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Carlingford Lough is a glacial fiord or sea inlet which has been the scene of human settlement since prehistoric times. The Old Irish name for the inlet was Suám Aignech (‘swift sea-channel or fiord) while Carlingford is of Viking origin meaning ‘lake of the hag-shaped rock’.

View of Warrenpoint from the Bridal Loanan c.1900 with Carlingford Lough and the Cooley Mountains beyond. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
View of Warrenpoint from the Bridal Loanan c.1900 with Carlingford Lough and the Cooley Mountains beyond. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Prehistoric monuments such as Clermont Cairn attest to prehistoric settlers in the area. The Early Christian period saw several monastic settlements becoming established in the Carlingford Lough region, Kilbroney on the northern shore, Killanansnamh in the townland of Cornamucklagh on the southern shore and the important monastery at Killeavy at the bottom of Slieve Gullion.

Greencastle was built at the mouth of Carlingford Lough on the northern shore in the 13th century. It originally consisted of a deep moat, a curtain wall with corner towers, a keep, and other buildings within the ward. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Greencastle was built at the mouth of Carlingford Lough on the northern shore in the 13th century. It originally consisted of a deep moat, a curtain wall with corner towers, a keep, and other buildings within the ward. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The sea inlet attracted the attention of the Vikings in the 9th century. They gave the inlet a new name and appear to have used the area as a base from which to raid other parts of Ireland. In 841, for example, Tristledermot in Meath was destroyed by the Vikings of Narrow Water (Caol Uisce). They also attacked Armagh and, in 923, the monastery at Killeavy was raided. 

The strategic significance of Carlingford Lough was also recognised when the Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland in the late 1100s. Understanding the importance of fortresses in defence, two castles were constructed at the mouth of Lough, one on the northern shore and another on the southern shore, ensuring that the Normans had control over access from the sea. On the southern shore, King John’s Castle was constructed which was named after King John who visited Carlingford in 1210. A town grew up around the castle which became the main port on Carlingford Lough. 

Map dating from 1878 showing the navigable channel in Carlingford Lough between Greenore and Newry. Blockhouse Island and Greenisland rocks can be clearly seen along with three guide lights to enable ships to negotiate the hazards of this narrow channel as the Lough joins the Irish Sea. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
A Map dating from 1878 showing the navigable channel in Carlingford Lough between Greenore and Newry. Blockhouse Island and Greenisland rocks can be clearly seen along with three guide lights to enable ships to negotiate the hazards of this narrow channel as the Lough joins the Irish Sea. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Greencastle was constructed on the northern shore during the mid-13th century. Greencastle was captured in 1316 by Edward Bruce and further attacks meant that it had fallen into disrepair by the 15th century. It was eventually granted to Nicholas Bagenal in 1552 along with the lands of the former Cistercian abbey at Newry and the Dominican priory at Carlingford. This grant paved the way for Newry to become the largest urban centre in the Carlingford Lough area.

In the years after the opening of Newry Canal in 1742, Newry replaced Carlingford as the main port on Carlingford Lough and became the fourth largest in Ireland. Development of Warrenpoint and Rostrevor as highly successful holiday destinations was stimulated by the opening of the Newry-Warrenpoint railway in 1849 and the opening of the Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway in the 1870s meant that the area was linked to a ferry service to Holyhead from Greenore. 

Despite its appeal to shipping, Carlingford Lough is hazardous to ships and has seen various disasters over the years.  The most famous was the Connemara/Retriever disaster in November 1916 which resulted in the death of 94 people. 

Tickets used on the Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway c.1940. The railway linked the villages on the Cooley Peninsula with Dundalk, Newry and Greenore. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Tickets used on the Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway c.1940. The railway linked the villages on the Cooley Peninsula with Dundalk, Newry and Greenore. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Since the end of World War II there have been many changes in the Carlingford Lough area especially with the closure of the local railways in the 1950s and 1960s and the moving of ship handling facilities from Newry to Warrenpoint in the early 1970s.Tourism is now a big factor in the local economy and the Lough was designated as a Marine Conservation Zone in 2016.

Tickets used on the Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway c.1940. The railway linked the villages on the Cooley Peninsula with Dundalk, Newry and Greenore. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Tickets used on the Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway c.1940. The railway linked the villages on the Cooley Peninsula with Dundalk, Newry and Greenore. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Joanne Glymond

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