The Derry–Antrim A6 road follows a river valley through fertile farming land before reaching Dungiven, a former political and religious power-base with ruined evidence of its former glories, then ascends to the Glenshane Pass on the northeastern fringe of the Sperrin Mountains. Southeast from here are Magherafelt and Moneymore, two attractive and entirely planned towns, the latter adjacent to the grand Plantation manor house of Springhill. The huge expanse of Ireland’s biggest lake, Lough Neagh, laps against the county’s southeastern corner and here too is one of the must-see sights of the entire North, Bellaghy Bawn castle.
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DUNGIVEN, some twenty miles southeast of Derry, is a fairly unremarkable town, though it does harbour one or two ruins of interest, including the ruined Augustinian Dungiven Priory. Originally a stronghold of the O’Cahan clan, Dungiven was given to the Skinners’ Company of London to settle in the seventeenth century. The remains of the O’Cahan fortifications are incorporated into the newly restored castle, whose battlemented outline gives Dungiven a particularly historic aspect when approached from the south. The castle dates back to 1839 and is set in 22 acres of parkland with views across to the Sperrins. During World War II, it was used as a dance hall by American troops, and in 1971 it was the scene of an attempt to set up an independent Northern Ireland parliament. Following restoration work, it now houses upmarket guesthouse accommodation and a restaurant.
East of Magherafelt and Moneymore are the fish-filled waters of the biggest lake in Ireland, Lough Neagh. Tributaries flow from every point of the compass: the Lower Bann, which drains the lake and runs north to Lough Beg (finally reaching the sea north of Coleraine), contains some huge trout, including the dollaghan, unique to these waters. Similar to salmon – which are also common – dollaghan grow by three pounds every year and can be caught by spinning, worming and fly-fishing: the Ballinderry Black and the Bann Olive are famous flies derived from this region. The best fishing is from mid-July to October but you will need a Fisheries Conservation Board Rod licence, available from tourist offices. Information on day-tickets for fishing and specialist boat-trips, respectively issued and run by the Lough Neagh Angling Association, can also be obtained from the tourist office.
One of the best surviving examples of a plantation castle is Bellaghy Bawn, built in 1618 by the Vintners’ Company. Most of its fortifications were lost in 1641, but it still retains a striking circular flanker tower which has been well restored. Inside you’ll find fascinating interpretive displays explaining the 7000-year-old history of the settlements in this area, the construction of the village – today’s houses still occupy the same original allocated plots of land – and the diverse ecology of the Lough Beg wetland area. The real treasure here, however, is the dedication of much of the Bawn’s space to one of the world’s greatest living poets, Seamus Heaney, who was born and raised nearby. Heaney himself is the star of a unique and atmospheric film showing in the Bawn, A Sense of Place, in which he reflects on the influence of his upbringing, local character and landmarks on his poetry. His father, for instance, rented grazing rights on the strand at Lough Beg; in his poem Ancestral Photograph, Heaney recalls helping to herd the cattle that grazed there down Castle Street on their way to market. Prints of other poems are displayed on the walls of various rooms, and the Bawn’s library contains the ultimate collection of his works, including first drafts and extremely limited editions.
You can see the shimmering Lough Beg from the windows of the flanker tower, and a stroll down to the lake is well worthwhile. In summer, its waters recede and Church Island becomes accessible from the shore. Besides a walled graveyard, you’ll find the ruins of a medieval church here, said to have been founded centuries before by the ubiquitous St Patrick, with a tower and spire added in 1788 by the eccentric Frederick Augustus Hervey to improve his view from Ballyscullion House on the mainland nearby. He commissioned Charles Lanyon to build a huge replacement for the original house which stood here, with, apparently, 365 windows, but died abroad before ever moving in, and the building subsequently fell into ruin.
The plantation towns
The plantation towns
Southeast of Dungiven and over the Glenshane Pass on the way to the northern tip of Lough Neagh, it is worth making a detour to see some interesting examples of town planning – the plantation towns of the London companies, most of them characteristically focused around a central Diamond.
One such town is MAGHERAFELT, granted to the Salters’ Company by James I, which has a wide, sloping main street and makes a reasonable base for exploring the lough and the Bellaghy area. MONEYMORE, about five miles further south, was originally constructed by the Drapers in the early seventeenth century (and restored by them in 1817), and was the first town in the North to have piped water – amazingly enough, as early as 1615.
A mile outside town off the B18, Springhill is a grand plantation manor-house built between 1680 and 1700 by William “Good- Will” Conygham in order to fulfil a marriage contract with the father of his bride- to-be, Anne Upton. Elegant both without and within, its sober whitewashed architecture houses fine rooms, equipped with original period furniture and paintings belonging to William and his descendants, who occupied the house until 1959. Upstairs, the Blue Room is said to be haunted by the ghost of Olivia Lenox- Conyngham, whose husband George was found shot here in 1816. Outside, the stables house a costume collection, which adopts a specific theme each year, drawing upon three thousand items collected from the mid-seventeenth century to the 1970s. There are also delightful gardens, a tower dating from the 1730s, which was probably originally part of a windmill, and a pleasant walk through beech and yew trees.