The Great Western Loughs

Cong (Co. Mayo / South) & An Fhairche / Clonbur (Co. Galway / North)

Cong (Conga, sometimes translated as “neck” but thought to derive fromCúnga Fheichín – “Saint Feichin’s narrows”) (pop. 350) is a village situated on an island formed by a number of streams (including the River Cong) on the narrow strip of land / isthmus separating Lough Corrib and Lough Mask. (Photo – WcP Observer)

Lough Mask is higher than Lough Corrib; the lakes are known to be linked by subterranean streams, mostly shallow, which flow through fissures and crevices in the remarkable limestone karst formations making up the isthmus, some emerging above the surface near Cong village.

Cong Abbey


Cong Abbey, a medieval Augustinian establishment aka Cong Royal Abbey, is considered to be one of the finest of its kind  in Ireland. Examples of wonderful craftsmanship include Romanesque doors and windows, Gothic windows, clustered pillars, arches, standing columes and floral capitals. The sculpture suggests links to French styles of the period.


The Abbey complex, long in ruins, has been used over the years as a communal graveyard.


Originally founded in the late C6th or early C7th by Saint Feichin, the first monastic settlement was destroyed by fire in the early C12th and refounded c.1135 by Tairrdelbach Ui Conchobair / Turlough Mór O’Connor (d. 1156), King of Connacht and Ard Rí / High King of Ireland.


His son Ruaidri Ui Concobhair / Rory O’Connor, the last High King, defeated by Strongbow and forced to recognise the overlordship of England’s King Henry II, extended the complex and brought treasures from Tuam when he retired here for the last 15 years of his life; he died in 1198 and was interred at Clonmacnoise. Cong was attacked in 1203 by William de Burgh, and the abbey was again rebuilt.


The abbey prospered under de Burgh patronage until King Henry VIII‘s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries. In its heyday, “3000 cenobites resided within its walls and cloisters. The Abbotts themselves were excellant scholars in History, Poetry, Music, Sculpture and the illumination of books, and were also skilled craftsmen in metal work, engraving, inlaying and designing in bronze, gold, enamel, woodcarving and harp making“.


Although the present church undoubtedly dates from the early C13th, the north doorway and the elaborate doorways that open onto the cloister from the east may be older.


The chapter house, distinguished by a doorway with two fine windows on either side, was where the monastery’s daily business was conducted. It was so called as the place where a chapter of the Augustinian rule was read each day, and the community gathered to confess their sins publicly.


The monks’ fishing house was probably built in the C15th or C16th; the  the trapdoor in the floor was used for a net to catch fish in the River Cong flowing towardsLough Corrib, watched by monks sitting beside the fireplace. (Photo – Trever Miller)


In the C18th the Abbey lands came into the possession of George McNamara (d. 1760), described as a Robin Hood type, who inspired A brief sketch of the romantic life of George MacNamara, of Cong Abbey: or startling incidents in the strange career of a daring and adventurous philanthropist of the eighteenth century, by Patrick Higgins, published in Ennis in 1899. He lived in Abbey House, described as a ruin in the C19th, and now used by the OPW.


The abbey was first restored by Benjamin Lee Guinness soon after he had bought Ashford Castle in 1852. Cong Abbey is nowadays a national monument in the care of the OPW.


The Cross of Cong, sometimes called an Bacall Buidhe (“the yellow staff”) in reference to its colour, is an early C12th ornamented cusped processional cross made forTairrdelbach Ua ConchobairTurloughMór O’Connor to donate to the Cathedral church at Tuam, and moved to Cong Abbey by his successor Ruaidri / Rory O’Connor, the last of the Gaelic monarchs of Ireland. (Photo –Fiona’s Place, a delightful website about all things Irish)

The cross, is made of oak and covered in gold, silver, niello, copper, bronze, brass, enamel, coloured glass, and other ornamentation. In addition to traditional Irish design features, the cross also displays some Viking and Romanesque influences. It was meant to be placed on top of a staff and is also a reliquary, designed to hold a small piece of the True Cross that had arrived in Ireland from Rome in 1123 and was originally enshrined at Roscommon, but has since been lost.


