Rams Island: Lough Neagh's treasure
It was once the playground of the gentry and home to local heroes, but Rams Island has since suffered from decades of neglect and succumbed to nature. Now, as a new reality show is rumoured to be planned for the Lough Neagh haven, Una Brankin unearths its legends
When Rams Island resident caretaker and local legend Jane Cardwell died in 1933, eight Lough Neagh fishing boats formed a cortege to take her from her quaint thatched cottage to her headline-making funeral in Glenavy, where she is buried alongside her husband Robert.
Known affectionately as the 'Queen of the Island', the serene Jane lived until she was 99, her longevity widely attributed to her healthy, self-sufficient lifestyle on the unspoilt terrain, now the proposed site for a reality survival TV series (more of which later).
An expert gardener, Jane came to the island at the age of 50 with Robert, a fisherman, to maintain the summer house of owner Lord O'Neill, of Shane's Castle in Antrim, and its idyllic surroundings. The Cardwells lived on trout in the summer, perch and pollan in the winter, and duck, chicken, eggs, rabbit, potatoes and vegetables from their thriving garden.
They had their own milk from their one cow and churned their own butter. The popular couple also kept a pig, geese, goats and gun-dogs, and their little menagerie would be the focus of attention from those visiting the island, grand guests of the owners – among them Lord O'Neill's learned mistress, the author Laura Bell, who went on to have an affair with Napoleon III and a friendship with William Gladstone.
This summer, 80 years since Jane's death, the visitors are back in their legions, including ghost hunters I bumped into who claim to have identified paranormal activity around the isle's 9th century round tower. They sail over mostly from Sandy Bay Marina on the Island Warrior ferry – with financial support from a Lough Neagh Regeneration programme, the service has brought thousands of day trippers and campers to the mile-long island since 2006, when a sturdy steel jetty was built to replace the ruined old wooden pier.
"There has been a constant stream of visitors over the past few weeks, a lot more domestic these days," says Eimear Kearney of the Lough Neagh Partnership. "The infrastructure around the lough has improved massively and the Island Warrior ferry trips to Rams Island have been a great success. It's very popular for family picnics and nature trips."
It's only a 10 minute, one-mile ferry ride from Sandy Bay Marina, just outside Glenavy, to the narrow tree-lined 40-acre stretch of Rams Island. The water becomes clearer further out from the murky shallows, and it's hard not to think back to the lives claimed by it over the years. They include Belfast teenager Robbie Saunders, who drowned after his dinghy imploded on a trip back from the island on a summer night in 1983. His two traumatised companions made it back to my own parents' house along the shore in the early hours of the morning and told us they had decided to leave the island because of an "awful pong" on it, which we took to be the pungent wild garlic known to grow there.
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There is no whiff of it when I step ashore in 30°C heat, four decades after my first visit as a child in the Seventies. The jetty leads up to a clearing shaded by mature oak, lime and walnut trees, and the air is clean and clear and full of forest birdsong.
First stop is a converted old sand barge that serves as a casual interpretive centre, where you can have refreshments and browse through literature on the history of the island and the lough, and watch a brief documentary on the on-going regeneration activities. Our guide is Island Warrior skipper Michael Savage, a warden and volunteer with The River Bann and Lough Neagh Association (RBLNA), the body responsible for the regeneration of the island, which has been leased from Lord O'Neill's estate for £1 a year since 2005.
"The island was completely overgrown back then and the old pier had collapsed," recalls Michael, who is from Antrim. "We had a big job to do, clearing and creating paths. We still need to get rid of the sycamore trees – they're a weed – before they take over the Island, and plant more silver birch, oak, ash and willows, and we want to replace the Spanish bluebells that were once planted here inadvertently, with indigenous ones.
"The problem was that after the Second World War, during the Depression, people would come out to the island and take the wild plants, such as snowdrops and azaleas, and sell them at Nutts Corner market and so on. We're trying to restore it to its former glory and that also meant bringing in a ratcatcher for 18 months to rid the place of vermin, which had feasted on the eggs laid by birds along the shore. She did a great job – we got rid of the foxes that were killing the fowl too. They'd come over from the mainland on the ice when the lough froze over."
