Loughareema, or “The vanishing lake”

by Stephen O’Hara

Loughareema, or “The vanishing lake” is half-way between Ballycastle and Cushendun.

It’s a dark and brooding place on a summer’s day, but in winter, after dark, it can be absolutely terrifying. And people say it’s haunted.

The name Loughareema comes from the Gaelic ‘loch an rith amach’ meaning “the lake that runs out.” Which, of course, it does. It can be full in the morning and completely empty just a few hours later, thanks to its peculiar geology, a blocked sink-hole holding the water in until it reaches a point where the water washes it clear and it drains.

The haunting centres on the death of Colonel John McNeill, who was being driven to Ballycastle Railway Station on September 30th, 1898. He had spent the previous night in Cushendun with his cousin, Captain Dan McNeile, and decided he must cross Ballypatrick mountain, despite the torrential rain that had been falling there for several days. His own son, who later identified the remains of his father, also travelled over the mountain that day, on a bicycle, but detoured around the flooded lake and was safe and sound when his father’s coach ploughed into the icy waters flooding over the lake wall and covering the entire road.

An eye-witness told Colonel McNeill’s inquest that as the carriage approached the water, the coachman urged the horses on, into four feet of deep water on the road. The horses obeyed the coachman’s whip and charged ahead, but when the cold water reached the horse’s bellies, one reared up and turned into the other, causing a melee of hooves and harness, resulting in the carriage careering into the full depths of the lake, in over twenty feet of water. Its occupant, the driver and both horses drowned after a terrible struggle for life.

The eye-witness could not swim, and he held a stick into the churning water for Colonel McNeill to grab onto, but the weight of his gabardine clothing, now saturated, pulled him down to his death.

Ever since that night, travellers crossing the mountain road on foot are struck by the eerie topography of Loughareema. Something about the smooth hillsides which taper down centrally to form the little hollow in which the lake lies, makes it a nerve-tingling journey. Sound becomes trapped by the glensides, and every sound echoes and reverberates back to the walker.

At times like this people have claimed that they can hear the thrashing of hooves in muddy turmoil as they fight to escape the deep water, and that the cries of horses and men can be heard all around the unwary traveller, or the motorist, running out of petrol, and finding themselves walking towards Ballyvoy in the hope of finding assistance.

Loughareema is not a place to find yourself after dark, and most certainly not during heavy rainfall. For a hand may strike out at you from the darkness, grabbing for anything to hold onto in the struggle of life and death that still haunts the place.

Stephen O’Hara