The Cross bears several inscriptions, all in Irish Gaelic except for one in Latin. Two commemorate members of the local Ua Dubhthaigh / O’Duffyecclesiastical dynasty: one, Muireadhach, recorded  in the Annals of the Four Masters as “chief senior of all Ireland in wisdom, chastity, in the bestowal of jewels and food“, died at Cong aged 75 in 1150.


Much of the history of the Cross is unclear.  It appears to be have been hidden by locals and ecclesiastics in fear of religious persecution or simple looting. A 1680 sighting by the Galway historian Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh is mentioned inArchaeologia Britannica, published in 1707 by Edward Lhuyd of Wales.


Sometime c.1800 Fr Patrick Prendergast (1741-1829), an Augustinian considered to be the last Abbot of Cong Abbey ( and also apparently responsible for the return to Ireland of the Cathach of St Columba from Belgium in the early (19th), discovered the Cross hidden in an old oak chest in a house in the village, where it was said to have been kept for over 100 years. A local historian saw the cross in his childhood and stated that in the early C19th the cross was used at Cong chapel at the festivals of Christmas and Easter, when it was placed on the altar during Mass.


Fr Michael Waldron, the unpopular successor of Fr Prendergast as parish priest of Cong, sold the cross for 100 Guineas into “the heretical hands” of Professor James MacCullagh of Trinity College Dublin, who presented it in 1839 to the Royal Irish Academy, where it was for a long period one of its most treasured artefacts. According to local legend, the parish priest of Cong, Fr Pat Lavelle, already famous throughout Ireland for his Fenian sympathies, made an attempt to “liberate” the artefact in 1870, but was  apprehended with the cross under his cassock on the platform of Dublin’s Broadstone Station.


About 1890 the cross was transferred to the newly opened National Museum of Science and Art, Dublin, the predecessor of NMI, founded in 1925 and occupying the same wing of Leinster House. In April 2010 it was installed in the NMI‘s Museum of Country Life at Turlough near Castlebar.

The Market Cross in Cong village, made of limestone, was reputedly erected to commemorate the C12th refoundation of the Abbey, and is inscribed in old Irish Gaelic lettering with the names of two former abbots. According to legend a judge who condemned a man  to death for homicide was himself murdered here by the convict’s brother.

The Cong Caves are a series of intermittently connected chasms, rifts,  swallow holes, caverns, chambers, tunnels and underground passages  riddling the area, some natural, some artificial (tombs, souterrains etc.) and some mixed, with traces of human usage since very ancient times. The most famous are Kelly’s Cave, the Lady’s Buttery and the Pigeon Hole, a deep cleft with 66 steps leading to a vast cavern with a subterranean stream, reputedly used by priests as a hiding place during the Penal Law era.

The “Fairy Trout” legend is associated with the Pigeon Hole. The story goes that on the shore of Lough Corrib stood the castle of an honourable young man who was engaged to marry a beautiful woman. They were very much in love. However, their happiness was not to be, for one night the young lover was ambushed and thrown into the lake to drown. Sometime after an unusual trout was noticed in the waters in the Pigeon Hole. The grief stricken maiden pined for her lost lover and eventually vanished. A white trout appeared and legend says that the fairies united the young couple once more. They were never again separated except on the occasion when an English soldier took the white trout from the water in an attempt to make the story untrue. He placed the trout on a grate to cook but as the flames touched the trout it jumped from the grate and transformed into a young maiden. The terrified girl begged him to return her to the water, which he did. The scar from the burning grate can still be seen on the white trout’s side.

