General superstitions, or freets as they are sometimes known, are those relating to fairies, ghosts, banshees and the Devil and the misfortunes associated with them. Stories about the fairies or sí are the most prolific. Their dwelling sites which we now know to be ráths or ringforts (farmsteads of the Early Christian period) were considered sacred and it was bad luck for farmers to disturb these sites. Stories abound of the misfortune befalling those who did not heed common sense, such as cows being deprived of their milk or in extreme cases death of the farmer. The same belief was attached to thorn or “fairy” trees. Even today the thorn tree holds a remarkable power amongst those who would ordinarily be deemed sensible and many a new development has had to be altered in order to accommodate the presence of such a tree. The O.S.Memoirs for the Parish of Antrim makes mention of a 19th century cure for a cow which has been deprived of its milk by the fairies (said to be “elfshot”). The remedy was for the afflicted cow to be “given a drink in which a little salt, a flint arrowhead and a crooked sixpence have been dipped”. Flint arrowheads which we now know to be the tools of prehistoric man were thought to be “elf stones” and as such would cure those cursed by the fairies. Witches were believed to have to power of taking away luck or the milk of cows and could turn themselves into hares. The Devil frequently turned up in stories often taking the form of a black dog. Other beliefs were more mundane: a strange dog or cat coming to a house would bring luck; ears feeling warm indicated that you were being talked about; and if the eyes were itchy that a stranger will soon sleep in the house. Whilst most of these beliefs were and still are common throughout Northern Ireland, stories that directly related to Lough Neagh and its environs are known and related below.
Fairies were reported in Roskeen, southwest corner of the Lough. There is a story that the King of the Fairies announced that they were going to battle at Glenarm, Co. Antrim and that if the well at Roskeen turned blood red they would never return. The well did turn red and the fairies were never seen there again. (Source Jim Canning, The Way It Used To Be). The fairies were said to inhabit Ram’s Island. They were seen leaving Lord O’Neill’s summer house one morning by the Robert and Jane Cardwell, who were caretakers of the island, and one of the fairies was so bold as to tip his cap at them! (Source: Michael Savage, Islands of Lough Neagh)
Originally the Dublin to Coleraine coach passed through Roskeen before the Maghery Canal and new Ferry road were built. In recent memory those living close to the road reported of hearing horses’ hooves and clatter of iron wheels during the night as the phantom coach raced passed. (Source Jim Canning, The Way It Used To Be)
The Black Dog’s Arch was an arch under the road between Toome and Castledawson where a ghost dog was last seen as recently as WWII. While the ghost dog made no motion to attack, it frightened the many people who saw it. ( Source Ulster Folklife, Vol. 8, 1962)
Balluan stones are large boulders with circular depressions in them which are found close to old church sites. Today they are recognised by archaeologist as being grinding stones used by the monks to grind grain into flour, but traditionally locals and antiquarians believed them to be druidic altars. There were also known as warting stones where people went to have their warts cured and as cursing stones. Apparently to put a curse on somebody three pebbles would be placed within the depression and the curse would be caste. However should the curse be unjustified it would turn back on the one who cast it. Let that be a warning! (Source Jim Canning, Days Gone By)
A rather strange belief noted in the O.S. Memoirs for the parish of Aghallon (O.S. Memoirs Antrim VII) was that frogs do not inhabit Lough Neagh since the days of St. Patrick. The recorder for the parish attested that this was the case in an experiment conducted by inhabitants for him whereby frogs collected from local marshes and cast into the lough returned to the shore immediately. The locals believed that this was peculiar to Lough Neagh alone.
Shane’s Castle was destroyed by fire in 1816. It is believed that the fire started in the chimney of a dressing room where a bird had built it’s nest. At the time a party was being held in the castle. As the fire took hold the guest fled the building and gathered on the grounds outside. One of the guests, a Captain Greer who was a country magistrate from Randalstown, recounted afterwards that he had seen a person dressed in armour pass by one of the upstairs’ windows several times. As the building had been evacuated by this time, there was no reasonable explanation for what the Captain saw. Whether it was a ghostly apparition or a trick of the light caused by flickering flames we shall never know. (Image: Ruins of Shane’s Castle. Click here to enlarge image)
On the outside of the eastern wall of the south wing of the castle is a black stone measuring approximately 23cm in length by 15cm in breadth and 7cm thick upon which has been carved a melancholic face known locally as the ‘Black Face’. It is said that should the stone fall or be destroyed so too shall the O’Neill family at Shane’s Castle. The Black Face is within the oldest part of the castle, the tower-house, which is 15th or 16th century in date. The castle stands in the townland of Edenduffcarrick, a corruption of the Irish Éadan Dúcharraige or ‘brow of the black rock’ and may in fact reference an earlier Anglo-Norman motte on the bank of the River Maine, approximately 2km to the southwest. However, the literal translation of éadan is ‘front’ or ‘face’ and it may be that the townland took its name from the carved head of the black stone instead. (Image: Black Face, Shane’s Castle. Copyright: Ordnance Survey Memoirs, Vol 19)
Legend has it that when the monastery was being built at Ardboe, the Lough ran dry and there was no water to mix the mortar. The monks prayed for rain but then a cow rose out of the Lough bed and provided them with milk to mix the mortar. The memory of this legend is preserved in the name Ardboe – Irish Ard Bó, ‘the height (ard) of the cow (bó)’.
A common belief amongst all inhabitants of Lough’s shores was the ability of the Lough to turn wood to stone which appears in direct conflict with the curative properties of the Lough mentioned above. However, it was widely mentioned in the O.S. Memoirs and is still mentioned by locals today. P.W. Joyce writing in 1911 remarked of this belief