This is the story of Mrs Bridget “Beezie” Clerkin who lived and died alone on Cottage Island, Lough Gill, Co. Sligo.
Bridget, or “Beezie” as she was more commonly known, was born on 23 May 1871 to Annie Gallagher. She was raised by her unmarried mother on Cottage Island on Lough Gill, Co. Sligo. The only other island inhabitants were her uncles. The identity of her father remains a mystery with the names Byron and John Gallagher both appearing in state records.*
Though the family lived very modestly, their house (the only dwelling on the island) was fairly substantial for the time. It was probably built hundreds of years before and could relate to the medieval church site on the island. Beezie’s grandparents came to Cottage Island as tenants of the Wynnes of Hazlewood, a large estate with a Palladian-style house on the western edge of Lough Gill. At the time, the Gallaghers worked as drovers for the Wynnes.
As a young child, Beezie travelled by boat to school at Carrowroe, about 3km to the west. In her youth she worked as a housemaid for the Wynne family, while one of her uncles also worked on the Hazlewood estate. Her mother Annie, who, though unmarried, went by Mrs Byron, was the caretaker of Cottage Island.
Hardships on Cottage Island
Although Beezie’s upbringing and life on the idyllic Cottage Island are often romanticized in present-day accounts, the Gallaghers endured many hardships. Perhaps one of the defining incidents during Beezie’s teenage years was the robbery which took place on the island on the evening of 14 January 1888, when approximately £68 – a substantial sum of money for the time – was stolen. This was just a fortnight after one of Beezie’s uncles, Michael, had died in Sligo asylum.
Subsequently Redmond Gallagher was arrested and brought before the courts. A boatman from Riverside in Sligo town, Redmond was a friend of the family on Cottage Island.
The first witness called to the stand was 16-year-old Beezie. She explained that at around 6pm on the evening in question, she was at home alone with the door bolted shut. She heard men outside, one calling for the door to be opened. He then proceeded to break down the door and enter the house wielding a hatchet and declaring, “Give your money or your life”. This was followed up by threats to chop off her head. Beezie, frightened for her life, handed over the money kept in the house by her uncle James. The intruder was in disguise but Beezie noted that the family dog did not bark but reacted in a manner that suggested he knew the intruder. Beezie then identified the culprit as Redmond Gallagher.
>>> READ MORE: Cottage Island on Lough Gill: its history and archaeology
Beezie’s mother, Annie, was also questioned. She explained that in November she had given a large sum of money to a Mrs Barry at Riverside, in the presence of Redmond Gallagher’s daughter. Some days later Redmond approached Annie for a loan but she replied that she had no money. Redmond responded with, “hadn’t you got Jemmy’s?” Annie told Redmond that she would not interfere with her brother’s money and that it was kept on the island.
Head Constable Mulleady had inspected the scene of the crime and was called to the stand. He had observed marks on the front door jamb, which were possibly caused by a hatchet, and he noted that the kitchen window was broken from the inside and outside. Mulleady remarked: “It was between the women themselves”. He was suggesting that Annie and Beezie had stolen James’ money and had fabricated the whole story. Redmond had made similar claims locally about the women, according to one witness: Richard Scarlett.
Richard Scarlett, Francis King and Maggie Judge (aged 11) all claimed that they witnessed Redmond travelling by boat on the lake on the evening in question. Pharmacist Patrick Finan explained that Redmond’s wife paid a loan to their shop using a pound note on 25 February. Sometime later Redmond came to the shop to buy oils coming to 6s but Redmond produced a £5 note to pay for the goods. He claimed that he had come by the money through the sale of his property to Michael McGoldrick, a road constructor. But the latter declared on the stand that Redmond had never sold him any house or land.
For Redmond’s defence, his son John Gallagher was called to the witness stand. John explained that his father went to town that evening and came back at around 6.30 or 7pm, had his supper and went off to town again, returning this time at 7.30pm with his brother William. He went on to say that Beezie arrived at around midnight claiming that they had been robbed. But he asserted that his father had been in bed since 10pm: “My father was not on the lake at all”.
On being questioned as to why their boat changed position between the evening of the robbery and the following morning, he replied that they would normally change it during the night to ensure that the boat never came to blows with another. William corroborated John’s account. Thomas Mulligan also said he had seen Redmond and his son that evening around 7. This timeline was used as evidence that Redmond could not have been the one to commit the robbery.
Solicitor for the defence, J. F. Taylor, stated that the case was built on Beezie’s claims. He further declared that she had not recognized the accused until Redmond incriminated Annie and Beezie.
The jury retired and returned about an hour later but they could not come to a decision. And so the judge discharged the jury and the prisoner was acquitted.
More hardship soon followed for the Gallagher family. Annie sadly drowned at Sligo Quay on 25 August 1900. Her body, displaying a wound to the head, washed ashore at Coney Island. An inquest was held returning a verdict of accidental drowning. Beezie was then 29 years old and took over as caretaker of the island. Seven years later her uncle James died in the workhouse infirmary in Sligo. She then lived alone on the island for many years.
Beezie’s golden years
But better times were in store for the lone islander. In 1921, 50-year-old Beezie married James Clerkin. He was a cattle dealer and a widower. With his first wife, Lizzie, he had at least one child, a son named Patrick. Patrick was already dead by the time his father remarried. Having joined the Royal Irish Regiment, Patrick was killed in action in France in 1918, aged only 18 years. After their wedding, James moved to the island. But sadly the couple only had a little over a decade together when James died.
