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from "Sketches of olden days in Northern Ireland"


by Rev. Canon Forde

Ballycastle, the charming watering-place on the coast of Antrim, has not the stern grandeur of Portrush, but nature has done much to make the whole district beautiful. It abounds with the most varied scenery in mountain, upland, glen, and cliff and is beautifully wooded almost to the seashore. The golf links, small but sporting, the tennis courts, and bowling greens are gay in the summer month with happy young people, and one cannot wonder that Ballycastle is a cherished spot in the affection of its many visitors.
It has also a history full of interest. It is said to have been from Port Brittas, the old name for Ballycastle Bay, that in A.D. 506 the chiefs Angus and Fergus, with many followers from the Antrim Dalriada, sailed to Scotland, and after a succession of battles to have founded a large colony, which included, besides other territories along the coast of Scotland, the Isles and Cantire. In 1494, after being defeated by King James IV of Scotland, the MacDonnells, followed by their clansmen, the MacNeills, MacAlisters, and MacKays, settled in Antrim. It was from this time that the struggle began between the MacDonnells and MacQuillins for the Antrim Dalriada or Route.
[]In 1550 Alexander MacDonnell was established in Dunaneeny Castle, where, with Port Brittas at his feet, he commanded the key of the position, as he could bring galleys " go leór " from Cantire and the Isles to help him in his battles. Nine years after this the MacQuillins were defeated and almost exterminated in the Glenshesc Valley by Sorley Boy MacDonnell and his followers, and so it came about that by the end of the sixteenth century the MacDonnells were masters of the situation, and held the Route, the Glens, and Rathlin, with numerous castles.
In ancient times a castle stood on the site of the Boyd Church in the Diamond, and it was from this castle that Ballycastle derived its name. After the MacDonnells had become masters of North Antrim, one of their earliest grants conveyed the lands constituting the Ballycastle estate to Hugh MacNeill. That grant is dated 9th November, 1612, and reserves to Sir Randal MacDonnell and his wife, Lady Alice O'Neill, the right of residence, should they wish it, at either or both villages of Dunanynie and Ballycashan (Baile Cashlin, Ballycastle). They availed themselves of this privilege some years afterwards, and built a new castle on the site of the old one which had given the name of Ballycastle to the village. The ordnance MS. states that in 1838 there was, over a back door in the house of Mrs. Blair, on the south side of Main Street, a date stone which had been taken from the ruins of the castle, and on which was an inscription in raised letters, but the only portion of it that could be read was " WRKGS 1625," which was probably the date at which the earl erected the new castle.
He died at Dunluce in 1636, and his wife, the Lady Alice O'Neill, with their two daughters, went to live at Ballycastle. Here she resided, enjoying the rents of her extensive jointure lands, until 1642, when she suddenly found herself in the very centre of the bloody deeds which were committed by both parties at that period of great rebellion. The castle was seized by Scotch troops, and afterwards held by the Cromwellians. The old countess returned to the neighbourhood after the Restoration. One of her letters, written from Bun-na-mairgie, is dated 1661, and in another, written in the same month, she prays her "Dear Cousin, Colonel Robert Stewart, now in Dublin—' I hope you will strive to get my old dwelling Ballycastle to me again.' " The castle, however, had been too long occupied by soldiers to be reoccupied as a mansion. The eastern gable remained until 1848, when it was removed by an order from the Court of Chancery, lest its fall might occasion loss of life.
After the wars of 1641 Ballycastle was almost entirely deserted. At the end of the century the village occupied only an extent of three acres. About 1736 Mr. Hugh Boyd, son of the rector of Ramoan, secured a lease from the Antrim family, and having obtained £20,000 from Parliament he built a pier for the protection of shipping. He sank coal shafts, established potteries, built smelting-houses and a glass factory, and under his fostering care the village of Ballycastle blossomed into a flourishing town. At the time of his death in 1765 the town had twenty vessels actively employed in trade, but from that period the harbour was permitted to fall into decay. The violence of the tides overthrew the piers, and the harbour was choked with drifted sands.

On the sea coast, on the way to the Causeway, stand the ruins of the castle of Kinban, " The White Head," that guarded the limestone promontory from which it is named. It occupies a bold position over the chasm separating that promontory from the mainland. At present little remains of the fortress except a part of the keep, a portion of the gateway, and fragments of the courtyard and of the walls that once guarded the edges of the cliff. At the base of the headland is Lagna-Sassanach, "the hollow of the English," where it is said an English force once encamped to besiege the castle, but the garrison having sallied out at night, occupied the height above the camp and rolled over the precipices masses of rock with which they crushed the enemy. Tradition says Kinban was built by the MacHenrys, but in the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth it was held by the MacAlisters. In an attack by Captain Piere, of Carrickfergus, three of the MacAlisters who were in rebellion were made prisoners; one of them was hung in chains, and Alister, chief of the clan, made his submission to the English. The MacAlisters after this were forced again into rebellion, but were overpowered and their castle destroyed. It was rebuilt by Coll MacDonnell, who lived in it till 1558; but after the rising of 1641 it was finally destroyed by the ruthless Scotch General—Munro—to whom the destruction of so many stately castles in Antrim is due.

