A Visit to the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre

Lough Neagh is the largest lake in the British Isles

Lough Neagh is the largest lake in the British Isles, approximately 29km long and 18km wide. Six rivers flow into the lough, and one, the Bann, flows out.

According to placename expert Patrick McKay, the lake is probably named after Eochu, a Gaelic chieftain whose descendants, the Uí Eachach, lived in the area.

An excellent starting point for exploring the lake is the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, at Oxford Island, in the southeastern corner. The name ‘Oxford Island’ is misleading, as Jim Bradley, the centre’s head of conservation, explains:

‘It is not an island and it has nothing to do with Oxford! It was an island till 100 years ago, since when the lake has dropped ten feet. The name probably comes from Hawksworth’s Island, after Captain Robert Hawksworth, who was a tenant here in the seventeenth century.’

Oxford Island is owned and managed by Craigavon Borough Council. The visitor centre provides information about the lough, and has a cafe looking out over the lake. The centre runs many events, from pond dipping and nature walks, to bird box building and willow weaving.

Birds and eels

Oxford Island is recognised as a wetland of international importance, mainly because of the vast numbers of wintering wildfowl it attracts. There are four miles of walks through different kinds of habitat, and five loughside hides.

The Kinnego Hide is a spacious wooden chalet with big windows and folding chairs. From here, you can watch pochard from Estonia and tufted duck from Iceland paddling among the reeds, and in May you can admire great crested grebes performing their strange courtship dance on the water.

Whooper swans from Iceland are among the many winter visitors. Jim Bradley explains:

‘The chicks hatch in Iceland in May and fly in October. They fly as a family group at up to 30,000ft [9.14km], which is very cold, to catch the jet stream. It takes them 17 or 18 hours to reach Lough Foyle. They feed there for a day, then come on to Lough Neagh.’

The lough has an important eel-fishing industry. ‘£10m worth of eels are caught each year and shipped to Germany and the Netherlands,’ says Bradley. Silver eels are caught in nets at Toome on their way to the Sargasso Sea. The nets stretch across four-fifths of the river, allowing one fifth of the eels to escape.

Brown eels are caught by fishermen working on motorboats on the lake. There are about 200 fishermen, working part-time. They are licensed, and their co-operative at Toome strictly controls the size and number of eels they catch.

To explore the waters of the lough, you can take a boat trip from nearby Kinnego Marina. At summer weekends, there are also boat trips from Maghery Country Park to Coney Island, whose history goes back to early Christian times.

Further information
The Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, Craigavon, Co Armagh, can be contacted on +44(0) 28 3832 2205 or email oxford.island@craigavon.gov.uk.

Kinnego Marina Office can be contacted on +44(0) 28 3832 7573 or email kinnego.marina@craigavon.gov.uk

For information about boat trips to Coney Island, contact the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre.

Further Reading
A Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names (1999) by Patrick McKay.

Photograph by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis 2004.