The end of an era as the last island farmer of Shannon's Lough Ree dies

John Connell, the last farmer on Lough Ree, who passed away this week.
John Connell, the last farmer on Lough Ree, who passed away this week.

Eoghan MacConnell

The death of the last remaining resident of the islands on the River Shannon’s Lough Ree is being viewed as the “end of an era” for the area.

The last farmer on the 65-acre island passed away on his 83rd birthday this week, after spending his entire life farming and fishing on the island, where he had grown up with his two brothers and sister. 

John Connell of Inchbofin Island on Lough Ree near Glasson, Athlone in Co Westmeath he hit the headlines in 2010 when the Air Corps dropped fodder by helicopter for his cattle during an extremely cold spell.

The hardy farmer and fisherman had declined an invitation to return to the mainland, preferring instead to remain and tend to his cattle. 

The lake had turned into a sheet of ice during the winter and the marooned cows, horses and sheep got some relief when an Air Corps helicopter began a series of fodder drops.

The rescue services also checked in on the elderly islander.

"When the guards went in, they went in to bring him out. He told them to go back and get some fodder," his nephew Mick Connell said this week.

But Mr Connell said he preferred to stay put. "I'm very thankful to them all as the lake is frozen and the animals could do with a feed," he said at the time.

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“He was the last man to leave the islands, everyone was gone years before that.” He described his uncle as “a very quiet man, kept to himself, minded his own business." 

After John slipped on ice during the freeze in 2010, Mick and his brother Sean became more involved in helping the elderly farmer and before Christmas there was 36 cattle still being farmed on the island, which has been reduced down to less than 20 in the past few weeks.

Mick said his uncle slipped on ice during the big freeze of 2010 and hurt his back. It impacted on his ability to farm the 65 acre island and he used to help out. Although he couldn’t lift bales of hay anymore, he was able to cross the water every day and have his dinner in Athlone when the weather permitted, his nephew said.   

“He loved the farm and his fishing and was very sad when eel fishing was closed down in 2008," he remarked.

Despite his quiet nature, he had a real affinity with fisherman and would always insist any passing fisherman would join him for drop of whiskey, his nephew Mick said.

Up to four or five years ago, Mr Connell was still fishing and is one of the few people in Europe to still hold a freshwater draft net licence.

“There is only 13 licences in Europe for draft net and he had one,” he said. 

He also said that explained that Mr Connell was “really annoyed” at the government’s decision to end eel fishing which he said, had wiped out 300 or 400 years of tradition with “one swipe of a pen.”   

Mr Connell moved to a nursing home five months before his death. "When you walked into the nursing home all he wanted to know about was the cattle," his nephew said. 

Local Councillor Frankie Keena(FF) said “it is sad to see John being the last resident passing away. It’s the end of an era.”  Cllr Keena doesn’t believe people will choose to return to the islands due to the secluded lifestyle.

“They were great people to live on the island and do the farming,”  said Cllr Keena.  

Although they mightn’t be populated again, Cllr Keena described the islands on Lough Ree as a great amenity to the area. “The islands in general, from a Westmeath County Council point of view, are an invaluable asset,” he said. 

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