Portrush - Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland

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


Portrush is supposed to have derived its name from Portruis (promontory of the sea). It was named “Portrosse” in the 12th century, and before that it was called Cuan-ard-Corran (point of the high corner).

About 150 years ago there were only a few houses here, most of them at the harbour end of the town, above the port. The inhabitants were chiefly fishermen and pilots. Archdeacon Pococke passed through Portrush in 1752, and it may be that the inhospitable character of the port at that time may account for the unfavourable impression left on his mind after a visit to the now bright and popular watering-place. “Portrush,” he says, “is a little creek encompassed with sandy banks which gain in the land as the sands do in Cornwall. Though it is well sheltered, yet there runs such a sea that it is not safe for the boats in winter. This little town is of so little consequence that there is not a public-house in it for accommodation of travellers. They have but one merchant in the town, who deals chiefly in shipping of corn and kelp.” About the same time, 1750 to 1760, emigrant ships lay in the shelter of the Skerries. Dutch traders there were, and off Portrush Breton fishermen fished for dogfish and ray, which were regarded as a delicacy in Spain.



Portrush was one of the places which, in still earlier days, was coveted by Sir Thomas Phillips, who lived in the time of James I. The following is a summary of a letter he wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, the English Chief Secretary, dated May 19th, 1605: “Sir Randal M‘Donnell, upon our first acquaintance, being in good humour, gave me a little neck of land called Port-Rush, some mile and a half from the castle of Denn Lewes (Dunluce); it contains some sixty acres or thereabouts. When he gave them he conditioned I should keep the ‘Redshanks’ from landing there, which I undertook and have at my own charge made it defensive against them or any others his Majesty’s enemies.”

Later, on 22nd September, 1607, Phillips again writes to Lord Salisbury: He is of opinion that his Majesty should fortify Knockfergus, Port-Rush, and Lough Foyle, and then draw all the cows and other provisions out of the woods into the plains near these strong garrisons, where they may be fetched in upon the first news of any forces landing. This will be not only a means to starve them, but will save his Majesty a great sum in provisions for his army. He gives a scheme for fortifying Port-Rush and making it almost an island, so that 6,000 men might be embattled there. The Earl of Tyrone, to his knowledge, held it to be a place of importance.

The town lies within the shelter of Ramore Hill, a noble headland forming a peninsula consisting of a very marked and picturesque rock, which has long been a subject of interest to geologists, and for a considerable time the occasion of a warm geological controversy, Dr. Richardson maintaining that it was composed of basalts, containing pectinites, belemnites, and cornua ammonis. These show that they were formed in the bottom of the sea; and relying upon this, he concludes that the basalts were once fluid and of aqueous origin. Professor Playfair, who visited the rock in company with Lord Webb Seymour and Sir James Hall, considers that he discovered the true solution of the difficulty, and ascertained that the part of the rock containing the fossils was not basalt at all, but a stratum of slate clay and schist, forming a schistose of a high degree of induration by the vicinity of the ignited mass of whinstone. This has been confirmed by Conybeare and Buskland, 1818, and especially by Mr. Bryce, of Belfast, in his able paper upon the “Celebrated Portrush Rock,” published in the first volume of the journal of the Geological Society of Dublin.

This hill in the last quarter of the 19th century was the fashionable promenade for visitors to Portrush, and the magnificent view of land and sea extending over 90 miles is very fine. Alongside Ramore there was, in early days, another hill which has since disappeared, known as Crannagh Hill. It was about twenty feet higher than the highest part of Ramore. It stood where the coal yards now are, on the north side of the harbour, and was all quarried away to help to make the pier. There were steps up to the hill on the north side, and large cavities scooped out of the side of it in three places, wherein were seats, and no matter how the wind blew there was shelter at Crannagh Hill. This was the principal watch-house of the old pilots of Portrush. Mr. W. Adams tells us that before the new harbour was made there was a large fleet of smacks carrying salmon from Ballina and Ballyshannon to Liverpool. This was before steamboats began to run, and these vessels called at Portrush to re-ice. Often when they reached Portrush on their voyages the ice had melted, and they had to come and get moored in shelter of “Paddy’s Pier,” which was outside of what is now called the Old Dock, the only harbour at that time. There was always a squad of the strongest men about the “Port” picked to re-ice. The work had to be done in a great hurry, and the men were well paid for the job. The smacks were never long detained, and often went to sea in tempestuous weather. There was a prize of £5 for the first vessel to reach Liverpool.

The prize was generally won by the smack called the “Benbulbin Hawk,” which was manned by a Portrush crew; each smack carried five hands. The new harbour was completed early in 1827, at a cost of £16,225 17s. 11d., raised under an Act of Parliament, in shares of £100 each. A steamboat called the “St. Columb” was put on to run to Glasgow, and another, called the “Finn MacCool,” shortly after to run to Liverpool, about the year 1845. At this time there were no railways between Coleraine, Belfast, and Derry, and nearly all Coleraine and Ballymoney goods came into Portrush.

