When it comes to water, almost all of the focus is on the Atlantic coastline – too little thought goes to Ireland’s loughs. Ireland has a fair amount of very beautiful lakes of varying sizes and surroundings. Many such lakes contain teacup-sized islands, crannogs and lush shores home to castles, towers, monasteries and cosy cottages not to mention thick woodland, abundant wildlife, and majestic hills and mountains.
Read on to find out a few of our favourites, or use the list below to jump to specific lakes.
Sligo and the northwest region of Ireland is full of lakes. From Lough Gill to Lough Arrow and Lough Key and Lough Melvin as well as numerous smaller lakes and ponds (and of course the Atlantic coast and various bays and estuaries), this area has no shortage of water.
Lough Gill is the real standout though. The lake is probably the northwest’s most famous, made so by Ireland’s national Romantic poet, W.B. Yeats who professed its beauty in several poems. The most famous of course was The Lake Isle of Innisfree, in which he reminisces about a childhood spent on the shores of Lough Gill and the island within it. The real Isle of Innisfree is actually tiny – hardly the one iconised in the poem. But that doesn’t mean the lake doesn’t house notable islands.
In fact, there are several islands, some with a charming history like Beezy’s Island (also called Cottage Island), where an old woman lived for years and years, rowing into town for her weekly grocery run, and Church Island, home to a crumbling chapel. Lush woodland hug the shores, and the many peaks of north Leitrim overlook it. Ancient ruins dot the area – in fact, Sligo has two of the most important Neolithic centres in all of Ireland.
Perhaps the most in-depth way to experience the lake and islands is by kayak, but another way to bask in the beauty of Lough Gill and the Dartry Mountains is by biking the region. You’ll also get the chance to pedal past Glencar Waterfall, another local site that appears in a Yeats poem.
At the heart of the Comeragh Mountains in Waterford in Ireland’s “sunny southwest” as it’s known locally is the tiny corrie lake of Coumshingaun. Surrounded on three sides by sheer towering cliffs, Coumshingaun could be a place in a fairy tale or a fantasy world – it wouldn’t look out of place in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones (both of which took inspiration from Ireland’s magical landscapes).
A trail starts at the cliff’s base and heads up, following the contour of the bowl-shaped cliff. From the top, the round corrie lake looks like a droplet of water fallen from the sky. Visitors can either hike down the other side, or head over the plateau to join with the rough trail over Mahon Falls (interested in waterfalls? Check out our top Irish cascades here).
Killarney National Park was Ireland’s first established national park, in 1932. The park encompasses a variety of landscapes – lowlands and thick forests, soaring mountains and crashing waterfalls, important heritage sites like Muckross House, Ross Castle and Kate Kearney’s cottage.
And, of course, the lakes of Killarney. There are several. The prominent ones are of course Lough Leane, Muckross Lake, and the Upper Lake, but there are dozens of smaller lakes in the area, along the Gap of Dunloe and throughout the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks mountains. Killarney is one of the region’s hotspots for adventure tourists and outdoor lovers.
With the lower regions of the park easily accessible from Killarney town, the upper reaches of the park and surrounding mountains offer a sense of serenity and remoteness for any hardy enough to head upwards.
A great way to experience the lakes is by combining a boat trip with a hike. A local boatsman (and his dog!) will take hikers out across the lakes to the mountains on the other side of, letting hikers meander back to Killarney. This is a great introduction to the park, particularly for those that hope to head into the mountains of Kerry later in the trip. Learn more about the Ring of Kerry in our guide.
Heading to the very north of Ireland, we stop at Lough Swilly. Lough Swilly is interesting for a few reasons – one, it’s actually a sea lough, so it’s connected to the Atlantic; two, it’s also a fjord, one of just three in Ireland; and three, it is home to astounding beauty. This fjord, formed in ancient times by glaciers, lies between the western side of the Inishowen Peninsula and the Fanad Peninsula.
From a heritage perspective, it is notable for the great Grianan of Aileach hillfort from 2,000-5,000 BC near Swilly’s eastern side, among other prehistoric, medieval and more modern heritage sites. Another interesting historical note is that Lough Swilly was the departure point of the infamous 1607 Flight of the Earls, when failed uprisings against the British led to the last Gaelic chieftains in Ireland and 90 of their loyal followers flee the country, never to return.
The main town on Lough Swilly is Letterkenny at the sea lough’s southernmost point. Visitors to the area can drive or cycle around the lake, or another option is to take the ferry across Swilly from Buncrana to Rathmullan.
The best way to experience this part of Donegal is by bike – pedal the wild country roads and along the shores of Swilly before arriving at the glamorous Rathmullan House, the perfect place to unwind after an epic bike journey through Ulster.
This long, narrow ribbon of a lake lends its name to Glenveah National Park in Donegal. Running through a narrow valley in a remote, boggy landscape, this far-flung region was turned into a Victorian hunting lodge when a wealthy gentleman constructed a fairytale castle and walled gardens on Lough Veagh’s shores.
Once a rural retreat for wealthy Victorians looking to hunt, shoot, and relax amongst the vastness of nature, Glenveagh and its hauntingly beautiful lake and landscape offered an escape from the bustle of the world. Though perhaps a bit less savage today than it was 100+ years ago, Lough Veagh and the surrounding park remains one of Ireland’s most stunning and wild corners.
The best way to experience Lough Veagh is by hiking or biking Glenveagh National Park beyond the manicured grounds of Glenveagh Castle.
