Mostly when you think of swimming outdoors it’s the sea you imagine, but there are lakes in Ireland where it’s possible to swim, and those on the map below are safe and clean and most have life guards on duty during the Summer months. As a bonus most are in beautiful locations and are rich with wildlife, especially birds.
This latter point is crucial – lakes and rivers that may look like great places for a swim are not always safe. Currents or undergrowth present often unseen hazards and, unless you have consulted locally about the safety of any place you think looks likely, you should not swim in strange waters.
It is a sad fact that many Irish lakes and waterways which would otherwise make great locations for a swim are unsuitable because of the status of the water. In some cases this is because untreated sewage is discharged into the lake or one of the rivers that feed it. In others its the effect of run off from agriculture or industry.
The lakes below have all achieved Blue Flag status following regular testing of the water by the EPA. This is an EU designation which is only awarded where the standard of water cleanliness is very high, so these are places you can swim without concern on that score.
Loughrea Lake, Galway
This large limestone lake is a popular swimming place locally and has good facilities with changing rooms, showers and picnic areas available. There is an information board near the car park where you can check times of lifeguard duty. There are two piers for diving.
Its name in Irish – Lough Riach – means ‘the grey lake’, probably due to the reflection of often grey skies on its smooth calm surface because on a sunny day it is decidedly blue
In summer the lake is an important nesting area for waterbirds, while in winter there is a large population of migratory birds from continental Europe. While it is possible to fish, it’s not the best place for fishing in the area and catches are small and not that frequent. There are good walks around the shore for those looking to spot birds and other wildlife.
Co Westmeath Lakelands
Westmeath is bang in the centre of Ireland, as far from the sea as it gets, but has some of the loveliest lakes in the country to compensate. The local authorities have made a particular effort to maintain good places for swimming on three of these lakes – Lough Lene, Lough Ennell and Lough Owel – and provide life guard services at all of them during the summer.
The bathing place at Lough Lene, pictured above, is known as ‘The Cut’. The lake water is particularly clear and clean, the sandy bottom visible as you swim. There is a small car park, toilets and changing rooms.
The water while shallow and safe along the shore is deeper in the centre and if it’s windy there can be strong currents – check with life guards before venturing too far out. Jet skis and water skis are banned but it is possible to arrange kayaking and canoeing locally.
There are three islands on Lough Lene and strong swimmers might try making it to Turgesius Island which is exactly a mile from the cut. The general area – which is not terribly far from Brú na Boinne – is rich in historic and metalithic structures.
For those more interested in fishing, this is a good trout lake, regular stocked and with boats (which you will need) available for hire locally.
Lilliput, Lough Ennel
Yes, Lilliput! And it’s where Jonathan Swift got the name for the land of small people in Gulliver’s Travels – he was a frequent guest in the area.
Lough Ennell is a calm shallow lake, and the swimming area has a stony beach leading to the shore. It’s hard to get any depth from here, but there are steps the other side of a boathouse which lead to somewhat deeper water.
There is a good activity centre right by the bathing area where you can arrange kayaking, canoeing and other water sports.
Lough Ennell is well known for its swans, and has a good diversity of birds and wildlife generally. The lake can be fished for trout and coarse fish, though there are reports of declining stocks in recent years.
Portnashangan, Lough Owel
Unlike Lough Ennell, the water here is deep and has a reputation for being very cold. The water depth means diving is a popular activity and there is a stone jetty with a number of diving heights available, as well as ladders for less dramatic access to the water.
In spite of the coldness of the water, this is the location for a popular local event – the Christmas Day swim. I needed a hot drink after watching the video above from the comfort of an armchair.
Ballyallia Lake, Co Clare
Located close to the edge of Ennis and to suburban housing, the swimming area here can be busy when the weather is very good but is otherwise quiet. There is a parking area, toilets and some seating for picnics but no life guard presence.
The lake area is a wildlife sanctuary and a good spot for bird watching with several species of ducks and waders and a resident population of Whooper swans.
While the status of water cleanliness here has been a bit up and down over the years, for the last few years the water has been judged clean enough to reach Blue Flag status, so whatever problems there were appear to have been sorted out.
There is a signposted walking/running trail – Slí Ballyallia – that passes along the shore of the lake and ends in Ennis.
Confusingly there are two Lough Dergs in Ireland. One is in Donegal and is famous as a place of pilgrimage, but the one here is on the River Shannon.
It’s the largest lake on Ireland longest river, and has a number of bathing places around its shore. The river and lake are also very popular for cruise boats and for all kinds of water sports – you’ll find centres at each of the locations below where you can hire boats or organise kayaking, canoeing, water skiing and other activities.
Ballycuggeran, Killaloe, Co Clare
Close to the small town of Killaloe, the bathing place at Ballycuggeran is beautifully located, at the foot of the Slieve Bernagh Mountains with an oak wood surrounding it and a sandy freshwater beach running along the lake shore.
There is a carpark, toilets and picnic facilities and a life guard on duty during the summer months.
It would be a shame to visit the lake without also following some of the walking trails in the surrounding woods and hills, which are well marked. In fact even if you don’t want to swim the woods are worth visiting – oak woods which once covered much of Ireland are now relatively rare and this one is especially lovely.
The Bathing Place at Portumna, Co Galway
As well as being the set off point for many Shannon cruises, Portumna is a centre for water sports on the lake and you can arrange pretty much any water activity here.
The bathing place is in a Water Recreation Park, a well kept area with lots of grassy space for picnicking, a carpark, toilets and a changing area with showers. There are life guards on duty during the summer, and it is very important to consult with them and stick to designated bathing areas as the lake can in parts be quite dangerous.
There is a special shallow children’s area here and other points where you can quickly access deeper water via a ladder, so plenty of variety.
Mountshannon, Co Clare
This is a small well kept bathing area close to a popular and busy marina. There are slipways to take you into the water and decent facilities including toilets and a changing room as well as a nice grassy area with plenty of seating for picnics. There are life guards in summer.
In high summer, if there is a period of hot weather (it happens!), there can be an issue here with algal blooms which may cause temporary closure for swimming.
The village of Mountshannon is particularly charming and has won several awards for tidiness and for being generally maintained in an attractive state and it is worth taking some time for a wander around.
Keeldra Lough, Co Leitrim
Leitrim, though a very beautiful county, is one of the most out of the way and little visited places in Ireland, and this spot is out of the way even for Leitrim! You are truly off the beaten track here but you’ll be well rewarded.
Sheltered and sandy, the bathing area has toilets and changing rooms and is very well maintained. It’s very popular with locals – it’s where many children in Leitrim learnt to swim – and can be quite busy in warm weather. A pier runs out from the shore giving access to deeper water, but do check first before diving as it can be hard to see the lake bottom.
The area surrounding the lake is largely bog, so the water can be a little muddy but it has consistently had a very high standard of cleanliness so this does not affect safety. There are no life guards but there is life saving equipment available.
The lake is popular too for coarse fishing, with good catches of pike, perch, roach and other species common.