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.