Lough Neagh is said to have been given its name from the Irish Loch nEachach, ‘Eochu’s Lough’ which means ‘horseman’. The name has survived despite attempts to change the name of the Lough to Lough Sydney and Lough Chichester during the Plantation period.
There are several versions about how the Lough got its name, the one below is my favourite. Eochu Mac Mairid was the son of a Munster king named Mairid, who fell in love with his stepmother, Eibhliu. Fleeing the wrath of his father, they headed north. They made camp at Newgrange, there they met the god Aengus, who lent them a horse on condition that when they next stopped, the horse would be sent straight back to him. When they decided they were far enough away they stopped to settle and the horse urinated on the ground, forming a magic well which Eochu and his retinue kept covered with a capstone, to prevent it overflowing. One night, by mistake, the capstone was not replaced and the well overflowed, flooding the area thus Lough Neagh was formed.
The healing powers of the Lough are renowned, and people have come to bathe here in the waters to be cured. At Washingbay, and the nearby Holy River (in Co Tyrone), people also come for healing. A letter dating February 12, 1712, is mentioned in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Tyrone (Vol. 20). The letter talks about a Mr Cunningham who lived in the area and had a son afflicted with the “evil to that degree, that it ran upon him in 8 or 10 places… and his body was so wasted that he could not walk”. When no remedy was found, the son was brought to the Lough shore “where he was washed and bathed, and in 8 day’s time, bathing each day, all the sores were dried up and he became cured and grew very healthy, married, begot children and lived 9 or 10 years after.”
At midsummer, people also bathed in the nearby Holy River, to be healed. It is thought that St Brigid blessed this place on her way from Kildare to Ardboe. The tradition of bathing in the Holy River continued until into the 20th century. People would wash in the river with red flannel rags which would then be tied to the trees along the bank. As the rags disintegrated so the disease disappeared. Although the tradition was stopped in the 1930s, people still come to be cured and rags can be seen at the Holy River Bridge in late June.
At the Washingbay and the Holy River Bridge, I often feel the healing energy, and sometimes see what looks like bands of a blue light swirling up through the air. Blue to me is the protection colour of Archangel Michael.
At the High Cross at Ardboe, a similar pilgrimage was held at Lughnasa, people would circle the Cross and say the rosary, bathing their hands and feet in the waters of the Lough afterwards. The site of the Cross and the Abbey have distinct healing energies at particular points.
Further along the shore, Cranfield Holy Well and Church, near Toome, has a well dedicated to St Olcan. and well known for its healing properties. Until the early 19th century, hundreds of pilgrims would visit the site on three consecutive days during mid-summer, and perform the Stations of the Cross. The custom began at the door of the church where the pilgrim would bless themselves then circle the church seven times, dropping a pebble at the door on each circuit; this would be repeated at the well after which they would bathe in the water. Within the well are gypsum crystals, known locally as ‘amber pebbles’, which were also thought to have healing properties. It was believed that they fishermen from drowning. An emigrant leaving for America in the 19th century thought that swallowing gypsum pebbles would provide them with a safe passage to the New World.
There is a wonderful healing energy, particularly in the Church, and there are clooties left at the well, attesting to its continuing healing powers. It’s a very peaceful spot on the Lough shore, well away from traffic and noise, and worth the trip to this special place.
I am lucky to have grown up on the shores here, every time I see the Lough; I feel I am ‘home’, I love the healing energy here, and the calm vista of the water seems always to show something new and different to me and those I bring to these shores..