This fortress stands on the summit of a bold promontory that rises to a great height above the sea. Dunaneeny means " the fort of the assembly or fair." The area on which the castle stood is a smoothlevel, measuring from east to west 60 yards, and from north to south 35 yards. It was surrounded by the sea on all sides except the south, where it was protected by a moat extending from east to west 80 yards, cut chiefly through the solid rock. The highest part of the wall now remaining is only 12 1/2 feet, and every vestige of the castle which stood within the fortified area has disappeared. Tradition says it was built by the O'Carrols, an old family who resided here many centuries ago. Later, the chieftains of the MacDonnells made this one of their principal strongholds, and from it they could watch their galleys gliding into Port Brittas almost at its base. The castle is notable for being the birthplace of the second Sorley Boy MacDonnell, who was born here in 1505. It was from here, at the head of his kerns and gallowglasses, he led them from victory to victory, till he became master of the whole of the Route. It was here, too, he died, and from here he was carried to his resting-place, the procession making its way through Ballycastle to the Abbey of Bun-na-mairgie, where they laid their gallant chief in a soldier's grave.The ruins of this ancient church and friary are only a few minutes' walk from Ballycastle. The friary is said to have been built by the MacQuillins, and to have been enlarged by the MacDonnells. Formerly a river ran close to the abbey, but its course was diverted in 1738 by Mr. Boyd, in order that it might help to deepen the inner dock.. The church and friary were built of Ballycastle sandstone, filled in with small stones. From the fourteenth or fifteenth century it was occupied by Franciscan friars of the third order. The church suffered considerable damage on 4th January, 1584, when the English of the Pale, under Sir John Perrott, marched to Bun-na-mairgie, where, leaving his cavalry in charge of Sir William Stanley in and around the church, he placed his infantry in the Fort of Ballycastle. Sorley Boy was on his way home with several galleys full of Scots, but his followers, anticipating his arrival, attacked the English troops at Bun-na-mairgie at one o'clock in the morning, and set fire to the roof of the church, which was thatched. The church was full of horses. A severe battle ensued, in which Sir William Stanley was wounded, and Sir John Perrott was forced to withdraw his troops, but took with him St. Columba's cross from the church, which he sent to Sir Francis Walshingham, describing it as Sorley Boy's cross, with a request it should be given to Lady Walshingham. The church was subsequently restored and the friary again reoccupied.
The churchyard of Bun-na-mairgie was the burial-place of the MacDonnells. The place, says Rev. George Hill, heaves with the MacDonnell dust. There were those who fell when James MacDonnell slaughtered the MacQuillins in Glenshesc at the battle of Aura. There were those who fell when Shane O'Neill overthrew Sorley MacDonnell and his brother James in 1665 at Glenshesc or Glentow. There were, too, those who fell around Bun-na-mairgie in 1584 when Sorley Boy and his followers repulsed Sir John Perrott and his followers. It is said that during this period heaps of bodies were carried there and left unburied for weeks until an opportunity came.

(Castle of the King of Ulster.)

