At least 100 fishermen earn an income from Lough Neagh and the lake supports a sand extraction industry and various water sports. But many do not know that the 150 square mile lake is actually owned by an English estate.
The eel fishery became commercially important in the 19th century and competition between local fishermen and those leasing fishing rights led to a series of legal and physical disputes.
The rights to the eel fishery on Lough Neagh – along with the bed and soil of the lough – were granted by Charles II to Lord Donegall in 1661.
The main bone of contention for fishermen was whether Charles II legally owned Lough Neagh when he made that grant. The dispute formed a landmark case heard by the House of Lords in 1911, where it was decided that Charles II was within the remit of the law.
Ownership has since been passed to the Chichester family and their descendants, members of the Shaftesbury Estate, who currently own rights to the lough.
In the late 1950s a Dutch firm and four main eel wholesalers in London’s Billingsgate Market joined together and formed Toome Eel Fishery Ltd. In 1963 the company won a judgement giving it the exclusive right to the eel fishery on the River Bann and Lough Neagh.
This meant that local fishermen needed permission from the company and had to sell their catch to the company at a price that it set. Eventually the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Association registered as a trade union to represent the fishermen.
In 1965 one of the five shareholders in Toome Eel Fishery proposed to sell its 20 per cent holding and local people formed a co-operative to purchase the share for £83,000. They subscribed about £43,000 and the balance was lent by the bank. Fr Oliver Plunkett Kennedy, who was the curate in the Toome area at the time, was appointed as managing director of the co-operative. However, he had never fished before and says it was something he had “never intended to do”.
With hard work and determination, six years later the co-operative had made enough profit to pay back the bank and buy out the remaining 80 per cent shareholding, meaning they now had full control of the lough.
However, the co-operative still has to pay £500 every year to the Shaftesbury Estate in order to retain the fishing licence. Until 2005, the fact that the Shaftesburys owned the rights was relatively unknown. The history unravelled when Lord Shaftesbury was found murdered in the Alps and the rights to Lough Neagh were passed on to his family.
Fr Kennedy says that many local people still do not know the owners of the lough: “We pay a licence to Shaftesbury estate to fish the lough. Nobody is terribly fussy about it. It’s not an issue in so long as we pay them every year.”
He adds: “The Shaftesbury estate has the sand extracting rights to the lough as well. The sand merchants were pursued and they are paying so much for every tonne of sand they take out. So the Shaftesburys are doing very nicely out of it.”
Fr Kennedy is the only person within the association who can authorise fishing licences: “We don’t actually encourage people to get licences because there are too many licences and too many eels caught. Anyone who is interested has to put in an application form to the co-operative. Unless they get a licence from us they are not entitled to fish.”
He says that the eel fishery is still an important trade for many: “For over 20 years we have paid fishermen about £64 million for their eels. They benefit from it and local people benefit from it. The fishermen are scattered right around the lough.”
The co-operative’s main markets are Holland and Germany with significant quantities also going to London. All the eels are then transported by the co-operative to Belfast from where they are shipped by air. Although expensive, this means of transport guarantees that the product arrives in the best possible condition as quickly as possible.
Fr Kennedy explains: “We have lorries that go around the lough every morning and collect eels. The eels that were caught on Lough Neagh this morning will be in Holland tomorrow morning at about 6am and then they are smoked and sold.”
“There is no doubt about it,” he adds, “the Lough Neagh eel is regarded as the best eel you can get.”