A fascinating history to discover

Lough Neagh Journey

People have lived and worked around the shores of Lough Neagh since pre historic times and the Lough has array of ancient sites, artefacts and ruins which are a testimony to this rich and diverse heritage. Lough Neagh and its people have had a significant impact on the economic social and cultural heritage of Ireland both North and South. This is a story that has not really been told and this section of the website together with the website as a whole will attempt to tell this lost story of the Lough


The formation of Lough Neagh

Lough Neagh has a number of myths and legends associated creation. The most well known relates to Finn McCool who when chasing a Scottish rival from Irelands shores lifted a huge lump of soil and rock and hurled it at his retreating foe. The mass of soil was thrown so hard that it landed in the middle of the Irish Sea thus forming the Isle of Man while the gaping hole left behind soon filled with water and thus Lough Neagh was formed. Other legends relate to a magic well being left open which overflowed and flooded the area now known as Lough Neagh.

Scientists today have however provided a more scientific explanation for the formation of the Lough, namely that it was formed as a result of major tectonic fault and depression over 400 million years ago in the Caledonian period. This was followed by intense volcanic activity in the areas around the Lough almost 65 million years. The Pleistocene period of over 1.8 million years ago then saw the arrival of a major ice age with huge ice sheets covering the Lough and most of Ireland. The eventual retreat of these ice sheets witnessed 10,000 years ago created the opportunity for the first arrival of man to Ireland and the shores of the Lough.


The arrival of Man

The eventual retreat of these ice sheets witnessed 10,000 years ago created the opportunity for the first arrival of man to Ireland and the shores of the Lough. The people of Mesolithic times were hunters and gatherers. They survived by hunting animals and birds, catching fish and gathering wild berries, nuts and fruit. They were often on the move to make sure they had enough to eat. They used flint, bones and wood to make their tools and weapons. At first they used tiny pieces of flint called microlithsbut gradually they learned to make larger, stronger flint tools. It is believed the Mesolithic settlers lived in small groups building small settlements in key areas, near sources for food and flint to make tools. One of the most famous Mesolithic Settlement in Ireland is Mount Sandel, which is situated in Coleraine, County Derry. It is known to be the oldest human settlement in Ireland. Evidence that the archaeologists gathered from the site, dates back to 7600-7900 BC and during the excavation circular huts, rubbish, flint working areas and storage pits were found. Other sites around the shores of the Lough have been found including a major Mesolithic site at Toome were the Lough and the river Bann meet and on Coney Island in the south eastern shores of the Lough. The huge abundance of fish and eels from the Lough were obviously a large factor in early people settling in this area. Image: Flints recovered from Toome By-pass excavation. Image copyright: NAC Ltd.


The first Farmers

At around 4000 BC archaeologists have identified that forests around the shores of the Lough were being cleared.They cut down trees using axes made from a very hard rock called porcellanite.Axes such as these have been found in sites at Toome, the Creagh and Shanes Castle. When the land was cleared of trees, walls and fences were built, dividing the landscapeinto fields. Crops like wheat and barley were grown and the grain stored in pots. Instead of hunting for meat, animals were domesticated. Pottery was also very important to the first farmers as having learnt to make clay pots they were able to store and carry food and water in pots. Remains of Neolithic pottery have been found at Newferry and Langford Lodge.


The first metal workers

Between 2500 and 2000 BC people around the shores of the Lough began to learn how to work with metal. Copper and gold were firstly but around 2000BC bronze began to be used. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin and is much stronger than the metals that had been used in Ireland before. Although stone was still used for many hundreds of years, the Neolithiccame to an end as Lough Neagh entered the Bronze Age.   Bronze Age artefacts found from the Lough Neagh area include a riveted spearhead from Derrymacash townland, a bronze socketed axe head from the river Blackwater and a bronze sword from Maghery.


At around 500 BC the use of iron became more prevalent and the period of 300 BC to 400 AD became known as the Iron Age. The period up to the arrival of Christianity is quite enigmatic as there is a scarcity of settlement and artefacts. However, artefacts such as an iron axe head, and spear heads have been recovered from the Blackwater River.


The arrival of Christianity

Christianity arrived in Ireland in the beginning of the fifth century and its impact on Lough Neagh was significant. The arrival of Christianity witnessed the building of ring forts or raths which can still be seen around the shores of the Lough. Indeed the north corner of the Lough in the wider Antrim area has high concentrations of raths and ring forts. A ring fort was a small settlement surrounded by one or more earthen embankments in a roughly circular shape. These were probably farmsteads for which the embankments (probably supplemented by wooden palisades) served as enclosures for domestic animals and protection against wild predators.

The monastic movement, also took hold in the mid 6th century, and has left a large imprint on the shores of the Lough with monastic settlements at Antrim, Ardboe and Rams Island.  The well-preserved Round Tower in Antrimis the only remaining monument of the monastery founded by St Comgall of Bangor in the 6th century. The Tower stands to a height of 92 feet, and has a ringed cross carved in relief on a stone above the lintel of the doorway on the north-eastern portion of the tower.  Ardboe High Cross, on the western shores of the Lough is all that now remains of a sixth century monastery, which was established at Arboe by St. Colman Muchaidhe.  The monastery itself was burned in 1166. Rams Island also has the remains of a round tower build in the mid ninth century but part of an earlier monastery. Image: Location of early monastery at Ardboe. Image cpoyright: NIEA.


