Loughareema – Now you see it now you don’t!
Not far from the bustling seaside resort of Ballycastle in County Antrim is the beautiful lake of Loughareema. Some days the lake appears full of clear glistening water however, at other times it is a barren muddy basin, thus earning the name the Vanishing Lake.
Naming the Lake
The lough, or lake, is situated in a boggy, isolated upland region of Ballyvennaght in the Civil Parish of Culfeightrin.
Its name comes from the Irish “Loc an Rith Amach” meaning the ‘lake that runs out’. Not surprisingly in past times the lake was also known as the Fairy Lough.
Archival evidence from the Placenames Database of Ireland, records the name as Loughaveema as apparently Loughareema was too difficult to pronounce in English.
“The local sound of the name cannot be expressed by any combination of English letters. The above (Loughaveema) is the nearest approximation to it”J Sullivan Ref NB 29
Solving the Mystery of the Vanishing Lake
The lake has three rivers running into it but none flowing out.
“To scientists, Loughareema is regarded as one of Northern Ireland’s most enigmatic geological sites”Dr Kirstin Lemon Geological Survey NI
However, there is (unfortunately?) a logical explanation for Loughareema’s mysterious appearances and disappearances.
The depression in which the lake is formed is a chalk sinkhole. Rainfall and water from the rivers and surrounding bogs fill the lake. Sometimes with the peat in the run-off water, particularly after really wet weather, the sinkhole or ‘plug hole’ gets temporarily blocked. When this happens, the lake appears.
When the blockage is washed away the lake disappears. In a dry spell, the lake can take 4-6 days to empty. On very wet days it can fill up again in just 12-18 hours.
The water from Loughareema seeps into an underground drainage system. About one and a half miles away it reappears in a spring and flows into the river Carey. This river has its source in the Ballypatrick Forest and reaches the coast at Ballycastle.
The Haunting of Loughareema
Colonel John Magee McNeill’s Coach
Today the road to Ballycastle (the A2) passes through Loughareema, but it has safety walls and is raised to such a height that, even in bad weather, the road is always passable. In past times however, this post road was frequently flooded when the water level in the lake was high.
On 30th September 1898, Colonel John Magee McNeill, a retired officer of the Royal Engineers, was in a hurry to catch the 3pm train from Ballycastle. He had spent the previous few days with his uncle Captain Daniel McNeil J P of Cushendun House.
Magee ordered his coachman David McNeill, a married man aged 56, to traverse the road even though it was covered with the water from the Lough. The two horses were urged onward but as they reached the middle of the road the cold water reached their bellies and the poor animals started to panic. When the driver used his whip one of the horses reared and turned to the side. Horses, carriage and humans all plunged into the icy waters of Loughareema and were drowned.
“Captain McNeill’s coachman drove him in a covered two-horse brougham. On reaching the ‘Lough’ the coachman hesitated to go through the water, as the horses were very high-spirited, but at last determined to make the effort. A surfaceman named McKendry watched the passage, and says that when in the middle of the waters the horses took fright, and suddenly reared, turned half round, and made a plunge. Their four feet got over the small ditch, and the impetus carried the carriage clean over into the lake”Belfast Newsletter 3rd October 1898
The inquest was held on the 3rd October 1898 presided over by the coroner for North Antrim, Dr Camac. A verdict of death by accidental drowning was returned for both men.
Many folk have reported seeing the old-fashioned carriage passing along the shores of Loughareema to this day. Others, more alarmingly, claim to have heard the thrashing of hooves and the frantic screaming of the two drowning men.
Another victim of the lakes ways was Dan Scullion from Ballyvoy. He was driving his horse-drawn bread cart during a blizzard. He had been advised to stay at home but was worried about bread delivery to his rural customers in such bad weather. Visibility was so poor that he was unable to see that the road had flooded. He too succumbed to Loughareema’s watery depths.
The Strange Tale of John Mitchell
A tale recounted by The Roamer (Belfast Newsletter 30th January 2019) is of John Mitchell in the early twentieth century. He was the driver of a horse-drawn ambulance from Dalriada Hospital in Ballycastle.
One stormy night he had to make the journey to Cushendall to collect a pregnant woman in difficulties. On his return trip a sudden snow-storm arose and his horse became lame.
Stopping at the next cottage at the roadside, John asked for help. The elderly occupant harnessed his own pony to the wagon and volunteered to accompany John on the journey. Presumably Mitchell, was nervous about the treacherous road over Loughareema.
The old man took the reins and despite Mitchell’s insistence that they were on the wrong road, they all arrived safely at the hospital. When John turned to thank the ‘good Samaritan’ he had already departed.
John Mitchell returned to his own house and stabled the old man’s pony. In the morning he was shocked to discover that the man’s pony had disappeared and Mitchell’s own horse was in the stall in its place. Mitchell travelled back to the cottage to thank the old man for his help but found the dwelling in ruins!
Unable to form an explanation for the night’s events, John told the maternity nurse the whole unusual story. Unperturbed, she told John he must have come across Dr John Joe, who lived in the hills above Cushendall 200 years ago. He would only have known the old Ballycastle Road before the current A2 road was built. Legend had it that if the ghostly John Joe appeared before the birth of a child, the infant would grow up to be a doctor. Apparently, this particular baby fulfilled the prophecy by becoming a top surgeon in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
Loughareema is a beautiful, mysterious place for those aware of it’s story. Casual travellers passing through the area may see either a pleasant lake or a shallow valley with green hillsides. Neither view will do justice to the story of a lake that can appear on a secluded hillside in just 2 days.
The day we visited was during a prolonged very warm, dry period – unusual for the north of Ireland! The depression that holds the lake was empty of water apart from the scant meanderings of the rivers that flow into it. The hillsides had already turned green with grass and moss, a welcome treat for the hardy mountain sheep. It remains, however, an otherworldly place that lends itself to tales of ghosts and fairy folk.
Loughareema has been described as
“….a dark and brooding place on a summer’s day, but in winter, after dark, it can be absolutely terrifying. And people say it is haunted”Stephen O’Hara www.northwordni.org
However, knowing its history, we found it to be peaceful, calming and utterly enchanting!
The Fairy Lough
Lies so high among the heather;
A little lough, a dark lough,
The wathers’s black an’ deep.
Ould herons go a-fishing there,
An’ seagulls all together.
Float roun’ the one green island
On the fairy lough asleep.Moira O’Neill (1864-1955)
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