Sand extraction is the largest industry working on Lough Neagh today, providing the raw material necessary for a range of products within the glass, tile and concrete industries. It is not known exactly how long man has been extraction sand from the Lough but a glass-works was established at Salterstown (western shore) in a patent leased to William Robson dated 1611. A considerable amount of goods were being exported to London from here by 1614 but in 1618 production had ceased possibly due to a problem with the patent rights. It is assumed that sand for the glass works was extracted from the nearby shore and it must be pointed out that the sand banks located offshore in this area are well known by the present sandmen for both the quantity and quality of the sand. (Image: Sand being unloaded at Toome Quay. )
The modern industry became popular at the turn of the 20th century when cement became an important building material and locally based companies such as Scotts, Emersons, Turkingtons, Irwins and Walls were established in the following decades. The industry expanded exponentially after WWII, to the point that by the 1950’s there were not enough barges in use to meet demands. For this purpose a fleet of decommissioned Guinness barges were purchased by Scotts, Emersons and others in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and refitted for sand extraction; these were the Castleknock, the Killiney, the Boyne, the Chapelizod, theClonsilla, the Foyle and the Lagan. Other barges converted to sand extraction were the dumb barges formerly owned by John Kelly and used on the River Lagan to transport imported coal to the Belfast Gasworks. Barges were also manufactured by the Portadown Foundry. Unfortunately the majority of these barges were sunk when decommissioned, with some, such as the Lagan at Sandy Bay and the Boyne at Toome, forming new quays for the sandmen. However two barges the Enterprize and JK 16, now calledSandmartin, have been recovered from the Lough to be used as interpretation centres. The Sandmartin has recently been repaired and refitted by the Rams Island Heritage Group and is now stationed on the island. The second barge, the Enterprize is currently under repair by Craigavon Borough Council and was moved in February 2010 to its new location beside Waterside House, Oxford Island.(Top image: Guinness barge “Vartry” sunk off Creagh townland. Bottom image: The “Enterprise” being placed outside Waterfoot House)
Sand quays were built at the Creagh outside Toomebridge (northern shore), Ballyginniff and Sandy Bay (eastern shore), and Derryadd (southern shore) and here the sand was processed prior to sale. These sites are still in use. At present there are six sand companies working the Lough: Emersons, Scotts, Mulhollands, RMC, Lagan and Walls, and the barges they employ are largely imported from the Netherlands. All apart for Scotts; they employ a fleet of six purposely built barges. These were built between 1968 and 1974 and are Bannamax i.e. the maximum size that can transverse the Lower Bann. Initially there were eight barges but sadly two were sunk during the troubles with the loss of three lives. The sand industry has been important to the Lough Neagh area providing employment both directly and indirectly but has been hit hard by the recent economic downturn. It is hoped that the industry will survive and flourish once again.