Banagher Glen in focus

DOTTED around Ireland are but a handful of truly ancient woodlands, undisturbed for centuries and remote enough to remain largely free from invasive foreign plant life.

Monday, 23rd July 2012, 5:38 pm

One such woodland lies a few miles outside of Dungiven, in an area of deep cultural and ecological significance, known as Banagher Glen.

A walk around the Glen reveals not only scenery remarkable for its striking beauty even in a Roe Valley noted for its outstanding natural beauty, but a glimpse at a lost landscape which some of the first people to set foot in Ulster would have encountered. Aside from the natural beauty and ecological significance of the area, there is also a rich cultural history to be found involving mythical sea creatures, early Irish Saints and an old Church building with a somewhat tumultuous past.

Around six thousand years ago, according to the best estimates, the first neolithic farmers arrived in Ireland and began clearing the woodlands which had stood since the end of the Ice Age. The landscape of the island has been dramatically and probably irreversibly altered to the extent that a mere hundredth of the deciduous forest which once covered Ireland in a thick blanket, teeming with life, remains.

For a true sense of the Ulster which the neolithic settlers of 6,000 years ago would have encountered, few remaining woodlands provide a glimpse into Ireland’s lost ancient landscape to rival Banagher Glen.

The removal of the trees to make way for farmland continued unabated throughout the millennia and was to have a profound effect on the landscape itself, even contributing to the formation of the peat bogs which cover many of the hills of the Roe Valley today. By the plantation of the 17th Century, little natural forest remained on the island of Ireland.

Records show that by 1770, much of the local forests were already cleared, meaning the woodland at Banagher is, at the very least, almost two and a half centuries old and may even have escaped the clearings of that time.

In terms of the local ecology, it is most likely because of the remoteness of the area that Banagher Glen has remained undisturbed throughout those centuries, meaning it is mostly free from invasive foreign species and still contains only native Irish trees.

It is for this reason, among others, that Banagher Glen has been designated a European Area of Nature Conservation, one of only a few locations significant enough to attain that status throughout the province.

A report produced a few years ago by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency provides a brief outline of the types of trees you are likely to encounter: “The species of tree growing depends on the underlying rock. Sessile oaks grow on the acidic soils produced by the schist which lie beneath most of the reserve. Ash thrives best where the fault line running through the reserve outcrops limestone near the surface producing more alkaline soils. Smaller trees such as birch, hazel and rowan are the predominant trees in the lower canopy. The plantations near the reservoir contain larch and lodgepole pine but Sitka Spruce predominates.”

Aside from the trees and plants, the Glen is teeming with animal life. Rare birds of prey can be found in large enough numbers for the site, an official Nature Reserve, to be of significance for the protection of the species.

The formidable peregrine falcon can be spotted on occasion, as can the buzzard or the sparrowhawk. One bird in particular which can be found at the Glen, the redstart, is among the very rarest in Ireland, with less than a dozen breeding pairs North or South. Approximately the size of a robin, numbers of the bird are considered ‘depleted’ across Europe and are extensively monitored in Ireland because of the small numbers of breeding pairs. Other rare birds include the wood warbler and the cuckoo.

A report from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency provides a summary on some of the rare birds at Banagher Glen: “The wood warbler and the redstart are... summer migrants. The wood warbler is probably so rare in Ireland because it requires open deciduous forests to breed. There are so few places like Banagher in Ireland where it can find suitable breeding habitat. The redstart is the rarest of all. Quite why it is almost absent from Ireland... may be to do with its position to the far west of Europe. You will only hear and see the cuckoo, the wood warbler and the redstart in early summer as they are all migrants.”

Badgers, foxes, feral goats and a host of other mammals can also be spotted from time to time in and around the Reserve.

In terms of the human history of the area, there are a high number of evocative place names associated with it, which can give a useful insight into the past. The name Banagher itself is derived from Gaelic, and originally would have meant ‘the spiked palisade surrounding a monastery’. The names of some of the streams in the Reserve are equally as colourful. Altnaheglish also donates religious connotations, and means ‘valley of the church. Glenedra means ‘the valley in-between’, while Cushcapal means ‘the leg of the horse’.

The deep pool below the bridge where the Altnaheglish and Glenedra streams meet is where a legendary monster was said to reside – the last serpent in Ireland ‘Lig na Paiste’. Limavady Borough Council are currently considering whether this mythic creature should be invoked through sculpture, as one of five pieces of artwork to be commissioned throughout the Roe Valley.

