Belfast Telegraph

Now can say I have captained a vessel

By Frances Burscough

I am writing my column this week from paradise, or at least the closest place to it in Northern Ireland. It's 6am and the mystical mist that has been hanging on the horizon from dusk is gradually dispersing with the rising September sun. All around me birds are beginning to welcome the day with a squawking and clattering dawn chorus while just feet away a family of eight swans floats by in a perfect line, causing ripples to chevron across the water in their gentle wake.

Where am I?

I'm sitting with my laptop on my knee on the jetty of Devenish Island on Lough Erne. Behind me one of the finest monastic sites in Ireland, the tiny church and round tower founded in the 6th century by St Molaise, is being bombarded by swallows and swifts. They're actually weeks late for their annual migration south, but the unusually warm weather and the resulting swarms of late summer flies has convinced them to stay north much longer than usual. And who could blame them? This place is truly idyllic.

Although this is now officially ‘out of season’, I cannot imagine a better time to visit this part of the country. After consulting Northern Ireland Tourist Board, my friend and I hired a boat from Manor House Marina at Kiladeas to get here. In low season it doesn't cost much more than staying in a B&B, but you get the freedom of the Fermanagh lakelands to explore at your leisure and all the fun of swanning around in a cabin cruiser like a proper posh person.

Besides, apart from occasional scheduled boat trips, this is the only way to reach Devenish, or any of the other of the one hundred or so tiny uninhabited islands dotted throughout the lough. Consequently there isn't another soul around for miles, which in a place like this only adds to the magical atmosphere. So while he casts his fishing rod off the jetty for perch and roach, I've been entertained and enthralled by the wealth of wildlife and the gloriously unspoilt scenery all around us.

Yesterday's outing took us up to the north of the Lower Lough, which is like a jigsaw puzzle of tiny

islands and rather tricky to negotiate for a beginner. Fortunately, my friend is an experienced skipper, so I got the pleasure of actually driving the boat while he read the charts and pointed out highlights and hazards along the way. This was great fun, as I've always dreamed of a life on the ocean wave ever since I watched The Onedin Line on telly when I was a kid in the Sixties. Ok, Lough Erne on a calm day isn't exactly like circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope in a hurricane, but at least I can now say I've captained my own trusty vessel.

Lower down, towards Enniskillen, this part of the lough is fringed with thick reed beds which are swishing back and forth in the light breeze. A flock of buntings and warblers cling on acrobatically between the stalks above, while below families of coots and moorhens chug back and forth, industriously sifting the shore for its bountiful shoals of small fry.

Indeed, the water here is so full of tiny fish it's quite incredible. As we approached the island last night from the boat, I was certain it had just begun to rain outside because the surface of the water rippled with tiny splashes as far as the eye could see. But the sky was clear and there wasn't a cloud in sight. Closer inspection revealed that it was in fact one big shoal of tiny fish — literally thousands and thousands of them, sparkling and flickering as they reflected the sunlight through the murky depths below. No wonder the shore here is like a Wildfowl Trust reserve.

So far, my birdwatchers tally has included a buzzard, a pair of little grebes (also known locally as dabchicks), hundreds of cormorants, terns and guillemots, geese, ducks and swans as well as numerous sightings of the beautifully delicate great-crested grebe. All that remains from my wildlife wish-list is the azure flash of a kingfisher across the surface of the lake and possibly an otter or water vole and then my job here is done.

Aye, Aye Cap'n!

  • For information on how to plan your perfect trip around the Fermanagh Lakelands, go to Northern Ireland Tourist Board at

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