The Vikings are coming

The Viking era in Ireland is commonly divided into two periods: An early era beginning in 795 AD and ending by the mid 9th century with raids on the island and coastal monasteries. The 2nd period beginning around 914 AD and ending around the middle of the 10th century

Monastic sites such as those at Ardboe and Antrim provided important economic and political focal points to the Vikings for provisions, precious goods, livestock, and captives and the Annals of Ulster record the effect of Viking raids on Bangor, Armagh and the churches on Lough Erne. In 839, the Vikings reached Lough Neagh, wintering in 1840/41 and used this as a base to plunder churches in the north of Ireland. The Lough and its associated rivers acted as an easy way to navigate into the heart of the Irish country and this facility was to be used in later years in the agricultural and industrial development of Ireland. However despite knowing they wintered on the Lough no sites within the Lough area have been identified as being of Viking type.


Medieval Lough Neagh

The medieval period (1150- 1550) saw further invasion with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans. The physical remains of these new people can again be seen around the shores of the Lough through the initial Motte and Bailey structures at Antrim, Balloo and Coney Island. The later period also saw the building of new abbeys and friaries such as the remains of a friary in Masserene, Antrim Town.


The Nine Years War and the Plantation of Ulster

Lough Neagh and its river systems was the strategic focus for the Nine Years War (1594 and 1603) between the existing Irish clans and the English Elizabethan forces. Irish chieftains Hugh O Neil of Tir Eoghan and Hugh O Donnell of Tir Chonail underwent a protracted War with battles along the Blackwater River with English Commanders such as Henry Bagenal and Robert Deveraux, the 2nd Earl of Essex. The replacement of the second Earl of Essex by Lord Mountjoy witnessed the expansion of the War and the focus on the shores of Lough Neagh. The Lough was seen as a way of penetrating into the heart of Tyrone and Arthur Chichester organised constant war parties onto the western shores using a policy of slash and burn. To counteract this O’Neill built forts along the western shore at Toome, opposite the English fort which was located along the now eastern bank of the Toome Canal, and at the church sites of Ballinderry, Arboe and Clanoe. A major bridgehead and fort was established in the south eastern shores of the Lough and the remains of Mountjoy Castle can still be seen today. The defeat of the Irish forces at Kinsale and the flight of the main Irish Chieftains to mainland Europe in 1604 (The Flight of the Earls) saw the beginning of the plantation of Ulster. The strategic importance of the Lough again also bears witness to this early plantation with fortified English and Scottish defensive Bawns and towns being built at Bellaghy and Salterstown. Top image: Hugh O’Neill. Bottom image: Sir Arthur Chichester. Images from Wikipedia


Lough Neagh as a transport hub

The 19th century saw the building of three canals, making use of the lough to link to the growing ports and cities of Ireland. The three main canals included  the  Lagan linking  to Belfast, the Newry Canal linking Newry and Dublin by sea and the Ulster Canal connecting to the Lough Erne navigations, and then the River Shannon to LimerickDublin and Waterford. The Lower Bann was also made navigable to Coleraine and the Antrim coast. The finding of coal reserves on the south west shores of the Lough also facilitated the development of the Coalisland Canal for coal transportation. This period saw the Lough at its economic peak acting almost as the motorway of today, facilitating the easy transport of large amount of goods such as coal, timber, linen and agricultural produce from the heart of Ulster to the ports of Ireland for export.


Lough Neagh and World War II

Lough Neagh acted as a landing base for aircraft during World War II and was also used as a training area and practice range for fighter and bomber aircraft. The remains of a torpedo testing station are still standing off the shores of Antrim. Many airfields were also built around the shores of the Lough using its flat topography the main one being built at Langford Lodge. Sandy Bay was also used by the American Air force as a landing base for their flying boats. A total of 12 Flying Boat moorings were built together with a number of Marine Craft moorings for attendant vessel’s and refuelling. A prisoner of war camps were also built around at Creagh. In all there were seven military airfields closely surrounding Lough Neagh during the war: Aldergrove, Nutts Corner est1941, Langford Lodge 1941; Clontoe 1941, Toomebridge 1942 and the military airfields of Maghaberry and Longkesh in the Moira and Lisburn districts, which also used the target ranges on Lough Neagh. The Ulster Aviation Heritage Centre previously located on Langford Lodge airfield still includes a collection of aircraft from this period. It is presently moving to new premises. Image: Map showing location of WWII airfields surrounding Lough Neagh. Image copyright: Crown Copyright


Lough Neagh Today

Lough Neagh is still a working Lough with eel fishing and sand extraction businesses. It has seen many recent changes with the regeneration of its main marinas and the creation of canoe and cycle trails around its shores becoming an important tourism destination. It has been linked to many of the major events associated with the history of Ulster and Ireland and has witnessed many important historic  changes   Why not take your own journey to its magical shores and find out more about its rich and diverse history and heritage.