The Lough Gullion Drainage Attempt

Vol. 3 No. 2 - 1976

The Lough Gullion drainage attempt

by Francis X. McCorry

Red Cow Inn
Red Cow Inn on the old Lurgan to Portadown
coach road. This house is a typical example
of a large Ulster farmhouse.

Lough Gullion, spreading over 240 acres, is a shallow lake lying between the River Bann and Lough Neagh in the heart of the Montiaghs. It is bordered by the townlands of Ballynery, Derrytagh South, Derrytrasna, Derrytagh North and Derrycor.

Much of the land adjoining the "wee lough's" shore is very wet. A local farmer has observed that the vibrations of his moving tractor on the Eastern side of the lough will, in winter, set up a movement in fields one hundred yards away. The Flughans (wet lands) is the name still applied to the swampy margin of Ballynery on the south-eastern shore of Lough Gullion which in 1745 defeated the attempt of the famous clergyman, Rev. Richard Barton, to visit the lough.

Writing to Walter Harris on 27th May 1745 he stated "Pike are taken in Lough Gullion which is a lake of water lying between the upper Bann Water and Lough Neagh, lying much higher than the Bann or the Great Lake, being about an English mile from each and some miles round, in a red turf bog of most prodigious extent and which shall have a particular description hereafter."

Excessive Rains

"The late and present excessive rains render it almost impassable to horse or man otherwise I should have been able to have said more about it. I attempted lately to visit it and the canal by boat but the inclemency of the weather (it being impossible to make any progress against violent wind under weighty rain) drove me back, after having endured one day's great fatigue. Some pikes taken in Lough Gullion were 15lbs. weight."

Some higher land exists beyond the wet lands. The Tallagh and The Rillagh are hillocks in Derrycor and Derrytrasna while the High Moss, east of Lough Gullion, contains a hill-top cluster settlement surrounded by a large area of reclaimed bog. Fertile land exists between the River Bann and Lough Gullion, its fertility being a direct result of Charles Brownlow's attempt to drain and reclaim the bed of Lough Gullion in the late 1820's and early 1830's.

Ordinance Memoirs

The Ordnance Survey memoirs of 1835 supply the main details of the scheme. "Drainage was effected by means of a six horse-power steam engine erected on the bank which raised the water two feet and sent it on in a drain to the River Bann. The nearest distance from Lough Gullion to the River Bann is three eighths of a mile but the drain was a little more. The level of the lake and river are the same viz. forty-eight feet.

To prevent the river from overflowing and to drain Lough Gullion, Mr. Brownlow erected a sod embankment along the side of the river, one and a half miles long, ten feet high, fifteen feet wide at base and seven feet wide at top. A windmill was erected at North West extremity of the embankment to carry off water collected in the drains. This broke down in the winter of 1833 and is now under repair. Mr. Brownlow succeeded in draining this lake and bringing a large portion of it under cultivation but during a severe storm in December 1833, the River Bann burst the embankment made to protect it and again laid the lake under water."

Financial Aspect

Before investigating the financial aspect of the drainage scheme, Samuel Lewis's comment written in his Topographical Dictionary will be quoted. "About one half of the land is arable and the remainder bog, which Charles Brownlow has attempted to drain and reclaim. For this purpose he erected a windmill which was soon destroyed by a storm and was replaced by a steam engine, which proved ineffectual. An extensive embankment was formed across Lough Gullion, and the steam-engine long employed in draining it; but all these efforts were defeated, as the water seemed to return by subterranean springs."

Local tradition agrees with the Ordinance Survey memoirs rather than Lewis, maintaining that corn had been sown and harvested in part of Lough Gullion's bed prior to the disastrous flooding of December 1833. A poem written in early 1900's supports Lewis's comment. The poet describes how an old lady emerged from the lake's waters during a drainage attempt. She surveys the busy scene and proclaims:

"Your great pump and engine I will always defy,
For bonny Lough Gullion will never run dry."

Steam Engines

Remembering that steam engines were employed to drain coalmines in England as early as 1720 and that William Brownlow had a keen interest in all things mathematical and scientific (Rev. Richard Barton, curate of Shankill Parish, was an exponent of many scientific phenomena and a firm friend of Brownlow), it could be argued that the Brownlow family had the draining of Lough Gullion in mind as far back as 1765 since William Brownlow retained Derrytagh South, Ballynery, Derrytagh North and most of Derrytrasna when leasing the other townlands of the Montiaghs to the Rev. Arthur Forde.

The first three mentioned townlands link Lough Gullion to either Lough Neagh or the River Bann while Derrytrasna adjoins all three waters. An item from the Brownlow account book, dated August 1827, indicates the existence of a canal one year before the major drainage attempt was begun "Paid Henry Stewart for scouring Lough Gullion canal £3.9.0."

