By Lough Sheelin's side

Lough Sheelin is over 7kms long, more than 3kms wide and covers an area of 1800 hectares and borders three counties, Cavan, Meath and Westmeath. Lough Sheelin, from the words She Linn, meaning fairy pool, originates as legend has it from a fairy well, and was used by a village as its water supply. However, there was a restriction on the use of the well. The lid had to be replaced every time water was drawn from it. Nevertheless one day, a woman neglected to replace the lid and the waters rushed out, drowned the entire village and thus created the lake, writes Geraldine Lynch.

Louth Sheelin is placed by ancient Irish sources in Cairbe Ui Gaibre which was a pre norman principality centred around Granard in Co. Longford. The largest island in the lake, Church Island has the remains of an early Christian oratory dating from the 400s. The island was then called Inis Oughter (upper island). In the late medieval period the lake was closely associated with the O’Reilly family. Crover Castle, which is built on a small island in the lake was reputedly erected by Thomas O’Reilly in the late 14th century. Thomas O’Reilly was the grandson of Giolla Iosa Rua, and pushed O’Reilly power into modern Co Meath. The castle is not far from the shore of Lough Sheelin and in the later Middle Ages the lake was seen as the border between the Irish and the English, the Anglo-Normans and the O’Reilly family. The village of the Mountnugent originally known as Daly’s Bridge in honour of the local landlord was on the border between the two.

In the late 1300’s the O’Reillys moved the seat of their power to Tullymongan above Cavan town. As the O’Reilly clan were in the fortunate position to occupy the border between the Gaels and the Normans they were in a unique position to exploit all the advantages that living on the border provided. However, by the late 1500s the Tudor state was extending its power throughout Ireland. The border region of Breffni was among the first to feel the pressure, with the Anglo Norman Nugents and Plunketts from Meath beginning to assert their power in Breffni on behalf of the English crown, and as the century progressed the pressure became greater. In 1566 the O’Reilly family were compelled to sign the Treaty of Lough Sheelin with the Earl of Sussex. By 1584 Breffni was shired and became the county of Cavan. The O’Reilly power finally collapsed in the wake of the Nine Year War (1594-1603). In 1601 Edmund O’Reilly (of Kilnacrott) was killed in Cavan. He was the last of the family to hold the title “The O’Ragahallie’.

To the south of Louth Sheelin, the lake borders Westmeath with the River Inny, linking Lough Sheelin to Lough Derravaragh. Finea, (Fiodh an Atha) is located to the south of the lake, and its literal translation from Irish means ‘words of the lord’ or ‘field surrounded by trees’. Finea was an important tactical point in the the Middle Ages between Navan, Meath and Longford. Lough Sheelin and Lough Derravaragh and the boglands that lay between them formed the ends of an impregnable defence line and were an impassable wilderness. Any army faced with this had either to go around on go through Finea and control of Finea was the key to controlling a good portion of South Cavan.

Ross Castle on the eastern side of the lake, was built in the sixteenth century. The tower of Ross Castle was used by Myles O’Reilly. Myles O’Reilly also known as Myles the Slasher was a cavalry officer in the 12 year war (1641-1653). A plaque in the hall of Ross Castle is inscribed
“This ancient castle in which the celebrated Myles O’Reilly, known as The Slasher in 1644 past the night previous to the Battle of Feinna at which he was killed, haven fallen into ruin was partly restored by his lineal descendant Anna Marie Maria Dease O’Reilly in 1864.”

Lough Sheelin is a high concentrated limestone lake, which is rich in minerals. The waterway is well serviced with public access points and car parks at Kilnahard pier, Crover Pier and beside the River Inny at Finea.

The fishing season is from March 1st to October 12th with the size limit of the catch 30cms and the maximum amount in the daily bag is six trout.

The fishing methods allowed are as follows; March 1st to April 30th - Artificial fly only. April 1st to June 15th - Artificial fly, dapping, spinning and trolling (oars only).
June 16th to October 12th - all methods.

However, no live bait fishing is allowed.