In former days a castle stood on an eminence above the harbour, north of Crannagh Hill, looking seawards. It was called Castle an Teenie (or Castle of the Fire), from the fact that a bright light shone from it on dark stormy nights, which, tradition says, was withdrawn when anyone approached, possibly when any unknown vessel neared the rocks below. Bishop Reeves, in his “Antiquities,” mentions that the castle was built by an ancient family named O’Corr, and that in 676 A.D. an O’Corr of Portrush joined hands with the son of the King of Dalriada in a battle with foreigners, probably the Norwegians, near Cuan-ard-Corran (Portrush).

An ancient abbey formerly stood on the site of the Northern Counties Hotel and its lawn. In alluding to it, Bishop Reeves writes that the church of Portrush was valued in 1262, in the time of Pope Nicholas, at a yearly tax of £25. The walls were still standing at the beginning of the 10th century, and used as a shelter for fishermen. So late as 1884, portions of the walls were unearthed, with quantities of human bones.

About a mile and a quarter from Portrush stand the ruins of Ballywillin old church. This is one of the remaining churches of the 14th century in Ireland. There is a large lancet window in the western gable, and other similar windows, most of which are built up. There are interesting monumental remains in the churchyard. One of the graves is said to be that of a daughter of James II. In 1641 the Rev. Donough O’Murray took refuge with his flock in this church and locked the great oaken door; but General Munro brought a small cannon against the door and forced them out, and Donough O’Murray agreed to sign the oath of allegiance to the English Government. Ballywillin takes its name from Baile-Whillin (the town of the mill). The church was restored towards the end of the 18th century, and was used as a place of worship by the members of the Anglican Church till 1842, when Holy Trinity Church was built in Portrush.

The Clarke obelisk was erected in 1859 by admirers of Dr. Adam Clarke, a popular Wesleyan minister, and a famous expositor of the Bible. Some years earlier, in 1881, a piece of ground was given by the Earl of Antrim to build a little Methodist Church. It was used for a school on week-days and for a church on Sundays, and from the belfry of this little church most likely proceeded the first sound of the church-going bell heard for generations in Portrush, as there had been no place of worship in the village itself since 1642. The same bell, which is still heard every Sunday, was presented to the Duke of Newcastle by the Emperor Alexander of Russia. The Duke of Newcastle made a present of it to Dr. Adam Clarke, who gave it for the use of the Wesleyan Church.

Another interesting ruin is Dunferte Castle, now only known by the name of the Castle of Ballyreagh, the townland in which it is situated. It is near the house occupied by the late General Beresford, at Dhu Varren. There now remains only a portion of the south wall three feet in thickness, and perforated by three loop-holes. Tradition says that Ballyreagh in ancient times belonged to the MacHenrys, and this is borne out by the Ulster Inquisitions, which found that Randal, Earl of Antrim, had by deed, dated November, 1621, granted in perpetuity lands in the parishes of Ballyaghran and Ballywillin to James Oge MacHenry, other O’Cahan of Ballyreagh. The English Deputy, Sir John Perrott, writing from Dunluce on 17th September, 1684, says: “I have taken Dunferte, the ward being fled, likewise also another pyle in Portrush.” This was the castle on Crannagh Hill, and both were destroyed by him.

The Skerries are a long range of small islands lying off Portrush, about a mile and a half long, running from west to east. They are seventeen in number. There is vegetation on four of them. The islet furthest east is called Island Dubh. It is probable that it is named after Tavish Dubh, a pirate, who once frequented the Skerries and died in his ship here, and was buried on the island, but the place of his grave is unknown. It is said that Tavish Dubh in 1810, when Edward Bruce invaded North Antrim with the object of winning Ulster, waylaid four English ships bound with provisions for Coleraine, held by an English army, and took their provisions up the river Bann to Bruce, who was in sore straits, and soon after abandoned the attempt.

On the east side of the largest of these islands there is good shelter, with an anchorage of six fathoms, a place often made use of in later times by smugglers. It is not far from these islands, near the Causeway headland, that the “Gerona,” a gigantic galley impelled by oars, of the Spanish Armada, was wrecked. Its commander was Alonzo de Leyra, who, says Froude, was so celebrated personally, and had so many attractions combined in him of birth, learning, and distinguished services, that of the fathers of the high-born youths who had volunteered to accompany the Armada, most of them had committed their sons to Leyra’s special care.

In this galley, to the number of 800, they sailed away from Killybegs, hoping to reach the Scottish coast, where they would be beyond the power of the Lord Deputy of Ireland, who put to death every Spanish soldier and sailor which shipwreck threw into his hands. A violent storm, however, drove the unwieldy “Gerona” on the Causeway headland, and 260 bodies of the flower of the Spanish nobility were washed into the little creek, ever since known as Port-na-Spaniagh. We are not told by the State papers how much, if any, of the treasure or ordnance the Government obtained, but the sons of Sorley Boy placed some of the cannon on their fortress of Dunluce Castle, and to this day, Mr. Hill tells us, two exceedingly strong iron chests which had been obtained from the “Gerona” are preserved in Glenarm Castle.