The story of Lig-na-Paiste is well known around the world, involving a battle of wits between the monster itself and the holy man known as Saint Murrough O’Heaney.

The story goes that shortly after the death of Saint Patrick, a monster began to cause a great disturbance in the area around the Lough Foyle.

The creature, a hideous, huge dragon with rams horns, potent venom and the ability to breathe fire. Some stories have it that the Paiste was a thing left over from the ancient time at the beginning of the world.

Lig-na-Paiste was terrorizing the inhabitants of the Roe Valley, from it’s hiding place at the pool in Banagher Glen, which visitors can still see today. The people appealed to the revered and holy Saint Murrough for help. Murrough O’Heaney prayed to God for nine days and nine nights and made his way to the dwelling place of the Paiste with three red rods.

The serpent lay down, and allowed O’Heaney to lay the three rods across its’ back, whereupon he prayed to God “as he had never prayed before”. Miraculously the rods grew over Paiste, covering him in bindings stronger than steel.

When the great monster cried out that he had been tricked, Saint Murrough told him that because he was an evil creature which was not to be trusted, he would not to be set free and allowed to harm the Children of God.

He was cast down to the bottom of the Lough Foyle, where he is said to remain to this day. He will stay there until the Day of Judgement. The unusual tides and currents of the Foyle, and the odd disturbances which can sometimes occur near the Lough are said to be the stirrings of the great beast – trapped in the centuries old bonds of Saint Murrough.

While the historical truth of the story of the last serpent in Ireland, one which was presumably overlooked by Saint Patrick, may leave quite a bit to be desired - the figure of Saint Murrough (sometimes Muirdeach) O’Heaney was certainly a real one.

His legacy to the Roe Valley remains in a more tangible way than the stories of his battle of wits with ancient demons, since he is the man said to have founded the Banagher Old Church.

As you approach the Banagher Glen on the Magheramore Road, the Old Church is an obvious landmark.

It is one of 180 churches in Northern Ireland looked after by the Environment Agency. Some local tradition has it that the Church was founded by Saint Patrick himself, while the more dominant story is that it was Saint Murrough who founded the Banagher Church at this location after being led there by a stag.

The NIEA provide a description of the Church itself: “It is likely that the present ruined stone church replaced a much older wooden structure around the year 1100 A.D. The site may appear remote today but it would have been an important routeway at that time as one of the easier ways to cross the Sperrins. Small as the church appears today, at the time of its construction it would have been very impressive as one of the largest stone structures in the area and indeed in the whole of Ireland.

“Its prominent site affords great views of the surrounding countryside and would also have been a prominent landmark. Originally the church would have been constructed in the hiberno-romanesque style as can be seen by the window in the main part of the church, the nave. Later additions show more of the influence of the gothic style of building as can be seen in the window in the more easterly chancel of the church.”

There is a turbulent and troubled history associated with the Church. The Annals of Ulster record that the local king was killed here in 1121. At the north east of the church remains an old cross, one of a set of five which would have stood there almost 1,000 years ago. These five crosses marked the church’s sanctuary area which was supposed to allow fugitives safety, according to the tradition of the time. In 1121, the local king was killed in this area, when his enemies ignored the special feature of the Church.

Another interesting feature of the churchyard is the mortuary house. This little model stone church reflects the style of the older wooden churches. It is reputed to contain the remains of the founder of the church Saint Murrough O’Heaney. At one time Banagher was an important place of pilgrimage. Sand from beneath the grave is reputed to bring good luck in all sorts of situations, such as horse racing but especially to litigants in court cases.

The church fell into disuse sometime after the Plantation in the 17th century, although it continued to be used as a burial ground long after that. It was extensively restored by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in the 1970’s.

A visit to Banagher Glen Nature Reserve during the summer months not only provides a glimpse at an ancient landscape and woodland now lost to Ulster and Ireland, but also an insight into the myths and legends of the pre-Christian people of the area and the earliest beginnings of Christianity in Ireland.

There are some things to bear in mind before visiting the local Nature Reserve, however. The glen itself is quite steep and might pose some safety risks. Visitors are also encouraged to remember that trampling could easily destroy what the reserve is seeking to conserve. Visitors are encouraged to remain on the road at all times.