Before there were cars and lorries, before there were trains, even before there were horses and carts, there were boats and rivers. Travel by boat is unusual and exciting to most of us now and seems slow and complicated but it was once the quickest, smoothest way to travel.
Carlingford Lough has been an important routeway into and out of Ulster for millennia. Archaeological excavations on the site chosen for the Narrow Water Bridge showed that people lived along the shoreline, on the Louth side, in the Mesolithic period, before farming was introduced to Ireland around 6,000 years ago.
Carlingford Lough, more specifically the Narrow Water, was referred to as Cuan Snámh Aighneacht. Cuan Snámh means swimming harbour and may suggest that people swam across the Narrow Water. Aigeach was a mythological High King of Ireland and an ancestor of the McGuinnesses, who once ruled south Down. Alternatively it may mean a place where horses swam across, or a swift flowing current. Bad King John led his army across the Narrow Water in 1210 on a pontoon bridge, floating on boats, when he chased Hugh de Lacy out of Carlingford castle.
An ancient Irish monastery at Ferry Hill was destroyed by the Vikings in 841. The Vikings renamed the lough as Kerlingfjörðr ‘narrow sea-inlet of the hag’ but left no physical traces of their presence. This name was copied into Irish as Loch Cairlinne.
The next invaders were the descendants of Vikings who had invaded France, creating the territory of Normandy. In the mid eleventh century they invaded England and Wales and then invaded Ireland just over one hundred years later. The Normans set up a ferry service across the lough, which belonged to Inch Abbey, near Downpatrick, and built castles to guard the crossing. Carlingford and Greencastle castles remain imposing ruins to this day. Other castles were built around the lough, including a lost one of the O’Neills, north of Omeath and a motte castle and a fifteenth century tower house near Narrow Water.
THE MIDDLE AGES
Carlingford was the most important port on Carlingford Lough throughout the Middle Ages and was listed as one of the three most important ports in Ulster (Louth was in Ulster until around the year 1600, when Leinster was extended northwards). Carlingford appears on all mediaeval and early modern maps of Ireland. It was involved in many of the wars of the turbulent 17th century, including being taken by ships.
In 1726 the customs authority(where import duties were paid) for Carlingford Lough was moved to Newry, showing that Newry had become the dominant port on the lough. Later in the 18th century a canal to Newry from Lough Neagh was built to allow coal barges, from Coalisland in County Tyrone, reach Newry on their way to Dublin. A ship canal was built south from Newry to allow ships access to the town’s quays from Carlingford Lough. In the 1850s the canal was extended, with a fine harbour being developed at the Albert Basin in Newry and sea-locks at the southern, lough end, named the Victoria Locks.
Though the canals continued in use well into the 20th century, they were already doomed. Greenore and Warrenpoint were developed as purpose-built ports in the second half of the 19th century and were connected to the national rail network through Dundalk and Newry.
The narrow waterside space along the foot of Fathom Mountain became packed with a railway line, a road and a ship canal, all crammed in on top of each other. In time, improved motor vehicles destroyed the economic relevance of the railway line and it joined the ship canal in redundancy. Now we are bringing back parts of the canal and the railway line as a commuting and leisure amenity.
BUILDING ON THE PAST
The Carlingford Lough Greenway will link Carlingford, through Omeath to the border, mostly along the former trackbed of the Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway. From Victoria Lock the Greenway runs along the Middle Bank that separates the ship canal from the estuary of the Newry River and links through to the Albert Basin in the centre of Newry. On the northern edge of Newry the Newry Canal Towpath provides an off-road walking and cycling experience that stretches all the way to Portadown and nearly to Lough Neagh.
It is hoped to connect through to other Greenways and off road cycling paths and networks and provide a resource not just for those wanting to bypass traffic jams on the way to and from work but for leisure walkers and cyclists also.