Lough Erne: A history on a magnificent scale

Updated Friday 7th June 2013

The G8 summit is turning Lough Erne into a global focus - and another chapter in a mixed history.

Next week the stream of luxury cars and 4x4s carrying the world's leading politicians and their advisors to the G8 summit will commence. Their destination is the Lough Erne Resort, near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.

A five-star hotel and golf resort, the 345 acre site on the shores of Lower Lough Erne is a luxurious getaway reassuringly far removed from angry protesters.

Lough Erne Creative commons image Icon Kenneth Allen under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license Lough Erne

Despite its remote location, this part of Ireland is no stranger to the comings and goings of the world's elites. Enniskillen's strategic importance as a bridging point across two large lakes had long been recognised by the Maguires, the Gaelic family who dominated this area in the 1500s.

When the English began to expand their influence in Ireland in the early 1600s, they seized the Maguire stronghold and established a permanent garrison on the site. By the end of the seventeenth century, the whole county was firmly in English hands and land – always the key to wealth and power – was now concentrated in the hands of a new colonial aristocracy.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Fermanagh's attractions, such as early Christian antiquities, limestone caves and picturesque landscapes, along with the development of roads and steamboat travel, made it a popular new destination for the leisured and wealthy classes.

In the 1860s, the prospectus for the proposed new Lake Erne Hotel at Rossclare boasted that the development was

"... [not] meant or intended for visitors as a residence to pass a mere existence of life in, but it rather meant for those “who are on pleasure bent, and not of over frugal mind.”
- William F. Wakeman, Lough Erne, Enniskillen, Belleek, Ballyshannon, and Bundoran, with routes from Dublin to Enniskillen and Bundoran, by rail or by steamboat, 1870

As William Wakeman, a keen antiquary and early traveller in Fermanagh, observed in 1870, this new hotel carried everything out 'on a very magnificent scale'. Guests could take steamboat rides on the lough, accompanied by a 'German band', and visit nearby round towers and ruins.

They could also take a special excursion to a proper 'big house' where they could view the life of the local landed gentry at first hand.

Wakeman's books promoting tourism in Fermanagh first appeared just when the foundations for much of this comfortable, monied world were about to collapse.

Just across the lough from the Lake Erne Hotel, for instance, was Ely Lodge, near to where the current Lough Erne Resort now stands. Built only in 1830, the house was the seat of the marquesses of Ely, the largest landowners in Fermanagh. Despite being extremely well connected (Lady Ely was first lady to Queen Victoria), the family struggled to keep up appearances.

When the 4th Marquess turned 21 in 1870, he blew up Ely Lodge as part of his birthday celebrations, fully intending to build a far more ambitious residence.

An international economic slowdown put paid to his ambitions. Poor weather, bad harvests, growing competition from America and falling prices all contributed to an agricultural depression which ultimately forced landlords like the Elys to sell vast swathes of their estates to local farmers and entrepreneurs.

Ely Lodge was rebuilt, but only by using the remaining stable block, and was eventually sold in 1947.

In the 1990s it was the new money of Jim Treacy, an Irish businessman who had made his fortune in supermarkets, which promised to return some of that by-gone glamour to this small part of Fermanagh.

In 1999 he purchased a golf course and adjoining land from the former Ely estate and in 2005 began work on the Lough Erne Resort. Opening in 2007 at a cost of £35m, the resort was soon the victim of the Irish property bubble; by 2011 it had gone into receivership and is now up for sale for £10m.

The G8 summit has given the Lough Erne Resort and the glamorous lifestyle it represents a temporary reprieve. Local politicians have placed great store on the income it will generate and the positive publicity it will bring to a region trying to overcome the violent legacy of "The Troubles".

However, like the gentry who spent their summer holidays boating about the Fermanagh lakelands, so too will the politicians return to their cosmopolitan residences.

Once they do, the Lough Erne will be looking for a buyer and the economic future of this resort, and the area around it, is likely to return to its former uncertainty.


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