The folklore of almost every culture holds a special significance for liminal spaces, the in-between places, and Lough Foyle, the lake that lies between the north-eastern edge of Donegal and the north-western edge of County Londonderry (or Derry – opinions differ) is no different. The lough was never officially given to either side in the Partition of Ireland in 1922, and afterwards both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland claimed it as their territory. In fact even to this day both still regard it as “theirs”, although the actual administration of the lough is handled by a cross-border joint body established under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This lough, then, lies in between the two countries, neither truly of one or the other – a fitting state for a place whose name comes from the depths of ancient myth.
There is an old folk tale about the origin of Lough Foyle, which claims that the name of it means “the borrowed lough”. This story says that a witch who lived in the area asked her younger sister from Connemara (the wilderness on the western edge of Ireland) for the loan of a lake. The Connemara witch rolled the lake up and sent it to her, only for her sister to then refuse to give it back. This is not, however, the most common legend of the origin of the lake. The Irish name of the lake is Loch Feabhail Mic Lodain, and the name is said to come from one of the Tuatha de Danaan, who drowned in the lake. As to how he drowned in the lake? Well, the history of Ireland written by 17th century priest and historian Seathrún Céitinn (who was drawing on older works such as the Annals of the Four Masters, one of the oldest Irish histories) claims that eighty-one years after the Tuatha landed in Ireland, nine lakes “burst over land”, and Lough Foyle was one of them. This could, of course, simply mean that it flooded and he perished in the floods, but many of those who read it thought that it meant that the lake did not even exist before then – including our friend Maghtochair, who dismissed the story of the Grianan having been built around a stone from Lough Foyle by pointing out that the lake did not exist until 81 years after the Tuatha landed, which would not tie in with it having been built by their first chief.
The lough is the outflowing of the River Foyle, which takes its name from the lake. It begins from where the Finn and Mourne rivers join, at the border between Donegal and Tyrone where the towns of Strabane and Lifford face each other over the water. The circumstances of this place “where three rivers meet” is, a taxi driver once solemnly assured me, proof positive that the Holy Grail is concealed somewhere in the neighbourhood. The river then makes its way across the country to the city of Derry (or Londonderry – again, opinions differ.) At one time two rival railway companies (the County Donegal Railways Joint Committee and the Great Northern Railway) ran trains on opposite sides of the river from Strabane to Derry, although the seperation of the North and the Republic led to severe logistical difficulties over this when the Donegal company wound up on the Northern Irish side, and vice versa. From there it makes its way out to the lake.
Historically, however, what Lough Foyle is most famous for is what lies buried at the bottom of the lake – the wrecks of several German U-Boats. At the conclusion of the war, when the German fleet was surrendered the decision was made to scuttle the majority of the U-Boats, as they could not be converted to civilian use. This was named “Operation Deadlight” by the Royal Navy, who took on the responsibility of destroying them. Of the 156 surrendered, two became museums, thirty-eight were split between the Allies for technical research (thus ensuring that none gained an advantage from the German technology), and 116 were sent to Lough Foyle to be sunk. Only sixty of them were scuttled as planned, however, as poor protection during their storage had left them in poor condition and fifty-six sank either en route to the lough, or else while being transported from the lough to the scuttling point a hundred miles out to sea. The remainder were used for target practice by the navy and the air force. Scuttling charges had been prepared for use but in the end none were sturdy enough to need them. The lough, therefore, remains home to the wrecks of several of those that sank en-route. Diving expeditions have since rediscovered several of the wrecks.
Lough Foyle found itself back in the news in April 2013 when students making a film caught on camera what they claimed to be some kind of monster in the lake. (The film was called Fishing With David Lynch, after his quote “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.”) Whales are sometimes seen in the lake, and the film-maker cited this as a possible explanation (although a friend in another boat, closer to the creature, said it “wasn’t like any whale I’ve ever seen”). Northern Irish newspaper the Belfast Telegraph poured scorn on his claim, not only pointing to what they see as wires tethering the mass, but also saying that they don’t even believe it was filmed on Lough Foyle at all, but instead that it was filmed in Dun Laoghaire harbour on the other side of Ireland. However, since the uploader was a film student from Inishowen studying in Derry/Londonderry, Occam’s Razor would suggest that they are getting a bit carried away in their scepticism. Several news reports also claim that the uploader’s name, “Conall Melarkey”, is clearly a pointer to a hoax as it breaks down into “Con All Malarkey”. However if it is a pseudonym it’s one that he’s been using as a film-maker since 2012 at least. And using a colourful alias as a film-maker is hardly unusual – Donegal film-maker Stephen McCollum has been known to use the name Bill Hazzard on some of his work, for example. So while I think there’s definite grounds to suspect the monster as a fake (the unnatural smoothness of motion, for example), I don’t think we need to descend to quite the levels of cynicism that some have reached.
If the monster of Lough Foyle is a hoax, then it’s a relatively benign one – more benign, at any rate, than the genuine monsters who terrorised the North Sea before their corpses were sent to lie rusting on the lake bed. But, in a throwback to our previous article, a few months later the Foyle would be the site of a re-enactment of the confrontation between Columcille and the Loch Ness Monster, as a giant reconstruction of the monster fought the saint in a show designed to be the centrepiece of Londonderry/Derry’s time as European City of Culture. And perhaps it is for the best that the fictional monsters of today displace the all too real monsters of our past – here, at the lake that lies between.