Ancient Island Sites on Lough Erne
A visit that includes Devenish, White and Boa islands
The shores and islands of Lough Erne have been occupied from time immemorial, leaving behind a wealth of mysterious Celtic statues and monastic ruins.
Devenish Island, near Enniskillen, contains the ruins of an early Christian monastery. The island’s name comes from daimhinis, meaning ‘Ox Island’. It is on the lower lake, which, confusingly, is positioned above the upper lake on the map.
A boat trip around the lough provides a perfect afternoon out. The MV Kestrel leaves from the Round O jetty near the centre of Enniskillen, and takes approximately an hour and a half with a 30 minute stop on Devenish. Alternatively, you can depart from Trory Point, just outside Enniskillen, nipping across in a few minutes by ferry.
The Round O jetty is next to a pleasant park with a small cafe and brightly coloured playground. The boat sets off first towards Enniskillen, where you can see the ruins of Portora Castle, strategically positioned on an island between the two lakes. The boat then turns back and churns gently towards Devenish.
All sorts of pleasure craft glide up and down, from motorised tubs to elegant cruisers. These waterways were once a major route for the passage of people and goods throughout Ireland.
Thick trees line the bank, and hidden amongst the reeds at the water’s edge are wooden platforms for fishing. The boat also passes Portora Royal School, a mansion built high on a hill that formerly schooled both Oscar Wilde and Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy.
The island of Devenish appears ahead, the top of its round tower just visible, rising some 30 metres into the air. You can climb to the top via internal ladders.
Founded in the sixth century on a pilgrim route to Croagh Patrick, Devenish became an important monastery and centre of scholarship. It was raided by Vikings in 837 and burned in 1157, but later flourished as the site of the parish church and St Mary’s Augustinian Priory.
Near the round tower are the remains of a Romanesque church. On the hilltop sits the Priory church, with an intricately carved high cross in its graveyard.
A tiny museum contains sculpture from the churches and information about the monastery’s founder, Saint Molaise, whose name means ‘my dear flame’. One story tells how, when he was traveling, he needed a quill to write a text and he raised his hands to heaven. A passing bird dropped a feather suitable for his use.
Another delightful waterborne outing is to White Island, home of a famous row of early Christian statues. The ferry leaves from Castle Archdale Country Park, near Irvinestown. The park was once an estate owned by the Archdale family, who arrived in 1614 during the plantation of Ulster.
Today, it is owned by the Environment and Heritage Service. The original castle was destroyed during the 1641 rebellion and again in 1689, during the Williamite wars. In the eighteenth century, the family built a mansion but all that now remains is a huge cobbled courtyard surrounded by white outbuildings, housing an information centre and tearooms.
During the second world war, Castle Archdale was a major base for flying boats, housing up to 2,500 people. An exhibition describes how Catalinas and Sunderlands flew from Castle Archdale to protect Atlantic shipping from German U-Boats. Today’s caravan site sits on the cement maintenance area where aircraft were serviced.
The ferry to White Island leaves from Castle Archdale’s busy marina. We chug down the tree-lined inlet into the lough, past windsurfers and canoeists, towards the island.
The ruins of the ancient church are situated near the shore, built on the site of an earlier monastic settlement. Its fine arched Romanesque doorway is still intact. Famous carved figures sit in a line along the interior wall. They were probably constructed between 800 and 1000, and were later used as building stones in the church, before being uncovered in recent centuries.
At one end is a grinning sheela-na-gig, a statue of a naked female figure, known to archaeologists as an ‘exhibitionist figure’. Their function is uncertain. Most of the others, staring fixedly forwards, wear the long tunics of churchmen.
Boa Island is named after Boadhbh, the Celtic war-goddess. The island is linked at either end by causeways to the mainland. This is the home of the iconic Janus statue. At the west end of the island is a sign to Caldragh Cemetery. A bumpy road leads to a graveyard, once the site of an ancient church.
A tall statue stands among the gravestones, two figures joined back-to-back by an interlace design—one figure is a calm warrior, while the other looks anguished. The statue might date from the first century BC. Nearby is a similar but smaller statue, which was moved here from the island of Lusty More. Trees edge the graveyard, and through them gleam the waters of the lough.
Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland, Discoverer Series, Sheet 17, Lower Lough Erne.
Getting there: Devenish Island
MV Kestrel from Enniskillen to Devenish. Departs from Round O jetty, Brook Park, Enniskillen, Easter to September. For details contact Erne Tours on 028 6632 2882.
Ferry from Trory Point to Devenish, Easter to September. Run by the Environment and Heritage Service. Trory Point is down a short lane at the junction of the B52 to Kesh and the A32 to Ballinamallard. For details, see
Getting there: White Island
Ferry to White Island departs from Castle Archdale marina, Easter to September. Contact 028 6862 1892.
Living Places (1997) by Colm J Donnelly.
Photographs by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis 2004.