John Manley: Time to face facts about legendary Lough Neagh

John Manley

John Manley

A relative late comer to journalism, John has been with The Irish News for close to 25 years and has been the paper’s Political Correspondent since 2012.

John Manley
John Manley John Manley

John Manley

“WHEN forced to pick between truth and legend,” Manchester music mogul Tony Wilson said, "print the legend.”

The legend of Lough Neagh is imparted to us all at an early age. It’s said that Finn McCool became so enraged by the constant sleggin’ from his Scottish counterpart Benandonner that he grabbed the earth with his bare hands and hurled it at his tormentor.

Finn’s aim was poor, however, and rather than crossing the North Channel and hitting its target, the massive sod landed many miles south in the middle of the Irish Sea, creating the Isle of Man.

The vast hole left in the middle of Ulster subsequently filled with water and became Lough Neagh, the largest fresh water body in Ireland, and western Europe. It’s a proud boast, whether you believe the myth or not.

The truth about Lough Neagh is less well known than the legend. The lough looms large in our collective consciousness and helps define our sense of place, whatever your hue, yet our knowledge and engagement with it fails to reflect its stature.

Those who live close to its shores may be happy with this situation but arguably a natural asset as valuable as Lough Neagh, whether measured economically, ecologically or culturally, has significance beyond its immediate hinterland.

I recall how soon after my now wife and I bought our first car together – a 1986 Volvo 340GL, one careful lady owner – we endeavoured to visit the lough and experience its magnificence; to walk its shores and gaze in awe out across its 151-square-mile surface.

In the pre-Google age, this was a challenge. I’d previously been to Oxford Island on the southern shore, but remember my view being obscured by beds of tall reeds. We’d caught glimpses of the lough from the M2 near Antrim but preferred a spot on the shoreline that was wilder than what we envisaged there.

My recollections of the afternoon excursion on a wintry Sunday are scant but I do remember that it was difficult to find somewhere on the south east shore where we could explore. Our eventual vantage point was accessed over a six-bar gate and bordered on both sides by barbed wire fences.

Unlike Slieve Donard, the Giant’s Causeway and Errigal, other landmarks we visited around the same time, public access was seemingly discouraged. This has been redressed to some degree in recent decades but in common with every policy relating to Lough Neagh, has been piecemeal.

The water in the lough is under public ownership and managed by the Lough Neagh Partnership, a disparate group of 22 trustees that includes councillors, land-owners, fishermen, businesses and community representatives. Parts of the shore are managed by each of the four councils that boundary the lough.

The bed and banks belong to the Earl of Shaftesbury, an aristocrat based in Dorset. This absentee landlord, whose ownership is derived from a claim initially made in the early 1600s by Sir Arthur Chichester, a leading figure in the Plantation of Ulster, has over decades earned a substantial fortune from royalties paid by companies extracting sand dredged from the lough’s bed. Until 2021, this practice was entirely unregulated.

On top of this, for the past 20 years the lough’s water quality has been classified as hypertrophic, choked by sewage and slurry run-off from surrounding farmland.

As recent as May last year, there were reports of at least three dogs dying after being walked close to the lough shoreline. Though tests on the water proved inconclusive, the advice from Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council was to stay clear of the water.

The impact of sustained abuse and exploitation of this extraordinary body of water, a habitat for among other things, eels, millions of birds, and pollan, a species of trout unique to five Irish lakes, is to date largely unfathomable.

Few baselines exist for measuring its decline or its potential – a research centre at Traad Point in Ballymaguigan on the north-west shore that once belonged to the then University of Ulster lies empty, having closed in 2011.

Many of the challenges facing the lough, in terms of ownership, governance and its ecology have coalesced in the recent work of investigative journalist Tommy Greene, published by The Detail.

His series of illuminating articles coincides with a renewed debate about the lough’s future.

Previous efforts to bring the lough into public ownership – arguably the only route by which it will ever be sustainably managed – have foundered but with a growing realisation about the true value of our natural heritage, let's hope Lough Neagh's future can start to match its legendary status.

:: Fionnuala O Connor is away