A new series with Melanie Ward
The River Erne is the second longest river in Ulster. Rising 214 feet above sea level in Lough Gowna on the Cavan Longford border, it flows through Counties Cavan, Fermanagh and Donegal before reaching the Atlantic at Ballyshannon. In Fermanagh the Erne broadens out into two lake systems – Upper Lough Erne and Lower Lough Erne. Curiously, on a map you will find Lower Lough Erne above Upper Lough Erne. This is because the Erne’s highest point is at its source and not the sea.
Essentially a series of lake systems studded with islands, the Erne was a major waterway for thousands of years. It provided a route from the Atlantic to inland Ireland, a border between the ancient kingdoms of Connaught and Ulster, and a gateway to the pilgrimage site of Lough Derg.
It’s waters brought the first Neolithic peoples to settle on its banks, carried Christian missionaries to preach the gospel along its shores – and later Viking invaders to raid and plunder its monasteries and villages.
Michael O’Clery, one of the Four Masters of the Annals of Ulster, wrote the Book of the Invasions (Leabhar Gabhála) at Lisgoole, on the shores of Lough Erne in 1631. The book details the earliest legends of the origins of Lough Erne. Describing the seven colonisations of Ireland, O’Clery goes on to record a number of floods of biblical proportions, after which Lough Neagh and Lough Erne ‘burst forth’.
The Annals of the Four Masters describes “a battle against the Ernai, a sept of the Fir Bolgs, on the plain where the Erne now is. After the battle was gained from them, the lake flowed over them, so that it is from them that the lake is named, that is, a lake over the Ernai.”
Another legend recounts the story of Ierne, lady in waiting to Queen Maeve of Connaught, who was drowned in the Lough while trying to escape from a warrior called Olcai. Another version of this legend, recorded in the Dindshenchas (Lore of Places), states that Erne was a priestess of the goddess Meabh, who lived with a company of women at Rath Cruaghan.
Erne was charged with preserving Meabhs treasures – a comb and a casket – and her memory. One day a fearsome warrior called Olcai arrived and the women fled from him into Lough Erne, where it is said they still live, in an underwater palace.
Yet another account claims that the Erne was named after a daughter of Manannan MacLir, the ancient Irish Sea god.
In the nineteenth century, the antiquarian William Wakeman recorded another legend relating to the origin of the Erne. In it, a spring well was covered with a locked door and enclosed by a strong wall. A woman went to the well one day to collect water, but on hearing her child cry dashed away from the well, forgetting to lock the door. The well overflowed, drowning everything it’s way before reaching the sea at Ballyshannon.
In 1850, Reverend Henry Newman told a similar story
“Before the Erne valley was flooded, there were villages and a high rock (the Eagle or Erne rock)….and a fairy spring which never changed it’s temperature or its depth. People understood that the rising suns beams must never touch the water.
A young girl and her lover came in there in the early morning, and he rolled the stone for her from the mouth of the well, and dropped her pitcher in the current. They left the spring and climbed up the cliffs – and saw the waters boiling up on the spring, flooding the hollow below; the Eagle or Erne rock rose above the water as an island, and gave the lake its name.”
The legends of the Erne that concern flooding may contain a grain of truth. Historian Mary Rogers described the Erne as “a corridor valley of the Ice Age, lake strewn and drumlin covered”. During the Ice Age snow was highest in south Fermanagh and when the glaciers melted a deluge followed, leaving in its wake rivers, lakes and the submerged drumlins that we now know as the islands of the Erne.
The Erne is said to have an island for each day of the year. Inhabited from earliest times, the islands have been home to saints, scholars and warriors – and even the occasional ghost. They have witnessed history from it’s recorded beginnings and beyond, in times of peace and war.
In the following weeks we shall be exploring further the Islands of the Erne.