Islander Festival Comes to Fermanagh

Fermanagh celebrates local music, culinary arts and heritage around Upper Lough Erne from May 2 – 5

All around Fermanagh, posters and leaflets are promoting the first ever Islander Music Arts and Food Festival, designed to celebrate the natural beauty and island lore of Upper Lough Erne.

Robert Livingstone’s panoramic photograph (see below) perfectly encapsulates the unique appeal of the area. It’s a region that has received less attention than its more celebrated counterpart, the Lower Lough, known for the Lough Erne Golf Resort, Devenish Island and White Island, with its carved stone figures.

From May 2 – 5, a programme of musical events and entertainment will showcase the attractions of Belle Isle, Trannish and Inishcorkish islands, Crom Castle and the Cornashee moat ring near Lisnaskea, where the Maguire Kings, including Donn Carragh, the first of their scion, were crowned.

It is here that the Islander Festival will be officially launched on the evening of Friday, May 2 with a drumming session by local group The Exhausted Farmers.


The weekend’s headline act is the vaudevillian songsmith, Duke Special, who will appear at a Saturday evening concert at Belle Isle castle – a venue fit for a duke, for it was on the island of Belle Isle that Tomas Og McMagnusa, a prince of the clan McManus, wrote Ulster’s first history, the 15th century Annals of Ulster, which are now kept at Trinity College, Dublin.

The castle, which was built in 1629 during the plantation of Ulster, belonged to the Gore family and later the bishop of Clogher, the Right Rev John Porter DD, Regius professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, who resided there when he came to Ireland in 1795.

His descendant, John Grey Vesey Porter, (1818 – 1903), an early champion of Fermanagh Lakeland tourism, built the first hotel at Knockninny and financed the pleasure steamers SS Knockninny and Belturbet.

Today the Belle Isle estate is owned by the Duke of Abercorn, who bought it in 1991 for his younger son, Lord Nicholas Hamilton. The Tudor style manor house, which commands uninterrupted views across the Upper Lake, can be glimpsed nestling in the trees in the lower right corner of Livingstone’s photograph.

Run as a commercial venue for weddings, fishing parties, and bespoke holiday lets, Belle Isle also offers conference facilities and courses at its renowned cookery school.

Concert goers will be received in the castle’s period drawing room then proceed to the baronial Grand Hall, complete with Minstrel’s gallery, where Duke Special will be supported by Conchur White and his Armagh band, Silences, as well as the Belfast-based group Arborist.

Festival director, Barry Flanagan, has made a point of inviting talented emerging voices, like the foot stomping Emerald Armada and Dublin band, Orchid Collective, whom he hopes will attract a family audience to the afternoon Folk n’ Food event in the castle grounds.

Joe Kelly, the Belle Isle School of Cookery’s head tutor – whose family are islanders from Garradoney, the garden island – will be roasting a Saddleback hog. It will be chosen by award-winning local butcher Pat O’Doherty from his Inishcorkish island herd, which also includes Wessex pure black, Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot pigs.

It was on the island of Inishcorkish that John Reihill and his wife Sheila lived until 2004. There they welcomed tourists, mainly boating enthusiasts, to their cottage restaurant. Musician and author of Reflections of an Islander, Reihill was born on the island, where his family first settled in 1882.

'When finally I felt that we could no longer cope with the rigours if island life, I sold Inishcorkish, all 51 acres, 3 rudes, and some perches of it, to Pat Doherty,' recounts Reihill in typically precise terms.

He also relates how the first people to live on the islands of Upper Lough Erne were monks – hence the name Friar’s island. Then, in the 17th century, families like his own – or the Bradys or the Martins, who were dispossessed of their lands by Scottish and English Planters – became island settlers.

So populous was Trannish island, where the festival will hold Saturday night campfire sessions, that it still had a thriving community, a football team and a pipe band right up until the latter years of the 20th century.

On Sunday afternoon, in the gardens at Crom Castle, a programme of jazz and blues will feature the Hannah McPhilimy quartet, while in the evening the Fermanagh Choral Society will perform in the castle’s West Wing conservatory.

Meanwhile, the Innishcruiser will take off from Smith’s strand at the Share Discovery village with a storytelling crew from the Fermanagh Writers Group and Derry-born singer, songwriter and multi instrumentalist, Ronan Kearney. Passengers may wish to stay on at the Share Centre for a Hooley in the Hall with music by Sons of Caliber, Joshua Burnside and Midnight Graffiti.

On May Bank Holiday Monday, the festival will round off its inaugural programme at Lisnaskea’s historic Corn market yard, where local musicians, Blurred Lines – a four-piece covers band from Enniskillen – will perform standards like Pharrell Williams’s ’Happy’, a song which provided the perfect soundtrack for a recent YouTube video organised by the Impartial Reporter,  celebrating Fermanagh as the happiest place in the UK.

Visit the Islander Festival website for more information.