There is a beautiful green eminence nearly two miles north-east of Ballycastle and a short distance south of Carey Church. It is said to have been a summer residence of King Connor MacNeesa, the celebrated King of Ulster, who began his reign about twelve years after the birth of Christ. He was called MacNeesa from his mother, Neesa, who was daughter of an Irish chief, and was left a widow in the prime of youth and beauty. At this time Fergus MacRorgh was King of Ulster, and when Connor was seven years old Fergus fell in love with the widow and proposed marriage to her, with a request to name her dowry. The widow consented on condition that the sovereignty of the province should be resigned to her son Connor for one year, in order, as she-said, that his children should be called the children of a king. Fergus took counsel with his people, and they advised him to agree to the condition, seeing that the youth would likely be only too glad to get rid of the cares of government long before the year expired.
In this they were mistaken; for when his mother found herself in a position of wealth and influence, she supplied the boy and his tutors with all the money and other wealth that she could lay hold on, to be distributed secretly among the most important and powerful chiefs of the province. She also advised and enabled him to keep up a style of splendour and hospitality such as none of his predecessors had ever done before, so that his court became the resort of all that were brave and dignified, scientific and learned, in the kingdom. The poets extolled him in verse; the druids prophesied his future fame and renown; the ladies loved him for his beauty; the chiefs and warriors looked up to him as the very soul of munificence and chivalry. So that, when the year of office had expired, the Ultonians refused to allow him to hand the kingdom back to Fergus; alleging, among other things, that Fergus appeared willing at any time to barter it and them for the sake of any woman who took his fancy. Fergus did not submit tamely to this breach of covenant. He raised a war against Connor, which was carried on for a long time with vigour; but he was ultimately defeated and forced to an involuntary submission.
Years after, in battle, a brain-ball was flung by Cet, an enemy of Connor, and thrown so that it entered Connor's brow and sank two-thirds into it. He fell with his head to the earth.. A physician was brought to Connor—namely, Fingan. " Good!" said Fingan; " if the ball be taken out of thy head thou shalt surely die, and if it is not taken out I could cure thee; but it would be a blemish." Then said the Ultonians: "It is better for us than his death." His head then healed up, and Fingan warned King Connor that he should be cautious; that he should not allow anger to come upon him, that he should not ride upon a horse, neither should be run. And King Connor continued in that doubtful state for the space of seven years, and was incapable of action, and always remained sitting, until he heard that Christ was crucified by the Jews.
There came at that time a great convulsion over creation. The heavens and the earth were shaken by the enormity of the deed that was done—namely, Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, to be crucified without crime. " What is this?" said Connor to his druid. " What great evil is it which is done on this day?" " It is true, indeed," said the druid, " that Christ, the Son of God, is crucified by the Jews." " That is a great deed," said Connor. " Now," said the druid," it was on the same day that you were born, that He was born. That is, on the eighth of the calends of January " (though the year was not the same at that time). It was then that Connor believed he was one of the two first men that believed in the Saviour in Erin before the coming of St. Patrick, Moran being the other. " Good, now," said King Connor; "it is a pity that Christ did not apply to a valiant high king which would come in the shape of a champion to do battle for him. Were I there I would kill those who were around my King at the putting of Him to death." And with that he brought down his sword from its place, and he rushed into the woody grove which was convenient, and began to cut down the branches, and what he said was this: that that was the usage he would give them; and from the fury that seized upon him the ball started out of his forehead, and some of his brains came out along with it, and in that hour he died.[]

On the coast of Antrim, just off Ballycastle, lies the island of Rathlin. It is mainly a huge basaltic rock with a precipitous coastline. It contains an area of 4,000 acres, of which 1,000 are sheltered and capable of cultivation, the rest being heather and rock. The approach is at all times dangerous; the tide sets fiercely through the straits which divide the island from the mainland, and when the wind is from the west the Atlantic swell renders it impossible to land. The situation and the difficulty of access had thus long marked Rathlin as a place of refuge for Scotch or Irish fugitives, and, besides its natural strength, it was respected as a sanctuary having been the abode at one time of St. Columba. A mass of broken masonry on a cliff overhanging the sea is a remnant of the castle in which Robert Bruce watched the climbing of the spider.
When Lord Essex, the English Deputy, entered Antrim to attack Sorley Boy MacDonnell, it was to this island that Sorley Boy and the other Scots sent their wives and children, their aged and sick, for safety. Lord Essex, knowing that the refugees were still on the island, sent orders to Colonel John Norris, who was in command at Caarrickfergus, to take a company of soldiers with him, cross over to Rathlin, and kill what he could find. The sea, says Froude, to whom I am indebted for this account, was smooth; there was a light and favourable breeze from the east, so that the run up the Antrim coast was rapid and quickly accomplished. Before the alarm could be given, the English had landed close to the ruins of the church which bears St. Columba's name.
Bruce's castle was then standing, and was occupied by a score or two of Scots, who were in charge of the women. Norris had brought cannon with him, so that the weak defences were speedily destroyed, and after a fierce assault, in which several of the-garrison were killed, the Scots were obliged to yield at discretion, and every living thing in the place, except the chief and his family, who were probably reserved for ransom, was immediately put to the sword. Two hundred were killed in the castle. It was then discovered that several hundred more, chiefly mothers and their little ones, were hidden in the caves about the shore. There was no pity for them. They were hunted out as if they had been seals or otters, and all destroyed. Sorley Boy and the other chiefs, wrote Essex to Queen Elizabeth, had sent their wives and children into the island, "which be all taken and executed to the number of 600." Sorley Boy himself, he continued, stood upon the mainland of " the Glynnes and saw the taking of the island, and was likely to have run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself and saying that he there lost all that he ever had."
Such was the tragedy of the 22nd July, 1575 Lord Essex described it as one of the exploits with which he was most satisfied, and Queen Elizabeth, in answer to his letter, bade him tell John Norris, " the executioner of his well designed enterprise, that she would not be unmindful of his services." Such was the verdict on the massacre in those fierce times, but in more modern days this massacre has left a stain on the memory of Lord Essex that will not soon be obliterated.

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