The River Bann (An Bhanna in Gaelic) is the longest river in Northern Ireland, flowing for a total of 129 kilometres (80 miles), from the Mountains of Mourne to the Atlantic Ocean in the north. It is a river of two halves, the Upper Bann rising in the Mourne Mountains in South Down and flowing into Lough Neagh just north of Craigavon1. The Lower Bann continues from the northern end of the Lough through Lough Beg and enters the ocean north of Coleraine between Portstewart and Castlerock.
The power of the Upper Bann led to the rise of the Ulster linen industry based in and around Portadown, but there are also valuable salmon and eel fisheries. Along the course of the river, civilisations dating to the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras have been excavated showing the importance of the source and route for a long time.
A Journey Along the Bann
These are the principal areas of interest and population that lie along the River Bann from the south, where it rises, to the north, where it enters the sea, and just a little about the points of interest along its course.
The Mourne Mountains (Beanna Boirche)
These are the highest range of mountains in Northern Ireland, and the peaks are separated by deep glacial valleys, which supply much of the water needed for Banbridge, Portadown and even Belfast itself. Slieve Donard, which overlooks Newcastle on the coast, is the highest peak at 852 metres (2,796 feet). The start of the ascent is less than two minutes from the coast.
Slieve Croob at 535m (1,817 feet) starts the assent into the high mountains from over the drumlins fields of south Down, it also indicates the route that the Bann valley starts its journey into the lowlands.
Banbridge (Droichead na Banna)
Banbridge takes its name from the stone bridge that was built there in 1712, around which the settlement was established. It is now the main centre of population for the area and, since 1973, when the district areas were redrawn, has been the seat of Banbridge District Council. It now has a population of around 10,000.
The bridging point quickly became a market town for the surrounding rich farm land located on the rich volcanic moraines in this part of the Bann valley; oats, potatoes and barley being the principal crops and pigs being the main livestock. It is also one of the centres of linen production that have utilised the power of the Bann effectively to establish what is now considered one of the region's traditional industries.
North of Banbridge, the river links up with the Newry (An Tlúr) Canal. This man-made waterway was constructed between 1730 and 1741, making it the oldest in the British Isles. It runs through Newry, linking it up to the sea at Carlingford Lough to the south and via the Bann to Lough Neagh. It was of vital importance to the region, as all the natural waterways of any navigational use tended to head north for a long way before entering the sea. The two principal routes, the Bann and the Lagan, enter the Atlantic past Coleraine, and Belfast Lough at Belfast respectively. The canal established Newry and the Lough side towns of O'Meath and Warrenpoint as important centres for the shipping of goods in and out.
This is the staunchly Loyalist half of the attempted new town of Craigavon2. This is the home of the Loyalist Orange Lodge (LOL) Number 1 and also the controversial Garvaghy Road, which is the subject of enormous tension every July when the Portadown LOLs are intent on marching home from their church service at Drumcree down this now largely Nationalist road.
There is a long history of Loyalism in Portadown. During the rebellion of 1641, a number of protestants from the town were massacred and their bodies thrown into the Bann. A memorial stone on the banks of the river near the town centre adjacent to the bowling green commemorates this event. So when a few years later the Dutch Prince William of Orange, who was a brother-in-law of James II who had sanctioned these atrocities, sought to raise support to overthrow the King, he came to Ireland and the men of Portadown were amongst the first to answer his call for troops. This led to the final victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1691 which installed William III and his wife Mary II on the throne of Britain.
However, sectarian ill feeling persisted and about one hundred years later again was at a peak, culminating in a disturbance known as the Battle of the Diamond. It was following this, that a secret society (the Orange Society) was set up, and the first lodge in 1795 was that in Portadown. This then became the Orange Order and the marches to commemorate the victories over James by William soon came into being a show of loyalty and strength. The opposition to the 19th Century Home Rule Bills in parliament led to the eventual segregation of Ireland and the establishment of Northern Ireland.
Lough Neagh (Loch Neathach)
Not just the largest lough in Ireland, but also the largest lake in the entire of the British Isles at 396 square km (153 square miles), it is fed by many rivers from the surrounding high ground on all sides, principally Bann, Blackwater and Main. But to the north it is drained only by the Bann. It is 24km wide and 29km long, but only about 12m deep.
