When you go fishing, you hope to catch fish. If that sounds like stating the obvious, try asking any angler how many times they’ve actually hooked a rusty tin can or a discarded boot. But when two Northern Irishmen were fishing in Lough Neagh, they didn’t catch a piece of garbage. Instead, they plucked something much rarer and more surprising from the depths.
The two men in question were Raymond McElroy and Charlie Coyle, and they were on an early morning trip to haul in their nets. In particular, from 4:00 a.m. the duo were at Lough Neagh, which is situated near the Northern Irish village of Ballyronan.
And McElroy and Coyle had been hoping to land some of the popular yet elusive pollan – a whitefish that lives in five Irish loughs, including Lough Neagh. However, what the pair had caught was something in even scarcer supply. What’s more, their discovery may only have added to the reputation of this particular stretch of water.
But Lough Neagh is not only special because of its population of pollan. Located about a 40-minute drive west from the Northern Irish capital of Belfast, the lough is the largest body of fresh water in the U.K. It covers 151 square miles in total and also provides some 40 percent of water to the Northern Ireland population.
Meanwhile, in September 2018 Coyle would recount the story of what had happened on his and McElroy’s fateful fishing trip. And, up to a point, it had apparently not been a successful night. “We were out fishing on Wednesday morning… lifting nets, and we had most of the nets lifted,” Coyle revealed to the BBC.
Coyle continued, “Then one of the nets got snagged on the bottom. We thought it was an old tree or something, and we couldn’t get it up for a good while.” However, the fisherman added, “And then finally, after about five or ten minutes, [the net] started to come up.”
Coyle then proceeded to describe what the two men had seen as the net at last emerged above the surface. He explained, “[The net] came to the top of the water, and Raymond said, ‘That looks like an old oak tree.’ The next thing, we [saw] the head, and he said to me, ‘It’s an elk’. And I said, ‘It’s the devil!’”
Fortunately for all concerned, McElroy was right and Coyle was wrong: the retrieved item was indeed the astonishingly well-preserved skull and antlers of an Irish elk. But what was truly startling about the discovery is the fact that the Irish elk has been extinct in the country for some 10,000 years.
Furthermore, the two men netted the elk skull about a mile from the Lough Neagh shoreline in a part of the lough known as ‘The Thorns’ – a place of murky myth. In fact, the whole of Lough Neagh has a rich history of tall tales and fables, as is the case with several areas of Northern Ireland.
One such story deals with the creation of the lough. According to legend, the mythical Irish warrior Finn McCool was hot on the heels of an unwelcome giant from Scotland. Grabbing a handful of Irish land, McCool then flung the mud at the giant. And the huge hole left by the improvised missile is said to have eventually filled with water – thus, Lough Neath.
But the Irish elk was once very real, as the approximately eight-foot-wide set of antlers the fishermen found suggest. Sometimes called the Irish giant deer, the magnificent animals lived not only in Ireland but could also be found roaming right across Eurasia into what is now China and Siberia. The “Irish” tag came about, however, because some of the species’ remains have been found in Irish marshes and bogs.
And the Irish elk’s name is not only misleading in a geographical sense, since the animal isn’t even an elk. In trying to make sense of that statement, it is worth considering that the European elk – or a moose in North America – is an altogether different animal. In fact, the Irish elk is not even a close cousin of our modern elk.
So, when scientists began to discover Irish elk fossils in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were bamboozled. Some thought the bones were those of a moose, while others mistakenly identified them as being from a European reindeer. But since researchers in those days didn’t comprehend the concepts of extinction or evolution, their errors can be considered excusable.
Meanwhile, although the Irish elk disappeared from Ireland 10,000 years ago, the species continued to exist in Siberia until about 3,000 years later. And they were absolutely extraordinary animals, too. Their antlers, for example, could spread to 12 feet – a larger reach than that of any other species of deer known to the modern world.
Plus, the Megaloceros giganteus, to give the Irish elk its Latin name, can be first traced to around 400,000 years ago. To put that in context, our species, Homo sapiens, probably originated about 315,000 years ago. So even though the Irish elk has been extinct for 7,000 years, it still had a longer run on the planet than humans have had to date.
However, most of the elk remains uncovered in Ireland are thought to be between 11,750 and 10,950 years old. And Ireland certainly has been prolific in discoveries of this particular species. At just one location – the Ballybetagh Bog in County Dublin – more than 100 such specimens have been uncovered.
And what brought about the extinction of the Irish elk is still the subject of scientific debate. The huge size of their antlers, hunting and changes in vegetation leading to malnourishment have all been proposed as causes. A common, repeated idea is that the end of the last ice age led to environmental changes that did for these giant deer – although a definitive answer as to their fate remains elusive.
But, rather startlingly, we may yet see these gigantic deer gracing the bogs and hills of the Emerald Isle again. In 2018 the website Mother Nature Network named 14 extinct species that could be candidates for cloning with cutting-edge DNA extraction technology. One of the animals on this list? None other than the Irish elk.
But what of the Irish elk skull hauled from the waters of Lough Neagh by our two fishermen? Well, it seems that McElroy and Coyle are not entirely certain what to do with their find. In fact, at the time of writing, the relics are sitting in a garage while the pair ponder their future.
However, while speaking to Irish website The Journal in September 2018, McElroy said, “Going by preserving [the discovery], I don’t know what to do with it or anything like that. But the next step is for people to see it.” And he added that interested buyers had been in touch. So, if you’re in the market for a fine set of Irish elk antlers, don’t delay.