Captain Webb’s Hole” was named after a notorious robber, of whose violence and cruelty dreadful tales were told.  Many beautiful young girls he carried off by force or fraud; and when he grew tired of them it was his practice to strip the unhappy victims naked, and plunge them down this deep hole near Lough Corrib. ‘One day, however, fate worked out a revenge on the audacious highwayman by the hands of a woman. He had committed a daring robbery on the highroad–plundered a carriage, shot the horses, and carried off a noble and lovely girl, who was returning home with her mother from an entertainment, which had been given by a great lord in the vicinity. Consequently, as the robber knew, the ladies were dressed magnificently, and wore the most costly jewels. After stripping the mother of all her ornaments, he left her half dead upon the highway; but wrapping a cloak round the young lady, Captain Webb flung her on the horse before him and galloped off to one of the many hiding-places he had through the country. For some time he gave up all his other favourites for the sake of the beautiful girl, and carried her about with him on all his wild expeditions, so great was the madness of his love for her. But at length he grew tired even of her beauty, and resolved to get rid of her, in the same way as he had got rid of the others, by a cruel and sudden death. So one day, when she was out riding beside him, as he always forced her to do, he brought her to the fatal hole where so many of his victims had perished, intending to cast her down headlong as he had done to so many others; but first he told her to dismount and to take off all her rich garments of silk and gold and her jewels, for she would need them no longer.”For pity, then,” she said, “do not look on me while I undress, for it is not seemly or right to look on a woman undressing; but turn your back and I shall unclasp my robe and fling it off.”So the captain turned his back as she desired him, for he could not refuse her last request; but still he kept close to the edge of the hole ready to throw her in; when suddenly she sprang upon him, and placing both hands on his shoulders, pushed him over the edge down into the fathomless gulf, from which no mortal ever rose alive, and in this manner the country was freed for evermore from the terrible robber fiend, by the courage of a brave and beautiful girl’.

The story of Captain Webb, The Robber Chief, appears in Lady Jane Francesca Wilde‘s Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland. Cong was a childhood haunt of her husband, the Castlerea-born ophthalmic surgeon, historian and antiquary Sir William Wilde (1815 – 1876), author of the excellent Lough Corrib, Its Shores & Islands (1872); their son Oscar also came to know the area during youthful holidays in the area.

Ashford Castle (Hotel*****)


Ashford Castle, on the northern shore of Lough Corrib, has long been regarded as one of Ireland’s top hotels, and probably the grandest of all. Guests over the years have included heads of state, royals, famous actors, singers, politicians,and other celebrities. (Photo –CubbyBear82)


The castle began its existence in 1228 as one of several regional strongholds founded by the de Burgo family. Some three and a half centuries later it passed into the possession of Sir Richard Bingham, Lord President of Connaught, who added a fortified enclave within its precincts in 1589.


The Ashford estate was established in 1715 by the Browne family (one of whom was later ennobled as Baron Oranmore & Browne), and a lodge in the style of a C17th French chateau was added.


Benjamin Lee Guinness, who purchased the property in 1852, extended the estate to 26,000 acres (110 km2), built new roads, planted thousands of trees and added two large Victorian style extensions. His son Arthur, ennobled in 1880 as Baron Ardilaun (a Lough Corrib island), and widely considered an “improving’ landlord”, oversaw the development of massive woodlands and rebuilt the entire west wing of the castle. He also subsidised the operation of several steamboats, the most notable of which was the Lady Eglinton, which plied between the villages of the Upper Lough Corrib region and Galway City, thus opening the area to increased commerce. The family entertained on a lavish scale, receiving members of the British and other royal families on several occasions, but eventually sold the property in 1939 to entrepeneur Noel Huggard.


As a hotel, the castle soon became renowned amongst enthusiasts of country pursuits such as angling and shooting. John Mulcahy, an Irish-American businessman who acquired the property in 1970, oversaw its complete restoration and expansion, doubling its size with the addition of a new wing, building a golf course and developing the grounds and gardens.


Bought in 1985 by a group of Irish American investors, the hotel and 350-acre wooded estate has belonged to Galway-based Gerry Barrett since 2007. In addition to three superb restaurants, amenities now include a neo-classical gym, an excellent Equestrian Centre and facilities for falconry, fishing and lake cruising.


The Lodge at Ashford ****, known as Lisloughrey Lodge until forced into Receivership in 2010, and now under the same management as the main hotel, offers boutique country house accommodation based on the former estate manager’s residence within the Castle grounds at Lisloughrey Quay on Lough Corrib. It specialises in “family-friendly” facilities, and also boasts a very highly rated restaurant.


