'Have you ever seen such a lovely pigsty?’ asks the man gesturing to a dilapidated tiny stone house. I rack my brains. This, according to local resident and historian Dr Finbar McCormick, is no ordinary pigsty. A senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, McCormick is on a mission to enthuse me about this area’s vernacular architecture.
‘Here we have two built together,’ he says. ‘Locally, they’re called pig crews and they’re only found in Lecale. These are the only two remaining and they’ve got lovely corbelled roofs. You don’t see these anywhere outside of this area but they are an important clue to the area’s past.’
Located in the southeast corner of County Down, Lecale is a 200-square-kilometre wedge-shaped lowland peninsula. Bordered to the east and south by the Irish Sea, to the north by Strangford Lough, and to the west by the Quoile Marshes, the area was once virtually an island, and retains an oddly isolated feel.
The pigsties here at Rossglass are the only such buildings to have been scheduled as historic monuments. They date back to the post-medieval period, around the 1700s, a time that established many of the field boundary and settlement patterns that are visible today. In their exposed coastal position, the sties are gradually falling into ruin, but would have offered their porcine occupiers fine views across Dundrum Bay, framed by the bumblebee-striped lighthouse of St John’s Point on one side, and by the brooding profile of the distant Mourne Mountains on the other.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
Unlike most of the rest of Ireland, the underlying geology of Lecale has produced well-drained, light, loamy soils that are ideal for growing grain. For this reason, it forms one of the most fertile and extensively cultivated areas of Ulster.
‘The human history of Lecale has been driven almost entirely by the richness of the land,’ says McCormick. ‘In most of rural Ireland, the settlement pattern is one of scattered farmsteads located in the middle of their own farmland used predominantly to graze sheep and cattle. But here in Lecale – and certain parts of southeast Ireland – we have a settlement pattern called a clachan, which had groups of several families living together without a church or any municipal functions. You can see evidence of these across Lecale.’
The landscape bears the imprint of 5,000 years of human history. The Mesolithic people, the first to have colonised Ireland, left middens and other artefacts in Lecale, around the shores of Strangford Lough, while the area’s first farmers left Neolithic tombs at Ballyalton and Audleystown, and the stone circle at Ballynoe. Later, when Lecale was an extension of the Pale – the Norman kingdom of Dublin – the settlers built fortified houses to guard over the land, many of which are still visible today.
‘Lecale has a very high concentration of tower houses, which are a type of medieval castle belonging to a sort of middle-sized nobility,’ says McCormick. ‘Again, these reflect the importance in the medieval period of the area’s wealth in grain. Because this area was so good for grain growing, when the Normans came here during the 12th century, they took over Lecale, the west coast of Ulster and a bit of the east coast. It’s interesting that they didn’t bother with the rest of Ulster until the 17th century, which is quite a gap. They must have been quite happy here.’
BIRDS ON THE BEACH
I’m shown the harbour seal colony at the little village of Minerstown and some of the coastal birdlife by Chris Murphy, who is originally from Liverpool and came here while working for the RSPB some 25 years ago. He is now an independent guide offering birdwatching and wildlife tours and is a co-founder of local environmental group Lecale Conservation.
‘Lecale is quite important for wildlife,’ says Murphy, loading a couple of huge telescopes into the car. ‘At low tide, the shores all around Lecale support nationally and internationally important shore birds such as the brent goose, shelduck and sanderling. It isn’t particularly important for breeding birds, because there’s too much disturbance from jet skis, dogs and so on, but it’s important for breeding seals.’
We head down to Tyrella Beach and set up the telescopes overlooking a broad stretch of sand, backed by dunes and divided at regular intervals by large, exposed rocky platforms, which seals use to haul themselves out of the water at low tide. All I can make out are the odd bird and the rocks’ jagged profile. But as soon as I peer into the telescope, the rocks seem to come alive; I can spy half a dozen harbour seals in astonishing detail. There are even one or two pups still sporting their creamy coloured juvenile fur. But Lecale’s shoreline spectacle doesn’t stop there.
