Loughrea, or Baile Locha Riach in Irish, is a thriving market town in County Galway. Its name means ‘town of the grey lake’, as it is situated on the northern shore of ‘the grey lake’. It has a population of about 5,600.
The town was founded in 1236 by Richard de Burgo, an Anglo-Norman knight who built a castle along an ancient route between the River Shannon and the west coast. Today the remains of the medieval town wall, medieval priory, moat and a town gate are all still to be seen. The De Burgo family adopted Irish names and customs and assumed the role of chieftains in the following centuries until 1543, when Ulick ‘Bourck, alias Mac William’, surrendered his lands to Henry VIII, receiving it back to hold, by English custom, with his new title, the Earl of Clanricarde.
Loughrea can boast of having the only working ‘town moat’ in Ireland. This water-filled moat was built in the mid-13th century. It ran directly outside the medieval walls, and its circuit can still be seen.
There is also evidence of human settlement in the area much earlier than these structures. Crannog settlements were discovered on Loughrea lake with up to 14 individual Crannogs identified, dating back to the 6th – 7th century AD.
St Brendan’s Cathedral on the lakeshore dominates the town’s skyline. It is considered a magnificent example of revival architecture in Ireland. The Cathedral was designed by William Byrne in 1897 and completed five years later. Its double transepts are an unusual architectural feature and its stained glass windows are a sight to behold. Loughrea is also the ‘Cathedral town’ of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Clonfert.
The most prominent feature in Loughrea is ‘The Grey Lake’ itself! The majestic lake is at the heart of the town and has wonderful walks, swimming and fishing areas. It is one of the few inland ‘blue flag’ beaches in Ireland. The promenade is a lovely walk whatever the weather, boasting dramatic views across the lake of the Slieve Aughty mountains behind.
Loughrea lake is said to be fed entirely by seven underwater springs, so the water is constantly replenished from underneath. The waters are stocked with brown trout, perch and pike. The lake is home to many waterbirds. Migratory species from Europe live at the lake during the winter, and it provides nesting grounds for other species during the summer. It is of international importance for waterfowl and is a designated Natural Heritage Area.
Local folklore tells of the queen of the lake and her mythical horse galloping on the surface. Every now and then you can see the imprints of the horse’s hooves swirling on the water. She is said to grant your heart’s desire but be careful what you wish for! It comes with a price!