As part of my European Heritage Open Days 2017 explorations I discovered the beauty of Lough Neagh with Lough Neagh Tours. Departing from Belfast I boarded the bus to get a little taster of the lough’s landscape, heritage and culture. And it’s eels – literally.
With a warm welcome from tour guide James, we began our journey to Cranfield Church and Holy Well at Churchtown Point on the north shore of Lough Neagh. One of the few places you can truly appreciated the landscape of the lough.
Anne-Marie, our local guide, grew up in the area and would often come here as a child with her friends and picnic at this spot, not fully appreciating what was on her doorstep. Now she has a renewed sense of place and her love for the area, it’s history and it’s people came through in abundance as she told us the stories and folklore of this picturesque part of Northern Ireland.
Records show that a church existed at Cranfield in 1306 but it is believed to have been a monastic site centuries before that. The name Cranfield translates from Irish as the wood of the wild garlic. According to tradition Saint Olcán, who is believed to have been ordained by Saint Patrick, is buried within the church walls in soil brought all the way from Rome. As a place of pilgrimage up until 1828, people would come for 3 days to pray in the church and bathe in the nearby holy well. Mass is still celebrated annually on the Sunday closest to June 19th – Saint Olcán’s Feast Day.
The holy well is renowned for its healing properties and the amber gypsum crystals found here are believed to protect women in childbirth, fishermen from drowning and homes from fire and burglary. To this day, the healing tradition of attaching rags to the overhanging trees and bushes continues.
According to the custom, one must bathe the infected part of the body with a rag dipped in the well, pray and then tie the rag to the large overhanging tree. As the rag decays the affliction is supposed to disappear. A few us had a go at curing our ailments for the craic.
Leaving our health in the hands of the saints we boarded the bus for our next stop – the Lock-Keeper’s Cottage in Toome set alongside the Toome Canal and Lock. As well as a tea room the cottage is also a heritage centre with displays on nature, transport, geology, the waterways and the local fishing industry.
Here we dined on a traditional eel supper after local fishermen, Kevin Johnston and Gary McErlain, talked us through a typical day in the life of an eel fisherman. The caught eel are all processed through the Lough Neagh Fisherman’s Co-operative who export them on to Germany, the Netherlands and England. For those not so keen on eel an alternative was offered however I couldn’t come all this way to not try the local delicacy. I did have a back up sandwich… just in case! Cooked by Kevin himself he wasn’t giving too much away on his methods claiming it’s as simple as cooking it in the oven in it’s own juices for around an hour. Served up with soda bread and onions I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was really delicious! Very delicate in flavour and in texture, not at all overpowering or slimy! It seems such a shame that the majority of this accredited premier product gets exported as it’s not fully appreciated here in Northern Ireland. I would definitely try cooking this at home especially when its so easy! To read more on preparing a traditional eel supper click here.
Fed and watered it was time to move on to our final stop – the pub! Located just outside Toome The Crosskeys Inn provided a wonderful end to our tour. Dating back to 1674 the Crosskeys Inn is Ireland’s oldest thatched pub. With a traditional music session in full swing we all absorbed the lively atmosphere over a very good pint of Guinness, or several.
The tour was an exceptional offering for the European Heritage Open Days programme. Having local people with a genuine affinity with the lough tell us about their lives and livelihood I came away with an appetite to learn more. Thank you to Lough Neagh Tours for a truly memorable experience and the opportunity to discover the beautiful landscape, heritage and people of Lough Neagh.
There are currently three tours you can take with Lough Neagh Tours and tour guide James, such a character you will enjoy his stories and knowledge of the area:
- Western Forts Tour – iconic and historically significant monuments.
- Wilderness Tour – the rugged wilds of the lough and how to survive it.
- Craic ‘n Food & Drink Tour – an evening full of craic, stories and great food.
I will without a doubt be on one of them very soon!
Read about the rest of this year’s EHOD explorations on my City Events Page.