An Irishman's Diary

 

Few may know or even care that the sand used to build the surface of Croke Park came from Lough Neagh - the largest inland stretch of water in these islands, 19 miles long and 10 miles wide.

The lough and its hinterland are little known to tourists and glimpsed only partially from main roads. But the area has a popular appeal. For walkers, the summit of the granite outlier of Slieve Gallion offers panoramic views across the lough's 149 square miles and, to the west, the Sperrin Mountains straddling mid-Ulster.

Lough Neagh was famed in the past for its winter floods and many people feel it is best visited in winter. Migrating birds agree that this is the best time to come. Tens of thousands of wintering wildfowl, including tufted duck and pochard, fly in from eastern Europe while whooper swans, scaup and greylag geese swoop in from Iceland to feed over the winter.

Eddie Franklin, the retired warden of the Portmore nature reserve in the lough's south-east corner, knows the birds well. Spend a little time with him and he will show you the hiding places in the reed beds of the ruddy ducks, explain the activities of the rare male smew, and tell you about the families of gregarious nesting tree sparrows as well as the lapwing recovery project.

It's not just birds for which the lough is renowned. The eels in Lough Neagh travel more than 4,000 miles to breed in the Sargasso Sea and the young fry return by drifting on the Gulf Stream back over the Atlantic, entering the River Bann as young elvers. The lough also has its own unique species of fish including dollaghan, which is a huge trout, and a small freshwater type of herring called pollan.

The recently established Loughshore Trail means that cyclists are discovering the pleasures of the area's flat roads. The trail, supported by the sustainable transport charity Sustrans, is a 113-mile route around the lough, on which you can take in quiet country lanes without expending too much energy.

If you really want to know this place, then like many parts of Ireland, one of the most satisfying ways is to study it through the etymology of its placenames. Lough Neagh means Eochu's lake. The lough touches on Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone and Derry, and with this wide sweep of counties to call on, it is rich in musically evocative names: Killycolpy, Ballygrooby, Laloo, Edenturcher and Gooseberry Corner jump out at the collector of quirky toponyms. You may also come across signposts for Rose's Lane Ends, Navvies Drain and the Grange of Shilvodan.

Their meaning and the intriguing stories behind them are helpfully explained in a new book, Lough Neagh Places: Their Names and Origins, published by Cló Ollscoil na Banríona in Queen's University, Belfast. The names are listed in both their English and Irish forms and the diverse topographic features are discussed by the authors, Dr Patrick McKay and Dr Kay Muhr.

They spent endless hours poring over old books, newspapers, atlases and maps such as John Speed's Map of Ulster (1610) or Samuel Lewis's Map of Ireland (1737). Ordnance Survey memoirs have been consulted and the authors have plumbed the depths of libraries to draw on sources ranging from the energetic Gaelic scholar John O'Donovan to Taylor & Skinner, who produced their exquisitely drawn Maps of the Roads of Ireland in 1777. They also drew on that fount of indispensable knowledge, Rev Patrick Dinneen's classic Irish-English Dictionary, and from P.W. Joyce's celebrated three-volume study The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places.

Those with an inquiring mind may wonder, for example, how Kettlebottom Island in the south-western corner of the townland of Balloo got its name. According to the Ordnance Survey Revision Name Book of 1856 it came, prosaically enough, from its shape, which "resembles the bottom of a kettle". Or what of the delightful-sounding place

called Half Umry? It was

first recorded in 1637 when it was referred to as the half towne of Umery.

Other names that roll mellifluously off the tongue include Clintycracken and Knocknamuckly, Limnaharry and Moneyquiggy; and two that twist the tongue are Tamnafiglassan and Gortnagwyg. As every broadcaster knows, the village of Magheralin is pronounced as in Marilyn Monroe, while the civil parish called Montiaghs - from Na Móinteacha, "the bogs" - sounds much like chocolate "munchies".

The curiously named townland called British stretches from Ballyginniff on the west side to the Dunore River on the east and includes the terminal of Belfast International Airport. The name derives from the Irish word briotás, a direct borrowing from the Norman-French bretesche.

One of the more common terms found in the area is "flat" which refers to a flat, raised bank just below the surface of the water but which can be exposed in dry weather. The Shallow Flat is a small island east of Reedy Flat, not far from the Phil Roe's Flat. And as you walk, cycle or drive along these flat shores you'll find the ruins of castles, towers and mansions as well as nature reserves, woodlands, marinas and parks.

Lough Neagh Places is an engaging compendium packed with illustrations and titbits of information. For those planning a visit to the area it is an indispensable vade-mecum for the glove-box.

And incidentally, as well as forming a base layer in Croke Park, Lough Neagh sand was used for the mortar in the building of Stormont Castle in east Belfast.