The company that currently owns the Ashford Castle complex went into voluntary receivership in late November 2011, but will continue to operate for the time being.

St Mary’s church (CoI) was built in 1811 within the grounds of Ashford Castle.

The Cong  Canal, a major engineering project undertaken over five years by order of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness in the 1850s, was intended as a three-mile-long transport links between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, but being dug into porous limestone, could not hold water. Now commonly known as “the Dry Canal”, it is used as a drainage channel, with water levels varying between 6 inches and 12 feet depending on the time of year. Built heritage features of the canal remain.

The Quiet Man Cottage Museum is a homage to John Ford‘s Oscar-winning 1952 film The Quiet Man, starring John WayneMaureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald. Much of the movie was shot in and around Cong, especially the grounds of Ashford Castle, where the jaunting car that played such a prominent role in the film is available for guests’ use. The village and castle area have undergone relatively little change since 1952, and the movie is still celebrated by the local “Quiet Man Fan Club”. Located by the river between actual locations used in the film, the ground floor of the Museum has been designed as an exact replica of “White-o’-Morn'” in nearby Maam / Maam Bridge, the original cottage that is currently in ruinous condition.

Cong is

Bellaburke is the location of Polltoomary Cave (103m), the deepest in the British Isles, discovered in 2008 by Dublin-based divers Artur Conrad and Tom Malone.

Ballykine Castle & Clonbur Woods


Ballykine / Ballykyne Castle, an atmospheric ruin in Clonbur Woods, was one of a series of five fortifications in the area originally owned by theO’Kynes. (Photo – tourismpurewalking)

In 1571 it was seized for the Crown by Sir Edward Fitton, the then Lord President of Connaught / Thomond. For a period the de Burgos held it and later gave it to the MacDonnells as service booty or Bonnacht. Eventually it passed from Sir Richard O’Donnell to Sir Benjamin Guinness and so became part of the Guinness estate.

Architecturally, the castle has some puzzling features. The trabeated doorway with its inclined jambs pre-dates the rest of the structure by many years. Certain sections of the stonework are not bonded together as a unit, a feature which suggests later additions to the original building.


Clonbur Wood, the final resting place of scree from Mount Gable and the Partry Mountains, was long part of theAshford / Ardilaun Estate. The site is beside the Clonbur Riverand on Lough Mask itself.

It has approximately 5.6 km of walking trails along the banks of Lough Mask,  taking in limestone pavements similar to those in the Burren in County Clare. One route skirts the local cemetery, Teampall Brendan, and leads to White Island Isthmus and Big Island Isthmus into Lough Mask.

Ross Hill Abbey, situated on the southern shore of Lough Mask, is a curious complex of ruins and graves surrounded by an ancient oval enclosure known as a caiseal / cashel. Long used as a parish church and graveyard, Teampall Brendain is said to have been founded in the C6th AD by Saint Brendan the Navigator. The western end of the ruin is undoubtedly of early Christian origin, and may have replaced a wooden structure. A cross-inscribed pillar and a graveslab also date from the Early Christian period. A 1990 archaeological dig unearthed parts of a medieval limestone baptismal font and a considerable quantity of late C19th and early C20th clay pipes. Nearby is a curiosity locally known as The Ogham Stone. The Ross Hill estate, once the property of the unpopular Earl of Leitrim, was later acquired by the Guinness family.

Petersburgh House, now in ruins, was built in 1715 by Peter Lynch, one of whose descendants, John Lynch, was a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence. Beautifully located on the forested shore of Lough Mask, the estate (including the 18-acre Red Island), was allowed to deteriorate for many years before being converted into an outdoor education and leisure facility in 1986. The Petersburg Activity Centre specialises in adventure sports such as rafting, canoeing, orienteering, caving / potholing etc.

An Fhairche / Clonbur, scenically situated between Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, at the eastern end of Joyce Country, is a Gaeltacht village with several elegant stone buildings and traditional shopfronts in Irish and English.

Poliska House is a handsome ivy-clad Georgian residence.

All Saints church (CoI), built in 1846, is an attractive ruin.

An Fhairche / Clonbur is

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