Explore Lough Neagh with a Qualified Ambassador
Take an In-depth Trip Around the Shores of Lough Neagh with one – or more – of our Lough Neagh Ambassadors
Our Company Director, Fergal Kearney, recently completed the Lough Neagh Tourism Ambassadors Programme. Here, he looks back on the experience and tells you why you should book a trip to this fascinating, but largely undiscovered region.
I probably never thought I’d be telling you to explore Lough Neagh with a qualified ‘ambassador’, but today that is exactly what I am doing. I’ve spent nearly my entire life close to the shores of Lough Neagh. This vast expanse of water – the largest inland lake in Britain and Ireland – is unavoidable from most perspectives, sitting as it does right in the centre of Northern Ireland. But like many of us who have grown up on, or close to its shores few of us have barely scratched the surface of its unique environment, its history and heritage.
The Lough has always presented a barrier of sorts – both a physical, logistical one for the traveller; but also one of the imagination, particularly when it comes to tourism. What do we do with this natural behemoth has been a question long asked in council chambers and boardrooms. But like the toddler on the sandy beach at Ballyronan Marina, they have merely dabbled in the shallows rather than launch themselves gracefully into its depths.
Promoting Lough Neagh – What’s the Problem?
I have been involved in these musings for over 20 years now and when I worked for Tourism Northern Ireland – or NITB as it was then known. The mere mention of Lough Neagh provoked much head-scratching and shoulder shrugging from senior management – if not a barely stifled yawn. Likewise, in my time in local government, I was engaged with others in various efforts to develop and promote the region. With little real success.
Some of this has been to do with the myriad bodies with their equally myriad responsibilities – from local government to central government, the European Union, the fishermen and the sand dredgers and of course the owner of the lough bed itself, the Shaftesbury Estate. Unlike, say, a National Park (of which we have none in Northern Ireland) – where a management authority draws all these disparate elements together – there is no such medium to long term plan for the management and development of the area.
New Money – New Direction?
That is not to undermine the good work done by the likes of Lough Neagh and its Waterways and their sterling efforts to put the region on the Irish tourism map. More recently, thanks to an injection of cash from the Heritage Lottery Fund for Northern Ireland, the Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership was established. They have been grant-aided £2.49million to develop the unique natural, cultural and built heritage of Lough Neagh and its waterways.
The cynic will most likely look upon this cash injection as just another folly, yet this time I sense that there is something different. My generation – those that grew up during the troubles – have long been the most cynical when it comes to the very idea of tourism on and around Lough Neagh. Yet it is that very cynicism which is now evaporating as we reach a new maturity about just how significant and fabulous a place this is.
Ambassador – Too Big a Word?
It was no surprise therefore when I learned that one of the Landscape Partnerships first major initiatives was the rather grandly entitled ‘Lough Neagh Ambassadors Programme’. The partnership recruited 16 ambassadors from around the lough to develop tours that enable visitors to learn more about the rich built heritage and wild habitats around Lough Neagh. One such ambassador was myself.
For me, this was a remarkable journey. I would never have been bullish enough to call myself an expert on Lough Neagh, but in hindsight I was certainly an armchair amateur before this programme. The most revealing part of the 10 days were the many and varied stories of the Lough, told by those of us who grew up here. I visited places that I never knew existed; learned about customs that are being retained or revived; listened to compelling tales of war; of love and loss. But mostly I heard the voices of real people, full of passion and conviction, with real stories to tell – and told well!
Could this be another initiative with a fleeting moment in the sunlight before disappearing into the drawer of ‘Tried but Failed (again)’? I don’t think so. If there is one thing that I take from this journey, it is that our story is best told by the people who have lived it – not in some museum or on some information panel – personal experience articulated with a local voice and with passion and integrity. In today’s uncertain world, I think that the traveller will increasingly seek out this original, untainted voice.
And, oh boy, we have so many such voices here.
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All of our Lough Neagh Ambassadors are fully qualified Tour Guides and accredited World Hosts, each with their own speciality and unique style.
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