Our comprehensive travel guide explores the captivating allure of Lough Gill at the border of Counties Sligo and Leitrim, from its breathtaking views to its rich history and family-fun activities!
Stradling the county bounds between Sligo and Leitrim in the heart of Yeats Country in the west of Ireland, the enchanting Lough Gill beckons visitors with its remarkable natural beauty and fascinating heritage.
Measuring about 15 square kilometres, this freshwater lake boasts some 20 small, uninhabited islands, each with its own unique character and history. Surrounded by lush woodland and rolling hills, the lake creates a postcard-perfect landscape.
Lough Gill is designated a Special Area of Conservation, making it a haven for nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers. Its rich biodiversity supports a thriving ecosystem which includes many rare and protected plant and animal species.
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Getting to Lough Gill
Lough Gill is accessible by car or boat.
Visiting Lough Gill by car
The lake is easy to access from both Sligo town and Galway city, making it the perfect destination for a day trip. The journey from Sligo takes around 15 minutes by car via the R286. From Galway, it takes about 2 hours by car via the N83, N17, N4 and R286.
With signposts guiding the way, it’s possible to drive around the lake and the entire journey takes approximately an hour.
Parking at Lough Gill
Parking is available at various locations near the lake (for instance, at Hazelwood and Slish Wood). The vantage points along the way provide ideal opportunities to pull over, hop out of the car and soak up the stunning views!
Visiting Lough Gill by boat
If you don’t have a car, you can travel to Lough Gill aboard the “Rose of Innisfree”, an all-weather tour boat, which departs from Doorly Park in Sligo town and Parke’s Castle, Co. Leitrim, daily from Easter to October. Read on for more on this fun travel option!
Lough Gill’s heritage
Lough Gill was formed during the last Ice Age when retreating glaciers carved out its limestone basin.
Its name, derived from the Irish “Loch Gile”, meaning “bright or white lake”, alludes to its shimmering waters, fed by the Bonet River. However, a medieval text, the Metrical Dindshenchas, recalls a legend that the lake was named after Romra’s daughter, Gile.
The area surrounding Lough Gill is steeped in the legends of Queen Maeve of Connacht and the heroic Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna.
Medieval history of Lough Gill
Lough Gill’s history spans many centuries, during which a great number have found solace on the lake’s idyllic islands. In the medieval period, monks and other religious communities settled on Church Island and Cottage Island. The archaeological remains of these sites are still there to be explored today.
Lough Gill has a long history as a contested borderland, as is common with marginal landscapes like lakes. During the early medieval period, it formed part of the Uí Ruairc kingdom of the powerful Uí Briuin Bréifne of West Bréifne. However, the Ó Ruaircs’ influence waned after the demise of Thigearnán Ó Ruairc at the hands of Hugh de Lacy’s forces in 1172 AD. In the late medieval period, the lordships of Cairbre and West Bréifne competed to control the lake.
From 1400, the Ó Ruaircs made their home in a tower house on the northeastern shore of Lough Gill. In the early 17th century, Captain Robert Parke constructed a manor house (or castle) on the same site incorporating the bawn wall that initially surrounded the tower house.
Tragedy struck the castle in 1677 when two of Parke’s children drowned, leading to its eventual abandonment and disrepair. Recently restored, Parke’s Castle is open to the public. Scroll down to find out more about the castle!
Modern history of Lough Gill
In more recent times, some locals have found a sense of peace and seclusion on the lake. This includes the very last lake dweller, Beezie Gallagher of Cottage Island, while pregnant women would visit Church Island and crawl inside Our Lady’s Bed to invoke its protective and curative powers.
The lake’s charm and mystique have attracted renowned poets and writers, including the famed William Butler Yeats. Here, he found creative inspiration for his iconic poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, as well as other pieces.
While the island’s connection to Yeats continues to captivate visitors, we wonder if a different island on Lough Gill could have inspired this celebrated poem and ask the pertinent question, could Church Island be Yeats’ treasured “Lake Isle of Innisfree”?
Discover more about Lough Gill’s history
Dive into the depths of Lough Gill’s past with our series of articles focusing on this beautiful region (or keep on reading to find out what you can do when you visit Lough Gill):
Activities on and around Lough Gill
For those eager to experience the wonders of the lake up close, a range of activities await!
Swimming and paddling at Lough Gill
Public access to Lough Gill is available at several locations, offering parking facilities, including Inishfree Pier on the south side of the lake, Shriff Bay, Aughamore, Hazelwood Bay and near the outflow of the Garavogue River. From these points, you can dip your toes, paddle and swim in the refreshing water.
