I am not someone who is very keen on getting up at 5 am on a Sunday morning but last weekend I found myself sitting blinking in the car three and half hours before Sunday Miscellany was due to come on. The reason for missing my rashers while half listening to a story about someone's childhood drinking buttermilk in Clonmel was a guided kayak trip at first light to hear the dawn chorus.
A week previously, my wife had asked if I fancied going on the Sligo Kayak Tours trip. I said yes obviously but if I had been asked just before dawn on the Sunday morning, I expect I would have said no. I am very glad I agreed to it however as the meander around the shores of Sligo's Lough Gill on a bright and flat calm morning was absolutely magical.
Most people don't say that much at that hour of the morning so, when everyone had been kitted out in waterproof trousers and life jackets, we slipped almost silently into the glassy waters at about 6.15 am. As you can see above, the mist lingered on the lake as the sun came up, softening the edges of the shore and islands and bathing everything in a smoky peach coloured light. It looked and felt incredible.
That's my wife Siobhán above in her bobble hat who, thanks to teenage working holidays in American Summer camps, is a dab hand with the paddle. She manages to glide along at any speed, seemingly expending no energy and without making a single splash. Naturally I tried to copy (and improve upon) her style with very little success.
The dawn chorus was very apparent in such calm conditions but I will confess I got a bit lost in all the talk of warblers, martins, pipers and tits as I was too busy looking at the lake. I did learn it that it is mating season for the mallard so felt a bit of a gooseberry when I gatecrashed this pair's romantic rendezvous.
Oddly, if I had come across these two in my normal bipedal manner, they would likely have taken flight yet they seemed completely unperturbed by my arrival in a bright blue, ten foot long canoe.
Yeats's famous lake Isle of Inishfree isn't the only island on Lough Gill, there are 20 in total but the most significant others are Church and Cottage Island. There are well preserved church ruins on both, evidence of their monastic past, but the largest, cottage island, also includes a domestic ruin which was last inhabited in 1949.
The island gets it's local name of 'Beezies Island' from that last inhabitant, Beezie Clerkin, who lived there alone into her nineties. She nearly froze to death in the winter of 1947 but was rescued by locals who pushed a boat across the frozen lake (ready to jump in if the ice broke). She was brought to Sligo hospital but, on overhearing talk of being put in a home, discharged herself and rowed back home. Sadly, Beezie Clerkin died in a house fire 2 years later and was the last permanent inhabitant of any of Lough Gill's islands.
We stopped off on Beezies beautiful Island before heading back home and, although I had been a number of times before, I was again taken under its spell. There are sheep grazing so the glass is kept well clipped but it also features mature woodland with primroses and bluebells underfoot at this time of year. It's like a fictional island on a treasure map as it has a little bit of everything; a low grassy meadow on the western side and a hilly beech wood on the east, ruins and an interesting past.
If you would like to visit Lough Gill and explore it under your own steam, you could do worse than contact Barry Mottershead at Sligo kayak Tours. I hadn't met Barry before nor is this a plug for his business but he and his colleague were excellent guides and gave us a fabulous morning on the lake that I will never forget.