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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Ireland’s Lough Gill Inspires Legends and Famous Poets

SLIGO, Ireland – Our “ghillie” apologized sincerely for the slow action July 31 as we trolled Lough Gill for salmon, perch, northern pike or anything else that might strike our lures.

My friend, Chris Conover, and I assured Jackie Mahon we didn’t require his contrition. Even skilled guides like Mahon can’t force fish to bite when coercion fails. Mahon grew up fishing Lough Gill, and came from a local family with deep roots on the legendary lake, which feeds the Garavogue River for its three-mile journey to Sligo before roiling through town to the nearby North Atlantic.

Besides, I knew Lough Gill wasn’t Mahon’s first choice to fish that day. Our ghillie had subtly suggested lakes with better summertime odds when he and I started corresponding weeks earlier. But I wanted to fish for pike on Lough Gill, which is the unnamed lake in William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

If you spend much time fishing, or simply sitting on lakeside benches, you understand why folks in cities, cubicles and factories pine for such waters. Yeats’ famous poem captures their yearnings, especially its closing lines:

“I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

Mahon understands that longing, too, and said people visit Lough Gill nonstop in summer to gaze out from its southeastern corner at the modest 1-acre Innisfree not far away. Mahon promised more, saying we’d moor there in early afternoon, and he’d make tea in his Kelly Kettle while we ate our sandwiches.

After lunch and tea, I navigated narrow paths through Innisfree’s ferns and tangled brush. I soon agreed with others who’ve walked the same brief trails: Innisfree’s rocks, brush and gnarly trees probably didn’t inspire Yeats’ famous poem.

Yeats probably just liked its name, and used poetic license in applying it to a bigger, more likely isle on Lough Gill, such as Church Island or Cottage Island farther west. Of Gill’s 16 islands, only Church and Cottage offered realistic space and terrain to grant Yeats’ wishes for nine bean-rows, a hive for the honey-bee, and a small cabin of clay and wattles.

Artists tweak such facts, y’know. Gordon Lightfoot often acknowledges the doomed ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald was bound for Toledo, not Cleveland, when it sank on Lake Superior in November 1975. But as the singer/songwriter explains, few words rhyme or flow with “Toledo.”

Likewise, one need not be W.B. Yeats to find “Innisfree” more lyrical than “Church” or “Cottage.” Former Ireland press secretary Joe Jennings, then a reporter at The Sligo Champion in 1950, detailed why Gill’s 40-acre Church Island was likely Yeats’ inspiration. For instance, the island is within an easy boat-row of the Clogherevagh House land and boathouse Yeats often visited, and it’s home to the ruins of a fifth-century chapel that burned in 1416. The site offers peaceful solitude for writing.

Cottage Island, called “Beezie’s Island” by locals, also contains ruins from earlier times. Although it likely didn’t inspire Yeats’ famous poem, it has its own legends. A woman named Beezie Gallagher lived there alone into the 1940s after several generations of her family lived on and farmed the island’s 14 acres. Beezie often rowed her boat into Sligo, a 6-mile roundtrip, well into old age before dying alone in an accidental housefire.

Water the size of Lough Gill does more than bathe islands and inspire legendary poets, of course. At 5 square miles and depths up to 102 feet, Lough Gill turns deadly when whipped by hurricane winds blowing in off the ocean. A plaque leaning against a rock wall of Church Island’s chapel offers mournful tribute to four young Irish soldiers who drowned Jan. 2, 1984, in a storm after fishing for salmon.

Mahon said more prudent souls hunkered down on Church Island during the storm, but Colm M. Gowan and his friends John, Patsy and Michael had to report for duty the next morning. Burdened with military obligations, they set out in their 17-foot boat and soon capsized. One of their bodies was never found.

Mahon, 47, shared those stories and many more during eight hours of fishing as we trolled past Dooney Rock, Slish Wood, White Rock and Pigeon Point near the Bonnet River’s mouth. Mahon, a former sales executive, now guides anglers and ties trout flies full time. He also enjoys hunting upland birds, and said the area’s best woodcock haunts during his youth were on Lough Gill’s northcentral shoreline, which he and his springer spaniel reached by boat.

Uphill through the woods was a Catholic convent. “I’d usually get off one shot before the nuns ran me off,” Mahon said with a laugh. “They were mean. You had to shoot fast, grab your bird, run back to the boat, and get out of there. I always prayed the motor would start on the first pull.”

Mahon spends most days tying, selling and shipping Irish trout flies, which he sells worldwide through his Facebook page. He figures he’s tied 10,000 flies since September, and 150 in the two days before guiding us on Lough Gill.

He learned his craft from an uncle, and refined it under the tutelage of Frankie McPhillips, who learned to tie from a woman in Ballyshannon who worked magic without a vise. Mahon said he’s the only one in his family to fall for fly-tying and fly-fishing. Most Mahons troll Mepps spinners, Rapalas and other lures, just like we were doing.

Maybe Mahon is simply more patient than his kin. A cousin and fellow ghillie, for example, once stranded two German clients on an island after arguing with them about World War II.

“He warned them not to talk anymore about the war, but they did anyway, so he helped them onto the island and left them there,” Mahon said.

Mahon didn’t say if his cousin abandoned the Germans on Innisfree itself, but I doubt it. If an island is too tiny and barren to inspire a poet, it offers even less to hungry men needing shelter.

Chris Conover, foreground, and Ireland fishing guide Jackie Mahon troll past Innisfree Island on Lough Gill while fishing for pike and salmon. -- Patrick Durkin photo

Jackie Mahon, a “ghillie” on Ireland’s Lough Gill, enjoys sharing the lake’s history while guiding anglers. -- Patrick Durkin photo

This ancient chapel on Lough Gill’s Church Island was built in the 5th century and burned in 1416. Some locals believe the poet W.B. Yeats often went here when seeking solitude to write. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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