However, we recommend that you exercise caution and be mindful of the risks: the water’s temperature can be extremely cold, the lakebed is rocky underfoot, there are no lifeguards and water conditions can be unpredictable. If in doubt, don’t swim!
Lake cruise on Lough Gill
You can discover the beauty of Lough Gill on board the “Rose of Innisfree”, an all-weather, fully wheelchair-accessible vessel. Indulge in refreshments and snacks from the fully stocked bar as you enjoy the live commentary and poetry recitals featuring the lyrical verses of the great W.B. Yeats.
There are two departure points: Doorly Park in Sligo town and Parke’s Castle, Co. Leitrim, with daily sailings from Easter to October. Adult tickets are priced at €25, and concessions are available for students, seniors and large pre-booked groups.
Kayaking & water sports on Lough Gill
Explore the shimmering lake waters by kayak with Sligo Kayak Tours. Located at Waterglades, adjacent to Healy Plants Garden Centre, on the lake’s western shore, they offer expertly guided tours for an unforgettable experience. Sailing and waterskiing can also be enjoyed on the lake, while Sligo Bay SUP offers stand-up paddleboarding tours on Lough Gill.
As you glide through the waters, enjoy the breathtaking vistas, take in the tranquil surroundings and get up close with unique wildlife. Watch out for the otters!
If you have your own boat, there are two launch ramps: one on the north side of the lake near Hazelwood and the other on the southwest side at the Sligo Anglers Pontoon. So you can launch your boat from the trailer, while smaller crafts can be safely launched at the water’s edge at various locations around the lake.
Fishing on Lough Gill
Anglers can test their skills in Lough Gill’s pristine waters. Known for its bountiful spring salmon and brown trout stocks, as well as bream, rudd, pike and perch, the most productive fishing months are February and March. The lake is, however, currently subject to catch-and-release restrictions and before casting off, you are advised to consult with IFI-Ballina to ensure compliance with the latest regulations.
Lakeside walks at Lough Gill
For those who prefer a leisurely hike, a selection of clearly marked lakeside trails await, accompanied by on-site parking.
Among them is the delightful 4.2km flat looped nature trail meandering through Hazelwood Demesne, a mature forest that formed part of the Wynne Estate for 300 years. A friend of the family, Yeats was a regular visitor to Hazelwood House.
The Hazelwood trail features information panels and wooden sculptures by renowned Irish and international sculptors. With multi-access paths and two shorter alternative routes, this easy trail ensures suitability for all ages and abilities.
Winding through an area lush with oak, rowan and willow, the hillside Slish Wood 3km strenuous track offers a more challenging hike. In Yeats’ poem “The stolen child”, Slish Wood was referred to under the more beguiling name “Sleuth Wood”.
Another looped trail starts at Dooney Rock and rewards walkers with some of the best views of the lake, despite its shorter length of just 1.2km. Yeats drew inspiration from this area when writing his poem “The Fiddler of Dooney”.
All of these walking trails form part of the Sligo Walks network, which encompasses over 80km of trails including several upland routes. Whichever path you choose, be sure to stop and take a moment at each viewing point to soak up the spectacular views of Church Island and Cottage Island.
Picnic facilities at Lough Gill
Several designated picnic areas are also dotted around the lake, including at the car parks attached to Hazelwood Forest, Slish Wood and Dooney Rock Forest trails. So don’t forget to bring a packed lunch and watch out for the red squirrels and pine martens!
Parke’s Castle (Eircode: F91 FP71), a restored plantation manor house from the early 17th century, was once the residence of English planter Robert Parke and in recent times, it has been lovingly restored.
The castle is open daily from 10am to 6pm (last admission 5:15pm) from March to November (2023 times). Adult tickets are priced at €5, and concessions are available for children, students, seniors and families; admission is by cash only. Visitors can explore the exhibits, take guided tours and enjoy the gardens overlooking the lake. Toilet facilities, including those for visitors with disabilities, are available on-site.
If you didn’t pack a picnic, a visit to the charming village of Dromahair, on the banks of the River Bonet, is a must! With pubs, restaurants and shops, this picturesque village offers a warm welcome. Nearby you’ll also find the well-preserved Creevelea Abbey, an early 16th-century Franciscan friary.
Our verdict: visit Lough Gill
Whether you seek an adventurous escape into an unspoiled wilderness or a relaxing retreat, Lough Gill beckons with its unique allure, rich historical heritage, archaeological treasures and captivating folklore. A haven of tranquillity and timeless natural beauty, this region remains a little-known treasure in the west of Ireland, which delivers an inexpensive day out for all the family.
If you’ve visited Lough Gill before, please share your travel tips with our readers in the comment section below!