The Islands of Lough Erne
Fermanagh’s first settlers lived on the small islands of Lough Erne, or the land beside the lake. Early Christians seemed to like the seclusion of the islands, but archeological finds indicating worship to pagan gods on Christian sites suggests conversion of the locals was slow. Devenish, Boa and White Islands are the most popular of the lake’s ancient sites.
Devenish Island contains the ruins of a 6th century monastic settlement. The island was attacked by the Vikings, but continued to play an important part in local religious life until the Plantations in the 17th Century. The island has one of the best-preserved round towers in Ireland, along with church and abbey ruins and a wonderful small museum.
The stone church ruins on White Island date from the 12th century, but there is evidence of wooden structures at the site dating from the eighth or ninth century, which could make this one of the earliest Christian sites in Ireland. Eight stone figures inside the church could date back as far as the sixth century and trying to interpret these mysterious statues is the highlight of a visit to the island. Ferries operate to the island from Archdale Country Park everyday between April and September.
At the northern end of the lake lies the tiny Boa Island with an intriguing Janus idol, possibly offering an insight into the transition from Paganism to Christianity in Ireland. Up to 2,000 years old, the Janus figure is made from yellow stone, showing two figures joined at their backs, with their hair interwoven. Its exact meaning and significance in such an ancient burial ground continues to baffle visitors and scholars alike.
Boa is connected to the mainland by a bridge at both ends, so while in the area it is worth taking a look at the Drumskinny Stone Circle and Alignment. This Bronze Age site is made up of a circle of 39 stones with a small cairn and an alignment of 24 stones.
Lower Lough Erne on the northside of the lake is more developed for fishing and watersports than the south. With the proper licence it is possible to fish all year round, but even local fishermen are nervous of going out on the lake during the winter when it can be as tempestuous as the sea. There is no closed season for eel, rudd, roach, bream or pike fishing. The trout season begins at the lake in early March and runs to the end of September. The salmon season lasts from June to September. The mayfly season lasts just four weeks from mid-May to mid-June.
Fishing information and licenses are available from the Fermanagh Tourist Information Centre or Castle Archdale County Park, which also rents out boats for the day. Most of Fermanagh’s rivers are privately owned, so check whether fishing is permitted and what kind of license you need.
Bishop’s Stone, Killadeas
Seven miles north of Enniskillen is the striking Bishop’s Stone in Killadeas churchyard. Another possible example of Christianity versus Paganism, the stone has a traditionally carved bishop’s face with a bell and crozier on one side. On the other is the imposing face of some kind of pagan. The sculpture is believed to date from somewhere between the seventh and ninth centuries, but it hasn’t been dated with certainty yet.
The Marble Arch Caves
The caves are approached from the Marlbank Scenic Loop, which offers super views of Lower Lough Macnean and limestone fields similar to those of the Burren in County Clare. Watch out for free guided tours of this area. The caves were formed through 50,000 years of water seeping through these limestone flags. Tours around the caves begin with a boat trip underground, but have comfortable shoes on because it ends by foot. On display are fantastic stalactites and climbing stalagmites, and some underground waterfalls. As well as your walking shoes, carry some warm clothes as the underground temperatures tend to be quite chilly. The caves are very busy during peak season so try to pre-book tours when possible.
A three-storey mansion from the late 1700s, Florence Court in Western Fermanagh was partially re-built after a fire in the 1955. The staircase is a fine example of rococo plasterwork and the dining room’s ceiling features eagles on a blue sky with cherub clouds. There are walking trees in the grounds and every Yew tree in Ireland is said to have roots here.
Less than two kilometres from Enniskillen is Castle Coole, described as the leading neoclassical mansion in Ireland. The first Earl of Belmore went broke building the house in the late 18th century and the decorations were left up to his son. The house has some curious examples of the period’s love of symmetry including keyhole coverings on doors with no keyholes as well as fake doorways and hallow columns. The castle is open from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday to Wednesday, May to August.