Various locals skated over to the island during the big freezes, including my Uncle Francie in the late Fifties, and my second cousin, well-known businessman Danny Moore, in 2011. The temperature is at the other end of the scale for my most recent trip, but the lofty trees provide a cool canopy against the scorching sun, as Mr Savage takes us up some gently sloping wooden steps to the central ridge of the island. The leafy ground is as soft underfoot as a shag-pile carpet, its soil well hydrated by the surrounding fresh water. As a consequence, it's abundantly fertile.
A short traipse along a tranquil pathway takes us to another clearing and a well-tended lawn leading up to a squat round tower, site of the monastic settlement on the island 1,000 years ago, before the Viking invasion. Brass fastening pins, thought to be from the monks' robes, have been excavated there and an application has been made by the Lough Neagh Partnership for an extensive archaeological dig.
The tower is just over 40ft high and is constructed from rounded stones from the shore. The monks retreated to the top of the originally much higher tower when the island was under threat from the various warring Irish kings and tribes. In front of it, the brick walls of the front of Lord O'Neill's early 1800s summer house remain intact, the imprint of his coat of arms still visible.
It was Jane Cardwell's job to maintain the sumptuous interior and décor of the house and get it ready for O'Neill's visits, although she always maintained, according to locals, that it was cleaned and polished by two elves, who she claimed she saw in action. The fairies didn't go as far as churning butter or making porridge for the crinoline-clothed, parasol-carrying arrivals, however; it was Jane who would hang a pot of oatmeal onto an open-fire crane at the same time each night for the next morning's porridge. A practical, radiant personality, she would also set her own rabbit snares and skin, boil and fry her victims, and stretch out the skins on planks to dry for hearth rugs.
Her boss's grand pebble-stoned single-storey lodge – set in an exotic garden overlooking the water – was also thatched and was unfortunately burned down during World War Two by American GIs who broke into the wine cellar and got uproariously drunk on its rare, expensive contents. During the war, the island was a favourite spot for visits and romantic trysts by the American Eighth Army Air Force, stationed at Langford Lodge, some of whom left their names engraved into the island's trees, along with dates ranging from 1942 to 1944, and the odd love heart ...
After that, the island seemed to retreat from the outside world and became overrun with rats and dense vegetation, making much of its shoreline virtually impenetrable. The only visitors for many years were passing fishermen and duck-shooters, who reported seeing rats "as big as cats" appear and gather round the waning campfires as they left on their boats. Jane's fairytale cottage was reduced to rubble; all that remains is a small section of a stone wall. Thankfully the island was saved from total ruin in 2005 by Rams Island Heritage Project volunteers, armed with chainsaws and hatchets.
First on their hit list were the thickets of pink Himalayan Balsam, which had once graced Lord O'Neill's exotic garden but had later become a scavenging menace, smothering indigenous plants. Since then, Michael and his colleagues have been steadily clearing the paths and glades, chopping back the balsam and sycamore trees and creating picnic and barbeque areas. They recently planted an oak tree near the ruins of Jane's cottage in memory of her granddaughter Sadie, who spent her childhood on island for the good of her health. That soft fresh air may well have helped; Sadie lived to 90 and her ashes were scattered by the oak sapling by relatives.
It's a particularly peaceful spot, the silence broken only by the chirping of birds such as gold crests, doves and finches, which have returned in their dozens to breed along the shore, along with herons which can be found nesting in the trees and feeding on the lough's rich stock of fish and eels.
The restoration work still has a long way to go, but it's getting there. The pathways are adorned by very impressive carved sculptures of the Cardwells, fish, birds, monks, fairies, the mythical mermaid goddess Dana, and the lovely Laura Bell herself. There are long-term plans to restore the old summer house and its garden – and there's even what is bound to be an unmissable I'm An MLA – Get Me Out of Here! survival programme in the offing.
"We proposed it last year in a deal with the BBC and three MLAs took us up on it – including one former minister I'm not allowed to reveal at this stage," says Eimear Kearney. "There was an insurance problem but we have extra core funding now and we're in a fantastic position, so there's nothing to stop us going for it again next year."
So come on Peter and Martin and co, let's go swinging through those great big trees and get the campfires burning. The spirit of Jane Cardwell and her trusty elves will be delighted.
To book the Island Warrior, contact Michael Savage, tel: 07715 368050 or visit ramsisland.org.