My authorities for these facts are Bishop Reeves, Joyce, O’Laverty, Adams, and others, from whom I freely quote.


The part of the golf links of the Royal Portrush Club known as “The War Hollow,” is said to have been the scene of an ancient battle between the chieftains of the Route and Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway. Magnus became king in 1093, and soon afterwards took an expedition to the south with some of the finest men of his country, taking the Orkneys on his way; then he over-ran the Hebrides, or Western Isles of Scotland. He even spared not the Holy Isle of Iona, but robbed it and put many of the monks to death. About 1102 he landed in Ulster, on the Antrim coast, and anchored in the shelter of the Skerrie Isles, a few miles west of the Giant’s Causeway. Men were sent on shore to seize cattle from the Irish pasture grounds of Dalriada and Arachty O’Cahan. They first surprised Dunluce Castle, and made the chief promise to give them 800 cows within three days. They then marched south-west in search of more plunder, and on the third morning Magnus with his great earls went on shore to meet his men with their plunder. At this time he was in his fortieth year, and in the prime of life. At night O’Flinn, then the Lord of Dunluce, lit a great fire on the top of Mullahanturk, a small hill on the south-east side of the castle, and it was soon answered from the top of Croaghmore, beyond the Bush river, and from Croaghmore it was seen east from Ballycastle to Armoy, and as far south as Loughgiel to the foot of Knocklayd, and all the fighting men of North Dalriada were assembled around Dunluce next morning. It seems these robbers had taken a great deal of booty and cattle from beyond the Bann. The historian says the Norsemen had great difficulty in bringing the cattle to the sea-shore, for at that time the country between Coleraine and the sea was covered with woods and bogs, and very soft for driving cattle. It was a bright morning, the 24th of August.

The Norsemen laboured hard all morning to get the cattle through the bog; at length they reached an eminence of solid ground where they had a good sea view. They saw to eastward a black moving mass, and they thought it was the promised herd of cattle, but it disappeared again, and seeing no signs of hostility they resumed their march for the sea-shore. At length coming to a plain near the sea, opposite where their ships lay, the Irish burst upon them from behind a number of small sandhills with a wild farrach or battle-cry, and shortly afterwards, coming behind them from the south, they were set upon by a body of the Kinel Owen from Culrath and beyond the Bann, who had followed them to regain the cattle and goods which these robbers had taken. When Magnus saw he was going to be pressed hard, he called to his General, Evinder Olborg, to sound the trumpet and call all his warriors to the royal standard. But it was not easy to do this, for before they could be gathered together multitudes fell by the overwhelming onslaught of the Irish; but at last, gathering as near to their king as they could get, they made a good stand. Magnus continued the fight with great valour, and exposed himself in the thickest of it. A kern, or one of the third-class Irish soldiers, ran his skeen or dagger through one of Magnus’s thighs, and left it there. Magnus drew it out and continued the fight, and did not seem to mind it, until a gallowglass attacked him single-handed. A furious combat ensued between these two warriors, till at length the Irishman, with a wild sweep of his broadsword, nearly severed the head from Magnus’s body. Magnus’s body was taken on board the ships by his son Sigurd, and historians say it was taken to Iona and buried there, as at this time it was said he had turned Christian, if not in practice, at least in name. After his death his son Sigurd brought home the ships to Norway, and this part of Ireland was not troubled by these robbers until the time that Hacon Jarl, Magnus’s brother’s son, took Dunseverick Castle by stratagem.


are perhaps the most interesting objects on the coast. The white limestone has been worn by the action of the waves into caves, tunnels, arches, and into fantastic forms, which the imagination shapes into a thousand resemblances.


This hill is situated about two miles south of Portrush, and is the highest in the parish of Dunluce, commanding a magnificent view of the country around. It was said to be a place of Druidical worship in early times. A circle of large stones round the hill is supposed to be an ancient burying-place. A famous stone chair, now lying on the west corner of the hill, is called the Witches’ Cradle. In very early times a strong circular fort was built on the summit by the O’Flynns, which in later times was said to have been occupied by one of the Macnaghtens of Benvarden. Before the rebellion of 1641 he retreated to this stronghold with eighty followers, partly Episcopalians, partly Roman Catholics. General Munro surprised them on the hill, and did not spare one of them alive. A farmer named Mr. Todd, who lived to the age of 105, and died about the year 1870, got a great deal of information concerning these times from his father, who also died at an advanced age; he in his turn heard the story of the massacre from his father, who was a young man in 1641, reared near Ballywillin old church, and who remembered the massacre of Dunmull and the destruction of the fort and the old church of Ballywillin by General Munro.

Since those days the small fishing village of yesterday has blossomed into the fashionable watering-place of to-day, visited with delight by the people of many countries. Its bright, healthy streets, swept by the Atlantic breezes; its handsome shops, hotels, and restaurants; its royal golf links, bathing places, promenades, tennis courts, and bowling greens; above all, the grandeur of the land and sea view from Ramore Hill, combine to give Portrush high rank among Irish watering-places.

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