‘Dundrum Bay is rich for all sorts of sea birds: in the winter, there are a few thousand scoters, and we get grebes, divers, terns and gannets,’ Murphy says. ‘When the winds are right, we sometimes get endless passages of shearwaters and kittiwakes, black guillemots and razorbills, and in among them, we’re always looking out for the rarer Arctic skua or storm petrel. It’s like a parade.’
After just 40 minutes, and with the expert commentary of Murphy, I have seen an impressive variety of native and migratory bird species, as well as the seals. Why, then, was this six-kilometre section of Tyrella Beach recently tabled for removal from the area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB)?
Under sweeping changes across Northern Ireland’s AONBs, the Lecale Coast AONB is to be merged with neighbouring Strangford Lough AONB to form the Strangford and Lecale AONB. As part of that process, the boundaries of both areas have been reviewed and, in many cases, redrawn.
‘The government’s argument for redefining the boundaries was that it was an opportunity to bring it up to date with new legislation, and by doing that they said they would be able to direct funding into promoting the protection of these important areas and protect the whole of Dundrum Bay under a single AONB, which makes a lot of sense,’ says Murphy. ‘But they also proposed taking out a six-kilometre stretch in the heart of Dundrum Bay because they didn’t think it merited the status of an AONB anymore. But under these same reviews, fast-food outlets, car washes and supermarkets in Downpatrick were considered worthy. It just didn’t add up.’
With the support of Down County Council, Lecale Conservation campaigned to oppose the proposal. Fortunately, once the government-appointed consultants, the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, had reviewed the plan, they too felt that this section should not be excluded and the plan was dropped.
‘The criteria for designation indicate that we should only designate areas where there is certainty,’ says Sandi Howie, senior scientific officer with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, which is responsible for designating AONBs. ‘What we found when we carried out a slightly academic review was that there was doubt about the landscape quality in that section. However, when we went to consultation, there was strong feedback from the area that said, “Even if there is this debate, we feel that this area should be in,” and our minister responded to that message and indicated that we should designate this.’
It was a huge relief to local residents: ‘We had a party,’ says Murphy. ‘With 6,000-year-old sand dunes, Northern Ireland’s largest and most important common seal colony, a critically important wintering population of twites, [and] the largest flocks of sanderlings in the whole of Ireland, this area, along with the rest of Lecale, is extremely important. They need to be strengthening the protection, not diminishing it. Thank goodness common sense prevailed in the end.’
‘Lecale is where St Patrick landed, made his first conversion, and then founded his first church at Saul. He returned to Saul to die and is buried in Downpatrick. You can see a large statue of him on the hill above the villages of Saul and Raholp. It was built in 1932 to mark the 1,500th anniversary of his arrival in Ireland.’
Dr Finbar McCormick, senior lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast
‘Overlooking Strangford Lough, Castle Ward is an 18th-century house that has two distinctly different architectural styles. One side of the house is built in a classical style, but the other is Gothic. Bernard and Anne Ward, who had [it] built, just couldn’t agree on its design. It’s basically a matrimonial feud manifested in architecture.’
Dr Finbar McCormick
‘With large quantities of grain being produced, Lecale had a lot of windmills – the highest concentration in the British Isles. This is due to the area’s lack of major rivers, which would typically have been used to power mills. There’s a great example just outside Killough, built over some ruined store rooms in the playing fields.’
Dr Finbar McCormick
‘A great place to see another type of seal is Ardglass Harbour, still actively used by fishermen. Up to a dozen really big grey seals often come into the harbour to scavenge scraps of fish from the fishing boats. You don’t even need binoculars.’
Chris Murphy, wildlife guide and co-founder of Lecale Conservation
For more information, call 0800 039 7000 or visit www.discoverireland.com.