People, Place and Built Heritage
The old Irish name for Strangford Lough was Loch Cuan – lough of the harbours. Literature tells that the Irish Sea god Manannan Mac Lir, in grief-induced rage over the killing of his son, let forth an outburst of water which formed Waterford, Dundrum Bay and Strangford Lough (Metrical Dindshenchas Gwynn 1924, 1991, 147).
However, it was the Viking invaders who arrived in their long boats through the fast flowing waters of the narrow channel at the Lough’s entrance that bestowed the name Strangford from “Strangfjothr” or “strong fjord”. Little remains to be seen of their presence, though their seafaring culture is still celebrated here.
Known by the ancient name of Magh-Inis, “the island plain”, Lecale was enclosed to the north by Strangford Lough, to the east by the Irish Sea, and to the west by the tidal estuaries of the Blackstaff and Quoile rivers. It was the core territory of the Dal Fiatach who had strong associations with the sea. It was later known as Leath Cathail “Cathal’s half or division” or Lecale, from a compromise between the two main branches of the Dal Fiatach, the Ui Blathmeic, and the Leath Cathail.
This area has strong associations with early Christianity and Saint Patrick is believed to have arrived on the shores of Strangford Lough before establishing Ireland’s first Christian church at Saul and he is said to be buried at Downpatrick (Muirchu, 1185). Christianity was spread throughout Ireland from here from the 5th century and the area has a legacy of impressive monastic sites and churches as well as crosses and holy wells.
Maritime features abound with fishing ports, lighthouses and other aids to navigation, harbours, quays, intertidal fish traps, kelp grids and shore boundaries.
The distinctive, fine, stone tower houses of the Anglo-Normans command good views over water and land, which would have assisted in their defence.
The grand estates of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have also left their mark on the landscape. Mount Stewart and Castle Ward estates are now open to the public through the National Trust.
Individual farms and land holdings continue to shape our countryside and distinctive farm gateways, boundaries, corbelled pigsties and windmill towers enhance the landscape. This area had the highest concentration of windmills in Ireland partly due to the high coastal winds and shortage of mill rivers.
In Lecale there are strong and often ancient field patterns, clachans and interesting remains of early settlement, distinctive and historic harbour towns, lighthouses and castles. Settlements are generally small and tightly clustered in sheltered sites.
The Department of the Environment (DOE) has scheduled monuments, listed buildings and owns / manages many properties. It is working to make these safer and more accessible to the public as well as attending to their conservation. New interpretation and the use of re-enactment characters bring history to life and related activities contribute to festival and community events. Town and villages may also have Conservation Areas.