By the Shores of Lough Neagh

Brian Cassells introduces his new book that takes a trip along the beautiful, magical waters of Lough Neagh

Where would you ever start a journey around such a vast lake often described as ‘Ulster’s Inland Sea’? Well for me that is obvious, start at home in Derryadd, a townland in the Montiaghs outside Lurgan in the South Lough Neagh wetlands, the place where I was born.

Home for me was a bungalow on a low hill overlooking Derryadd Bay, a modest home with a gigantic view. Much of the low lying wetland around Lough Neagh is now constituted as a Ramsar site, a wetland area of international importance. The South Lough Neagh Wetlands are a triangular area on the Southern shores of the lough, bounded on one side by the shoreline, on another by the Upper Bann River and by drawing a line from the town of Lurgan across to its neighbouring town, Portadown.

The view from our front door was spectacular, well that’s what our visitors said, I guess we never really noticed it and certainly didn’t appreciate it. We were within a stone’s throw of the water’s edge and on the horizon was a long low island, Croaghan, giving shelter to the bay. I say ‘horizon’ advisedly, for such a vast area of water has indeed a horizon.

The lough is roughly thirty kilometres long and approximately twelve kilometres wide; for its size, it is relatively shallow – for most of its area, depths are no more than ten metres with the deepest part in the north east corner registering some thirty metres.

Much of the shoreline is not easily accessible by road and the entire lough deserves respect from any would be navigator. There are some six major inflowing rivers, the Blackwater and the Upper Bann on the southern end, the Ballinderry and the Moyola in the west, the Maine and the Six Mile Water to the north. Six make one, for the Lower Bann is the only out-flowing river.

Anyone who visits the lough shore in May and early June cannot help but be affected by the Chironomid Midge, commonly known as the Lough Neagh fly. Those who live near the shore know never to open the windows and definitely never of an evening when the electric light is switched on. Despite their annoyance, they don’t bite, but boy oh boy, they swarm!

On a summer’s evening there are huge black clouds of them and the humming sound is very noticeable. Allegedly they only live one or two days, spending their adult life mating and laying eggs for the cycle to begin again. Along the water’s edge it is not uncommon to see huge amounts of these creatures, dead and decomposing in the water. Apparently they form an essential part of the food chain for wild life of the Neagh basin, but my memory of them is riding along on my bicycle when they got in my hair, up my nose and inside my shirt, oh well, at least they don’t bite!

In the canal era, Lough Neagh was the hub of the waterway network for the Newry, Coalisland and Lagan canals with the Upper and Lower Bann navigations delivering the barges to the Lough Neagh basin. Over the years the shape and shoreline of the lough have changed as a number of flood alleviation schemes have lowered the level by over two metres. Sadly today the waters are quite badly polluted; indeed its status is described as hypertrophic, meaning the water has a high phosphorous content.

Hopefully the future for water quality is brighter; the European Water Framework Directive should ensure man has greater respect for this unique natural resource. The waters of the lough have for centuries provided a source of food from what was once a plentiful supply of fish and in the last century has provided for a thriving sand extraction industry. As well as the main source of drinking water for the province its waters were utilised by agriculture and in the linen industry.

The name Neagh is reputedly derived from Eochu, meaning the lake of the horse god. Many will be familiar with the mythological story of how Finn McCool scooped out a piece of earth thus creating the Lough Neagh basin, then threw it into the Irish Sea, hence the Isle of Man was created! I confess to liking the tale of the lady who, distracted by the cry of her child, had left the lid off a magic well where she had been drawing water, the well over flowed and created Lough Neagh.

The geologists inform us that the lough was formed in tertiary times when the outpouring of basalt formed the Antrim Plateau. Earth movements accompanying these outpourings resulted in subsidence and the basin thus formed was filled with water. The water from the melting glaciers at the end of the last ice age some twenty thousand years ago meant the area of water then produced was much more extensive than the area of the present lake.

Archaeologists claim to have found evidence of habitation in the Lough Neagh basin from the Stone Age era, more recently some suggest evidence of Viking raiders entering from the Lower Bann and penetrating up the Southern rivers, perhaps even led by Thorkils, the Viking king who ruled much of Ireland from his Lough Neagh fleets.

Lough Neagh is the largest fresh water lake in all of the British Isles and the third largest in Europe behind Lake Geneva and Lake Constance. The shoreline touches five of the six counties of Northern Ireland, Fermanagh being the outsider!

Surprisingly it has only two large islands, Coney in the south and Ram’s Island off the eastern shoreline. Those who have for centuries fished and sailed the waters know only too well how treacherous the waters can become, the waves are sharp and quick; sadly over the years it has claimed the lives of too many who ventured on its waters.

Much of the land around the lough is low lying and the shoreline is often reedy and marshy. In wintertime rainfall levels are higher and this often results in flooding, as a result of which, down through the centuries, this flooding has created peat bogs though these are more prolific in the south and south-west. The north-eastern corner boasts deposits of diatomite previously used in the manufacture of pottery.
The lough is now recognised as one of the most important areas for migrating birds and areas like Oxford Island, Lough Beg and sites along the western shore are of international importance.

Manufacturing opportunities are largely concentrated along the northern, eastern and southern shores although this constitutes less than one quarter of job occupations; agriculture would be by far the largest employer in the Lough Neagh basin. The western shore is a much more isolated rural area with fewer job opportunities and in the nineteenth century experienced high levels of emigration.

In the book The Way That I Went by Robert Lloyd Praeger (published in 1937), Praeger talks of the ‘Water Guns’ of Lough Neagh, a strange booming noise accompanying a whirl wind, like a sort of modern twister, heard always in the daytime. When talking to older fishermen many admit to knowing of the phenomenon, though all seem to have heard this in the distance and strangely they hav

e all experienced this on calm days and never experienced any water disturbance.

John Wesley on one of his many trips to the area talked of the magical powers the waters possessed and how they The Great Crested Grebe could turn wood to stone, certainly even today examples of this petrified wood abound along the shoreline.

The following is the second verse of a poem by Thomas Moore, called Let Erin Remember, which to me aptly describes these beautiful, magical waters. 

On Lough Neagh’s banks as the fisherman strays
In the clear cold eve declining
He sees the round towers of other days
In the waters ‘neath him shining
Thus shall memory often in dreams sublime
Catch a glimpse of the days that are over
Thus sighing, look through the waves of time
For the long-faded glories they cover.

Written by Brian Cassells, By the Shores of Lough Neagh is available now published by Cottage Publications. For more information or to purchase a copy call 028 9188 8033 or click here.