Engineering Water and Land Around Lough Neagh

Engineering Water and Land Around Lough Neagh

Blog by Dr Liam Campbell

There is a lot of civil engineering around the Bann and Lough  Neagh. I will return to this soon.

Our second youngest daughter wants to be a civil engineer. She loves reading about natural features, such as water and engineering and  we have  a profusion of old mills near where we live to interest her.  There are many moves to help and encourage women into this ancient profession but it historically hasn’t been easy for women to break into this job. But I have been doing some research. Women according to archaeological evidence throughout Europe and further afield, were primarily responsible for the collection of water from the wells  for domestic purposes – the archetypal ‘water carriers’. This iconic image connects with their reproductive role as literal and metaphorical ‘bearers of life’ .Women generally were responsible for the management of water resources. The worship of many female deities at that time suggests that they also enjoyed considerable  political and  religious equality and with more collective forms of resource ownership, greater economic parity as well. Much of the early water management was transferred to male monasteries and women become disenfranchised from the control of water. Although the invention of the water pump saved time – it was the beginning of the transfer of water management into the hands of male engineers : a process that led to the piping and culverting of water into more individuated domestic spaces whereas wells had been social spaces owned by everyone. People become consumers of water and the environmental relationships change. Nature is more associated with the female and the culture of controlling it becomes more male.

In 1795, Oliver Goldsmith wrote:

God has endowed is with abilities to turn this great extend of water to our own advantage. He has made these things, perhaps for other uses; but he has given is the faculties to conveet them to our own….Let us then boldly affirm, that the earth, amd all its wonders, are ours; since we are furnished with the powers to force then into our service.

We have made the earth simply a subject of our control and are reaping the consequences of this. History shows that the great empires such as China and Egypt were built upon central control of the waters of the great rivers and even in modern democracies the control of this vital resource is a powerful political position.


Coming from a household of females, I may be accused of bias but I will now return to the engineered landscape of Lough Neagh.  It is the largest fresh water lake in Britain and Ireland and draws water from five counties in Northern Ireland and one in the Republic of Ireland. Lough Neagh contains over 800 billion gallons of water. It is 15 kilometres wide, 25 kilometres long with a shore line of 125 kilometres. The catchment area for which the lough acts as a central reservoir is over 1,500 sq miles and it receives the flow of many major rivers, including the Blackwater, Ballinderry, Moyola, Upper Bann, Six Mile Water and Main.  The only outlet is by the Lower Bann river entering the sea below Coleraine. It has always been a holder of these waters but despite its size it is relatively shallow and therefore its capacity is not as great as might be expected.

The Lower Bann valley especially  is given to flooding. Prior to the mid19th century ‘lowerings’ some 25,000 acres was subject to regular intuition.  Shoals or submerged banks along the riverbed, especially at Toome, slow down the river’s flow.  In prehistoric times flooding was good as it enriched the land for the hunters and gatherers.  However, as people settled and started farming it has been seen as a threat. From the 1700s several schemes were proposed to deal with flooding and navigation, but with little success.

The Bishop of Down and Connor, Francis Hutchinson said

…..the waters which flow from so many sources can not possibly be discharged by the single outlet of the Bann but must, unless steps are taken to discharge the waters by clearing the obstruction of the river, be annually accumulated to the great detriment of the lands around.

( 1884 –  cited in the Report on the  Drainage of Lough Neagh by Robert Manning – Chief Engineer of the Board of Works, Dublin. )

In 1812 Thomas Townsend, an engineer with the Bog Commissioners in Ireland, suggested that river navigation could be improved by building canals and removing the shoals along the river.  The Drainage Act of 1842 was passed by the government to ease flooding and improve navigation of the Bann.

 McMahon’s Scheme

In 1844 canal engineer John McMahon was commissioned to create a navigation scheme for the Lower Bann.  His challenge was to help drainage, improve navigation and support fishing.  He proposed to build locks and weirs to lower winter flood levels and also store water to help with navigation. Nevertheless, in the degree of flood control and water storage existing in the Lough Neagh Basin, even in its natural state, McMahon recognised the great benefits bestowed by a large expanse of inland sea which was

…… placed by nature at a point of convergence of several powerful and turbulent rivers and streams, it receives and calms the impetuosity of these waters, rendering them fit for man’s use, and is almost without a parallel as to value amongst his industrial resources.


The most glowing anticipations of the benefits to be derived from the scheme in 1846  were conjured up as W. A. Mc Cutcheon the author of The Industrial Archaeology of Northern Ireland says. Doctors reported that there would be probable benefits in abating epidemics of fever; professors of geology discoursed on the economic value of the deposits of clay which would be exposed neat Toomebridge, and further south between Ardboe Point and Portadown – diatomite, peat, lignite and coal, sulphate of lime and sulphate  of iron; the Drainage Commissioner, Robert Harding, envisaged a vast improvement of the land that was liable to flooding. In short he felt everyone would benefit.

The five locks were created at Toome, Portna, Movanagher, Portna, Carnroe and the Cutts. They all had standard sized chambers, 130ft long by 20ft 6in wide (39.6m x 6.2m).   McMahon estimated the cost at £163,486.  He planned to make money with increased trade, more reclaimed land for farming and water power. Stone used for the various weirs, locks and banks came from excavated material and nearby quarries at Tamlaght, Movanagher and Toome.  Brick from Coalisland was used for the lock and lock-keeper’s house at Toome. Over 1500 men worked on the scheme at any one time. The Board of Works approved the scheme, known as the Lower Bann Navigation, which was implemented over 13 years (1847-1859).   The total cost came to £264.000 – over £100.000 more than the original estimate.

The scheme lowered the level of Lough Neagh by approx. 6ft (1.8m).  It reclaimed up to 30,000 acres of land round the shoreline for agriculture. It opened up river traffic between Lough Neagh and Coleraine. However, railways had started to overtake river traffic.  Belfast and Newry were also better placed for the shipment of goods along the canals to cross channel ships. In 1862 the Lower Bann Steamship Company started a service along the Lower Bann.  The Harland & Wolff built steamer Kitty of Coleraine offered a twice-weekly passenger and goods service between Coleraine and Toome.  But the service never took off and stopped in 1869.


Shepherd’s scheme

In 1929 the Ministry of Finance took over responsibility for the Lower Bann. They employed Major Percy Shepherd to address the issue of flooding along the Bann. Work on Shepherd’s scheme began in March 1930. Almost 4 million cu. m of non-rock material was dredged.  Sluice gates were installed at Toome, Portna and Cutts to regulate the flow of the river and control the water level of Lough Neagh. There were five gates at Toome with a fish pass in the centre.  A footbridge was also built to access them from the Co Antrim side.  The level of the river was monitored at water gauge stations at Toome and Camus. Three sets of flood gates and five sets of locks on the Lower Bann control the water level of Lough Neagh. Today, Lough Neagh is 3.6 metres lower than it was in 1847.

Back to the role of the female or not in all of these schemes to ‘control nature’. One wonders would or could these engineering changes  happen today?  There are many debates about flooding and flood defences. Is it good to try and culvert, control and embank water ? It is not easy if you live by a coast, a river or a lough that is prone to flooding but what are the long term answers ? Is hard engineering and ‘controlling nature ‘ (still mostly by men !) the answer?  In the Netherlands, Room for the River,  Ruimte voor de Rivier, is a government design plan intended to address flood protection, master landscaping and the improvement of environmental conditions in the areas surrounding the Netherlands’ rivers. We might have to make way again too!


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