Lough Sheelin has extensive shallows, rocky shores, islands and wooden shores. The lake is classed as a mainly trout fishery which permits pike angling subject to the regulations of that fishery. However, all angling on the lake closes in early October. Lough Sheelin is considered an attractive lake to visit because of the size and quality of the trout that are caught there and the range of fly fishing techniques that may be used. Fishery scientists estimate that Lough Sheelin has the largest trout carrying capacity to carry a bigger stock of brown trout of any lake in comparable size in Ireland - over 100,000 trout with at least 40,000 of them between 2lb and 4lb.

Frequently anglers have reported catching fish in the range from 4lb to 7lbs. The average weight based on catch statistics in recent years is about 3lbs.

However, Lough Sheelin has faced numerous pollution problems over the last number of years. The environmental problems initially stemmed from the development of an intensive pig fattening industry in its catchment area. In recent times the pollution problem has been brought under control but the lake has demonstrated an amazing ability to recover from the years of pollution it had to endure.

The fishing season begins in March at which time the trout are feeding mainly on freshwater shrimp and freshwater louse. The best fishing in March and early April is mainly along rocky shores and exposed points and favourite areas among fishermen are Chambers Bay, Kilnahard Shore, Merry Point, Arley Point, Curry Point, Ross Bay and the south shore of Derrysheridan. The high season is the period from about the 15th May to the middle of June.

Thereafter, the action switches to the south side of the lake, roughly south of a line from Kilnahard Point to Inchicup Island. It is then that areas like Chambers Bay, Rusheen Bay, Gorepoint Bay, Bog Bay and Waffy’s Rock area start producing fish. June to mid July sees the advent of perch fry and roach fry.

A song has been written about Lough Sheelin, called Lough Sheelin’ side and recounts the tale of an eviction. It is not known for certain whether the song is of Cavan, Meath or Westmeath origin as the lake borders all three counties, and there were extensive clearances of tenants in the past famine years in both Cavan and Westmeath. However, there was a mass eviction one cold February night at a place called Tonagh in the late 1840s. Then Tonagh was a thriving village located near Ross on the Meath shores of the lake and not far from Mountnugent. Some 700 poor souls were thrown from their homes. The song probably relates to this eviction scene. In an article in the Heart of Breffni (1984) Seamus P O’ Mordha cites the first printed source of the song from the Anglo Celt. The editorial note that appears under the title of the song states “The Following Song was popular many years ago. Ed. A.C.” The title Lough Sheelin’s side has beneath it in brackets “Author Unknown”. The first printed version had ten verses. A version of the song called “Lough Sheelin Eviction” has also been arranged by the balled group The Wolfe Tones.

Lough Sheelin’s Side

Farewell! my country, a long farewell,
My bitter anguish no tongue call tell,
For I must fly o’er the ocean wide
From the home I loved by Lough Sheelin’s side.

Fond memories come till my heart grows sad,
And vengeful thoughts till my brain goes mad,
When I think of Ellen, my gentle bride,
In the churchyard lone by Lough Sheelin’s side.

When first I wooed her so fair and young,
With her artless air and her guileless tongue,
All other maidens she far outvied
On the lonely banks by Lough Sheelin’s side.

At the village dance on the shamrock plain
To blind O’Leary’s enchanting strain
No foot like her’s could so nimbly play
None smile so sweetly or laugh so gay.

Ah! proud was I of my girl so tall
And envied most by the young men all
When I brought her blushing a bashful bride
To my cottage home by Lough Sheelin’s side.

But oh! our joy was too full to last;
The landlord came our young hopes to blast;
In vain we pleaded for mercy - no!
He turned us out in the blinding snow.

And none dare open for us their door
Or else his vengeance would reach them sure;
My Ellen fainted - in my arms died -
While the snow fell fast on the mountain side.

I said one prayer for my lifeless love,
And raised my hands to Heaven above
“Oh, God of justice” I wildly cried,
“Avenge the death of my murdered bride.”

We buried her down in the churchyard low,
Where in the springtime the daisies blow,
I shed no tear for the fount had dried
On that woeful night by Lough Sheelin’s side.

Farewell! my country; farewell for aye!
The ship will soon bear me away,
But, oh, my fond heart will still abide
In my Ellen’s grave by Lough Sheelin’s side.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2004