The Foyle area has a rich maritime heritage dating back thousands of years. The area is one of the longest-inhabited parts of the island of Ireland. Its earliest inhabitants were attracted by the bountiful food in its rivers and offshore. There’s evidence that people lived close to modern day Derry~Londonderry as early as the Bronze Age, four thousand years ago.
Waves of would-be colonisers, plunderers and traders arrived by sea. Colmcille founded a monastery in Derry~Londonderry in the sixth century before leaving – on a boat – to found another on the Scottish island of Iona. Vikings first came in their longboats in 833, being defeated by the Cenél Eóghain King of Aileach, Nial Caille.
The first Normans arrived late in the twelfth century, plundering local churches and fighting many battles with local warriors. In the early fourteenth century, the Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh, tried unsuccessfully to build a town on what was then the ‘island of Derrie’.
Sir Henry Docwra enjoyed more success in May 1600 when he arrived by ship with thousands of troops to begin the colonisation of ‘the Derry’ on a navigable river close to the sea. Within four years James I had granted a royal charter creating the city of ‘Derrie’, pre-cursing its subsequent plantation.
The last four centuries embellished the Foyle area’s maritime heritage. The Spanish Armada vessel, La Trinidad Valencera, sank off Inishowen in 1588. In 1689, the relief ship, the Mountjoy, broke the ‘boom’ across the Foyle to end the Great Siege of Derry. Over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the city’s quay became the departure point for tens of thousands of emigrants seeking new lives overseas. During the Second World War, Londonderry Port played a decisive part in the Battle of the Atlantic and was the scene of the formal surrender of the German U-Boat fleet in May 1945.
Two imposing prehistoric monuments, Proleek portal tomb in the grounds of the Ballymascanlon Hotel and Kilfeaghan portal tomb on a local farm, provide evidence of human life – and death – on the Cooley peninsula 4,500 years ago.
The town of Carlingford has far more recent origins. Its name sounds Scandinavian but is derived from the gaelic ‘cairlainn’ (meaning bay of the hag) and the Norse word ‘fjord’. The lough would have made an ideal Viking base but, contrary to widely-held beliefs, there’s no evidence that they actually settled there.
Carlingford was founded by the Normans over 800 years ago and owes its existence to the sea. Around the end of the twelfth century, the Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy – anxious to defend the southern approaches to the Earldom of Ulster – built a castle on a rocky outcrop of rock, around which a settlement began to flourish.
In its first few centuries, Carlingford flourished. The Lough was a rich herring fishery, and an abundant source of mussels and oysters (the latter were renowned across Europe and Carlingford still holds an annual oyster festival every August).
In the seventeenth century, though, wars took their toll and the 18th century collapse of the herring fishery proved ruinous. The failure to develop any form of heavy industry was a setback to the economy but proved to be a godsend for today’s tourism industry. Carlingford’s medieval layout and many of its historic landmarks were preserved, prompting the scholar, Rev. Laurence Murray, to describe it as ‘a gold mine to the antiquarian’.
Water-based activities are at the heart of the area’s popularity with visitors today. Newry Maritime Association has developed a trail which commemorates the area’s greatest maritime tragedy, the collision between the SS Connemara and the SS Retriever in which almost 100 lives were lost. And the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland has a long-term ambition to restore Newry canal and reconnect Carlingford Lough with Lough Neagh.