The Winding Banks of the Erne

Writers Marion Maxwell and Brian Gallagher use multi-media to tell the story of watery Fermanagh

The Winding Banks of Erne, an illustrated literary entertainment specially devised for the Fermanagh Live festival by local writers Marion Maxwell and Brian Gallagher, was enhanced by projected images from the Castle Museum archives and music provided by pianist Jeanne Monroe.

Appropriately the performance was staged at the lakeside headquarters of Waterways Ireland on September 29, as an opener of sorts for the larger Fermanagh Live festival that was to come. Some of the capacity audience had arrived by boat, one couple all the way from County Monaghan via the Erne/Shannon canal link.

For their celebration of Fermanagh’s Lakeland, its history, customs and characters, the two former teachers, who have a gift for storytelling, and presentation skills to match, had unearthed some compelling stories and fascinating facts.

Up until the 9th century, the river system marked the border between Ulster and Connaught. At one time there were 57 monastic settlements in Fermanagh, many of them established on island sites for safety. The Vikings came in their long ships and stayed for a year. The Normans came but did not stay, in contrast to 17th century Planters from England and Scotland who came for good.

From their perusal of the 15th century Annals of Ulster, compiled at Belle Isle by Tomas Og McMaghnusa and now housed at Trinity College Dublin, Maxwell and Gallagher chose a passage which describes the ordered and somewhat opulent lifestyle of the Maguire chieftains whose seat of power was at Enniskillen Castle.

The hall was crowded with poets and musicians, including perhaps the blind harpist O’Carolan who wrote the tune ‘Planxty Maguire’. Ladies embroidered rare tissues and wove golden veils. There were fighting men and tradesmen of all kinds. The wounded were attended by doctors, criminals were punished and part of the day was spent listening to romances.

When the Castle was destroyed by the English in 1602, Maguire the Hawke was deposed and William Cole, whose statue now dominates the town, became captain of the long boats and barges of Lough Erne. Five years later, the so-called Flight of the Earls was organised by Cochonnact Maguire, and with the departure of the Gaelic chiefs by ship from Lough Swilly, the old order had gone for ever.

Given that the Erne is 70 miles long, stretches to ten miles at its widest point and sinks to 208 feet in depth, it is often said that Fermanagh is in the lakes for one half of the year but the lakes are in Fermanagh for the other. Poet Francis Harvey put it this way:

'Fermanagh, half in and half out of whatever its element is. Never quite sure at any time whether it’s one thing or another, land in water or water in land.' For him, the Janus Figure, which stands in a graveyard on Boa Island, was a metaphor for his own dual identity. 'A squat twin-headed stone idol that was looking two ways long before I knew there were two ways of looking…'

TP Flanagan


Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney noted ‘a flirtation between land and water’ in the gentle watercolour paintings of the lakes by his friend, TP Flanagan. Flanagan was fascinated by the changing light, gradations of grey and calm lake water, mirroring the sky (see painting above).

Writer Shan Bullock, who was brought up on the Crom estate, home of the Crichton family, depicted 'a world of lavish magnificence, of endless goings and comings and doings… a civilisation. A little estate, splendid, stirring with life.'

It was at Crom that the Lough Erne Yacht Club was founded in 1837 and where the season’s sailing with attendant social engagements became as popular as Cowes Week.

Among Maxwell and Gallagher’s noteworthy characters was Margaret Elliott. Her photograph, taken when she was 106, depicts a formidable and stoical lady who survived her husband and two of her sons, who drowned within sight of their home on Trasna island.

Popularly known as Orange Peggy, she wore her sash with pride, and when she died in 1891 aged 108, her coffin, festooned with orange lilies and blue rockets, was ferried to the mainland and escorted to Trory church by members of the orange lodge.

JVC Porter of Belle Isle, an early champion of Lakeland tourism, financed the pleasure steamers SS Knockninny and Belturbet and built the first hotel at Knockninny. Visitors could leave London Euston at 6.30pm, catch the night boat to Dublin and the mail train to Enniskillen arriving at 11.25 am, then continue to their final destination on the lakes by pleasure boat.

Down the years, the Lough Erne Cot, a practical flat-bottomed boat with collapsible prow, served as a war ship and a ferry for lifestock and heavy cargo. It transported babies, brides and bodies in coffins and was, we were told, the prototype of the craft used for the Normandy Landings during World War II.

A dramatic photograph of a Catalina sea plane flying low over Enniskillen Townhall in 1941 was a reminder that the war brought American soldiers to the county. They came with nylon stockings, nissan huts, chewing gum and the jitterburg dance.

Their uniform was glamorous and they spoke like film stars, greeting the girls with a hearty 'Hiya Honey!' The local men described them resentfully as overpaid, oversexed and over here. The town councillors reluctantly opened the cinema for them on the Sabbath and railed against their courting of young girls in the Fort Hill pleasure gardens.

One of the airmen aboard the Catalina, which spotted the Bismark, returned to Fermanagh years later with his wife in order to show her Lough Erne, the most beautiful runway in the world.

In this presentation, there was humour and pathos too, especially in the account of postman Rooney and his brother who froze to death in their boats during the severe winter of 1961.

Maxwell and Gallagher ended the afternoon’s entertainment with a reading of the poem The Winding Banks of Erne by William Allingham, which gave the title to their informative, intriguing and amusing tour of the lakes.