The song of the skylark, the wheatear and yellowhammer, five types of Fuschia and the froghopper nymph … Then there’s traces of Viking longboats, remains of O’Flaherty and Joyce strongholds and a lakescape framed by wind turbines, Mount Gable and Finavarra’s fairy refuge at Knockma.
That’s just a snapshot of the great diversity offered by Connemara’s Lough Corrib which is still a paradise for angling and watersports in spite of many challenges.
Yet a community group set up to protect it believes Ireland’s second largest lake is “out of sight, out of mind” for many, including its closest residents in Galway city and county.
“It’s like a Babushka doll or a Rubik’s cube — it’s a mystery,” says Micheál Ó Cinnéide, a founding member and co-chairman of Corrib Beo.
“One of the great paradoxes of Galway life it is that it is the second largest lake on the island, and yet it is unknown to most people, hidden in full view while being essential to the life of the county and wider region,” adds Ó Cinnéide, a former director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Corrib Beo was formed five years ago after members of the angling, community and environmental groups took a trip aboard the Corrib Princess riverboat from Galway city’s Wood Quay.
“Out of that trip, we formed a voluntary group to promote more awareness of the lake, so that the community, the county and country can look after this magnificent resource better,” Ó Cinnéide explains.
Such is Lough Corrib’s importance that up to 10 State bodies are involved in aspects of its management, he says.
Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) is responsible for its freshwater fisheries, Uisce Éireann draws essential supplies for the city and county, while two local authorities, the EPA, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Office of Public Works (OPW) and Lough Corrib Navigation Trustees also hold various roles.
The relentless impact of climate change has exacerbated the challenges. As IFI senior research officer Fiona Kelly explains, the Corrib’s main invasive species include zebra mussels and the Lagarosiphon, or curly waterweed.
In the case of zebra mussels, which spread from the Shannon some 30 years ago, they may be filter feeders but do not make freshwater cleaner, she notes. Instead, they devour much of the plankton on which aquatic creatures depend, and they can also mask the lake’s natural response to eutrophication or enrichment with nutrients, leading to fish kills and algal blooms, she says.
“Researchers in the US have found that zebra mussels can contribute to toxic algal blooms after eight to 10 years, and we have already seen this on Lough Sheelin, bordered by Westmeath, Meath and Cavan,” Kelly says. “It may also be part of the problem Lough Neagh is now experiencing.”
Lagarosiphon, sold as an oxygenating plant for artificial ponds, can grow up to 5m deep. It has already pushed out native flora in areas where it is well established on Lough Corrib. As if that wasn’t enough, carp have also been identified recently in the lake. Kelly says that so far it is just one specimen, found during an IFI stock management exercise in July.
Eutrophication caused by increased loads of nutrients into waterways is a major threat, but the Corrib is “not as impacted as other lakes, as agriculture is not so intense”, Kelly says. “There is some pressure on the eastern side of the catchment, where there is more farming or drainage or both, and it is always a risk in the shallow areas of the lake. So it is an ongoing challenge to manage the waterway, and we can only manage certain parts. The one key factor is that efforts need to be continuous, rather than stopping and starting. You take Lough Sheelin as an example, where it recovered and then relapsed when slurry was being spread on land.”
With rising temperatures, several warm water species have also become more frequent, including tench which does not reproduce in most waters in Ireland every year and may not compete with native species.
“We have been monitoring four lakes constantly for water temperatures since 2019 as part of a climate change mitigation research project in nine catchments,” Kelly explains.
Since 2020, the OPW has been funding work by the IFI on a parallel climate resilience project in three additional catchments.
“There are measures that can be put in place to mitigate the impact of climate change, such as tree planting on riverbanks which cool down the temperature of this freshwater running into lakes,” she says.
“In Germany, wooden structures made of bundles of branches have been placed in lakes that may provide cooler habitats for certain species,” she notes.
