Irish Heritage



The main source is a detailed article that appeared in the Sligo Champion on 12th January 1990:  ‘When Steamers plied Lough Gill’  by John C. McTernan, Sligo County Librarian

Between 1839 and 1885 three boats transported food and people between Sligo and Dromahair. They were 

  • Maid of the Mill from 1839 to 1843.
  • Lady of the Lake from 1843 to 1873
  • Maid of Breiffne from 1873 to 1885

Maid of the Mill  1839 to 1843.

William Kernaghan of Kernaghan Bros. Sligo Merchants & Importers and a brother of Thomas Kernaghan who owned a clothing shop on High Street, found finance to commission the building of a 60-ton schooner by local shipwright John McCoy at Ballast Quay. The boat was named Maid of the Mill.

In the 1820s a mill on the River Bonet in Dromahair had been built on the instructions of Yorkshire-based landlord George Lane Fox Snr. Commercial sailings commenced on Lough Gill in November 1839, carrying corn from Fox’s Mill at Dromahair to Sligo port for export. Doorly Park on the outskirts of Sligo was the berthing point. Horse-drawn carts carried bags of flour from Doorly Park to the harbour quays. 

In the beginning it was a limited service as it took a year to outfit the craft. Her maiden voyage was 17th September 1840. The Maid of the Mill plied on Lough Gill until October 1843. 

The Lady of the Lake 1843 to 1873

In 1843 she was replaced by a small paddle steamer called The Lady of the Lake, built specially on Clydeside in 1842 for the newly formed Lough Gill Steam Navigation Company of Dromahair. By then William Kernaghan had leased Dromahair Mill from George Lane Fox.

The landlord’s agent, Joshua Kell, became a shareholder in the Steam Company, along with Lane Fox. Lane Fox subscribed 150 pounds towards the purchase of the vessel and spent money on improving navigation on the Bonet River. In March 1843 a shareholders’ meeting in Dromahair raised capital for the project by selling shares. In August that year the Lady of the Lake sailed from Clydeside to Sligo port. It was dragged over land from Sligo to the river at Cleveragh and launched into the river at Abraham Martin’s estate. 

Daily sailings from Dromahair were scheduled for 9 a.m. and from Sligo at 4 p.m. The voyage each way lasted 45 minutes. Deck passengers then paid 4d and cabin passengers 8d. Horse-cars ran from Manorhamilton, Drumshanbo and Carrick to enable visits to Sligo Market.

In the UCD-organized schools folklore survey of 1937 John O’Rourke, an 80-year-old farmer of Rockvalley, Dromahair, informed J.J.Johnston (link) about local perceptions and use of the steamship service

“…long before the railway between Sligo and Enniskillen was constructed a steamer named “The Lady of the Lake” plied between Sligo and Dromahair. Its chief cargo was corn from Sligo to Hosie’s mill. On Tuesdays and Saturdays it was laden chiefly with passengers to Sligo markets with butter, eggs, and fowl. This steamer was driven by Captain [Michael] O’Rourke whose son is now a very old man still lives in Dromahair, and is known locally as “John the Captain”.

The “Lady of the Lake” being too small for the growing traffic was replaced by a large steamer, called “The Maid of Breffni”…” 

Until the 1880s the mill at Dromahair was called Fox’s Mills. In 1844 the Company started a 2-horse Bianconi-type car service from Carrick via Drumshanbo, Keadue and Drumkeeran to connect with the sailing boat. Horse-drawn transport brought people from Manorhamilton. Bearing farm produce to Sligo and shopping for clothes and goods there boosted passenger numbers. By October 1844 some 16,172 passengers had been carried by the Lady of the Lake, many from the Drumkeeran-Carrick catchment area. 

1845-1850: Famine caused widespread disease, death and emigration. It destroyed trade and commerce. William Kernaghan was declared bankrupt in 1849, with debts of £100,000 sterling – well over a million euro in today’s terms. The bankruptcy court sold his interest in Dromahair Mill to Alexander Sim of Collooney (Sim’s Mills), who appointed Scottish-born Andrew Hosie as his manager. It was henceforth called Hosie’s Mills.

