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Open Country
Sat  6.10 - 6.35am
Thurs 1.30 - 2.00pm (rpt)
Local people making their corner of rural Britain unique
This week
Saturday 20 January 2007
Listen to this programme in full
In this week’s Open Country, Helen Mark visits Coney Island in Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland.
Coney Island lies a mile off shore from the village of Maghery, in the south west corner of Lough Neagh, the UK’s largest inland lake.

Peter McClelland is the only resident living on Coney Island taking up the job as warden 8 years ago when poor health demanded that he took a less stressful way of life. Now he enjoys the tranquillity of this 8 acre bird sanctuary that boasts a long history. There has been human habitation on Coney since Mesolithic times, around 8,000 years ago, when iron was taken from the Sperrins to be smelted there. Not only were they making pots and pans, but also knives of various kinds, which were so vital to every day living that they were currency and what better way to protect your wealth than by keeping it on an island. There is also a Norman round tower, the most westerly one in the UK and several features dating back to when the island was latterly owned by Alfred Lord Charlemont, as his summer residence. The island is now owned by the National Trust and managed by Craigavon Borough Council.

In the 5th century onwards, Coney Island was a site of pilgrimage with hundreds crossing over on the causeway from Maghery whenever the waters of the lough receded. This may have meant waiting several years and so Maghery had one of the largest rural populations at that time. As Tommy Glenny of  the South Lough Neagh Regeneration Association  explains its pivotal position made it in later years an important trading centre with the Maghery Cut Canal, joining up to the Coalisland canal, thought to be the first commercial canal in UK, built back in 1733.

Access to the island has always been possible by the traditional Irish boat, the currach, the design of which probably originates from Mesolithic times when it was a simple skin boat. Helen is taken out on Lough Neagh in a currach built by sculptor Holger Lonze. He is a member of the Lough Neagh Boating HeritageAssociation, which encourages community spirit by making these low cost eco-friendly craft.

David Griffiths works at the University of Ulster, in Coleraine and has made various studies on two special species of fish, which can be found in Lough Neagh, the dollaghan, which is a variety of brown trout, and the pollan. This is a glacial relict, a species associated with very cold conditions which was left behind as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. It has a very unusual distribution because the next populations outside of Northern Ireland are in Arctic Canada and in the Arctic Ocean east of the Urals.
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