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No one could dispute the fact that Beezie enjoyed her life on Cottage Island. She adored wildlife and allowed her friends on the mainland to graze their cows and sheep on the island. She made friends with the little birds to whom she fed her biscuits. She counted Pat “Swan” and Tom “Chaffinch” among her closest allies. When alone she also enjoyed reading, particularly “a good love story”.
Beezie was described as honest, outspoken and sociable despite her solitary lifestyle. She welcomed regular visitors to the island, including her good friends James “Jumbo” McCarrick, Padraig Fallon and Vincent McLoughlin (all members of Sligo Swimming Club), as well as Raymond Caheny. These men delivered fuel and other necessities to her in part supplied by the St Vincent de Paul Society. The many fishermen on the lake were also frequent visitors to the island’s shore. She greeted strangers who came in search of Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree and kindly redirected them 4km east to the islet.
She remained active into her old age. Every Friday Beezie would row several kilometres to collect her pension in Sligo town, do her shopping and make social calls. She was also a regular visitor to a nearby holy well on the mainland, Tobernalt. Many unsuccessful efforts were made over the years to induce Beezie to leave her island home.
Alas yet more misfortune befell the islander. At the end of February 1947, Beezie was cut off from the mainland when a snow blizzard hit the area and froze the lake. Her food and fuel supplies ran short.
As soon as conditions permitted, Raymond Caheny and Fred Dykes made a valiant attempt to reach the island but failed. Soon a large rescue party was assembled comprising gardaí, Sligo County Council employees and locals. A powerful American army truck had been placed at their disposal by Kevin Murray. On foot, the party dragged a flat-bottomed boat across the lake and this time efforts to reach the island proved successful.
Beezie had a lucky escape but her faithful dog and cat had succumbed to exposure. On seeing her saviours, the very first thing she asked for was a pinch of snuff! The rescue party dragged Beezie, wrapped in blankets, across the ice-covered lake in the flat-bottomed boat to the mainland to stay with the Ward family.
Beezie soon regained her strength and pleas for her to remain on the mainland fell on deaf ears. Returning to the island for a time, she was later admitted to the county home. But even this institution couldn’t keep Beezie from her beloved island: she escaped, pension book in hand, and quickly returned home. The people of Sligo town, and the many lake fishermen, re-commenced their regular visits to Beezie.
Beezie’s sudden death and legacy
Beezie died tragically when she fell into the open hearth fire in her home in December 1949, aged 78. Jumbo McCarrick, Padraig Fallon and Vincent McLoughlin made the dreadful discovery of her charred body when delivering provisions. Her remains were brought to the mainland in Mr Bracken’s boat. An inquest was held which reached a verdict of accidental burning. Tributes were paid to her kind friends who had cared for her over the years. Following the funeral in Sligo Cathedral, Beezie was laid to rest in Sligo cemetery and locals came together to purchase a headstone.
The following year, Jumbo and some of Beezie’s other friends organized a swimming competition in her memory, called the Clerkin Cup. Men and women could participate, and the swim became an annual event throughout the 1950s and for some of the 1960s. A pub in Sligo town was also named after her. A number of poems were written in her memory and she inspired a play called “Beezie”, while an award-winning documentary was made called “Beezie, Bean an Locha”. In recent years, the people of the local area undertook a fundraising campaign to erect a new headstone on her gravesite.
Beezie remains the last human inhabitant of Lough Gill and her island is still known locally as “Beezie’s Island”. She was a romantic figure and is remembered fondly as “The Lady of the Lake”.
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* Records relating to Beezie and her mother are somewhat confusing. Beezie’s maiden name appears as both Byron/Byren and Gallagher in various records. Beezie’s mother is listed as Ann Byron on Beezie’s birth record; on such records, the mother’s maiden name is typically preceded by the word “formerly” but in Annie’s case, this word was omitted and instead the name Gallagher is preceded by a long dash. Dashes were sometimes used for unmarried mothers. On her baptismal record, the surnames for both Bridget and her mother are given as Gallagher. Beezie’s father’s name does not appear on either her birth or baptismal records. Although Annie regularly used the surname Byron, went by the name “Mrs Byron” and was recorded as a widow on her death certificate, there is no evidence that she was ever married. On Beezie’s marriage cert, her father is recorded as John Gallagher (farmer).
Baptismal record, Bridget Gallagher, 29 May 1871, St. John’s, Sligo, Microfilm 04604 / 01, National Library of Ireland.
Birth record, Bridget Byron, registered 9 Aug. 1871
Caheny, J. 2021. Various articles published in Facebook Group “Sligo Heritage and History Club” by Cian O’Caheny.
Census of Ireland, 1901, house 1 in Cottage Island, in L. Gill, Calry, Sligo
Commonwealth War Graves, Vis-en-Artois Memorial, Private Patrick Clarkin, Royal Irish Regiment, 2nd Battalion, service no. 6490, died 25 Aug. 1918
Death record, Annie Byron, registered 3 Sep. 1900
Death record, Bridget Clerkin, registered 16 Dec. 1949
Death record, James Clerkin, registered 13 Dec. 1932
Death record, James Gallagher, registered 22 Apr. 1907
Irish Examiner, 10 Dec. 2018.
Irish Press, 16 Aug. 1948; 12, 13 Dec. 1949.
Longford Leader, 24 Dec. 1949.
Marriage record, Bridget Gallagher and James Clarkin, registered 18 Apr. 1921
Sligo Champion, 14 Apr. 1888; 14 Jul. 1888; 8 Mar. 1947; 17 Dec. 1949; 18 Oct. 1995.
Western People, 1 Mar. 1947.