Lough Neagh mysteries – An Irishman’s Diary on lake’s curious powers

The pristine condition of the enormous skull of an ancient Irish elk which was caught in the nets of local fishermen on Lough Neagh recently could be due to the bones being submerged in the waters for over 10,000 years. The waters of the lough have curious powers of petrification. Branches of trees drowned in the lough for centuries are preserved and petrified. Pieces of recovered wood were for years sold locally as “Lough Neagh” bones to sharpen scythes and knifes.

There has always been an air of mystery about Lough Neagh. According to legend the lord of the underworld is supposed to exist beNeagh its waters. Thomas Moore based one of his famous melodies on the legend: On Lough Neagh's banks where the fisherman strays/When the clear cold eve's declining/ He sees the Round Towers of other days/In the waves beneath him shining.

Originally formed by the melting of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age it is the largest lake in Ireland and Britain, although it is sometimes described as a “glacial puddle”. It occupies an area of 400 sq km but was for centuries much larger. Escaping waters gouged out the nine Glens of Antrim and eroded gullies in the mountains of Tyrone and Derry. Five of the six counties of Northern Ireland touch its shores. In the days of my childhood we were told that the giant Finn McCool, who had a hand in many a ruction in the north had made the lough by scooping out a huge fistful of earth to throw at a retreating English giant; it fell into the Irish Sea and became the Isle of Man.

Eight rivers flow into the lough but only one leaves it, the Lower Bann. It is Europe’s biggest source of wild eels and a unique Irish native fish called pollan, a sort of fresh water herring. Over the centuries the fishing rights have been hotly disputed and there have been many vicious feuds on land and water. Calm has ben restored by the efforts of the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-Operative which is dedicated to maintaining a sustainable and viable industry.


I remember pollan being sold from horse-drawn carts in the streets of Belfast to the cries of “Fresh Lough Neagh herrings”, a much-prized Friday treat for fasting Catholics and peckish Protestants alike. A few years ago pollan became the first Northern Ireland product to be recognised by the European Union’s Protected Geographical Indication Scheme for its quality and authenticity.

The eels in the lough are caught when they are about a metre long and transported live to markets in Britain and the Continent.

The life-cycle of the eel is one of nature’s curious mysteries. It spawns in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda and when its young are about the size of a fingernail they head east across the Atlantic, aided by the Gulf Stream.

After a journey of about three years they enter the Lower Bann at Portstewart. They spend about 12 years in Lough Neagh growing to maturity before returning to the Sargasso to begin the cycle all over again.

The near fully intact skull and antlers, with a span of 1.8 metres, pulled from the waters by fishermen Raymond McElroy and Charlie Coyle are estimated by experts to be about 10,500 years old.

The Irish elk was an enormous mammal that grew to 2.1 metres tall and its antlers could measure 3.65 metres across. It became extinct around 10,000 years ago as forests took over the open plains of our island.

As with most tales of Lough Neagh, there is a twist. It was neither elk nor exclusively Irish. The Irish elk was, in fact, a giant species of deer which roamed across Europe, Asia and Africa.