On Sunday 30th August 2015, I realised an ambition I have held for quite a long time. Having recently purchased a kayak, I was able to get myself out onto Lough Gill and visit Cottage Island more effectionately known as Beezies Island.
Having arrived at the small pier close to the Holy Well, I launched my kayak and paddled my way out to Cottage Island, former home of Beezie Gallagher, who was known locally as the lady of the lake, and whose derelict cottage can be seen from Dooney Rock on the southern shore of Lough Gill.
After paddling for about 45 minutes, I finally landed on the Beezies Island, all 14 acres of it. It contains the ruins of an old church which belonged to the Trinity Abbey, Lough Key, County Roscommon. The island was at one time used as a Leper Colony, a place to quarantine people with leprosy, which is also known as Hansen’s Disease, which was greatly feared because it causes visible disfigurement and disability, was incurable, and was commonly believed to be highly contagious.
The ruins of the Leper Colony are said to exist on the island, though I personally didn’t know where to look, and didn’t see any derelict remains, so instead I made my way first of all, the short distance up to Beezies Cottage.
Beezie Clerkin (nee Gallagher) was born in the 1860s and reared on Cottage Island on Lough Gill. In her early years, she was employed as a housemaid to the Wynne family, who at that time lived in Hazelwood House, on the northern shores of Lough Gill.
Beezie spent all her adult life living on Cottage Island, where she developed the many fascinating characteristics which make her so fondly remembered today. She was much-loved by the local people for her kindness and hospitality, but turned to nature for her companionship. The birds, squirrels, domestic animals and even the rodents grew to trust and love her.
As I sat for a while inside Beezies cottage, my mind started wandering back to my youth, when I borrowed a book from the school library which had me enthralled for days on end. The book was called Robinson Crusoe, and it tells the story of a man who was shipwrecked on a deserted island off the coast of Chile in the south Atlantic Ocean.
I could see the connection between the lives led by Robinson Crusoe and Beezie Gallagher, both of whom lived alone on a deserted island, with no running water or electricity, in a time when mobile phones and the internet weren’t even thought about, indeed, only the rich people in Ireland had a house phone in Beezies day.
The advantage Beezie Gallagher had was the ablibity to get fresh groceries to feed herself, even if it did entail a 6 mile round trip, rowing her small boat to Doorly Park and then making her way into Sligo Town to the shops.
Beezie died on the island she loved in 1951. She had visited Sligo town on Christmas Eve, and had rowed out to her home from Dooney Rock. When friends came to cut timber for her some days later, they discovered her burned to death in her island home.
She remains to this day, the last full-time resident of any island on Lough Gill.
The Last Islander a poem by Frank L. Ludwig
Where herons stalk the playful fish
in the waters of Lough Gill,
there sleeps a densely wooded isle
of calm where time stands still.
They’ve called it Beezie’s Island since
the aging widow came
to live here, and not many folk
recall its proper name.
To get her pension, she would row
to town, and afterwards
you’d find her in the kitchen where
she’d sit and feed the birds.
The robins, squirrels, crows and swans
who ate out of her hand
and every animal around
considered her their friend.
All visitors were welcome who
respected Beezie’s pets,
and only one of them got barred
for throwing stones at rats.
When blizzards raged throughout the spring
of forty-seven, she
stayed on her island though she knew
how risky it would be.
The frozen lake had cut her off;
the smoke soon ceased to rise
from Beezie’s chimney, and her friends
sought ways to bring supplies.
Gardai and locals hired a truck
to haul a boat and fill
it with some firewood, coal and food
at the shoreline of Lough Gill.
A dozen men carefully pushed
the boat across the lake,
ready to jump aboard in case
the fragile ice should break.
Huddled in sheets between her cat
and dog they found the old
lady; her pets had died before
of hunger and of cold.
Taken to Sligo General,
she soon became a star:
to meet the Lady of the Lake
folk came from near and far.
One evening, just outside the door,
as Beezie fetched her comb,
she heard a nurse suggesting they
should put her in a home.
Beezie discharged herself that night
and rowed back to her isle
where she had breakfast with the friends
she’d missed for quite a while.
Though over ninety, she was full
of vigour and of wit;
she did not suffer from old age,
nor did she die of it:
One Christmas season, as so oft,
some of her friends from town
came to cut wood for Beezie’s fire
and found her house burnt down.
No one has dwelt upon the lake
since the old lady’s gone,
but in all things that crawl and fly
her spirit still lives on.
Many thanks to my good friend Frank. L. Ludwig for the use of his poem and the photographs on this page, as, despite taking plenty of photographs on Beezies Island, unfortunetely when I downloaded them onto my computer, they were all corrupt and useless. Thank you Frank.