Strangford Lough area – geography & history snippets

 _Strangford Lough is a large (150km²) shallow sea lough _

_situated on the east coast of County Down _Northern Ireland _

The Lough's northern tip is only about 6 km from the outskirts of Belfast.

About a third of the Lough is intertidal - best seen from the huge expanses of sandflats exposed at the northern end at low tide. At high tide this area is covered in shallow water.

The southern entrance to the Lough is a deep channel about 8km long, called the Narrows. From Portaferry across the Narrows to Strangford is just 0.5km. The currents in between are extremely strong and fast - up to 8 knots (4m/s).

Strangford Lough is the largest sea lough within the United Kingdom and Ireland. From the broad, shallow flats of the north end to the fast flowing deep channel where the Lough's waters meet the Irish Sea, is a distance of over 32 kilometres.

The calmer waters of the northern shores inspired the Celtic name, Cuan, meaning, 'the quiet lough', or 'lough of the harbours.' However, the powerful tidal currents flowing through the Narrows to the Irish Sea led the Viking invaders to call the Lough 'Strangfjörthr' - the strong fjord. Between the contrasting north and south shores of Strangford Lough, lie numerous pladdies and about 70 islands, some smooth and rounded, others craggy rocks.

The Lough’s variety of habitats gives rise to exceptionally rich and varied marine life. Over 2000 marine animal and plant species have been found. Recognition has been given to the importance of the flora and fauna of Strangford Lough with national, European and international designations including: Special Area of Conservation, Special Protection Area, Ramsar site, Areas of Special Scientific Interest and Marine Nature Reserve.

The Vikings:  Magnus Barelegs

Magnus Barelegs was born in the year 1073AD. He was the son of King Olaf the Peaceful. However, Magnus preferred the reputation of his grandfather King Harold Haerdrada, the last Norse King to challenge the throne of England in 1066.

The story of how Magnus got his nickname Barelegs is that he was greatly taken with the grab worn by the men of the Hebrides (presumably the kilt). At that time men would have worn long tunics that reached to the ankle. He attracted a lot of comment by walking around Bergen in tunics that barely reached his knees - a novel sight in late eleventh century Norway.

At the age of nineteen Magnus traveled into central Europe and started trading and mercenary activities. He gained a reputation for ruthlessness and enthusiastically became one of the bodyguards of the Byzantine Empire. A position he held for two years.

When Magnus returned to his homeland Scandinavia, it was in turmoil. Divided and leaderless, Magnus through force of arms brought all three kingdoms under one rule.Having secured his home base Magnus traveled to Scotland and Ireland to renew his father's interests and treaties. He made an alliance with King Murtagh O'Brien of Munster and left to secure other treaties with the Isle of Man and Scotland.
On his return to Ireland Magnus and his small fleet of ships traveled up Strangford Lough and landed his ships near Dun da Lethglas (Downpatrick) to collect cattle and provisions promised to him by King Murtagh O'Brien for their journey home.

Returning to his ships he was mistaken as a raider and the Irish attacked. The Vikings were greatly outnumbered and after a brave and ferrous battle Magnus and most of his men were killed.

One of Magnus' men who survived the attack took Magnus' famous sword Legbiter back to Norway. And so ended the life of the last Viking king to rule the Irish Sea.

Magnus Barelegs was killed on St Bartholomew's day 24th Aug 1103, ages 30 years,

The Vikings of Strangford Lough and The death of Magnus Barelegs 1103A.D.

By Albert William Kelly Colmer, Historian

In the folk-lore of Strangford Lough, poetically named as ‘Loch Cuan of the Curraghs’ the story is told in the Metrical Dindshenchas, that the Irish sea god Manannan Mac Lir, in a grief-induced rage over the killing of his son, let forth an outburst of water which formed three Irish sea Lough, Waterford, Dundrum Bay and Strangford Lough.

Again in the Annals of the Four Masters it is also recorded. ‘An inundation of the sea over the land of Brena, in this year (2546 AD), and this is named, Loch Cuan.’ The Irish name of Loch Cuan meaning ‘Loch of the Harbour.’ This name survived as late as the mid – 18th Century, before the now used Viking name ‘Strangford,’ translated the ‘wind inlet,’ became established.

The study of the annals, tell of the Viking dominance over the Strangford Lough area, which stretched over a 200 year period, from the 9th to the 11th Century, and on to the Scandinavian stage, when an incident of near international proportions occurred, when Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, nicknamed ‘Barelegs’ was killed in battle near Downpatrick in the year 1103 

Magnus (Olavsson) Berrfǿtt (Barelegs)

King Magnus reigned as King of Norway from 1093 to his untimely death in 1103, described as ambitious, his military campaigns were sought in Sweden, Wales, Scotland, Isle of Man and along the eastern coastline of Ireland. He was described as being very tall with bright yellow hair and bright blue eyes. His grandfather was Harald Hardrata, the Viking warrior king who died at the battle of Stamford Bridge, fighting the English in 1066, and his father was Olaf the Peaceful.

