Lough Neagh, with a shoreline in five of the Six Counties, has gone from a possible majestic tourist attraction to an environmental disaster
IF YOU didn’t know anything about Ireland but fancied a holiday here all the same, you might first look at the map. Then you’d see one obvious tourist attraction.
Much as in Cumbria or northern Italy, Scotland or Switzerland, surely most tourists are going to head for the lakes.
And we have the biggest lake in the British/Irish archipelago, Lough Neagh.
Don’t go near it.
This glorious mass of sunlit water on a vast open plain, touching five counties, is disgustingly polluted. Not that anyone had really noticed this until a couple of local journalists made a story out of it last month.
And they were probably given space for the story because it was August, and political life was in abeyance. Even our deadlock in Stormont was down for the summer.
And why did the rest of us not notice that this beautiful lake was not beautiful any more? Because we have no local tradition of retreating to it.
There is virtually no tourism development around it.
A friend and I, a few years ago, set out to cycle round Lough Neagh and barely got a glimpse of it. There are only a few spots at which you can cycle or drive close to the water’s edge, near Antrim town. Aside from that, most of us only catch sight of the sunlight sheen on the lake from the M2 motorway, either the extension beyond Randalstown on the dip into Toome, or coming the other way over the Glenshane Pass through the Sperrins when it may look, on a good day, like a line of silver drawn across the far horizon.
Since our awareness was raised about the pollution in the lake most of the journalism and political commentary has been about how Lough Neagh came to be so neglected.
The main problem is blue green algae which thrive in the nutrients which flow off richly fertilised farmland.
Seen from the air, much of the lake is now green and a hazard to bathers and dogs. Ungainly dead swans have been seen splayed on the surface.
And this has to be the first line of attack on the government departments which held responsibility for the environment and agriculture.
But the next question has to be, how did such a grand lake, in the first place, come to be more or less invisible to almost everyone living here or visiting on holiday?
There are some who have been using the water. Eels have been fished from it.
I took a recent mystery tour organised by the Seamus Heaney Homeplace and we ended up at a little fishery centre where the eels were brought in and we were served them and read some of Heaney’s poems about the area.
The potential for tourism at Lough Neagh, if it were developed, could surely be as great as that at the North Coast which has had big money spent on it.
The Giant’s Causeway’s attractions are embellished by the mythology around Finn McCool who allegedly built it. All a load of baloney of course but people like baloney. If they want more stories about old man McCool they should go to Lough Neagh. The legend here has it that the giant scooped out a clump of earth with one hand and flung it into the sea, creating two geographical features in one swing of his arm, Lough Neagh and the Isle of Man.
We do not love Lough Neagh because we never see it, so we have not cultivated a concern for it in the way that the people of Cumbria have for Windermere and Conniston, the way the Scots have for Loch Lomond and Loch Ness, all of which you’d have to search for on the map.
You don’t have to search for Lough Neagh; it is in the middle and is as obvious as a breakage in a window.
I don’t know how it came to be ignored.
My parents used to take us to the edge on occasional Sunday afternoon drives but we got bored and preferred the beach.
The much smaller Lough Beg features much more in Heaney’s poetry.
The lakes of Fermanagh have been developed for tourism with boating and trips to the islands, with glorious hotels nearby.
Lough Neagh has only become interesting to most of us now that it is a calamity, a toilet without a flush as someone called it. Not only is it an ecological disaster it has become a symbol of the failure of government here, Stormont routinely collapsing in acrimony. The last time it was down it stayed down for three years over the Sinn Féin demand for an Irish Language Act. No doubt a serious issue. This time it is down while the DUP, another essential partner in power-sharing, protests against checks on goods at Northern Irish ports made necessary by the Brexit they promoted.
But you know all this.
What you may not have known is that a glorious expanse of water that might have been a jewel, an adornment, the brightest most beautiful part of our region, that might have provided the tourism that enriched the rural plain, has been given as much regard as a drain.
And now it is a blocked