Religious Beliefs

Pin tree at Ardboe
The Pin Tree at Ardboe graveyard was a ‘holy’ place where people would hammer a pin (later a coin) into its trunk in the hope that their bad luck or illness would be transferred into the pin. The origins of this tradition would appear to be quiet old and it may even be pre-Christian. Unfortunately the tree was blown down during a storm on Christmas Eve 1997 much to the dismay of the local people. A new tree was planted by the Muntirevlin Historical Society in the following spring as a replacement for the old tree which was cut up into sections for preservation and distributed amongst those who had organised the replanting. The Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra expressed an interest in retaining a section, whilst another is kept at Coyle’s Cottage. The new Pin Tree was planted in the old graveyard on the 21st March 1998 and thus the tradition continues.

Holy well at Cranfield
Cranfield Church is situated on the northern shore of the Lough. The church which is now is a ruin probably dates to the 13th century but stands on the site of an earlier church. St. Olcan, a contemporary of St. Patrick, is reputed to be buried here in soil brought over from Rome. A well dedicated to St. Olcan is located to the northeast of the old church and is renowned for its healing properties.  Until 1828 hundreds of pilgrims would visit the site on three consecutive days between the Eve of May and the 29th June and perform the Stations of the Cross. The custom began at the door of the church where the pilgrim would bless themselves then circle the church seven times, dropping a pebble at the door on each circuit; this would be repeated at the well after which they would bathe in the water. The custom was deemed to be too ‘pagan’ by the Church and banned in 1828. Within the well are gypsum crystals, known locally as ‘amber pebbles’, which were also thought to have healing properties. It was believed that they protected women in childbirth; fishermen from drowning; and homes from fire and burglary. Emigrants leaving for America in the 19th century thought that swallowing pebbles would provide them with a safe passage across the Atlantic Ocean. It was widely held that the well would overflow on the 29th June and the amber pebbles would rise to the surface on that day Despite the best efforts of the Church, the healing tradition of the well has carried on to present times but in a more modest form. Afflicted areas of the body are bathed with a rag dipped in the well, followed by prayers and finally the rag is tied to one of the trees the belief being that as the rag disintegrated so the affliction will disappear. Today the trees are full of ribbons, pieces of string, and strips of material showing that some traditions never die. (Image: Rags tied onto trees at Cranfield Well)
Washingbay and the Holy River
The healing powers of the Lough were renowned from at least the 17thcentury if not before. A letter dating February 12, 1712 from Francis Nevil, Esquire to the Lord Bishop of Clogher regarding this matter is mentioned in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Tyrone (Vol. 20). In the letter Nevil mentions ‘Fishingbay’ where during the reign of Charles II a Mr Cunningham who lived in the area had a son afflicted with the “evil to that degree, that it ran upon him in 8 or 10 places… and his body was so wasted that he could not walk” (this probably refers to some wasting disease). When no remedy was found the son was brought to the lough shore “where he was washed and bathed, and in 8 day’s time, bathing each day, all the sores were dried up and he became cured and grew very healthy, married, begot children and lived 9 or 10 years after.” Nevil went on to remark that ‘Fishingbay’ was also known as Washingbay and that many people came on Midsummer Eve to bath in the Lough along with sick cattle and believed they received some form cure.
The Ordnance Survey Memoirs further note that two fairs were held in Washingbay on the Sunday before and after Midsummer, the latter Sunday known as ‘Big Sunday’. The fairs coincided with St. John’s Festival during which time people bathed in the Holy River, a “small rivulet that falls into the bay, which they fancy has some good effect, and many are cures ascribed to these ablutions, which would most probably be as efficacious if made at any other part of the shores of the lough”. Unfortunately more dancing and drinking took place during the fairs than healing, as lamented by the Memoirs.
The Holy River is noted on a map by Taylor and Skinner dated1788 showing Stewartstown and the adjacent areas. Here is depicted the “Holy River Spa”, a pool on the river close to where it enters the Lough. This would appear to corroborate its status as a place of healing. There is a tradition that the river was blessed by St. Bridget, who stopped here on her way to Ardboe from Kildare (see Artrea below). This is recorded in the Ordnance Survey Revised Name Book of 1858, which also make reference to the Stations of the Cross being carried out here (McKay and Muir, Lough Neagh Places).
The tradition of bathing in the Holy River continued until into the 20thcentury and people would come from as far away as Galway and Mayo. According to recent memoirs the waters of the Holy River rose at midnight on St. John’s Eve, 23rd June, and during this time sick people would wash in the river with red flannel rags which would then be tied to the trees along the bank. As with Cranfield, as the rags disintegrated so the disease disappeared. Although the tradition was stopped in the 1930’s (see St. John’s Bonfires below), people still come to be cured and rags can be seen at the Holy River Bridge in late June. (Thanks to Jack Corr for this information)
Eglish Graveyard, Drummenagh Townland
There is an old graveyard in Drummenagh townland (southwest of Toome) containing “St Patricks Stone” that during the 19th century was known locally for its curative powers. The stone is described O.S. Memoirs for the parish as being “4feet 3inches long, 3feet broad and 1 foot 4inches in thickness” with a circular “font…7 and a half inches in diameter and 4 feet in depth”. This may be a balluan stone: these are stones with perhaps one or more circular depressions in which corn was ground with the aid of a pestle. Such stones are often found at early ecclesiastical sites.  According to tradition after praying, the afflicted would bathe in the water contained within the ‘font’ and that in some cases the water would be brought to those
unable to travel to the graveyard.
The Reverend James Mackle
The O.S. Memoirs remark upon the remarkable healing powers of the Reverend James Mackle who was parish priest of Ardtrea for over 40 years and who reportedly cured those afflicted with infirmity or disease. Upon his death, his grave was visited by hundreds from as far away as Donegal, all seeking cures for “pains, ulcers, headaches, paralysis and insanity”. The Memoirs note that the soil from his grave was mixed with water and drunk in the belief that it would cure, so much so that by the 1830’s very little soil remained to cover his coffin.
Artrea Parish Church
St. Bridget is reputed to have stopped at Artrea parish church, where a stone known as “St Bridget’s Stone” is supposed to contain an imprint of her knees. It was visited by many in the belief that the water which collected there would remove warts.
The lighting of bonfires on St. John’s Eve, 23rd June
The O.S. memoirs recorded that the tradition of lighting bonfires on the eve of St. John’s feast day had been common practice on all shores of the Lough but by the 1830’s was dying out. This festival probably has it roots in pre-Christian tradition being so close to the pagan festival of Midsummer’s Eve. In the Washingbay area, McAvoy’s Hill which overlooks the Holy River became a pilgrimage site where the bonfires would be lit and mass said. It is reported that during the festival masses of pilgrims would camp out on the hill and this is attested by the sheer umber of coins, medals and rosary beads which have been recovered from the topsoil there.  The tradition of lighting bonfire continued into the thirties but was stopped by the local priests due to the unruly behaviour of the young men in the district who caused havoc for the pilgrims. It was recently revived at the Washingbay Centre by local community association Muintir na Mointeach. (Source Jim Canning, The Way It Used To Be)

Big Lough Sunday, Maghery
Big Lough Sunday was the name given to the first Sunday in July and was a general holiday in Maghery remembering an earlier custom. The area suffered a series of plagues between November AD1012 and May AD1013 after which time people bathed in the enchanted waters of Lough Neagh to purify them. It is unknown when this festival ceased to be held. About 1890 step-dancing contests were held on Coney Island (Recorded in Ulster Folklife Vol. 8, 1962). The Big Lough Sunday still survives to this day and is organised and promoted by the South Lough Neagh Regeneration Association.