Cave Hill - Story of Belfast

THERE have been many stories written and many poems on the beauty of our Cave Hill, but perhaps the finest is by a well-known Belfast writer, who has given us these beautiful lines.

Look up from the streets of the city,

Look high beyond tower and mast,

What hand of what Titan sculptor

Smote the crags on the mountain vast?

Made when the world was fashioned,

Meant with the world to last,

The glorious face of the sleeper

That slumbers above Belfast.

It is a glorious face indeed, so calm in its majestic beauty, upturned to the blue vault of heaven, as if it scorned the small things of this poor earth of ours.

That wonderful face was there long ages before the Sphinx gazed over the plain of Gizeh, and will be there when all the work of our world is done.

Sometimes when I see the outline of that face clear cut against the sky, I wonder, if those still firm lips could speak, what tales they could tell. If those closed eyes could open what have the centuries to tell us that they do not know? Look at it from every point of view, and still our own Cave Hill stands unrivalled. Ben Madhigan is well named the Hill of Caves, for there are three large caves on the face of the precipice. They were used in the old war times as hiding places for prisoners as well as for treasure. Sir Samuel Ferguson tells us they were also used as hiding places for the people in times of danger. The lowest cave is quite easy of access, and it opens just above the large semi-circle which is called the Devil's Punch Bowl. It is twenty-one feet long, eighteen feet wide, varies from seven to ten feet high, and it is dry and clean. The next cave is ten feet long, seven feet wide and six feet high. The third cave is the largest, but so difficult of access, that few people venture to ascend such a dangerous cliff. It is very extensive and is divided into two parts. It must have been in this upper cave that Corby MacGilmore kept his prisoners.

The Rout of the MacGilmores, Cave Hill, Belfast

Rout of the MacGilmores, Cave Hill, Belfast

The secret entrance from the top of the hill remains a secret still, which may some day be discovered. Corby used to show his unfortunate prisoners the open mouth of the cave and tell them they were free to depart by his front door—if they could—but we are not told that any of his unwilling guests ever went out of that door by their own desire. Even the magnificent view outside would but poorly compensate for the imprisonment inside the cave. So recently as the year 1874, two other caves were discovered, and they are larger, but are extremely difficult of access. One of them measures thirty feet by twenty. A strange and unknown name has been cut into the rock. No living person can read the meaning of the name, and the hands that cut it on the stone have crumbled into dust many a long year ago. It leaves, however, another indication that all these caves must at one time have been used.

There are several places about Belfast where large ramparts of' earth have been formed, most probably for purposes of defence and protection. Raths and ancient forts are also numerous.

The largest of these is on the lofty summit of the Cave Hill, and is known as MacArt's Fort. The noble face on the hill has often been called the Goddess of Liberty, and MacArt's Fort forms the Phrygian cap that crowns the head. On one side, there is a precipice, and on the other, a single ditch of great depth and a vallum of large dimensions, while the enclosure is almost level. On the highest point, there is a chair formed in the rock, which was used on most important occasions by the Irish chieftains in the dawn of our Irish history.

The last historical event which took place on the top of MacArt's Fort was on a day in June in the year 1795, when Wolfe Tone, Thomas Russell, Samuel Nelson, and several others met and took a solemn oath that they would never rest until Ireland was free. Tragic death came soon to some of their little band. All are at rest long since, but Ireland will never rest.

The Cave Hill used to be a popular resort for holiday makers, and it is still a favourite walk. The path has been made much easier now, and the toil of the ascent is forgotten when the top is reached and the wide-spreading panorama of beautiful scenery lies at the foot. It is quite possible that in the near future the ascent may be made in a much less laborious fashion, if we have the Belfast City Tramway service extended to MacArt's Fort. The beautiful face of the Goddess of Liberty will, we hope, still slumber undisturbed in her majestic dignity.

The Caves of Ben Madhigan are not the only caves we have about Belfast. These curious relics of antiquity are to be found in various places formed in the earth or of hard limestone. In the year 1792, three were discovered at Wolfhill. One is eight yards long but only one yard wide, and it has four small chambers diverging from it. On the side of the hill at Ballymargy is another cave larger and more perfect, with two entrances.

A very large cave near Hannahstown has been closed since 1798. It was formerly used for concealing arms. In the same neighbourhood at a place called Callender's Port, two miles from Belfast on the Falls Road, is another ancient place named "Cranock" where traces of foundations and the remains of a large cemetery are still left. On the same road is the old chapel of Kilwee, where a number of finely carved crosses and monuments were found.

Two cairns were discovered on the Black Mountain in the year 1827. One was remarkable, as it contained a large urn filled with human bones, with a spear-head and two brass ornaments. There is also a cairn on the Cave Hill and one at Squire's Hill. At the base of Squire's Hill, there are two small raths, and also two larger ones near the summit of the Black Mountain.

Mention has already been made of an encampment at Fort William which was made by King William in the year 1690, near the site of a ruder and much older construction. There was another very ancient fortress, three miles along the road to Carrickfergus at Greencastle, but we have no distinct record of it extant now.