Ulster’s Inland Sea

Alison Alderton visits Lough Neagh – the largest lake in the British Isles.


LINKED to the sea by the Lower Bann and bordered by five of Northern Ireland’s six counties, Lough Neagh is the largest lake in the British Isles. Covering more than 38,000 hectares and stretching for almost 30km in length, it is known as Ulster’s inland sea.
Once the hub of Northern Ireland’s inland waterways, timber, coal and livestock were among the goods transported via the Lagan Canal, the Ulster Canal, the Newry Canal and the Coalisland Canal. With the coming of the railways the routes connecting this great expanse of water to all corners of Ireland soon became abandoned, severing the lake from its inland arteries.
Despite this, Lough Neagh has remained a valuable resource, supplying Northern Ireland with 40% of its fresh water, providing numerous leisure activities, a habitat for many migrating wildfowl and supporting two main industries, sand extraction and 
eel fishing.
Records show Lough Neagh sand has been a valuable commodity for many years with books making references to early 17th century settlers using sand from the lake shore in house building. Now commercially extracted from the lake bed for the leisure and construction industries, it has been used in the mortar for the Parliament Buildings at Stormont and in the building of the Croke Park Stadium in Dublin.

Lough Neagh sand barges. PHOTO: ALBERT BRIDGE
Lough Neagh sand barges. PHOTO: ALBERT BRIDGE

Following the Second World War there was a high demand for sand but a lack of craft to transport it. This coincided with the Guinness brewery using more road transportation and work slackening off for their fleet of barges; as a result a number of them were taken to Lough Neagh and refitted for sand extraction purposes. To boost the fleet further several dumb barges originally used for coal transportation on the Lagan were also used. Today the sand industry fleet is made up of a diverse mixture of craft from all over Europe.
As well as commercial sand barges, fishing craft operate on the lough, which is well known for its eels with Toome, on the northern shore, boasting one of the world’s largest wild eel fisheries. The eels, which travel all the way from the Sargasso Sea, enter Lough Neagh from the River Bann and are caught in defined areas by long line, draft net or at the fixed weirs situated at the mouth of the lough on the Bann.
The fisheries produce around 400 tonnes of eels annually with the majority being exported to Germany and Holland for smoking and to London for jellied eel production.
Each summer, in celebration of the Lough Neagh Eel and in association with the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative, a unique event is held. Now in its third year, the River to Lough Festival features cookery demonstrations, a pop-up restaurant serving a traditional eel supper, cookery school, heritage exhibition, fishermen’s storytelling, traditional fishing boats, children’s activities and more, drawing in crowds from far and wide. Further details can be found at www.rivertolough.co.uk

Lookout post

A carpet of bluebells around the Coney Tower.
A carpet of bluebells around the Coney Tower.

While it currently remains difficult for the majority of boat owners to reach Lough Neagh there are plenty of other ways to enjoy this impressive lake. Small day boats are available for hire, sailing lessons can be booked with the long-established Lough Neagh Sailing Club and for paddlers there is the Lough Neagh Canoe Trail. Those looking for a more relaxing pastime can board the Maid of Antrim. One of the oldest passenger vessels operating on the waterways of Northern Ireland, she plies the waters in the summer months taking visitors on guided tours. Alternatively take the ferry to visit the lake’s two 
main islands.
Ram’s Island at a 1.6km long and covering some 16 hectares is the larger of the two. In 1804 it was purchased by the O’Neill family who transformed it into a playground for the aristocracy, landscaping the grounds into a paradise full of exotic trees. Coney Island is owned by the National Trust, within its thickly wooded grounds stands a 16th century stone tower once used by Shane O’Neill, the Irish king of Ulster, as a lookout post and hoard for his riches.
Today many organisations and individuals are working hard to try and re-establish the lost routes which culminate on the lake. If they are successful Lough Neagh will be set to become a hub once again, this time for the leisure industry. With recent planning permission for work on a section of the Ulster Canal going ahead this is now looking more feasible than ever before. If full restoration were granted the lost link between Ulster’s inland sea and Ireland’s main network of inland waterways would be re-established.