Exploring Lough Ree and its islands
The archipelago of islands on Lough Ree provides an extraordinary visual record of Irish history throughout the years, from prehistoric times, through the Early Christian period and the Viking and Norman invasions; from the Cromwellian settlements to present day. The lake is home to approximately 52 islands, the smallest ones occupying a mere one acre in size, while Inchmore, the largest, stands at 200 impressive acres.
Bordered in some areas by richly wooded shorelines and broken up at other points into a series of hidden bays, the lake and its environs are a joy to explore. Rich in native flora and fauna, and with a wealth of archaeological remains, the importance of this site to our cultural heritage cannot be overstated.
Athlone or Glasson make good starting points for exploring the eastern shore: a short drive will bring you to Killinure Point or Coosan Point, both of which offer sweeping views across the lower lake. The two points enclose what’s known as the Inner Lakes, home to Friars Island, named after the Franciscan Order from Athlone, forced to retreat there for safety in the 17th century during the Cromwellian persecutions.
Coosan Point has always been a firm favourite with families and it’s easy to see why. The vast expanse of the lake as it opens out between the trees is a jaw-dropping sight, especially on a sunny day, and there are picnic benches dotted around the area.
Lough Ree Park is a lovely woodland walk right on the lakeshore. One of the highlights is a viewing point nestled between the trees: a circle of wooden benches offers a panoramic view of tree-covered Hare Island. A tiny island occupied by just a few trees is also visible in the distance.
Dotted throughout the woods are signs providing historical information about the lake, and about the fish, birds and vegetation native to this area. A quirky feature is the ‘Love Lock-It’ at the end of the trail.
Drawing on European traditions, couples are invited to show their love for each other by symbolically fastening a padlock to the railing or popping the question at their ‘romantic area on the lake shore’. A narrow, pebbled path leads to a circular platform with a lake view and a heart carved in stone.
On a promontory north of Killinure you’ll find Portlick and the Millennium Forest trail. A short but very picturesque looped walk will bring you through a woodland setting with native trees forming a lush green canopy overhead. Every now and then, the trees give way to natural clearings with gorgeous views of the lake and islands beyond.
It is fascinating that many of the larger islands housed domestic dwellings and farms which were inhabited until recent times. Many still house working farms and are all privately owned. Ringforts and crannógs are the earliest indications of human habitation in the area, one of which is visible on Rinanny on the western shore.
Hare Island is significant for two reasons: its association with St Ciarán, and the discovery of a Viking hoard. We know from historical records that St Ciarán founded a monastery on this site before going on to establish the one at Clonmacnoise in the mid-6th century. Thought to have endured until the 12th century (there are some monastic remains still visible), this is particularly impressive considering the ongoing attacks and active presence of the Vikings on Lough Ree between 843 and 987. In 1802, an exceptional hoard of Viking jewellery was uncovered. Dating to 937, this included a series of richly decorated gold and silver arm rings, anklets and bracelets.
Where Hare Island differs from all the others is its architecture. Upon the confiscation of lands during Cromwellian times, the island came into the possession of William Handcock, or Lord Castlemaine of nearby Moydrum Castle. Hare Island became his retreat: he built a hunting lodge here among the trees, an idyllic base for fishing, boating or shooting. The lodge was built to designs by renowned architect Sir Richard Morrison in an eclectic mix of styles. The estate and island were abandoned by Lord Castlemaine and his family after the burning of Moydrum in 1921 by Republicans. The island was left in the hands of the Duffy family who had been caretakers at the time, and in due course they became owners. It has remained in their hands to present day.
Also worth a visit is Saints Island, a misnomer as it is accessible from land via a narrow gravelly causeway. A sign tells you that you are now entering a special area of conservation: it is a rich habitat and breeding ground for a diverse range of wildlife, and migrating birds in particular. The promontory is located on the north-eastern side of Lough Ree on the Longford side, home to a number of private properties and farms. However, the main reason to visit is the remains of a 13th century monastic settlement.
There are a number of well-preserved ruins on site including the foundations of an attractive church, crumbling ivy-covered cloisters and a stone altar, with sections of the original surrounding wall still standing. Three round-headed splayed windows have withstood the test of time and are in pretty good condition.
The star of the show, however, is the exquisite tracery window: a plaque tells us this was a later 15th century addition. Also of note is a small stone building thought to have been a latrine. The site today houses a well-tended cemetery.
It’s heartening to note that this area has been included in the recently launched Shannon Tourism Masterplan: 2020-2030. The plan has ambitious plans for the region, including a proposal to create a Lough Ree Biosphere.
For more in-depth information, Lough Ree and its Islands by Seán Cahill, Gearóid O’Brien and Jimmy Casey gives a comprehensive overview and is a must-read.