Ballycastle - Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland

From Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland by Rev. Hugh Forde

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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 months with happy young people, and one cannot wonder that Ballycastle is a cherished spot in the affections 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 506 A.D. 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 at Dunaneeny Castle, where, with Port Brittas at his feet, he commanded the key of the position, as he could bring galleys “go leor” 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 16th 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 1888 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 1786 Mr. Hugh Boyd, son of the rector of Ramoan, obtained a lease from the Antrim family, and having obtained £20,000 from Parliament he built a pier for the protection of shipping. He sunk 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 stands 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, the remains 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 smooth level, measuring from east to west 60 yards, and from north to south 85 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 12½ 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 bom 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 1788 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 14th or 15th century it was occupied by Franciscan friars of the third order. The church suffered considerable damage on 4th January, 1084, 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.

CATH REGH AN ULLADAL (Castle of the King of Ulster)

Space will only permit me to mention one other notable site, 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. This monarch is said to have reigned in the first century of the Christian era, and to have been born on the same day as our Lord. It is related of him that he felt both the darkness and the earthquake which occurred at our Lord’s crucifixion. He spoke of these events to his Druids, who told him afterwards that the Lord Jesus had been crucified on that day. King Connor was struck by what they told him and expressed his belief that Christ was the Son of God. He said also “High is the King who suffers crucifixion for ungrateful men.” King Connor is said to be one of the earliest believers in Christ in Erin before the advent of St. Patrick, and to have often expressed a wish to have been able to defend Christ from those that crucified Him. Indeed, his death, through the opening of an old wound, is said to have been brought about by an imaginary combat he engaged in before his courtiers with our Lord’s adversaries at Jerusalem.

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