The Lough is full of some Ireland's most ancient history. Indeed a discovery at Toome Bay is the oldest human artefacts discovered in Ireland, about 9000 years old. Also, on Coney Island3 there is another set of archaeological remains.
The town is located just to the north of Lough Beg and the principal bridging point for traffic heading to the north west of Ulster. It is one of the various market towns that were developed by the absentee landlords after the plantation of Ulster, to gain better ability to control goings on in their town lands. Its positioning just to the north of the vast lough and as a bridging point for the Bann would have been especially prosperous for the time. The ferry across the Bann at Portglenone was replaced by a timber bridge in 1683. Then a bridge made out the local basalt and consisting of seven arches took its place in 1824. However, following a river widening scheme in 1851, this was replaced by the current triple arch stone structure.
A castle was erected in 1197 AD by John de Courci4 to protect these crossing places between Co Antrim and Co Derry, and as one of a chain of such castles along the Bann. It was replaced by Portglenone House, when in the early 19th century Charles Hamilton had the old castle knocked down. This now forms part of the Cistercian Monastery, which had its modern building completed in the early 1970s.
There are five churches in town, the Church of Ireland, two Roman Catholic Chapels and two Presbyterian Churches. There are also the remains of a couple of churches that fell into disuse in the 20th Century. This number of churches also shows the importance that the town once had.
Coleraine (Cúil Raithin)
Coleraine takes its name from the Irish for 'ferry corner'. It straddles the Bann and the county boundaries of Antrim and Londonderry. On the east bank is the Diamond, the main town square. This, plus the modern existence of Coleraine, owes its existence to the companies of the city of London, who colonised county Londonderry as part of the 17th Century Plantation of Ulster.
The Coleraine Academic Institution is one of the oldest schools in Northern Ireland and has drawn in pupils throughout its history from many of the surrounding farmlands because of its history of academic excellence. Many of its students in the past went to Theological College in Londonderry or down to Queen's University in Belfast.
On the western bank around Coleraine, the valley is wooded hillside, while on the eastern bank there is rich agricultural soil, producing barley and suitable for rearing poultry, pigs and sheep.
A small harbour on the Bann accommodates small vessels, as south of the town is a weir where the salmon who migrate back to the Bann can first be seen leaping through a series of steps on their route to their hatching grounds further upstream. As well as salmon fisheries, other main industries in the town are the production of Acrilan synthetic fibres, agricultural processing and light engineering.
Now a university town, one of the campuses of the University of Ulster was built here as a New University in 1965, trying to expand centres of learning away from Belfast or the theological college in Londonderry. This purpose-built campus has its own railway junction to the north of the town on the branch line, which terminates at the town of Portrush, the gateway to the Causeway Coast. The town's railway station is the junction off the Belfast to Londonderry line for the Portrush line.
Castlerock and Portstewart
Castlerock and Portstewart both have sand dune backed strands to either side of the Bann mouth. Portstewart serves as the resident port for the pilot's vessel which guides cargo ships into the River on its course up the winding tidal stretch up to Coleraine.
Portstewart is built on a cliff top with one row of shops, hotels and houses along the seafront, with steps up to a row which is almost a whole two storeys above behind. To the east is the harbour within a natural rocky inlet with a blowhole behind, which is being spectacularly powered by the Atlantic breakers.
On the cliff top to the west of the town centre is the convent and school, with a twisted coastal path taking you around this outcrop towards the golf course and the strand.
Both towns have been popular resorts for the families of Londonderry, Limavady and Coleraine and their surroundings. Portstewart indeed has a twin level5 promenade running the full length of the Main Street from the harbour to an open air amphitheatre and bathing pool at the other end. This promenade would have been a very busy location on a Sunday, especially with Victorian and Edwardian holiday makers. They would have been taking the sea air and showing of their finery following a service at one of the town's churches.
One of the main drawers on the prom at Portstewart today is the town's very own Italian ice cream parlour, Morelli's. Here, holiday makers all through the season often brave the Atlantic breezes to savour some of the finest ice cream in Northern Ireland.