Ballyronan and its Port
A place of great historical importance
Ballyronan village, a small sleepy hollow, lies sheltered by the majestic Sperrins to the west and the contours of its historical past embrace the virginal shoreline of Lough Neagh. The surrounding area is designated as an area of special scientific interest.
Some twenty thousand years ago giant red deer, mammoth, brown bear, reindeer, hyena and wolves once roamed these shores. The deer and elephants became extinct and fossils have been found to indicate their presence in the South Derry area. Layers of peat have revealed other species.
During the middle stone age period (about 9,000 years ago) a mesolithic community of fishermen and hunters lived on a site known as Madden’s and pits between Toomebridge and Ballyronan. It is believed this was the second oldest site of human settlement in Ireland.
Those settlers are believed to have originated in North West Europe and Scandinavia. They ate salmon, trout, eels and pollen, according to excavations which uncovered charred bones of fish.
They would have used wooden harpoons, primitive traps and nets of wickerwork and animal hair. Rising sea levels and wetter climate from about 5,000BC caused the mesolithic tribes to move inland. The land along Lough Neagh became bogland.
In the Neolithic or bronze age, around 500BC, the shores of Lough Neagh from Derrygarve were extensively settled. The people had the ability to produce copper weapons, implements, and gold ornaments. They even traded with Europe, no doubt through the ports of Toome and Ballyronan.
During the Elizabethan period, the area was protected by the O’Neill’s of Antrim. In 1597, Antrim Castle was captured by Sir Henry Sydney and the area became a base for naval attacks against the western shores of the Lough by Sir Arthur Chichester. It is believed boats mounted with cannon operated on the Lough during this warfare. Hugh O’Neill finally surrendered in 1603.
Ballyronan became part of an industrial complex centre in the lower Moyola valley, based on the woodlands of the area. This ensured wood and charcoal for the iron working, which was a major activity, and bark for tanning. In 1767 Ballyronan had a plating mill where iron shovels, spades, pot lids, coal boxes and dripping pans were made. Maxwell and Thompsons of Ballyronan also made bleachers soap and traded in oatmeal.
The Gaussens, who were refugee Huguenots from Languedoc, in the South of France had settled in Newry when they fled to Ireland in the 17th century. David Gaussen’s son, David II, purchased land across the Lough at Ballyronan and his son, David III, came to live in the village in 1788/9.
At this time the village had a stone pier. The Gaussens built a quay and began to build up their business interests. These were grocery, spirits, timber, iron, coal and grain stores which supplied the shopkeepers in neighbouring towns. The grain was shipped to Belfast and it was also used locally for the manufacture of beer and whiskey.
In 1842 William Dargan, the engineer, commissioned an iron paddle steamer, The Countess of Caledon, to operate on Lough Neagh. Around this time also David Gaussen, commissioned another steamer, The Lady of the Lake, that operated from Ballyronan Port, giving passenger’s access to Belfast and Dublin.
Local people also used the steamer to go to fairs in Co Armagh. The captain of the boat used a lookout man on the roof of Lurgan Church to signal the number of passengers on board who would be requiring conveyances to the fair. This part of the historical past of Ballyronan Port is steeped in poignant memories, as it was from here that Irish emigrants parted from their loved ones on the first leg of their journey to seek riches on the other side of the Atlantic.
It is worth recording here that a ticket for the ill-fated Titanic was sold in Ballyronan. It could be said that the alluring Lady of the Lake enchanted some of the dreamers along the Western Shores of the Lough to carry them to the promised distant utopia.
Ballyronan had always been a very busy trading port and provided the surrounding area with employment. However, with the demise of the canals and onset of railways, the port became obsolete until 1973 when the Department of Commerce for Northern Ireland, under the visionary John Hume, saw the potential for a marina at Ballyronan and the project was taken forward by Magherafelt and Cookstown District Councils. A fifty berth marina, with two slipways, was built.
The marina was further enhanced through the refurbishment of the main deck and addition of electricity, water and safety equipment by Cookstown District Council. This coincided the with building of a new centre of excellence by Traad and Ballyronan/Ballinderry Development Association.