Lough Ine1, Ireland is a tranquil spot surrounded by forested hillsides, much beloved of tourists, divers and marine biologists alike. In 1981 the lough was dedicated as the first Marine Nature Reserve in Ireland, due to its wide range of habitats, flora and fauna. It was once a fresh water lake until geological forces carved out the narrow passage that links it to the sea. The lough is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by Barloge Creek, a narrow inlet that close to the lough becomes a shallow constriction known for obvious reasons as The Rapids. As the tide changes, the water rushes in and out through The Rapids, where the flow of water is constricted to such an extent that high tide in the lough is several hours different to that of the sea.
This beautiful corner of south-west Ireland has an exceptionally mild climate thanks to the effects of the Gulf Stream. The water in the lough is relatively warm, permitting the survival of sea creatures more normally found in warmer waters. For example, there is a type of sea slug living there, which otherwise only inhabits the Mediterranean Sea. A variety of marine environments can be found within the lough, from rock-pool like conditions in the calmer shallows to the deep, cold, oxygen-poor conditions in the 50-metre-deep Western trench. The many sea creatures found here include the purple sea-urchin, sponges, pipefish, trigger fish, red-mouthed goby and luminous jellyfish.
Lough Ine and its variety of environments and wildlife first caught the attention of scientists in the nineteenth century. Since 1922, a marine research centre has been maintained here for continuing scientific studies. However, this is a site where serious research lives in harmony with nature. The casual visitor would most likely be unaware of the presence of marine research activities and is left free to enjoy the views or swim or paddle in the lake. Thanks to excellent visibility and the range of wildlife, the lough is popular with divers and the necessary licences can be arranged by diving centres at nearby Baltimore.
Knockomagh wood on the hillside by the lough is also designated as a nature reserve. Often thought to be an 18th century planting, the presence of evergreen yew trees indicates this is a remnant of the ancient forests that would have covered the area thousands of years ago. Way-marked walks take the visitor up the hill, through groves of oak and beech trees to a heather-clad summit with wonderful views over the coastline and islands.
The road around the lough also makes for a pleasant walk, shaded by the wooded hillside and characteristic West Cork fuchsia hedges. Hardy fuchsias escaped from gardens many years ago and are now very much at home in the hedgerows. The fuchsia has become such a familiar and well-loved plant that it has been adopted as the symbol of West Cork. In late summer, the profusion of deep red flowers is a beautiful sight and the hedges are alive with loudly buzzing bees.
The remains of an old O'Driscoll castle can be seen on an island in the middle of the lake. A local legend has it that a reclusive king, Labhrai Loinsigh2, once lived in the castle. He would only agree to have his hair cut once each year and would have the unfortunate barber killed when the job was finished. One year, a young boy was selected for the task and after the trimming was complete, he was put to death at the king's command. As he died, he whispered the king's great secret to the grass beneath. Some time later, a passing shepherd picked the blades of grass to fashion a pipe. On playing the pipe, the notes were magically transformed to repeat the young boy's dying words and 'The king has ass's ears, the king has ass's ears' sang out across the island. The king heard that his secret was discovered and in his shame, fled. He was never to be seen again.
Although not on any local bus routes, Lough Ine is easily reached by car, clearly signposted from the Skibbereen to Baltimore road. Only a few miles from Skibbereen, the trip is an easy cycle ride. Parking by the lough is limited to a couple of small parking areas, which can quickly fill up on busy days. The visitor would be well advised to stock up with snacks and drinks in Skibbereen as there are no convenient shops, pubs or restaurants there.
The Heritage Centre at Skibbereen (four miles down the road) has a section devoted to Lough Ine and is well worth a visit if you're in the area.