With the exception of salmon, fishing on Lough Neagh today is controlled by the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative, formed in 1965. The right to fish on Lough Neagh has been a hard won battle for the local fishermen because since the 17th century the rights belonged to a succession of aristocratic families until they were bought out by the Co-operative in 1972.
Prior to the Nine Years War (1594-1603), the Lough Neagh fisheries had been in the control of the various Gaelic lords who ruled the lands surrounding the Lough, the last being Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, though those living around the Lough fished there at will. After surrendering to the Crown, O’Neill retained his land and title but his rights to the Bann fishery were stripped from him in 1604 by James I in a bid to diminish O’Neill’s power. It was the Crown’s intention to lease the fishery to the London Society, who would later play an important role in the Plantation of Ulster. However, it was the newly appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Arthur Chichester, who gained control of both of the Bann fishery and Lough Neagh, allegedly through forged patents and without royal approval. It must be noted though that the London Society did manage to secure the salmon and trout fisheries of the Lower Bann at Coleraine.
When Chichester died in 1625, his estate passed to his son-in-law and heir Viceroy Wentworth, who was later forced to surrender the fishing rights of Lough Neagh and the non-tidal Bann to Charles I and so the rights once again reverted to the crown. The Viceroy’s father had been the Lord Deputy of Ireland and beheaded by Charles I in 1641 under pressure from Parliament. It is probable that Wentworth was forced to surrender his rights not long after this. In 1656 Lough Neagh was leased to Sir John Clothworthy, 1st Viscount Masereene, for a period of 99 years by his friend Oliver Cromwell, who had established the Commonwealth after the beheading of Charles I in 1649. After Cromwell’s death in 1661 the lease was deemed illegal by the new king, Charles II. Subsequently, the king granted the fishing rights of the Bann and Lough Neagh to Lord Donegall, grand-nephew of Sir Arthur Chichester. These rights were retained by the Donegall family through the 18th and 19th centuries but passed to the Shaftsbury family after the death of the 3rd Marquis of Donegall in 1883; the Marquis’ estate being inherited by his daughter Harriet who had married the 8th Earl of Shaftsbury in 1857.
The eel fishery became commercially important in the latter years of the 19th century and competition between local fishermen and those leasing fishing rights from the Shaftsburys, such as Lord O’Neill of Shane’s Castle who leased the Toome fisheries in the 1830’s, lead to a series of legal and physical encounters. The Shaftsburys wishing to enforce their control on the fisheries in the early 1870’s won a case against the fishermen. However, this was successfully appealed in 1878, though the banning of net fishing in Toome Bay was upheld. The main bone of contention for the fishermen was whether or not Charles II was in control of Lough Neagh when he granted the fisheries to Lord Donegall in 1661. If it were proved that he was not, then the granting of the fisheries to Donegall would be deemed illegal and therefore the Shaftsburys would have no legal claim to the fisheries. This matter was brought to court in 1911 but against the express wishes of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Ashbourne, the court found against the fishermen.
The Toome Eel Fishery Ltd was established in 1925, having leased the fishing rights of the Lough and non-tidal Bann from the Shaftsbury Estate. They sold on the lease to a Dutch company in 1959, which in 1962 were granted a legal extension of the 1911 injunction to cover the whole of the Lough. The local fishermen contested this ruling but again the court found against them. Undaunted, they formed the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Association in 1963 and by 1966 had managed to raise enough money to buy a 20 percent share in the Dutch company. Finally in 1971 the Association bought the remaining shares and so gained control of the fishing on Lough Neagh which is now managed under the Fishermen’s Co-operative which is based at Toomebridge.
It must be noted that the Shaftsbury Estate still own the bed of the Lough and the surrounding shore, and control all access onto the Lough which is leased to the various marinas and harbours. However, despite this a Right of Way exists on the western shore at Curran’s Quay, Kinturk, which is the only public right of way onto the Lough.
Traditionally fishing on Lough Neagh has been a family occupation and fishing families are found dotted along the Lough’s shoreline. The main concentrations of fishing families are in Mooretown, Ballymaguigan and Killycoply on the western shore; Ballyvannon on the east shore; and Doss on the north shore. According to Danny Donnelly in his book On Lough Neagh’s Shores there were 500 fishermen in employment in 1980. However, this had decreased dramatically over the last 30 years with an estimate of only 100 fishermen working on the Lough.