Coney Island: Land of pilgrimage and power


We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” Dalai Lama.

I was born and grew up on the Lough Neagh shores. As a child, I’d to walk to my friend’s house, and we would go out on the boat with her father, a fisherman, as he set his nets.  He would tell us stories about the Lough, and about to Coney Island, just a short distance from the shore.  The light dappled on the water, and the sun always seemed to illuminate the island. We would clamber out of the boat there, and walk around the island, listening to the herons wheeling overhead with their almost human cry, and stand watching the swans on the water.  We would walk to the obelisk known as St Patrick Stone, that marked where he stayed. We’d view the 13th century Norman Motte, listen to stories about the O’Neills, about the prisoners who died here, and about Lily Langtry’s illicit stay on the island.  It’s a small island, only eight acres in area, yet it held, and still holds, so much magic, mystery and power.

This island, now only accessible by boat, has long evidence of human occupation going back 8,000 years, when iron was taken from the Sperrin Mountains to be smelted on the island. People were making pots & pans and knives of various kinds, which were so vital to everyday living, that they were currency, and thus guarded here. The island was linked to the mainland by a submerged ridgeway, only accessible by foot in summer. It became known as St Patricks’ Road, the saint is said to have travelled and spent time on retreat here in the 5th century. This was a significant place of pilgrimage, as many other places were around the shores of the Lough. Pilgrims would have travelled to the city of Armagh, and then they continued their journey on to Coney Island, with hundreds crossing over on the ridgeway whenever the waters of the lough receded.

In the later period of Gaelic rule, Lough Neagh was dominated by the O’Neills. The great O’Neills of Tyrone ruled over the western and south-eastern shores, while the Clandeboye O’Neills established themselves at Shanes Castle to the northern shore.  Coney Island was an O’Neill stronghold, occupied and used as a lookout point. However, in Elizabethan times, the O’Neill supremacy was quashed. The lands were confiscated, and Coney Island was granted to Sir Henry Sidney, who played a large part in the administration of the country, especially in the military measures for bringing Irish chieftains into submission to the English Crown.

Later, during the 16th and 17th centuries the island became a sort of Irish Alcatraz, as a penal colony; condemned prisoners lived and died (some beheaded), here. Their remains were found during archaeological excavations in the Sixties, near a 400-year-old yew tree, the biggest tree on the island.

In the 1890s, Coney Island was bought by James Caulfield, the Seventh Viscount of Charlemount.  Caulfield built a summer house here, which still stands.  He was appointed head of social matters at court by Queen Victoria. He was so successful in the role that he was soon being asked to arrange lovers’ trysts. And so, the island, with its seclusion limited access, became a popular destination for secret liaisons, including that of Edward VII and Lily Langtry, who spent a month here courtesy of James. Caulfield died in 1913. As a former Coldstream Guard, he was buried here in the traditional manner, with his horse. (The horse’s view of this tradition are not known).

Today, the island shows little evidence of its turbulent past.  It has returned to be a place of peace and tranquillity.  A haven for wildlife and birds now, and human visitors who make the journey there by boat.  In spring, the ground is carpeted with bluebells, and the sun dapples through the trees. It is quiet and peaceful, a great spot for reflection.

Peter McClelland, the warden, and now the only resident on the island, says: “I never get lonely, for loneliness is a state of mind, and if you keep your mind occupied, you’ll never be lonely. To be honest, I count myself the wealthiest man on earth.”

And he is right.  Wealth is not counted in monetary terms.  To be rich is to find peace in your heart.  And on Coney Island, as with all of Lough Neagh, it’s the richest place in the world.

Sunlight on Coney


Directions: Coney Island lies a mile off shore from the village of Maghery, in the south west corner of Lough Neagh, the UK’s largest inland lake.  Access is by boat. (PS: There are other Coney Islands in the world, Van Morrison even wrote about one.  But this is the original and best).