We are quite fortunate that the myths regarding the formation of Lough Neagh were preserved not only in the writings of Early Medieval monks but also through the oral tradition of storytelling passed on from generation to generation. The theme of two of the main myths associated with the origins of Lough Neagh refers to an overflowing well which floods the land. This theme is a common origin story/legend for many lakes in Ireland and may be a folk memory recording devastation caused by seasonal flooding. This is particularly striking for Lough Neagh which is fed by seven main rivers but has only one outlet to the sea which proved a bottleneck in times of heavy rain, causing the level of the lough to rise. Low lying areas would be rendered useless for many months of the year, the Creagh in the northwest of the Lough and most of the southern shore being areas most badly affected. This problem was only rectified in the recent past by a succession of lowering of the lough through the use of weirs and locks beginning in 1850 and completed in 1950.
According to Pat McKay and Kay Muhr in their book Placenames of Lough Neagh, the Irish Loch nEachach, ‘Eochu’s lough’ refers to the personal name Eochu, which means ‘horseman’. It is possible that Eochu was a mythological ancestor of the Uí Eachach Cobo, a tribe whose territory spread from the southeast of Lough Neagh to the Mourne Mountains and who appear to have migrated from Munster in the early part of the first millennium AD. Equally he may have been the mythological ancestor of a different tribe with a similar name, the Uí Echach or Tuath Echach who held land from northwest of Armagh to the River Blackwater, which flows into the southwest corner of the Lough. Either way it would appear that he was someone of importance as his name has survived despite attempts by the Crown to change the name of the lough to Lough Sydney and Lough Chichester during the Plantation period.
Below are the three most popular versions of the origin myth for Lough Neagh.
In the first story we are told about the demise of Eochu Mac Mairid, the son of a Munster king named Mairid, who fell in love with his stepmother, Eibhliu. Fleeing the wrath of his father, Eochu and Eibhliu headed north, along with his brother Riabh and a retinue of supporters. They made camp at Newgrange on the River Boyne and there they met Aengus, one of the pre-Christian gods. Aengus was offended by Eochu and Eibhliu’s behaviour and killed their pack horses, but lent them a horse on condition that when they next stopped the horse would be sent straight back to him. When they decided they were far enough away from Mairid, they stopped to settle in an area known as Liathmuine but forgot to send the horse back to Aengus. The horse urinated on the ground forming a magic well which Eochu and his retinue kept covered with a capstone to prevent it overflowing. One night by mistake the capstone was not replaced and the well overflowed, flooding the whole of Liathmuine and drowning Eochu, Eibhliu, their retinue and the entire settlement. Thus Lough Neagh was formed.
Eochu’s daughter Airiu, along with his prophet and dog were also drowned but unlike Eochu they were buried in cairns on the shores of Lough Neagh. Another daughter named Lí Ban was saved by becoming a mermaid whilst her dog became an otter. This part of the story was later Christianised and in this version Lí Ban was turned into a mermaid after praying to God. She swam up the Bann and then out onto the coast where she stayed for 300 years, until her singing was heard by Beoán, a monk from a church called Tech da Beóc. Lí Ban spoke to Beoán and said she would return in a year to the banks of the River Ollarba where St Comgall of Bangor was to meet her. However the next year Lí Ban was caught in a net by a monk named Fergus of Mulleague, a church on the River Crumlin, now unlocated. An argument then ensued between Fergus, St. Comgall and Beoán as to who owned Lí Ban. They were placated by an angel who told them that two stags would come from the cairn of Airiu (Lí Ban sister) and bring Lí Ban to the place ordained by God which turned out to be Beoán’s church. It was here that she was baptised and subsequently died. (Image: Carving of Lí Ban, Rams Island. Click here to enlarge image)
Another story of the Lough again refers to the overflowing of a well. In this version the well overflows after it is left open by a woman who was fetching water but ran to comfort her son and forgot to replace the capstone. The well overflowed, covering the land and drowning both the women and her child.
A third story recounts how the famous warrior Finn MacCool (Fionn Mac Cumhaill) caused the creation of Lough Neagh. Legend has it that Finn was chasing a Scottish giant across Ulster when he picked up a large piece of ground and hurled it at the giant. It overshot and fell into the Irish Sea forming the Isle of Man while the massive crater left behind became infilled with water and formed Lough Neagh.