Castlederg – Spirits, Stones and Storytellers

Jacinta Owens revisits her home town

Sometimes you must see your hometown from the perspective of others to really appreciate it.  Bobby Burke’s poetry inspired me to find out more about my hometown, Castlederg.
 
 
'Flow onwards gentle river
Us exiles love you still
Once more we sit and view you
From the slopes of Muckle Hill
That captivating scenery in the valley down below
Is a prize that nature gave the world
Where the Derg waters flow’
by Bobby Burke
 
I didn’t have to look far to learn more about Castlederg.  As I glanced through one of the Sunday papers, I found Lambert Wilson of The Matrix Reloaded fame fondly recounting happy days fishing in the Derg river while visiting relatives. As impressed as I am that this Bond-like film star has been to my town, it’s not really what I am after. 
 
I want to know what makes the exiles of this town come back to visit or even settle again. The visitors’ book at Castlederg Tourist Information Centre is peppered with comments from people who live in places I’ve never heard of making the pilgrimage ‘home’ to a town they left decades ago. Someone who has inspired countless pilgrimages has a link held dearly by local people of Castlederg. It is said that St Patrick rested in Castlederg on returning from a nearby island on the cold, bleak Lough Derg in 450AD. A Holy Well where the saint is believed to have quenched his thirst is a Christian Mecca to locals every year on 17 March. 

Thousands of soul-searchers still make the same journey as St Patrick across the black waters of Lough Derg. Some say that it’s bad luck to have a redhead on the boat, though I have yet to hear the ‘evidence’ to back this up.

 
Another of the town’s most famous, and bizarre, connections is Davy Crockett. Famously named ‘King of the Wild Frontier’, Crockett’s ancestors were Scots-Irish Presbyterians who originally settled around the present-day town of Castlederg but later immigrated to America. A residential area in the town is named ‘Crockett Park’ in his honour.
 
Possibly a lesser known Castlederg man is Joe Sheridan, inventor of the international export ‘Irish Coffee’. Sheridan was born in Castlederg but eventually made his way to Dublin. As a chef, he catered for passengers of the early trans-Atlantic flights who were invariably jet-lagged and weary from their long and sometimes traumatic flights. Sheridan’s brainwave to make a comforting but stimulating coffee drink with a kick of Irish whiskey permeated the jet-set and beyond to become a national and international favourite.
 
But in the 15th century, six hundred years before the jet set sipped that alternative black stuff, Castlederg first appeared in written history in the Annals of the Four Masters, which gave note of its Castle – with a thatched roof. The reason for the town’s inclusion in the Annals was its capture by Hugh O’Neill. However, thirty years later the castle was taken from him by Hugh O’Donnell, a chieftain from neighbouring Donegal, and for the next century the two warring families fought many gory battles over ownership.
 
In early 17th century England, James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth, much to the eventual misery of the people of the Derg. The new king decided to send droves of his own countrymen to Ulster to set up home and protect his interests from the natives, whilst paying him cheap rent. Thus the Plantation of Ulster was brought into being, directed by Sir John Davies. The English lawyer acquired much land in the Derg Valley including the decaying Castle, which he proceeded to rebuild. He also built the first bridge, which was replaced only relatively recently in 1835.
 
In 1641, Phelim O’Neill attempted to drive out the many strangers John Davies had ‘invited’ but only succeeded in damaging the castle. As the Plantation continued many families of Scottish Presbyterians moved to the lower, more inhabitable parts of the Derg Valley and the natives were driven to the more desolate land around the Corgaries. This land can still feel very isolated and eerie, especially at night when the remaining inhabitants’ ancestors are said to walk the lonely, black roads.
 
However, if you venture onto any of the numerous country roads leading out of Castlederg you will get the feeling that you’re not alone. Castlederg’s history extends thousands of years past the Plantation and the O’Neills and O’Donnells. The many pre-Christian standing stones bear witness to this. Not to mention the two megalithic tombs; Todd’s Den and Druid’s Altar, the latter bearing an ogam inscription. The landscape that cradles all these precious souvenirs from past settlers is perhaps the most inspiring vision. 

What strikes you as a visitor is how green Castlederg is. Even if you stand in the bustling town centre you can see the Muckle Hill Bobby Burke talks about. And as you travel out of town, you can feel timeless, without a clue to which era you are in. You can peer into wells, find hidden shrines, see a giant’s handprint – or a ghost or two. There aren’t many places so rich in history and still so rugged and untouched by tourist trappings.

 
It has been said that storytellers serve their apprenticeships in Tyrone and I heard an old story when I was back home. The Derg River is known throughout Ireland for its superb salmon fishing. But be warned about the Castle Hole, a reputed vortex where, if it takes you, you will never see light again. 
 
Legend has it that a tunnel was built from the castle under the river to provide quick escape if under siege. One night a piper in high spirits is said to have defied his party and passed down into the tunnel. He played his pipes in order to be tracked if needs be. But the music quickly disappeared, along with the piper. It is believed from that day to this that the tunnel caved in on the piper, and this is what we now call the Castle Hole. 

Many of the townspeople have heard mysterious piping around the castle. Blow-ins to the town have dismissed the existence of Castle Hole but none, so far, have offered to prove it untrue. I found out so much about my hometown just from being a visitor instead of a native. Seeing it through the eyes of the Druids, the Saints and the Chieftains has opened my own.

 
Jacinta Owens
 
 
There is much, much more to learn about Castlederg. Please visit Castlederg Visitors’ Centre to discover the many walking and touring routes around Castlederg and the surrounding areas.   Also learn about the Castlederg-Victoria Bridge Tramway and Robert Ferguson, benefactor to the town.
Castlederg Visitors Centre    Tel: 028 8167 0794   Email: cvc@sdc.com
Opening Hours: April – Oct Tues-Fri 11am-4pm, Saturday 11.30am-4pm, Sunday 2-5pm

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