BALLYCASTLE IN THE PAST.
By J P O'KANE.
In this issue I believe that an article will appear on Bun-na-mairghie from the pen of an able and accomplished antiquarian. It occurs to me that it may not be out of place to lightly touch on many of the leading historical places in Ballycastle and on episodes connected with them. This article is purely from memory, and like my former one, dictated, as my eyesight does not permit the consulting of authorities or the verification of references. I, therefore, on this account claim the indulgence of my readers.
Bun-na-mairghie is an important historical ruin, but it only goes back a few centuries.
Let us go back to beyond the dawn of Christianity and we find the neighbourhood of Ballycastle is mentioned in ancient story. The waters of the bay are the celebrated "Waters of Moyle," and the river Mairghie is famed as the place on which the swan in the famous legend "Lir's Lonely Daughter," found refuge from the storms that swept the bay while she awaited the sound of the first Mass-bell which would liberate her from her enthralment. We have, beyond the Mairghie bridge, two mounds - or rather, one mound and the remains of another - which perpetuate the story. Dunmallaght-"the fort of the curses,'' from which the wicked queen was changed by the curse of a holy man into a long-necked heron and Dunriney-"the fort of the queen"-alas, this fort has now disappeared, as it was carted away to fill the ground now occupied by the present tennis courts. Moore, in his poem, "Silent, O’ Moyle," refers to the matter :-
Silent, 0’Moyle be the roar of thy waters,
Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose,
While murmuring mournfully, Lir's lonely daughter
Tells to the night-star her tale of woes.
When shall the swan, her death note singing,
Sleep with wings in darkness furl'd?
When will heaven, its sweet bell ringing,
Call my spirit from this stormy world?
Out in the bay, between Ballycastle and Fair Head, there is a place called Carrig Usineach - the rock of Usineach. To-day it is popularly called the "Pans Rock." This shelf of rock, jutting out into the sea, was the place upon which the Sons of Usineach landed from Scotland with Deirdre in their midst - the fiancée of the eldest of the brothers. Fergus the Faithful was with them, destined to die for his friend. They were on their way to the palace of King Conor MacNessa. The incident is one of "The Three most Sorrowfull of the Tales of Erin", and will be told in all its details in these columns in the near future. The story of the brothers was tragic in the extreme, lit up by a display of friendship and faithfulness on the part of the companions of the Sons of Usineach. Deirdre's fate was that of the broken heart. The whole episode is epitomised in Moore's poem, "Avenging and Bright Fall the Swift Sword of Erin."
It was through the ''Waters of the Moyle'' that St. Columba - "the Dove of the Cell" - sailed to Iona when he left the Derry that he loved so well, and the little Oak Grove to which he refers so often in his conversations with his monks. The exiles had a stormy passage when sailing through the Moyle, and it is said that the famous tide, Slough-na-morrin, was at its worst behaviour. Then we have Rathlin Island, more popularly termed Rachray, where Bruce witnessed the repeated attempts of the spider to accomplish its ends - the determination it exhibited nerved the Bruce to make one final and successful attempt to secure his rightful inheritance. The ruins of the castle in which Bruce stayed for a short period are still to be found on the island. Rathlin was the scene of several tragic events. One of the most poignant, and from the British standpoint, one of the most disgraceful, was that of the massacre by Captain Norreys - who came from Carrickfergus for the purpose - of the aged retainers and women and children belonging to Sorley Boy's followers. The celebrated chieftain, Sorley Boy, was on the mainland at Clare, where his castle was situated, and heard the screams of the victims. He rushed up and down the headland tearing his hair and almost in despair, being, as he was, impotent to render any aid. The island has been famed in song and story and many poems are still extant dealing with its rugged beauty and historic past.
Up in the headlands, between Kenban and the quay, closely adjacent to Clare House are the ruins of Sorley Boy's Castle. The McDonnell chief performed most of his famous deeds and achieved the greatest of his victories around Ballycastle. The moat separating the ruins of the Castle from the green sward that adjoins it is now nearly filled up, but the general situation can he easily pictured in the mind. The little path along the cliffs which ends at the top of the quay hill was the path - much wider then - down which Sorley Boy and his clansmen went on their way to battle. It was also the path down which the mortal remains of the McDonnells were taken to Bun-na-mairghie, and there are old prints still in existence depicting funeral corteges of members of the McDonnell Clan being borne to their last resting place. The green sward adjacent to the castle was the venue for the fairs of olden days, and it is only a little over a century since the last fair was held there.
But more important incidents took place on that sward. One of them will bear recounting - Sorley Boy had vanquished the McQuillans and had established himself firmly in his chieftancy. Queen Bess was anxious to placate McDonnell and secure him as a vassal. She sent a special courtier with the deeds of all the lands that Sorley Boy laid claim to, instructing her representative to offer these deeds with her compliments to the chieftain of the Nine Glens. He was received with great ceremony and a feasting was held in his honour. At a propitous moment the Queen’s representative presented the deeds to Sorley Boy, who asked what their nature was. On being informed in the grandiloquent language of the Court as to what they were, Sorley Boy drew his sword, plunged the blade through the parchments and held them over the blazing fire, exclaiming, - "I won my lands by the sword, and by the sword I can retain them. Go back to your mistress and tell her that this is my answer."
History tells us that, unfortunately, inter-necine wars were not infrequent between the McDonnells and the McQuillans, and the McDonnells and the O'Neills. The O'Cathans played the part of pacificator between the two former clans with varying success. The McQuillans were practically annihilated and only an odd member of the family remains to-day to remind us of the former glories of the clan. The battle of Aura was their death knell.
Along the cliffs towards Fair Head there is a deep fissure in the rocks, which are connected by a narrow ledge or path of stone--columnar in shape - and known as "The Path of the Grey Man." And where could the "Grey Man" have found a grander or more secluded spot? Space precludes dealing with this very interesting place, and I must await a future occasion. I again emphasise that this contribution is dictated from memory, the Editor being my stenographer.
''The grand old Irish houses, the proud old Irish names,
Like stars in the midnight to-day their glory gleams
Gone are the grand old houses, the proud old names are low
That shed a glory o'er the land a thousand years ago."
J. P. O'KANE.
The Glensman Volume 1.Number 2. November, 1931