Ian Hill's Lagan Love

Travel writer Ian Hill discusses his new book, My Lagan Love, and the illustrious relatives he discovered along the banks of the famous river

‘It didn’t start in Belfast, as you might think. It started in Paris in 1966.’ It’s a bright, clear October lunchtime by the Lagan weir, the perfect spot for Ian Hill, travel writer and raconteur, to be disclosing the unusual origins of his new book, My Lagan Love.

My Lagan Love is the latest addition to Cottage Publications' illustrated book series – previous releases include By the Lough’s North Shore, Donegal Islands and Strangford’s Shores – and charts the story of the Lagan from source at Slieve Croob to entering the sea at Belfast Lough. The text, provided by Hill - who has already had a book on the Lecale area published by Cottage - is accompanied by vivid, colourful watercolours from the brush of Gillian Lutton.

It was in the city of lights, on his way to the last concert by the famous Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel, that Hill first noticed the Wallace fountains – built by Sir Richard Wallace following the 1801 Siege of Paris - and his interest in writing the story of the Lagan was born.

Wallace’s ubiquitous public drinking fountains remain in working use – Hill suggests ‘if you’re in Paris, say passing by the Pont Neuf, and you see one of these fountains you can get a cold glass of water'.

My Lagan Love might have started off as book about Richard Wallace, but it quickly grew into a much larger enterprise. ‘I wanted to investigate the other people, as well as Richard Wallace, who have grown up on the Lagan or near its source,’ Hill adds.

This informed and informative social history follows both the river itself and the great characters that once called it home, not to mention some intrepid personal detective work from the writer as he delves into his own family background.

The story begins in the small townland of Drumaroad, County Down. It was here, in 1691, that one Anthony McCartan, on the losing side at the Battle of the Boyne, fled Ulster for good. He eventually settled in France – fast forward more than two hundred and fifty years and his descendent General De Gaulle ascends to the premiership of Anthony’s adopted country!

And he’s not the only famous son of the Lagan’s source, as Hill explains. ‘Arthur Guinness was not christened Arthur Guinness, he was Arthur McCartan. When he got to Dublin he decided to change his name – maybe the McCartan’s had a bad name – so he took the name Guinness after a little clacken, a little cluster of houses, in the same parish.’

Although as a McCartan on his mother’s side Hill is proud to count De Gaulle and Arthur Guinness among his distant relatives the family history does not stop there. In My Lagan Love the writer also traces the other side of his family tree, discovering another noble relative in Anna Hill. 

A descendent of the founder of Hillsborough Moses Hill she lived further up the embankment from the Lagan weir at Annadales and was mother to Arthur Wellesley, who later became Duke of Wellington.

‘So, on my father’s side I am related very, very distantly to the Duke of Wellington!’ Hill chuckles.

‘However, you’ve got to put that into context,’ he continues. ‘If you go into any crowded bar with up to 30 people it in, and you go back six generations then scientists tell us that you’re all going to be related.’

Chock full of interesting stories and commentary, My Lagan Love is a great companion for anyone wanting to know about the social history of arguably our most famous river. Hill himself has one particular suggestion for any would be river wanderers.

‘Go to any town on the river and look up above street level,’ he suggests, ‘and you’ll see the Georgian architecture, the Victorian architecture above the modern shop fronts.

‘Then just find a nice pub, buy a copy of my book and read it in the pub.’

Which public house would Ian Hill recommend? He’s particularly fond of the Hertford Arms, where, over the door, the name of a certain R Wallace once took pride of place.

‘Go into the Hertford Arms and have a pint for Richard Wallace’, Hill advises. It may not be Les Deux Magots, but after reading My Lagan Love you’d be forgiven for thinking that the distance between Lisburn and Paris is not that great after all. 

My Lagan Love is available now, published by Cottage Publications. For more information or to purchase a copy of the book call 028 9188 8033 or click here.

Peter Geoghegan