Landlords’ ‘curse’ could free Lough Neagh
Landlords’ ‘curse’ could free Lough Neagh

Fishermen and landowners around Ireland’s largest lake have signalled their intention to claim ownership of the famous Lough Neagh, the largest lake in Ireland.

The rights to fishing on Lough Neagh has long been controlled by English and foreign interests.

The actual title to the lake is claimed to stem from a grant by English King Charles I to the Earl of Donegal in the mid-seventeenth century. From that Grant it devolved to the Shaftesbury Estate.

The 11th Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, died this week in New York just a month after the body of his father, the 10th earl, was found in a ravine in the French Alps after a six-month manhunt and the opening of a murder inquiry.

The 11th earl, who was just 27, is thought to have died of a heart attack, but the cause of death may not be revealed until next week.

The family has earned millions of pounds over four centuries through their claim to the fishing and hunting rights on and around Lough Neagh.

The sequence of shocks for the Shaftesbury family -- said by some to be mysteriously cursed -- has sparked a battle over ownership of Lough Neagh, in the heart of the Six Counties.

The family may now be forced to sell the rights for tax reasons, and indigenous local fisherpeople are demanding it be returned to them.

At dawn during the fishing season, the eel fishermen of Lough Neagh begin to pull in the lines they set the previous evening. Their catch has been described by poet Seamus Heaney as: “The furling, slippy/Haul, a knot of black and pewter belly.”

It is an ancient way of life, and the fishery is the largest, as well as one of the last, wild eel fisheries in Europe.

Chairperson of the Lough Neagh Fisherman’s Association, Patricia Campbell, said the lough’s long-term future was best in the hands of local people.

“Lough Neagh is effectively in the hands of a rent collecting absentee landlord,” said Ms Campbell. “It is time for the people to demand what is rightfully theirs. We have a duty and responsibility to ensure that not only does the fishing industry survive but also that the lough is protected from polluters and mercantile interest. We need to do this for future generations.”

In the 1600s the British took the rights to the salmon and the Catholics were pushed on to the moss to subsist on coarse fish,” says the association’s treasurer Brian Hannon. “From then to the present day goes the misery. The lough is still in the hands of absentee landlords.”

However, the season opened this year under a more pressing threat. The supply of wild baby eels known as elvers continues to decline. There is no known reason for the worldwide decline in elvers, though global warming may be a factor.

“The eel is a mysterious creature,” says local fisherman Martin Donnelly. “His mother spawns in the Sargasso Sea in the Gulf of Mexico and it takes three years for the elvers to drift down the Gulf Stream and make their way up into the River Bann.”

Heaney described this remarkable journey: “Against/ebb, current, rock, rapids/a muscled icicle/that melts itself longer/and fatter.”

Donnelly says the elver is not much bigger than a sewing needle.

“They lie feeding then for seven years or more. The Lough Neagh eel isn’t like the long hungry eel you’ll get in a river,” says Donnelly. “He’s fat and well fed, the best eel in the world.”

After another decade or more - some eels are aged 40 or so - the brown eel turns silver and, in the autumn, heads back towards the sea.

The silver eels head back to the Sargasso Sea where they spawn and die.

“It depends on the flood waters,” says Donnelly. “The surge comes and the mother eel goes away in the dark of the moon. They won’t go in the bright of the moon.”

This week, the tide of history is high for the Lough Neagh community to end centuries of feudal injustice.

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