Cottage Island on Lough Gill: its history and archaeology

Cottage Island also called Beezie's Island on Lough Gill.
Cottage Island, Lough Gill, Co. Sligo.

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Cottage Island, on Lough Gill, in Co. Sligo, is best known nowadays because of the romantic figure of Beezie Gallagher, the last island inhabitant. But the island also boasts a rich earlier history and fascinating archaeological remains.

Cottage Island is the second largest island on Lough Gill which straddles the modern-day county boundary between Sligo and Leitrim. The island lies in the western part of the lake.

The surviving archaeology

In the medieval period, Cottage Island was the site of an ecclesiastical foundation. The ruins of a small simple medieval church survive on the southeastern end of the island. The National Monuments Service also record a possible enclosure in this area.

Church on Beezie's Island.
Medieval church on Cottage Island, Lough Gill, Co. Sligo.

In 1887 Sligo antiquarian Col. William Gregory Wood-Martin noted the presence of an unusual monument (pictured below) near the church, which could relate to the possible enclosure recorded by the National Monuments Service. This he described as potentially forming part of a “mur” which denotes an enclosing wall:

“Just in front of the south entrance of the small ruined church, situated on Cottage Island, in Lough Gill … there is a curious arrangement of stones; the blocks are, however, in such a confused position that it would be unsafe to hazard a positive assertion as to its having originally formed a cist or cromleac, for it may be [a] portion of a mur which formerly encircled the church.” 

Church on Cottage Island County Sligo.
Drawing of church on Cottage Island with stone monument to the foreground (credit: Wood-Martin 1887).

Another island nearby on Lough Gill also boasts a medieval church site and is aptly named Church Island.

>>> RELATED: Church Island on Lough Gill: its history and archaeology

Close to the church on Church Island is an unusual monument called Our Lady’s Bed, which is not dissimilar to the drawing (above) by Wood-Martin of the curious monument on Cottage Island.

>>> RELATED: How Our Lady’s Bed on Church Island protected expectant mothers

The ruins of a dwelling house also survive on Cottage island. Although the date of the house is unknown, it conceivably served some purpose initially for the religious community on the island. From the 19th century, the Gallaghers lived in this house and it was occupied until 1949 when Mrs Beezie Clerkin (née Gallagher) died there.

Beezie Gallagher's home on Cottage Island.
The ruins of the home of the Gallagher family on Cottage Island, Lough Gill, Co. Sligo.

In recent decades, several artefacts and other archaeological finds have been recovered from the island. They include a large flint scraper that was handed over to the National Museum in 1962. In 1990, during underwater survey work by the Garda Sub-Aqua Unit, human remains were discovered located off the southeastern end of the island. Two wooden boats (a dug-out canoe and a plank-built boat) were located in a follow-up survey of the lakebed.

The Premonstratensian canons of Lough Cé

Little is known about the early history of Cottage Island. It was known in the medieval period as “Innisheskilleghan” from Inis Cilleacháin (with “cill” meaning church). The church was a dependency of the Premonstratensian order based in Holy Trinity abbey on Trinity Island, Lough Cé, Co. Roscommon. The Premonstratensian order was founded for both men and women by St Norbert at Prémontré, France and they were known as the “White Canons” after the colour of their habits.

Holy Trinity Lough Key.
Holy Trinity abbey on Trinity Island, Lough Cé, Co. Roscommon (photo © Danny Shanley of “Lough Key. Boyle” Facebook page, reproduced with kind permission).

The regional motherhouse at Holy Trinity sustained a large population of religious from the 13th century. Its influence extended over much of north Connacht, with the ecclesiastical estate comprising large tracts of inherited lands which included a number of minor churches in Sligo as revealed in 16th- and 17th-century sources.

Two sources – a fiant dating to 1594 and an account of an inquisition of James I a few years later – reveal that “Innisheskilleghan” (i.e. Cottage Island) and lands belonging to this island, as well as other small (unnamed) islands on Lough Gill and the townland of Lahanagh on the southern shore of the lake, all form part of the property of the late medieval parish church of “Killrasse” (Kilross), which is about 5km south of Lough Gill. A manuscript preserved at Coolavin House, Co. Sligo, contains an abstract from the rental of Holy Trinity compiled towards the end of the 16th century by Abbot Cornelius McGyllohcran. It outlines that all of the Kilross property (which included Cottage Island) formed part of the estate of Holy Trinity abbey on Lough Cé. The entire Kilross property was in the barony of Carbury and had probably been granted by the Uí Conchobhair (O’Conors).

Cottage Island was by no means isolated in the medieval period and would have been easily accessible by boat. Nonetheless, the island location provided the perfect retreat where the spiritual ethos of the religious community could flourish, though it probably only ever sustained a very small group. The religious community abandoned Holy Trinity abbey in c.1606 and their dependencies, including the church site on Cottage Island, were probably deserted at around the same time.

Cottage Island County Sligo.
Cottage Island, Lough Gill, Co. Sligo, c.1865–1914 (credit: Robert French, Lawrence Collection, © National Library of Ireland).

An entry in the Schools’ Folklore Collection, c.1937, recalls a tradition of a female religious order on Cottage Island:

“The ruins of an old Church are also to be seen here [on Cottage Island] and it is supposed that a community of nuns – The Grey Sisters – lived there and owned a stretch of land called Lahanagh.”

When discussing nearby Church Island, Ordnance Survey researcher Thomas O’Conor stated in 1836 that, “Tradition says that this [Church Island] was a nunnery”. Although the modern lore connecting both of these islands on Lough Gill with female orders is intriguing, there does not seem to be any evidence substantiating these claims.

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There is also a vague tradition locally that Cottage Island was used by a religious order as a colony for the sick (possibly lepers). It seems likely that over the centuries the islands on Lough Gill with ecclesiastical heritage would have attracted pilgrims, perhaps including the infirm.

Later owners and occupants

Early 17th-century documents reveal the names of the owners of the Kilross property, which included Cottage Island, soon after the abandonment of the Premonstratensian canons. Firstly it was granted to Robert Harrison and then to William Crofton, of Temple House, Co. Sligo.

During the mid-19th century, Griffith’s Valuation records that the island was owned by R.W. Hall Dare. He was leasing it to John Wynne, an important landlord in the region. The Wynne seat was at nearby Hazelwood, a large estate with a Palladian-style house on the western edge of Lough Gill. The Wynnes had established themselves in Sligo in the later 17th century and were a dominant force in political and economic life for two centuries.

Hazelwood House, Co. Sligo.
Hazelwood House, Co. Sligo, the seat of the Wynne family, on the banks of Lough Gill (credit: © Zxcode, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Griffith’s Valuation lists a “herd’s house” on the island but it does not list any island occupants. Nonetheless, it seems likely that the Gallagher family, who were drovers, were living on the island at the time. By the early 20th century, Phillip Dudley Perceval was the landlord. Perceval was a descendent of the Croftons and had married Muriel Caroline Louisa Wynne of Hazelwood, though he was previously engaged to his wife’s cousin, the famous Constance Markievicz.

It seems that from c.1800 the island was called “Cottage Island”, probably in reference to the house occupied by the Gallaghers. Not surprisingly it was known locally throughout much of the 19th century as “Gallagher’s Island” after the only family residing there. Other names are also connected with the island, including O’Gillegan’s Island and Bullock Island.

Mrs Beezie Clerkin nee Gallagher.
Beezie Gallagher from Cottage Island, the last inhabitant of Lough Gill.

But nowadays it is often fondly remembered as “Beezie’s Island” in honour of the very last inhabitant of the island and indeed the whole of Lough Gill.

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