An Engineer named Hughes, employed by Brownlow, was responsible for the erection of the protective levee or embankment and its associated drains, for the building of the windmill and the digging of the main drain or canal from Lough Gullion to the River Bann. A brook existed in the 1700's linking Lough Gullion to the River Bann in Derrytagh South less than a half mile south of the new water link but Mr. Hughes chose Derrynaskeagh Island (Patrick Dougan's 1751 Maps of Brownlow's Derry) as the drainage point of the Lough. Work on the huge project began in July 1828 and phase one was completed in exactly twelve months.

Five thousand nine hundred and thirty two pounds was paid to Mr. Hughes during the project, inclusive of his eight hundred pounds two years salary. The remainder represents the wages of the engineer's assistants, foremen and by far the greatest item, the labourers' pay.

While no figures could be traced specifying the number of workmen involved in the scheme it can be deduced from the amount and frequency of Brownlow's payment to Hughes that at least three hundred and fifty men were employed, more than three hundred of whom were labourers paid at the rate of one shilling per day. On large drainage schemes in the Montiaghs, labourers worked in squads of one dozen, one of the twelve being a working leader, paid at two shillings per day, while their immediate director was a skilled workman paid at the rate of a half crown daily.

The last major payment to Mr. Hughes in connection with stage one of the project was made on June 29th, 1829. Three months later the first hint of trouble in the scheme is given by an entry in the Account Book which states, "6th Oct. 1829, payment for two Jaunt Cars to bring engineers to Mill, 6s. 9d." Immediately repair work on the windmill began, Hughes being credited with fifty pounds in October 1829 and amounts totalling two hundred and eighty pounds in subsequent months.


No mention of progress in the actual draining can be found but on August 29th, 1830, Charles Brownlow made a final payment of eight hundred pounds to Mr. Hughes and five days later an entry states "By Moyntagh Improvement Scheme, for stamps for Mr. Hughes release, £l.0.2." Despite Mr. Hughes' departure, work on the huge drainage scheme progressed, buildings to house and facilitate the steam engine were erected at a cost of £100 in March 1831 and an additional £136 was spent on labour and materials necessary to the scheme in the subsequent financial year.

The Montiaghs during this period became an area of innovation and work. A large notice stood at the Bannfoot specifying the details of the proposed bridge to be erected over the River Bann.

Within two hundred yards, brick kilns fired by large amounts of imported coal were producing bricks for the building of the Bannfoot Cottages. A large peat machine was introduced in March 1832 which attempted to make turf-cutting more efficient. The Bannfoot farms were benefiting from large dressings of lime and clay. New roads through Slentry and Derryinver bogs were being cut.


Land drainage was being both encouraged and undertaken by the Landlord. Old cottier homes were being thrown down and new farms laid out under the supervision of a Surveyor. Timber was being cut and sold, new looms were being built locally and bays added to houses to accommodate the looms.

Charles Brownlow had five separate accounts for work in the area during this 1828-1833 period of innovation and renovation; The Montiagh Improvement Scheme, The Montiagh Arrangement, Bannfoot Cottages, Lough Gullion Drainage and Steam Engine Account.

The appearance of so many new items in the 1833 Steam Engine Account indicates that in 1833 Charles Brownlow made the greatest attempt to both drain and cultivate Lough Gullion:

June 21st By Steam Engine for 2 stone tallow at 6s. 8d. per stone 13s 4p
June 21st By Steam Engine for making leather for large pump 7s 0d
July 8th paid for 7 yds. of hemp to pack the engine 5s 6d
July 13th paid for 2 gallons oil at 4s. 6d. per gallon 9s 0d
July 13th paid for 4 stone of tallow at 6s. 8d. per stone £1. 6s 8d

James Fleming, a highly skilled drainage man was now regularly receiving one guinea per week for his work of supervising labourers at the making of new drains and clearing those already in existence. The tremendous pressure on Brownlow and his men to keep the bed of the lough dry is characterised in this 1833 entry: 20th August, By steam engine paid for WHISKEY for men at the drains last week 12s. 0d. - obviously a growing crop was being protected.

Account Books

The Account Books betray no indication the subsequent harvest and the only hint of the disastrous December storm which caused the River Bann floodwaters to breach the embankment and destroy Charles Brownlow's hopes of successfully reclaiming Lough Gullion is in the item "3 men at Embankment for 4 nights. 12s. 0d."

Three unsupervised labourers on night watch observing the rising waters of the Bann crush the plans of one man and the hopes of many is perhaps an inglorious ending to account of what seemed to Brownlow a worthwhile endeavour. In 1846 however Charles Brownlow, by this time raised to Lord Lurgan, was deeply involved in plans for the first lowering of Lough Neagh.

This and the subsequent lowerings of Lough Neagh was to benefit the Montiaghs greatly in that flooding was vastly reduced. It is doubtful that a successful draining of Lough Gullion would have benefited the land to anywhere near the same extent.

There is an old saying that if you had a good "gru" and a pump the yard you wouldn't call the King your uncle!