Lough Gowna (Loch Gamhna – “calf lake”) is a large (1,178 hectares) fresh water lake with a complex indented shape featuring numerous bays and inlets, often connected by narrow channels. An important site for wintering wildfowl, and very popular for coarse fishing, the lake contains one large island, Inchmore, the site of a monastery founded in the C6th AD by Saint Colmcille
The name of the lake comes from a legend about a supernatural calf which escaped from a well in the townland of Rathcor (south of the lake) and raced northward with a stream of water from the well following it and flooding the area now making up the lake.
Lough Gowna is a moraine-dammed lake formed at the end of the last glaciation, and owes its complex indented shape to the underlying drumlin landscape. This results in a large number of bays and inlets on the lake, often connected by narrow channels. The river Erne enters the system in a western direction into the easternmost part of the lake (locally known as Derries Lough) and exits northward through County Cavan. However, the damming caused by the moraines that gave rise to the lake result in large bodies of water to the north-west and south-west which form the bulk of the area of the lake. A number of other small rivers also flow into the lake. The county border runs through the north-western part of the lake, and then turns eastwards, with the western and southern parts of the lake being in Longford and the north-eastern parts being in Cavan.
The north-western and south-western portions of the lake are connected by a narrow channel at Dernaferst (a townland on the western (Longford) shore of the lake, but which is in County Cavan). The northern and eastern shores of the lake are surrounded by peat bog, with areas of planted woodland along the southern shores of the lake in former demesnes in the townlands of Derrycassan and Culray. The lake is considered to be an important site for wintering wildfowl.
The lake contains one large island in the south-western part, Inchmore (Inis Mór in Irish, meaning “Big island”), which was the site of a monastery founded in the sixth century by Saint Colmcille. The monastery was raided by the Vikings in 804, being burned and looted. During the twelfth century, the abbey conformed to Augustinian rules and remained there until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1543. The site was still used as a graveyard by the local population until the early years of the twentieth century. The remains of the abbey are still to be seen on the island. A fifteenth-century tower bell, reputedly from the monastery, was recovered in the nineteenth century and now hangs in the Roman Catholic church in the nearby village of Aughnacliffe.
Lough Gowna is an important centre for coarse fishing and the shape of the lake, with wooded peninsulas interspersed with bays and inlets, make it attractive for tourism. There are picnic sites at Dernaferst and at Dring (at the southernmost point of the lake).
The lake gives its name to the village of Loch Gowna, on the north-eastern shore of the lake in County Cavan. The original name of the village was Scrabby (Screabach in Irish), and gave its name to the townland and parish in which it is located. However, in 1950, after a plebiscite of the villagers, the name was officially changed to Loch Gowna. The village serves as a service centre for tourism, with hotel accommodation and sizeable numbers of holiday homes in the area.
Other parishes adjacent to the lake are Colmcille on the western and southern shores of the lake, Mullinalaghta on the eastern shore, and Dromard in the extreme north-west, all in County Longford; and Mullahoran in the extreme east where the Erne enters the lake, in County Cavan. Lough gowna is a peaceful town with a beautiful view of the lake and nice green fields
A monastery of Canons Regular, founded about the middle of the fifth century by St. Columb, stood on Inchmore, or the Great Island, in Lough Gawnagh, on the confines of Cavan and Longford, partly in Abbeylaragh, and partly in Columbkill: the island consists of 20 or 30 acres, and is now uninhabited. This monastery was destroyed by the Danes in 804, but was restored, and continued to exist until the 15th century. On the borders of the lake are the remains of the castle of Rossduff: and near Dunbeggan are two druidical altars, one supported by two, and the other by three, upright stones. Near the church of Cullumkill is a beautiful specimen of jasper.
The Tower Bell of Inchmore, Lough Gowna is a cast bronze bell of early form, probably made in Italy or France in the 15th century. An inscription in Latin near the base has been partially deciphered: the word magister refers either to God or to a ‘master’ bell-founder. The bell is said to have belonged to the monastery of Inchmore in Lough Gowna, an ancient site associated with St Colum Cille and later an Augustinian house. Early tower bells are a rarity in Ireland and this is among the oldest known. The bell is believed to have been used to call the monks to prayer. Having been hidden for many years, it was recovered from the lake and hung in Dunbeggan (Aughnacliffe) about 1840. It remained the only bell there until the great renovation of 1932 when the present bell was installed.
Inch Mór Monastery ruins on the shores of Lough Gowna stand as a silent reminder of one of the oldest centres of Christian worship in the North Longford region. Tradition tells us that St Colmcille was born at Gartan, Co Donegal on Thursday 7 December, 521 AD. In the year 544, he was ordained a priest at St Finian’s Monastery in Clonard, Co Meath. In all he founded 100 monasteries in Ireland and Scotland. After the Battle of Culgrevny, in the year 563, where thousands of the High King’s men were slain in an ambush, St Colmcille was forced into exile at the age of 42 never to return. The next Abbot was St Boodan, who died in 596. In the year 800 the Abbot was M’Laisre, also known as “The Excellent”, because of his sanctity. In the year 804, it was burned and looted by the Danes. For 50 years it was deserted, but in the year 860, when Toicluch was the Lord Abbot he restored the buildings. The monastery served the people as a place of worship and a sanctuary for the sick and destitute for several centuries. The monks lived a very hard life of work, prayer and fasting and Inch Mór was the original of the modern parishes of Colmcille, Purth and Mullinalaghta. In the twelfth century the Abbot adopted the Augustinian rule and so continued until the dissolution by Henry VIII 1543. In that year Bishop O’Farrell sought refuge there, having been expelled from Abbeylara. Later in the year the monks of Inch were also forced to flee the monastery that had been their island home and place of worship for close on 1000 years. It is now the tradition to celebrate the Saint’s death with Mass on the island in remembrance of the death of St Colmcille, when he died peacefully in his bed in Iona Abbey on Whit Sunday at noon, 9th June in the year 597 AD, surrounded by his faithful monks. In the year 1950, the land on the island was divided and the graveyard was enclosed by stone from the old monastery, thereby greatly reducing the ruins of the old Abbey. In 1986/87, the re-erection of one of the original cut stone windows took place, thanks to money from the European Community. It had been blown over in a storm and was buried in the ground. It stands on the East Side of the old monastery facing the rising sun.