History of this beautiful area began 5.5 billion years ago, but this area was not here then, and there were no people here to record the history.
Long ago movement of a techtonic plate set this land where it is now. Techtonic plate action also moved what is now North America from where the English Channel is now, across the ocean a few inches a year to where America and Canada and Mexico are now. (Note: South America came from Africa)
Hundreds of Ice ages came and went with no people to see them, but finally before the last ice age people were known to have lived in caves in Europe. Earliest signs of people in this area was discovered in Wales.
What would become Ulster now, at that time was connected to England/Wales by two land bridges, one at each end of the Irish Sea which due to ice melt was then a frest water lake.
What would become England now was connected to Europe, so there was no English Channel yet.
But the geographical and geological situation then implies that neanderthal people could have walked to Ireland.
As the last ice age wained and ice sheets covering the land was melting away, about 10,000 years ago, people in small groups began walking around the Irish Sea on dry land to settle here.
But as the ice continued to melt the level of the ocean rose above the low ridges and the ocean spilled into and the Irish Sea became salt water. After that event people had to use boats to get to Ireland.
So who were those early people who came to Ireland? All we have to go on are records written after writing was invented, and tales told by monks and bards, stories passed down verbatum generation by generation around family camp fires on cold winter nights, finally to be recorded on paper by the annals of the Four Masters.
People have lived around Lough Neagh since pre historic times, and the Lough contains has array of ancient sites, artefacts and ruins, in mute testimony to human habitation.
Legends tell several versions of how Lough Neigh was made but scientists have a scientific explanation for the formation of the Lough.
It was formed by a tectonic fault and depression over 400 million years ago during the Caledonian period.
Then 65 million years ago intense volcanic activity started around the Lough area. As The Pleistocene period started over 1.8 million years ago the land suffered the arrival of a major ice age with most of Ireland covered with ice sheets.
The eventual retreat of these ice sheets 10,000 years ago created the geological opportunity for first humans to come to Ireland and settle on the shores of the Lough.
The people of Mesolithic times were hunters and gatherers who survived by hunting animals and birds, catching fish and gathering wild berries, nuts and fruit. They were often on the move to make sure they had enough to eat.
They used flint, bones and wood to make tools and weapons. At first they used pieces of flint called microliths but later on learned to make larger, stronger flint tools.
It is believed that the Mesolithic settlers lived in small groups building settlements in key areas, near sources for food and flint to make tools.
One of the most famous Mesolithic Settlement in Ireland was Mount Sandel in Coleraine, County Derry. It is known to be the oldest human settlement in Ireland. Archaeologists have dated that site to 7600-7900 BC. During the excavation circular huts, rubbish, flint working areas and storage pits were found.
Other mesolithic sites around the Lough have been found including a site at Toome were the Lough and the river Bann meet and on Coney Island in the south eastern shores of the Lough.
At around 4000 BC archaeologists have identified that forests around the shores of the Lough were cleared for farm land.
They cut down trees with axes made from a rock called porcellanite. These axes have been found at Toome, the Creagh and Shanes Castle. Also Neolithic pottery have been found at Newferry and Langford Lodge.
Between 2500 and 2000 BC people around the shores of the Lough began to learn how to work with metal. Copper was used first, and around 2000BC bronze began to be used.
Stone was still used for hundreds of years as the Neolithic period came to an end and Lough Neagh entered the Bronze Age. Bronze Age artefacts found include a riveted spearhead from Derrymacash townland, a bronze socketed axe head from the river Blackwater and a bronze sword from Maghery.
At around 500 BC the the people learned to use iron which became more prevalent from 300 BC to 400 AD, known in time as the Iron Age.
The first arrival of Christianity not well documented due to a paucity of settlement and artefacts linked to religion.
Christianity apparently arrived in Ireland in the fifth century and its impact on Ulster was significant. This period witnessed the building of ring forts and raths found around the shores of the Lough.
The north corner of the Lough near Antrim has a high number of raths and ring forts.
A ring fort was a small settlement surrounded by one or more earthen embankments in a circular shape. The banks served as enclosures for cattle and sheep, and to keep wild animals out.
The monastic sites started in the 6th century and are still found today around the Lough with monastic settlements at Antrim, Ardboe and Rams Island.
The Round Tower in Antrim is the only remaining monument of the monastery founded by St Comgall of Bangor in the 6th century. The Tower stands 92 feet tall, and has a ringed cross carved in relief on a stone above the lintel of the doorway on the north-eastern portion of the tower.
Ardboe High Cross, on the western shores of the Lough is all that now remains of a sixth century monastery, which was established at Arboe by St. Colman Muchaidhe. The monastery itself was burned in 1166. Rams Island also has the remains of a round tower build in the mid ninth century but part of an earlier monastery. .
The Vikings came two periods between 795 AD and 914 AD.
Annals of Ulster record Viking raids on Bangor, Armagh and the churches on Lough Erne. In 839 AD, the Vikings reached Lough Neagh, wintering in 840/41 AD and used this as a base to plunder churches in the north of Ireland.
The medieval period 1150- 1550 saw invasion by Anglo-Normans. The physical remains of these new people can again be seen around the shores of the Lough through the initial Motte and Bailey structures at Antrim, Balloo and Coney Island. The Nomans weere invaders, but they were also religious.
During the nine year war between 1594 and 1603, Lough Neagh and its rivers was the strategic military between the remaining Irish clans and the English Elizabethan forces.
Irish chieftains Hugh O Neil of Tir Eoghan and Hugh O Donnell of Tir Chonail conducted protracted War with battles along the Blackwater River against English Commanders such as Henry Bagenal and Robert Deveraux, the 2nd Earl of Essex.
The removal of the second Earl of Essex by Lord Mountjoy launched an expansion of the War and the focus was on the shores of Lough Neagh. The Lough was seen as a way of penetrating into the heart of Tyrone and Arthur Chichester organised constant war parties onto the western shores using a policy of slash and burn.
To counteract this O’Neill built forts along the western shore at Toome, opposite the English fort which was located along the now eastern bank of the Toome Canal, and at the church sites of Ballinderry, Arboe and Clanoe. A major bridgehead and fort was established in the south eastern shores of the Lough and remains of Mountjoy Castle can be seen today.
The defeat of the Irish forces at Kinsale and the flight of the main Irish Chieftains to mainland Europe in 1604, The Flight of the Earls, launched the plantations of Ulster on land owned by the Irish Chiefs. The importance of the Lough again saw plantations with fortified English and Scottish Bawns and towns being built at Bellaghy and Salterstown.