Whiteabbey boat house shares its secrets on European Heritage Day

Coastguard Boat House.
Coastguard Boat House.

The only Coastguard Boat House on Belfast Lough is to reveal some curious seafaring tales as part of European Heritage Day this Sunday (September 15).

The 19th Century Boat House on the coastal path near Whiteabbey is part of the lough’s rich and undiscovered past through its historic coast guarding role in protecting the lough shores from bands of smugglers.

A ring of coastguard cottages and boat houses was built around the lough in the 1800s, with coastguards armed with swords, then rifles, deployed to defend the shores.

The establishment of the Coastguard during this time was not so much about saving lives – although rescue from shipwrecks was in the job description.

It was prompted rather by loss of revenue to the Crown from smuggled undeclared goods such as gin, tobacco and rope.

Ireland at the time was also under threat of armed rebellion and contraband smuggled across the lough brought cargos of gunpowder and swords.

The Coastguard Boat House, which was renovated into a unique Airbnb holiday let last year is a ‘sea’ dog friendly accommodation that has attracted and intrigued visitors from around the world since opening its doors in December.

It retains many of its original and intriguing features including the supports and rings for the original Boat House hoist as well as shelving and original beam. Of most interest is a window with metal bars, which dates the Boat House to the 1800s.

Friends and neighbours of the Boat House have passed on documents about its past including sketches of an ‘arms stand.’

The stand was built at the corners of the Coastguard living quarters and was constructed to help officers grab their swords quickly and make their way to the lough to capture smugglers.

The tours taking place on Sunday include the use of the Boat House tide clock so that visitors can explore shipwrecks on the shores of Belfast Lough and Whiteabbey.

Visitors will also explore the purpose of the old coal pier which stands opposite the Boat House and resembles the remains of a castle. It is now a protected monument.

The Boat House is owned by husband and wife team Carol Magill and Colin Simms.

Such has been the success of the new role for the historic building that Carol now runs a networking programme and one day boot camps for prospective Airbnb providers.

Carol said: “The Coastguard Boat House incorporates tales of romance, intrigue, rebellion and oppression linked to Ireland’s nautical past.

“One is the story of Farmer McClenghan from Portmuck. He was a gentleman farmer who was also a master smuggler – whose only granddaughter married no less than a coastguard.

“The coastal walk along Whiteabbey to Gideon’s Green is one of the most popular and interesting in Northern Ireland. But many people who walk the path do not realise this shore was the epicentre of commercial trade in the region - long before Belfast port was widened. It was the beating heart of the linen and rope trade and the coastline bears many signs of that past.

“The heritage day opening is an opportunity for people to hear its history and see its reinvention as an immersive visitor experience and world standard tourist attraction.”

Tours of the Coastguard Boat House will take place from 2pm-3.30pm on Sunday. The tours are free but donations are requested for today’s modern day sea faring heroes, the Royal National Life Boat Association.

Due to limited numbers, attendance on the tour must be booked on Eventbrite. www.eventbrite.com/e/tour-of-the-coastguard-boat-house-on-belfast-lough-whiteabbey-tickets-68256935331