The only places in the east of County Tyrone that could be described as anything more than villages are the rather drab towns of Cookstown and Dungannon. The dominant feature is the western shore of Lough Neagh, and there are a number of relics of both the region’s historical heritage, such as the high cross at Ardboe, and its more recent industrial past at the Wellbrook Beetling Mill, close to Cookstown. The village of Benburb, to the south, is one of the most attractively situated in the North.
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Lough Neagh and Ardboe
Lough Neagh and Ardboe
According to legend, Lough Neagh (pronounced “nay”) owes its origins to the mythical giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who was so unimpressed by east Tyrone’s low-lying terrain that he took a massive lump of land from Ulster and hurled it across the Irish Sea. It landed midway and became the Isle of Man, and the hole it left behind became the lough. Its shores provide excellent fishing and plenty of bird life, though both the surrounding land and lake itself are almost featureless. Small settlements house eel fishermen, whose catches go to the Toome Eel Fishery at Toome at the northern tip of the lake.
Slight relief is to be found at lakeside ARDBOE, halfway along the lough’s western shore, where there’s a tenth-century high cross. The elements have eroded the various biblical scenes carved onto the sandstone almost beyond recognition, but its exceptional size – almost six metres high – is impressive. The cross stands in the grounds of an early monastery associated with St Colman, but the ruined church nearby dates from the seventeenth century and is of little interest. On a humid day in early summer, you’ll also not fail to be impressed by the swarms of black Lough Neagh mayflies.
Seven miles northwest of Armagh, the picturesque village of BENBURB merits a detour. Main Street’s tiny cottages were once apple-peeling sheds, and the parish church, dating from 1618, is one of the oldest still in regular use in Ireland. It stands next to the gates of a Servite priory – the monastic order of Servants of the Virgin, which, though founded in Florence in 1233, did not establish itself in Ireland until 1948. The priory grounds offer a pleasant stroll, but far better are the walks along the Blackwater River in Benburb Valley Park (daily 9am–dusk; free), accessed from Main Street, where, perched on a rock thirty metres or so above the water, are the substantial remains of a castle built by Viscount Powerscourt in 1615, which offer commanding views of the Blackwater valley.