A blizzard in February 1855 forced the Lady of the Lake onto rocks at Hollywell. Joshua Kell lost money restoring the boat and was compelled to take over the operation of the steamer between Dromahair and Sligo, captained by Michael O’Rourke. During the 1860s traffic on Lough Gill declined. 

Joshua Kell died in 1871 and his son Edward T. Kell took over management of the steamer enterprise. The Kells also acted as land agents for Lane Fox Snr and Lane Fox Jnr. Hosie’s Mills ground imported Indian corn or maize into bags of animal feed.

The Maid of Breiffne 1873 to 1885

MAid Bell

Bell from the Maid of Breiffni

The Lady of the Lake was replaced by a larger paddle steamer The Maid of Breiffne in 1873. This 71-ton vessel, built by Fullerton & Co. of Paisley in Scotland, could carry 300 passengers. Edward Kell successfully operated the service until eventually the opening of the SL&NCR railway rendered lake transport uncompetitive.

On 21st March 1885 the Maid of Breiffne sank at the mouth of the River Bonet. Dromahair farmer John O’Rourke (op.cit.) noted in the 1937 survey. [I have corrected his punctuation]:

“One day the “Maid of Breffni” was coming up from Sligo, with a big load of corn. She sank coming up at the mouth of the River Bonet.
Finally she was brought up to the quay which is about a half mile from Dromahair town, and her framework of steel is still to be seen slowly rusting away alongside the quay.” John O Rourke 1937

Sic transit gloria mundi. Nowadays kayaks and spectacular Canadian canoes take nature enthusiasts from Dromahair to Shriff on Lough Gill, but they don’t transport bags of milled flour to Sligo.


  1.  The certificated history of the Maid of Breiffne can be viewed here:  . Completed in 1872 by J. Fullerton & Co., Paisley. Andrew Hosie (d.1888 in Dromahair) was the first owner, but Edward T. Kell operated the service.The certificate baldly concludes:

“Reported sank entering the River Bonet, from Sligo. Later raised and towed to Dromahaire and abandoned at the quay. (1891 deleted from British register)

2. A report on the AGM of the Steamship Company in the Sligo Champion 12 October 1844 notes, inter alia, Link:

“Most of the passengers come from Drumkeerin, Doury [Dowra],Dabally, [?] and the country beyond the River Shannon, who are enabled by this conveyance to go to the Sligo Market, and return home the same day, thus travelling upwards of 50 Irish miles. From Manorhamilton and Glenfarne few passengers have as yet come, but it is hoped they will find this the best, cheapest, and quickest route, the fares for nine Irish miles being only 6d in cabin, and 3d on deck… The number of passengers for six months ending October were: Cabin 3240  Deck 12,932”

  1. From the Shannon to Sligo port – Early 19th century water transport dreams

From: Colonel W.G. Wood-Martin  History of Sligo p.p.211-212.Link 

In 1825, a memorial was  presented to the Lord Lieutenant, from the gentry of Sligo, praying that a canal might be formed to connect Lough Erne with Lough Allen, and that again with Lough Gill, and thence to the sea. In 1839, the merchants of Sligo petitioned the Lords of the Treasury in favour of a canal to connect Lough Allen with Lough Gill, and Lough Gill with the sea ; and in the years 1845-1846 two Acts were passed, the first authorizing the construction of a railroad from Sligo to the Shannon, and the latter the extension of the harbour of Sligo to Lough Gill by formation of a navigable canal. These Acts were styled ” The Sligo and Shannon Bail way,” and the ” Sligo Ship Canal ” ; the latter being the revival of a much older project ; for, so early as the commencement of the century a detailed survey had been made, with the object of constructing a canal from Sligo to the Shannon. [A canal was dreamed between Lough Allen & Belhavel, and a canal between Belhavel & Lough Gill. GB]

  • Maid of Breiffne photo comes from Sligo library photo archive. A framed copy of this photograph used to be seen in Pattons’ Bar and possibly also in the bar of the Abbey Hotel. In the Abbey was in a glass case a taxidermied large fish caught in the Bonet.
  • We would welcome family stories about the Lough Gill boat service. Any further information about John O’Rourke and Captain Michael O’Rourke would be appreciated.

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