Northern Ireland

Lough Neagh: Tumultuous, tragic history, death, destruction, murder and centuries of controversy

Lough Neagh was snatched in the early 17th century, with English titled families claiming ownership of a large share of the body of water. John Breslin charts the tumultuous history of the lough, which is now at the centre of an ecological crisis.

Lough Neagh
Lough Neagh

It began with death and destruction, has been at the centre of controversy for centuries, and in recent years passed into the hands of a young English earl following a murder and a sudden death.

Lough Neagh, its history and claimed ownership, has been tumultuous and tragic from its very early days immediately before and after a take over by a Devon-based titled family.

An offer by the Earl of Shaftesbury to sell his family’s share of Lough Neagh provoked much discussion, including whether he had any right to profit from offloading what was effectively stolen.

Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, thrust into the role as head of the family following the murder of his father and sudden death of his brother, finds himself at the centre of the debate over the future of the north's troubled waters, the lough and the rivers. 

Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury
Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury

He is in the position ultimately because Sir Arthur Chichester decided to claim the lough along with a swathe of other lands stretching across the north east, including what is now Belfast and up to Carrickfergus.

The Gaelic chieftains of the area, including the O’Neills and the O’Donnells, had up that point largely left the lough unclaimed by any one clan or tribe. 

Some historians note Hugh O'Neill, who took flight in 1607, hardly needed more having amassed an eyewatering fortune reportedly greater even than the English Crown's, built off an army of serfs. 

Read more:

  • Lough Neagh: Earl of Shaftesbury still open to sale and calls for government body to take control of blighted body of water
  • Vast stretch of Lough Neagh cloaked in apparent toxic algae as locals insist it is the 'worst ever seen'

The lough's “ownership” from when Sir Arthur first brought death and plunder to its shores in 1601 has been a turbulent one, right up to the near present day and to how the then 26-year-old Mr Ashley-Cooper took over in 2005.

A New York-based DJ, he became the 12th Earl after his father Anthony was murdered by his estranged wife and her brother in the south of France. His older brother, also Anthony, died aged 27 of a reported heart attack just a month after their father's body was found in a ravine near Nice. 

Mr Ashley-Cooper, now 44, is, unsurprisingly reluctant to speak about the conviction of Jamila M’Barek for the murder of the 10th Earl.

The 10th Earl with his wife Jamila M'Barek
The 10th Earl with his wife Jamila M'Barek

M’Barek, in a previous life a high class escort, is less reluctant about talking. Now free after serving a reduced sentence, she has spoken to one newspaper and reportedly features in a new documentary. But more on that later.

The tortured tale of how the Shaftesbury family came to “own” the bed and much of the shores of the lough began with a deadly and destructive raid led by Sir Arthur.

English soldier and administrator, Sir Arthur Chichester.
English soldier and administrator, Sir Arthur Chichester.

In a despatch on the raid across the lough into east Tyrone in 1601, in his own words, he said: "We have burned and destroyed along the Lough even within four miles of Dungannon, where we killed man, woman, child, horse, beast and whatever we found.

“The last service from which we returned yesterday was upon Patrick O'Quin, one of the chief men of Tyrone, dwelling within four miles of Dungannon, fearing nothing, but we lighted upon him and killed him, his wife, sons and daughters, servants and followers being many, and burned all to the ground.” 

Over the following few years, Sir Arthur laid claim to the lough, first to the infrastructure, its boats and the shores, and then its entirety, including fishing rights. There is some dispute over whether he did so with the then King James’ approval.

Chichester certainly took advantage of the absence in 1603 of the leading Ulster chieftains, Hugh O’Neill and Owen Roe O’Donnell, both in the far south hoping to link with Spanish forces landing in Kinsale. That debacle ultimately led to the 1607 Flight of the Earls.

Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone
Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone

While Sir Arthur claimed the lough, the English Crown snatched it back for a time before it finally settled into the Chichester hands later in the 17th Century. 

The Chichester family remained closely linked to Ireland, particularly Belfast. The first Marquess of Donegall was created in the late 18th Century.

Less than 100 years later it passed into hands of Shaftesbury family through the marriage of the daughter of the 3rd Marquess of Donegal to the 8th Earl of Shaftesbury. Belfast Castle also passed into the family. The Dorset-based Shaftesbury family had no known prior connection to Ireland. 

But the lough, castle and other lands were under the control of 8th Earl - all were called Anthony until the present one -  for only a short time. Following a reported troubled life, he took his own life in London, in 1886, aged 54.

His son, a soldier and philanthropist, took over the tittle and was briefly Lord Mayor of Belfast in the early 20th century. During this period, a legal action was taken over fishing rights in Lough Neagh, a case that centered over whether the Chichester family had been legally entitled to claim and keep the lough all those centuries before.

The House of Lords ruled in favour of the Shaftesbury family. 

In 1934, the earl presented Belfast Castle to the city. He died aged 92 in 1961, with the title and the claim to the lough passing to his grandson Anthony, then aged 22.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 10th Earl, murdered by his estranged wife and her brother
Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 10th Earl, murdered by his estranged wife and her brother

This earl, who built a reputation in his later years for looseness with money, nightclubbing and partying in the south of France and London, would meet Jamila M'Barek. She was sent to him by an escort agency in 2002.They married but the relationship was short and turbulent, ending after he met another young woman, prompting the conspiracy to murder. He was killed in late 2004 on her orders by brother Mohammed, his body dumped and undiscovered for several months.Free and living in Switzerland, she still calls herself the Dowager Countess of Shaftesbury.

But she has no access to the Shaftesbury fortune, including any future proceeds from the sale of the family's share of Lough Neagh, should agreement be be reached on a price, at one time reported to be £6 million. 

Alternatively, the present earl may decide to forego the cash and just decide to hand his claimed share of the lough back to the people.