Lake Islands and a Blind Harpist
The jewel among Roscommon's glittering lakes is Lough Key, lying amid the attractions of a forest park. But it is only part of a region rich in natural splendours where lakes teem with fish, wildlife abounds and rugged mountains and lush forests compete for attention. The bustling market town of Boyle nestles at the foot of the Curlew Mountains, its history imprinted on the shape of the ruins of Boyle Abbey and honoured in the restored grandeur of King House.
Cutting across the spectacular Kilronan Mountain is an uncut gem of a tourist attraction - the 25 mile Arigna Drive, from Cootehall to Boyle. It leads along narrow, winding and often bumpy roads that pass through tiny, immaculate villages like Keadew and some of the most magnificent scenery in Ireland. Red squirrels, stoats, fallow deer, badgers, rabbits and hares can be seen along the route, and among the birds to be spotted are goldcrests and pheasants.
St. Patrick is said to have passed through a tiny settlement in AD 435 and convinced St Attracta, the Abbess of Killaraght, that it needed a better accommodation. Boyle town quickly grew round the hostel she founded. Later, legend says, St Patrick tumbled into the River Boyle and cursed the spot where he fell. Since then the fishing has been poor there.
The sport downstream, however, makes up for it. Boyle, and nearby Loughs Gara and Key, lure fishermen from all over the world for trout or coarse fishing, and host numerous international fishing contests. One local fisherman's tale concerns Constable O'Connor's Pike. On Good Friday, in 1900, Constable P. J. O'Connor landed a 53lb pike on Lough Key. He told Fishing Gazette, 'In spite of all we could do it brought us about where it liked through the lake.'
But Boyle is more than just a fisherman's paradise. On the northern edge of the town next to the river are the imposing ruins of a Cistercian abbey. It is Ireland's most impressive example of a 12th-century Cistercian church. Founded in 1161 and consecrated in 1218, the abbey was build during the period when Irish ecclesiastical architectural style was changing from the Romanesque to Gothic. On the north side of its long nave are pointed Gothic arches, while on the southern side they are rounded and Romanesque.
Wars, fires and plunderings damaged the building, yet it operated as a monastery until the end of the 16th century. From Elizabethan times to the end of the 18th century it served as a fort, and was known as Boyle Castle. Now it is administered by the Office of Public Works and there is a reconstruction of the original design in the abbey's renovated gatehouse. The lodge, cloister, kitchen cellars, sacristy and church remain.
Up the street from the abbey, dominating the town, is the stately mansion built for Sir Henry King, MP, in the early 1700s. It is one of the finest surviving town houses of the period, with a central block and two projecting wings. Boyle's Main Street was originally designed as an avenue leading up to it. The house became a barracks in the 1830s, but is now being restored to its original splendour. The film actress Maureen O'Sullivan was born in Boyle. In 1988 she visited the town and unveiled a plaque on her birthplace, now a bicycle shop in Main Street.
This small market town between Boyle and Roscommon played an important role in the spread of Christianity throughout Ireland. St Patrick established a bishopric here, on the site of a pre-Christian druidic house. Later, Elphin developed into an important Christian centre, with Augustinian and Franciscan friars establishing monastic houses here. But nothing remains of the town's medieval churches and the bishopric today is in Sligo.
Many claim the writer Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) was born in Elphin. In fact he was born near Ballymahon, County Longford, but was educated at Elphin's Diocesan School, as was Oscar Wilde's father, Sir William Wilde (1815-76), the antiquarian and oculist.
The 3 mile wide lake, which is nearly circular, is the star attraction of the Lough Key Forest Park. Writers have chronicled the history of Lough Key for nearly 1000 years, starting with the year 1041 in the Annals of Lough Key.
The Annals were compiled on Castle Island, one of 33 islands in the lake, and are now preserved in Trinity College, Dublin, whereas the Annals of Boyle were compiled on nearby Trinity Island. Both tell of countless battles fought around the lake's shores and on its islands, as powerful local chieftains, such as the MacDermotts, fought off attackers.
The islands also became famous for the monasteries that were established on them. Trinity Abbey, on Trinity Island, is the only surviving Irish example of a monastery of White Canons, an order founded in France by St Norbert during the 12th century. On Church Island are a gable and church doorway of a 9th-century Celtic monastery.
The legend of the ill-fated lovers Una Bhan MacDermott and Thomas Laidir McCostello figures strongly in the lough's folklore. Although from rival families, the two fell deeply in love. Una's father was enraged and confined her to Castle Island where she became ill and died. Heartbroken McCostello swam out to Trinity Island every night to visit her grave until, weakened by the cold waters, he fell ill with pneumonia. On his deathbed he pleaded with Una's father to be buried alongside his loved one. So they were reunited in death and, the story goes, two rose trees grew over their grave and became entwined in a lover's knot. The bushes can still be seen. The poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) became so enchanted with the castle on Castle Island that he planned a place there 'where a mystical order would retire for a while for contemplation.' the idea came to nothing.
The 800 acre Forest Park, most of which was the Rockingham Estate, was owned by Sir John King and his successors until 1957, when it was sold to the Irish Land Commission. Rockingham House, designed by Nash in the early 1800s, was completely gutted by fire in 1957, though some of the outbuildings still stand, such as the ice house, or food store, and the temple, with views of the lough and its islands.
The park also included a large area of woodland, gardens, nature walks, archaeological remains such as the Carrowkeel court cairn, ring-forts and underground chambers, or souterrains, and the shell of a former estate chapel. A modern structure, the Moylurg Tower, offers fine views of the estate and the surrounding countryside from its top deck. Also, you can take a boat tour on a 50 seater boat, or in a small pleasure boat, of the many islands on this lake.
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