Patricia MacBride: If we don’t act now, we risk losing Lough Neagh's beauty forever

Blue/green algae and green algae sludge on the Antrim shoreline of Lough Neagh.
Blue/green algae and green algae sludge on the Antrim shoreline of Lough Neagh. Blue/green algae and green algae sludge on the Antrim shoreline of Lough Neagh.

It’s four miles from the house where I grew up to Ballyronan. Each summer, there would be an exodus of children from Killowen Drive, laden down with plastic bags of orange squash, jam sandwiches, towels and maybe a football or two, to make the early morning trek out to the marina for a day of diving off the jetty, swimming and kicking football.

We always had hope that someone’s parents would drive out in the afternoon and collect us in their car, squeeze five or six into the back seat and save our tired but happy feet from the rigours of the walk back.

If you were lucky, in August time you might see Willie Mullholland ploughing up the potato fields a mile outside the town. We’d offer our services to gather spuds for precisely long enough to earn a few pence to buy ice cream once we got to Ballyronan. In truth, Willie didn’t get much value out of us but I don’t think he minded too much.

The next stop on the road would be at Woods Church to fill up bottles of water, replacing the squash already drunk. Then on to Ballyronan, and straight into the water.

Apart from the years I lived outside Ireland, I don’t recall a single summer of my life where I wasn’t swimming in Lough Neagh. Until this year, of course.

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There has been a lot of investment into the marina at Ballyronan over the years, including new slipways, a pavilion, playground and glamping pods.

In 2020 and 2021 when we were all in lockdown, the lough took on a greater significance as we were only able to meet outside in small groups, or go out for one walk a day or travel no more than five miles from home. Covid was a renaissance for Lough Neagh and it thrived.

I started swimming there regularly during that time, joining the Ballyronan Bluetits, a local branch of an international open water swimming organisation. Sunday mornings and summer evenings or any excuse I could get, I was at Ballyronan or The Battery.

Mary O’Hagan, a former neighbour in Killowen Drive, blazed a trail of getting people into the water for physical and mental well-being. Now she’s a driving force behind the Save Our Shores initiative established in August to campaign for an environmental solution to the blue-green algae that is slowly killing Lough Neagh.

The initiative brings together swimmers, anglers, paddleboarders and local residents from right around the shores of the lough with the objective of lobbying politicians to take immediate steps to address the rapid decline of our biggest freshwater lake.

One of the key issues, as Mary O’Hagan has said and as the Lough Neagh Partnership charity agree, is that there are multiple agencies with responsibility for Lough Neagh but there is no joined-up approach to tackling the worsening environmental crisis.

On Tuesday this week, the Environment Agency worryingly warned against going into the water at Portglenone marina and Newferry, both upstream of the lough on the River Bann. The Public Health Agency has advised against swimming in the water, swallowing water or eating fish caught in the lough.

The Food Standards Agency, however, aren’t testing fish to see if the level of cyanobacteria, which causes the algae, is safe for food or animal consumption. NI Water, meanwhile, says that the water (40 per cent of our local supply) is safe to drink.

How can the public have confidence given seemingly conflicting advice?

We need to have an urgent review of farming practices to determine if buffer zones around the lough shore and local rivers can minimise and reduce the amount of nitrates running off into the lough.

NI Water must address the issue of sewage that is discharged into the lough from treatment plants that are not fit for purpose.

We also need to look at what options are available to treat or remove the algae.

Most importantly, there must be one executive organisation that has control over water quality, over habitats, fishing and the shoreline to manage the lough in a sustainable way. The Earl of Shaftesbury claims he owns the bed of the lough and says he’ll sell it at a reasonable rate. As much as I object to his claim, I’d say give him a nominal sum and get on with bringing Lough Neagh into public ownership.

Save Our Shores is holding public meetings on September 20 at the Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy and Brownlow Community Hub in Craigavon on September 27 as part of its campaign. The Love our Lough collective is also organising a “wake” on Sunday September 17 at 2pm at Ballyronan marina to further highlight the environmental disaster.

There’s a beautiful song by Niall Hanna in which the chorus goes: “From the banks of Blackwater, there your sights lie on display. No peninsula or bright blue ocean holds the beauty of Sweet Lough Neagh.”

If we don’t act with urgency, we risk losing that beauty forever.