Magnus was born in 1073. He became king on the death of his father, King Olaf (The Peaceful) in 1093. He was the grandson of Harald Hardarda, the warrior King who died at Stampford Bridge while attempting to conquer England in 1066. Magnus was the last of the Norse Kings of the Irish Sea. At first Magnus jointly ruled Norway with his cousin Hakon, however their joint reign was short and Hakon died only a year later, leaving Magnus sole ruler of Norway.

Magnus set out on an expedition to bring his widespread empire under control - it was on his return that the nick name 'Barelegs' came into being. The story goes that Magnus was greatly taken with the clothing worn by the men of the Hebrides. At that time men would have worn long tunics which would have reached the ankle. He attracted a lot of attention walking round in Bergen in tunics which barely reached the knees - a novel sight in the late eleventh century Norway.

In 1098, Magnus successfully brought under Norse control the Viking settlements in Orkneys, the Western Isles and the Isle of Man, where in the same year he built his hall on St. Patrick's Isle near Peel, and from there he set his final course for Ireland.

Having formed an alliance in 1102 with Muirchertach O'Brien, King of Ireland (1086 - 1119), the arrangement being formalised by the marriage of Siguard the 12 year old son of Magnus to O'Briens' 5 year old daughter, Biadmaynia. The deal was for Magnus to supply man power to O'Brien to assist him in his on going local wars, and in return Magnus was to receive cattle, to provide much needed provisions for his homeward to Norway.

Having sailed his long boats in from Strangford Lough, up the river Quoile, and beaching them on Plague Island to the present day Down Cathedral along the Ballyduggan Road, Magnus impatiently waited for the cattle to arrive on the agreed day St. Bartholomew's Day, 23rd August 1103. Evening came and no cattle had arrived, against the advice of his commander Eyvind Elbow he decided next morning to leave the safety of his ship and seek out the missing cattle, believing that O'Brien had broken his promise.

Marching along the side of the tidal marshes he came to a high hill, possible to site where Dundrum Castle now stands, looking west-wards he saw a great dust cloud, the cattle were on their way and soon he and his men would homeward bound. Perhaps in a joyous mood and letting their guard slip, suddenly 'the trees came alive,' they had been ambushed, by the 'men of Ulster.' In the ensuring battle that raged across the mud flats of the Quoile Estuary, now in total confusion, the Vikings, led by Magnus were slaughtered. Some of the Vikings made it back to their boats, leaving King Magnus and a few of his loyal guard to fight to the death. The Norse King receiving a javelin thrust through his body and then struck in the neck with an axe, he died. However his famous sword 'Legbiter,' was retrieved and brought home to Norway, but the remains of its Loyal Master, and those of his loyal guard lie in a common grave on the marshes of Down.King Magnus Barefoot, nicknamed 'Barelegs,' said, "That Kings are made for honour not for long life," he was right, for he was nearly thirty years of age when he died.

Patrick's Return to Ireland

There can be no doubt as to the time of St. Patrick's arrival in Ireland, or of the circumstances connected with it. The date of his arrival, 432AD, is proved by a concurrence of events - this point is agreed on by historians as well as by hagiographers (writer of saints lives). What this is based upon is that when Patrick came to it was during the ninth reign of Theodosius and the fourth year of Laeghaire, son of Nial. It is very probable that Patrick came directly to the North-Eastern Ireland, not on a mission to pagans, rather to minister as Bishop to an already established Christian Community

Patrick and his followers in their small boat were drawn into the Strangford Lough due to the strong tidal currents. This Lough was formally known as Lough Cuan in County Down and they landed at the mouth of the river Slaney, near to modern day Raholp. When they landed, according to Legend a boy saw Patrick and his followers, he thought that they were robbers or thieves, quickly informing his master Dichu that Pirates had landed in his territory. Dichu set his dogs on Patrick and his followers, however, when Dichu saw Patrick he became calm as Patrick spoke the words of the Psalm, Dichu no longer feared the man and his followers

Patrick able to communicate with Dichu, convinced him that he was a man of peace, eventually converting Dichu to Christianity. Resulting from this Dichu give Patrick a small barn for his first church in the Irish Sabbhall (and the English tongue Saul). Saul became one of the most important Christian sites in Ireland.

However the rest of Patrick's conversions were not going to be as straight forward as Dichu's. On Patrick's arrival he was anxious to go to Slemish to see Miliucc his former owner. He had hopes of converting him to Christianity . He made his way through Ireland to Slemish, Co. Antrim. Miliucc on seeing Patrick's arrival was terrified that Patrick would cause him harm or enslave him. And with that he killed himself by committing himself to flames. An ancient record adds: "His pride could not endure the thought of being vanquished by his former slave". Patrick was struck with horror on seeing his old master Milchu enveloped in flames.

On Patrick's return to Saul, Patrick learned that the chieftains of Erin had been summoned to celebrate a special feast at Tara by Leoghaire, who was the High King of Ireland. This would be a perfect opportunity for Patrick to present himself before the assembly. 


Saul ChurchIn 1932, to celebrate the 1,500 anniversary of the landing of St. Patrick in 432AD, the existing church at Saul was constructed to replace the former minimal whitewashed building.

The church was built from Mourne Granite - the same of which was used for the slab in the Down Cathedral to honour the burial of St. Patrick in the grounds. The church was designed by Henry Seaver from Belfast designed the church in the Celtic tradition.