Don’t go in the Water

It would be difficult to imagine any body of water as unique as the Calliagh Berra’s Lough.
Its uniqueness stems from the fact that it’s a lake on the summit of a mountain – Slieve
Gullion – the highest point in Co Armagh at almost six hundred metres. This fascinating
mountain is at the centre of The Ring of Gullion, a site of volcanic activity nearly sixty
million years ago that was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as far back as
1966. Not only that, the lake is said to fill the crater of a volcano that erupted tens of millions
of years ago. And some say a dragon hides in its murky depths! How’s that for being one of a
Although I spent most of my childhood at the foot of Slieve Gullion, I doubt that I
visited the lake more than a couple of times in all those years, the reason perhaps being that
it’s brown, peat-stained waters were believed to carry a curse. It was also said to be
bottomless. And of course, there was the dragon … My prudent parents forbade me to stray
up the nearby Ballard Road that led right to it and risk falling into a lake that might well put
an end to me in one way or another.
The Calliagh Berra’s Lough holds a prominent place in the rich mythology of the South
Armagh area. As a child I often heard tales of the exploits of the giant, fair-haired warrior
Fionn McCool, leader of the Fianna. The Calliagh Berra, an evil witch, believed to have lived
in a passage grave beside the lough, also featured in these stories.
One legend told of Fionn and his Fianna followers hunting a stag in the Bog of Allen.
As they chased it across the country, Fionn got ahead of the others and arrived eventually at
the slopes of Slieve Gullion. Pursuing the stag to the summit, he lost sight of it but saw a
beautiful girl sobbing by the lakeside. He asked if she’d noticed which direction the stag had
gone. She replied that she cared nothing about the stag because she’d lost her gold ring in the
lake. The intrepid Fionn, unable to see her so distraught, jumped into the water in search of
the ring. After circling the lake three times he found it but on emerging from the water was
no longer the strong young giant but a wizened old man with white hair. The girl had
mysteriously vanished.

When Fionn’s companions caught up with him they only realised who he was when
they saw that their hounds recognised him by his smell. It dawned on them that he had been
duped by the wicked Calliagh Berra who, having cursed the lake, had taken on the form of
the young girl to trick him into entering the water. They went immediately to her nearby
dwelling and forced her to undo the curse through a restorative potion, thereby restoring
Fionn’s strength. Unfortunately, his hair could not be returned to its original colour and
remained white for the rest of his days. It is well-known, even to this day, that the fate that
met Fionn then, awaits anyone who dares to enter those cursed waters.
Since my childhood visits to the lough, I’ve carried a mental picture of a body of water
that always looked darkly brooding. A more recent trek to its peaty verge over half a century
later did nothing to dispel that image. Perhaps my perception had been coloured by the stories
I’d heard so often as a child.