Lough Tay, otherwise known as the “Guinness Lake,” has long been inspiration to countless artists, writers and intelligentsia. This small but scenic lake is situated between the mountains of Djouce and Luggula and has attained it’s delicious nickname as its shape and colour are similar to a pint of Guinness (not to mention to its connections to the Guinness family).
Located on days two and three of the Wicklow Way, hikers will enjoy expansive views of the heathery hills as you descend into the sweeping glacial valley home to the glittering Lough Tay.
The lake has more recently been associated with Vikings. The lake and its shores were stand-in for the Scandinavian village of Kattegat in the History channel’s infamous series, Vikings.
The ideal way to experience Lough Tay is by hiking the Wicklow Way.
Actually comprising of two lakes, Upper Lough Erne and Lower Lough Erne, these lakes are found near the Northern Irish border on either side of the town of Enniskillen.
Upper Lough Erne is the predominant of the two lakes and contains dozens of islands. In fact, several of Lough Erne’s islands are home to fascinating historical sites, like Devenish Island with its’ beautifully intact round tower and the ruins of a monastery; White Island with its 12 century Romanesque church ruins and its bizarre collection of stone statues; and Boa Island, the location of a mysterious – possibly Pagan – dual-sided stone figure tucked into a forgotten graveyard.
Lower Lough Erne also has a plethora of islands, the largest of which hosts the stunning Belle Isle Castle, an idyllic exclusive use private castle that is the perfect upscale escape for groups.
There are a number of opportunities to experience the lake – boat trips are available and kayaking is also a great option and a stay at Belle Isle Castle on its private is a lovely getaway (check out some other amazing Irish castles to stay in).
Covering 176 km², it is the largest lake within the Republic of Ireland (and the second largest on the island of Ireland after Lough Neagh). This lake was where the first canal of Ireland was created (12th century), allowing boats to pass from Lough Corrib to the sea at Galway. Surrounded by the splendours of County Galway and Connemara, this area has always attracted outdoor enthusiasts.
Its most famous community is the charming village of Oughterard. Shallower in the south and deeper in the north, there are a number of wildlife sustained by the lake, including waterfowl, hawks, otters, mink, stoat, frogs, and bats. For those that want to experience the luxury, nothing beats a stay at Ashford Castle, one of Ireland’s top three luxury hotels, sitting at the northern edge of the lake.
Explore Connemara and its lovely lakes on one of our small group trips.
Tucked away in a rural corner of West Cork is the teacup-sized park of Gougane Barra. This little place is named for Saint Finbarr who is said to have built a monastery on an islet in the lake in the 6th century.
The current monastery was erected around 1700, and was a popular place to celebrate forbidden mass due to its isolation. The small picturesque lake is framed by rugged hills and lush woodland.
Despite its small size, Gougane Barra is one of Ireland’s most magical regional parks – the lake and its miniature island monastery looks like a fairytale come to life.
Visit Gougane Barra and West Cork on a wellness escape in southwest Ireland.
Some of the east coast’s most visited lakes are Glendalough’s Upper and Lower Lakes, a settlement that was once Ireland’s epicentre of monastic life and learning.
Today, there are dozens of trails, ruins, points of interest and viewpoints to explore in the area. Along the shores of the Upper and Lower lakes, visitors find the expansive remains of Glendalough Monastery, founded by the hermit St Kevin in the 12th century. Beyond the ancient ruins, woodlands and mountains surround the lake and valley, creating an idyllic pairing of nature and heritage.
The Wicklow Way runs past Glendalough and its lakes heading deeper into the Wicklow Mountains. While Glendalough can be busy, once hikers pass the monastic centre on the Wicklow Way or other trails in the area, visitors will have the landscape largely to themselves.
The ideal way to experience Glendalough is by hiking the Wicklow Way, with both guided and self guided options.
This central lake is at the heart of Ireland. Located near the pretty but little-visited town of Athlone, Lough Rea is home to a number of important historical sites, including Rindoon Castle and a site that once contained a thriving medieval walled settlement placed strategically on a peninsula. There are boating and paddling options available on Lough Rea or visitors could simply wander about Rindoon’s ruins, before heading off to Athlone for a coffee.
Now a forest park, this bustling little park in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands boasts a gentle walking trails, a cafe, lush woodlands and dramatic views of the ruined castle perched on its tiny island. Connected by a network of narrow rivers, lakes and locks, Lough Key is connected to Carrick-on-Shannon where it joins up with the mighty River Shannon. Just to the north is Lough Arrow, a lake known for its fishing, and framed by Neolithic sites of Carrowkeel, Keash and Moytirra.
This sizeable lake in County Mayo doesn’t get many visitors. Home to secret beaches, ruined abbeys and several islands and a stone’s throw from Foxford Woolen Mills, Lough Conn (and the interconnected Lough Cullin) has its own charm. Local folklore attributes the origin of these two lakes to be from two hounds of the same name, set to kill a boar. More clever than the dogs, the magic boar used its feet to bore holes in the bog and eventually create a lake, drowning the hounds Conn and Cullin.
Though far from any tourist route and located well in Ireland’s Midlands region, we felt that we should add in County Cavan as it is home to over 300 lakes. Many are interconnected, and most are tiny. Rural and agricultural, Cavan is the kind of place large numbers of Irish emigrated from in the last few centuries. There are a number of fishing, angling and paddling activities available in the region.
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