Belfast Telegraph

'Robinson Crusoe' of Lough Neagh leaves island life behind

By Ivan Little

A man dubbed Ulster's 'Robinson Crusoe', who spent nearly 20 years as the only resident on an island on Lough Neagh, has bade an emotional farewell to his solitary life.

Peter McClelland has swapped the silence and isolation of history-steeped Coney Island to settle in the anything-but-quiet town of Portadown.

And this week he said: "I will miss the island. There is no doubt Coney Island holds a special place in my heart."

He also told the Tyrone Courier that he's planning to write a book about his two decades on the island, which he said "were the best years of my life".

Peter, who's in his 60s, took up the job as Coney Island's warden in 1998, beating 400 other applicants to the position, even though he had just suffered two broken legs in a road accident.

Peter had been an engineer for 25 years but a thyroid ailment cut short his career after doctors advised him to slow down and take the stress out of his life.

When this writer went to meet Peter on Coney nearly three years ago, it was quickly apparent that he was living the good - if not the high - life on the island. He insisted that "loneliness was a state of mind" and one to which he did not subscribe.

He'd only just bought himself a TV and he was already regretting the waste of money.

Classical music on the radio and books were all that he needed for entertainment, he said.

And Peter insisted he didn't have time to get bored.

His days were filled with dealing with a myriad of tasks on the eight and a half acre island.

He planted scores of trees, he regularly cleared the maze of paths on the island and tackled invasive plants, and he also kept a record of the huge variety of birds that dropped by on the island.

Interviewing Peter, it was clear he revelled in what others might have seen as an unbearably lonely life, though it did have its problems relating to power and heating.

It may have been a singular existence but Peter wasn't a complete hermit because he was a regular day-tripper to the 'mainland' of Northern Ireland to do his shopping and collect mail.

And he also welcomed up to 5,000 visitors every summer for expeditions, camping trips and picnics on the thickly-wooded bird sanctuary which lies less than a mile and a 10-minute boat ride away from Maghery Country Park.

Records show that there had been human occupation on the island since 8,000BC according to Peter, who's from Aghagallon in Co Antrim and who got to know every inch of Coney Island, which some visitors wrongly believed was the one mentioned in a song of the same name by Van Morrison.

Coney Island has been owned by the National Trust since 1946 and it was managed by Craigavon Borough Council until 2015.

After the shake-up in local government, responsibility passed to the Armagh City Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council (ABC).

Peter told the Tyrone Courier this week that he is still in love with the island, adding: "It is a part of me. It was my home, my place of work and my life. I miss it dearly."

He also vowed to return to the island where he became a resident expert, so to speak, about its rich heritage including its 13th Century Anglo-Norman motte and a 16th Century round tower.

Peter also had a wealth of stories about the feuding O'Neills and the O'Connors in the area and tales of the future King Edward VII staying on the island with his mistress, Lillie Langtry.

Now that Peter has retired as Coney's warden, the future of the beautiful island is uncertain.

An ABC borough council spokesperson said that discussions were planned with the National Trust about the way ahead for Coney. It's not clear if the warden's job will be advertised.

Belfast Telegraph

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