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Loughbeg is situated on the lower Bann near the village of Toome between counties Antrim and Derry. It is dotted with some small islands the best known being "Church Island" where, it is said, St Patrick spent some time and left the impression of his knees and hands on a large stone by the water's edge, a stone that can still be seen today and which is reputed to have various healing powers. A monastic settlement was founded on the island, maybe as far back as the 5th Century, by St Thaddeus who is buried there. The settlement continued until the middle of the 16th Century and the Church acted as Parish Church until its burning in the early years of the Ulster Plantation.

Church Island

It is known that the Church was in ruin by the year 1603 but in the troubled year of 1798 many women and children were forced to take shelter on the islands of Lough Beg. Mass was often celebrated within the " roofless walls of the ancient church ".

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The feast day of St Thaddeus falls on the 7th September and the annual pilgrimage to the island in honour of the Saint still takes place on the first Sunday in September. Pilgrims can walk to the island from the County Derry side as Church Island is not an 'island' as such insofar as only three of its sides are surrounded by water, with the passing of time and in particular after the dredging of the River Bann in the 1930s, the water on the west side of the island has receded although in bad weather the swollen River Bann again completely surrounds the island.

The beauty of Lough Beg and Church Island and its historical background has inspired several writers both in song and verse.

These lines taken from the "Song of Church Island" express the last sentiments of a brave young sailor, who was born in the nearest house on the Derry side adjoining Church Island and who died in San Francisco.

    By mountain and valley , by lake, shore and island,
    Where the Bann's crystal waters flow down to the sea,
    By bogland and meadow, by woodland and highland,
    I've wandered full often o'er brake, fen and lea.

    When the pale autumn moon lit up the Church Island,
    Or lay mirror'd deep in the Lough's crystal tide,
    Where clear in its depths shone the fame of my fathers,
    Where the dust of my kindred repose side by side.

    And soon shall I follow across that lone border,
    Where Eternity's hill-tops loom mystic and drear;
    But Lough Beg and the Island shall ne'er hold the stranger,
    For the hopes of my youth time are withered and sere.

    Yet Erin mavoureen still green be thy valleys,
    Thy mountains and woodland, thy bogland and lea;
    And calm may they sleep in the wave-washed Church Island,
    Where the Bann's crystal waters flow down by the sea.

The artist W J Bradley wrote these lines a few years before his death:

    Romantic Lough Beg bejewelled by moonlight,
    And lonely Church Island where brave hearts are still.
    With palette and brush I dare to reveal you,
    In voilet green beauty you make my heart thrill.

    In September each year you can see pilgrims wending.
    For the Rosary Turas in the soft gaelic tongue,
    While their fervent petition to him are ascending,
    In your gnawned ruin their sweet echoes hum.

It was inevitable in this historical and beautiful place that the revival of our music, song, dance and language, organised through CCE, would eventually touch the shores of Lough Beg.


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