surviving walls were demolished in 1971. The viewing tower was built in 1973, and although it provides some beautiful panoramas of the lake and the park, personally I find the tower quite ugly and imposing. The bottom of the tower sits in the basement area of the house, where the servants’ quarters would have been, and the underground passages that lead to the harbour and the turf quay.

Moylurg Tower Lough Key Forest Park

Moylurg Tower Lough Key Forest Park

Trinity Island lies offshore to the west of Castle Island, just beyond Drummans Island. The MacDermot family gave the 2 acre island to the White Canons of St. Francis in the 13th century, where they remained until the suppression of the monasteries in the 17th century. The White Canons belonged to the Premonstratensian Order, which was founded by St Norbert at Prémontré Abbey, near Laon in north-eastern France in 1120. Their name stemmed from the white colour of their habits. They began construction of Holy Trinity Abbey soon after the MacDermots granted the land to them in 1220. The Abbey was constructed from the local rocks found around Lough Key, such as pale-grey sandstone and limestone which are found on the southern shore. The Annals of Loch Cé, which cover the period between 1014 and 1590, were written on Trinity Island. There is a tomb on the island where the body of Úna Bhán MacDermot lies. She was the daughter of the Chief Brian Óg MacDermot who refused permission for her to marry Tomás Láidir Costello, the son of one of his enemies. She is said to have died of a broken heart, and Tomás swam across to the island every night to weep by her graveside. When Tomás died not long after Úna, her father allowed Tomás to be buried by the side of his love.

On the southern shore of the lake, close to the Forest Park Visitor’s Centre, lies a small stone harbour. From here we can see the ruins of a castle on a little island just off-shore. This is the aptly named Castle Island, which is recorded in the Annals of Loch Cé in the 12th century. At that time the area was called Moylurg and it was ruled by the MacDermots, who resided on Castle Island and at the site of the Moylurg Tower until the 17th century. The MacDermot residence on the island was actually a fortress called ‘Carraic Locha Cé’ or the Rock of Lough Key. Under Cromwell the MacDermot lands were given to the English King family, who renamed Moylurg as Rockingham. The Kings rebuilt the castle on Castle Island as a folly, which they used as guest accommodation until it was badly damaged by fire.

Castle Island Lough Key

Castle Island Lough Key