Under the EU Water Framework Directive, key State bodies including IFI should all be working together seamlessly as part of river basin management plans. Yet Corrib Beo believes that although each agency does valuable work, a co-ordinated effort is imperative.
“I’d make the analogy with an orchestra, where you have the players, as in the stakeholders, the instruments, the sheet music and the conductor, but what should be beautiful music is actually cacophonous,” says Denis Goggin, co-chairman of Corrib Beo.
“Two critical elements are missing when it comes to the lake,” Goggin says. “It needs a conductor to lead it and sheet music that reflects a common vision.”
As part of its “education pillar”, Corrib Beo has been working with EcoEd4All, a voluntary group of “subject matter experts” focused on developing environmental education course material for transition year students.
Corrib Beo was also centrally involved in a recent workshop in Claregalway, Co Galway, which aimed to bring together representatives of what it calls a “confused mosaic” of State agencies and angling, environmental and community bodies.
The “Who’s Who on the Corrib” workshop was facilitated by Dr Trish Murphy of the Inishowen river Trust and Mark Horton of the Rivers Trust, an umbrella organisation working across Britain and Ireland.
Support was provided by the Local Authorities Waters Programme (Lawpro) — established in 2016 to enable 31 local authorities and other stakeholders to “navigate the institutional complexity of river basin management in Ireland”.
At the Claregalway session, Oughterard-based water quality campaigner John Gibbons spoke passionately about how he believed the Owenriff river, which flows into the lake’s northwestern side, is “dying before our eyes”.
Billy Kavanagh explained that the East Corrib Alliance, established by four angling clubs, came together over concerns about water quality and habitats for fish in the catchment. “We felt we had to do something as a matter of urgency, and we feel that the involvement of farmers and landowners is of the utmost importance.”
A subsequent gathering in November highlighted the “need for an entity with a holistic view to mobilise the resources towards a common vision for the Corrib”, Ó Cinnéide says. And so Corrib Beo has called for the establishment of a Corrib forum.
One of the big issues in improving awareness about a lake with a 5,000-year-old history is the very limited public access, he agrees. “There are a number of really good angling clubs, who have in effect small little corners of the lake that they look after very well, and there are boating clubs — as in rowing and sailing.”
“Other than that, there is Lisloughrey Pier in Cong and the pier in Oughterard, a couple of small hidden piers, and that’s it. For most members of the public, the lake is not accessible, either by road, by bike, by walking or by boat.
Corrib Beo wants to see a plan being drawn up which would improve access without impacting greatly on the lake’s environment. It believes this can also be part of the remit of a Corrib forum, which could also share experience and knowledge with other river basin communities right across the island.
“We would like to work with Lough Neagh, which has a big problem with its water quality, with nature and diversity,” Ó Cinnéide says. “There is enough interest and expertise, and we know there is the same issue around lakes in other parts of Ireland too, and so it is time to get on with it.”
Book that: The Corrib walk
How do you engage the wider public with a lake that is so inaccessible and “hidden in plain sight”?
One solution is to produce a guidebook to what is available, and so Corrib Beo supported publication of “Our Corrib Walks” by Patrick McGinley and Denis Healy. They are seasoned walkers, and share a knowledge of and love for the 40km-long waterway covering almost 170sq km .
Their guide, published last summer, combines their “keen eye for the natural world with insights into the social and cultural life of communities and areas” around the lake, as Micheál Ó Cinnéide and Denis Goggin write in their joint introduction.
The 12 walks, ranging from Mám to Ard na Gaoithe woods to Menlo to Mount Gable, are graded, and have details on parking, access and suitability for those with wheelchairs, buggies and dogs. During their research, they discovered that there are four times as many castles and also four times more pink Hydrangeas on the eastern shoreline as on the West. They also discovered a highway for lizards, where the reptiles really like to sun themselves.
- Our Corrib Walks by Patrick McGinley and Denis Healy is on sale at €15 with all proceeds to the Galway Hospice Foundation