The Gray Man's Path, Ballycastle, County Antrim

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume II, Chapter IV

NEAR Fair Head is a singular fissure in the face of the precipice, called Fhir Leith, or the GRAY MAN'S PATH. The entrance to the pass at the top is extremely narrow; and a joint of greenstone, which has fallen across it, forms a sort of natural gate, through which the bold inquirer must descend, and which conducts to a gradually expanding passage leading to the base. There are said to be one or two similar chasms along the summit, which have frequently proved fatal to cattle pasturing upon the headland.

The shore in this neighbourhood is beautifully indented with coves, made partly by the action of the sea, and partly by the wear of the mountain-torrents. One of these forms a beautiful fall, called THE LEAP, which in rainy seasons is an object of great beauty. Night closed upon us as we entered Ballycastle, and we were happy to find ourselves at another comfortable inn, and within a two hours' drive of the Causeway. This little town possesses a very strong interest for the historian and antiquarian, as well as the geologist and traveller. The collieries of Ballycastle have, at different periods, occupied the attention of speculators; and it is confidently believed they will still prove a source of wealth to Ireland. But a more than ordinary interest is attached to them from a discovery made about seventy years ago by the miners employed in the works.

Mr. Hamilton, in his Letters on the Antrim Coast, says, that about the year 1770, while the miners were pushing forward an adit towards the bed of coal in an unexplored part of the Ballycastle cliff, they unexpectedly broke through the rock into a narrow passage, so much contracted and choked up with various drippings and deposits on its side and bottom, as to render it impossible for any of the workmen to force through that they might examine it further. Two lads were therefore made to creep in with candles, for the purpose of exploring this subterraneous avenue; they accordingly proceeded for a considerable time, with much labour and difficulty, and at length entered into an extensive labyrinth, diverging into numerous apartments, in the mazes and windings of which they were completely bewildered and lost. After various vain attempts to return, their lights were extinguished, their voices became hoarse and exhausted with frequent shouting; at length, becoming completely fatigued, they sat down together in utter despair. Meanwhile their friends without, alarmed for their safety, used equal exertions to indicate their presence, but in vain; at length, it occurred to one of the subterranean wanderers that the sound of his hammer against a stone would be better heard than the sound of a human voice, which artifice succeeded in directing their friends to the place where the two young adventurers were seated in despondence, and thus ultimately restored them to the light of the sun, after an absence of twelve hours.

Thirty-six chambers were discovered here, all trimmed and dressed by excellent hands; also baskets and mining instruments, and other demonstrations of the original miner's knowledge and expertness in the art, equal to that of the present age. No tradition remains in the country of the working of this mine; and the peasantry, who attribute all works of antiquity in this kingdom to the Danes or the giants, in this instance prefer the former. But this conclusion is erroneous, as is very satisfactorily proved by the writer of the above extract. Another argument in favour of the supposed antiquity of these collieries is derived from this curious circumstance: Bruce's Castle, situate on the Island of Raghery, appears to have been built with lime which had been burned with sea-coal, some cinders of which may still be detected in the mortar, and bear a strong resemblance to those of Ballycastle coals. Now these coals, in all probability, were brought from Ballycastle; for the English collieries were not then generally worked, as this was more than five centuries ago.