Lough Neagh is the biggest fresh water lake in Europe. That’s what the Northern Irish will tell you, with just a hint of pride. Look on Wikipedia however and it turns out they might be talking a bit of crap, because there Lough Neagh is ranked as merely the 33rd largest lake in Europe. Perhaps they mean bodies of water. Perhaps they’re not including Russia. Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much either way; Lough Neagh is big and wet and looks like a lake, and if you asked me whether I’d trust Wikipedia over the word of a Northern Irishman I’d probably say no, if only because Wikipedia is far less likely to put a bullet through my brain and bury me in a peat bog. Don’t be fooled: in Northern Ireland they take Lough Neagh very seriously. And with good reason. It’s shores play host to six of their seven counties and it supplies 40% of the population’s fresh water. It is also the dominant feature on any map of the country and very handily sits right in the middle, meaning that to get anywhere else from Belfast that isn’t just outside Belfast you have to drive right round the fucker, giving you more time and opportunity to be pulled over, shot through the brain and buried in a peat bog. I’m joking, they don’t do that kind of thing in Northern Ireland anymore, but knowing that they once did means it pays to have a healthy respect for the place. Personally I love Northern Ireland, and I’m not just saying that.
I’ll tell you who else loved Northern Ireland – Lou Reed. He must of done because he only went and wrote a song about it. But I’ll come back to him later. We’re over there at the moment to enjoy the company of Mr and Mrs Irish and Irish Child and the stubborn blanket of cloud that is their average summer. Our agenda is full, the craic is well underway and yesterday we were treated to a trip around Lough Neagh on the speedboat belonging to and skippered by Irish Friend. I have very good sea legs, which seem a bit wasted given that I could happily pass on most boat trips, but when the company is this top notch there’s little point kicking up a fuss. Our timetable was quite simple: depart from Kinnego Marina (a place that was best avoided during ‘The Troubles’ as it was apparently popular with the kind of night time boat trip where three people went out and only two came back), head up to Ram’s Island for a wee look, then across to Coney Island for another wee look and a wee picnic and then, conditions permitting, a jump and a splash in the lake and back home for dinner. We dutifully piled onto the boat and Irish Friend proceeded to launch us across the black, cold waters of lough, with all it’s whispered secrets, as Mrs Irish held in a belly full of vomit, she being a team player of considerable grit.
For all it’s surface Lough Neagh is a pretty shallow lump of water (it feels like this is turning into a bit of a Geography lesson, sorry, nobody likes a Geography teacher). In places it is so slight you can stand up in it and not drown, and so at certain stretches most boats have to slow to a trundle to navigate the bed and the reeds. In some ways this is a blessing because once we hit a decent speed the wind was pretty chilly and all of a sudden the thought of taking a dive in was a bleak prospect at best. Ram’s Island is the biggest island on Lough Neagh, which is saying something but not very much. It is essentially a thin clump of woodland, bulbous at the bottom and which then tapers at the northern tip. As we approached we saw smoke like plumes of mayfly dancing away just above the tree line, a sure sign we were going to get pestered. There was also, notably, a distinct absence of rams. Centuries ago the island was the site of some kind of monastic community and they had built a round tower (called, brilliantly, ‘The Round Tower’) which was still intact, and it was from this point the residents of yesteryear could keep a watch out for Vikings, and so be grateful that in the heat of all the raping and pillaging they had at least seen it coming.
Realising we were all starting to get hungry we sat and ate lunch and fed the random gathering of roosters and ducks (‘Rooster and Duck Island’ doesn’t have the same ring to it, though now I’ve written it down it looks great). Then we walked the length of the island and back again, Irish Child repeatedly mentioning that she wanted to go home now. Ram’s Island is under attack at the moment from an invasion of Himalayan Balsam, a prehistoric looking plant whose little pink flowers almost distract from their insidious, red claw roots, quenchless thirst and hunger for new territory. They are the plant Vikings of Lough Neagh, and if someone doesn’t do something about them pretty soon they will have their way with every quivering bluebell, snowdrop and primrose they can find. Shame, but never mind. So we fucked off to Coney Island, a second cold, blustery ride and that was enough to convince me I definitely wouldn’t be getting my feet wet that day.
In 1975 Lou Reed’s career was struggling after the ear piercing futility of ‘Metal Machine Music’. A man forever associated with New York it seems odd that he should take the time to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and visit Coney Island on Lough Neagh just to muster up some inspiration for his semi-classic comeback album ‘Coney Island Baby’. Indeed it is worth wondering why he didn’t just go to the Coney Island in New York instead and save himself the bother, but then Lou Reed was nothing if not unpredictable and awkward. To say the Coney Island we visited was inspiring is to use that word in the loosest possible sense. Irish Friend had a point when he said he enjoyed the silence, but it isn’t good news when the air is so full of midges you can actually hear them. The story goes that St Patrick once visited Coney Island and sat down for a bit and there is a generous collection of rocks to commemorate that alleged moment at that alleged spot. The island is tended to by someone who clearly craves isolation and lives in the only house there. I imagine he is fond of a drink. Mr Irish said he would love that job, but for me it would be torture. We drank a beer, made some jokes about Lou Reed and then left Coney Island to it as a trio of body boarders arrived to inhale the insects we hadn’t managed to. One day they’ll open up a vast theme park based on Lou Reed and Coney Island, with parking spaces for 20,000 and exhibits in twelve languages and it will eventually account for 25% of Northern Ireland’s GDP. At least that’s the dream I have.
In the end nobody went in the water. If the sun had been blazing away we might have had a chance to skip hypothermia, but it just wasn’t worth the risk. So we went home. When you look up the best things to do in Northern Ireland it usually starts with The Giant’s Causeway and the Old Bushmills Distillery. Then it rattles on about the ‘Game of Thrones’ connections, something about Londonderry/Derry and then what to do in Belfast on a wet afternoon. Next along comes Lough Neagh and all that has to offer. After that you’re left deciding between a particularly big field near Dungannon, a talking postbox in Ballynahinch and a whistling squirrel that lives off the A24 just south of Carryduff. Whether they ever do get round to embracing the idea of a Lou Reed-Coney Island Experience, Splash World and Visitors Centre one can only speculate but it wouldn’t make any difference because for all my cheek Northern Ireland is already a beautiful place filled with beautiful people and beautiful things to see. And if I ever wanted to get shot through the brain and buried in a peat bog that’s where I would want it to happen. Which is quite handy.
G B Hewitt. 14.07.2021
Ps, written in haste, proof read in haste. Mistakes likely.