BALLINTOY ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY

THE BALLINTOY STORY

Situated on the north coast of Ireland, the Ballintoy area is one of the most beautiful and spectacular places in the country. The area has a fascinating and colourful history.

 

Stone Age

The shores are dotted with chalk caves, and a plentiful supply of water from the springs supported the Neolithic people who lived there. The abundance of flint in the limestone cliffs provided them with the means to make flints, tools, arrowheads and scrapers, for hunting and affording protection against enemies. We know this from the proliferation of these found during archaeological digs from the 1880s to the 1930s, which provided many samples of animal bones, from wild boar to sheep and horses, and even some DolmenDolmen at Magheraboybones which had been worked to provide other implements. One cave was full of shards of pottery, decorated with grass seeds, and thumb marks.

These people would have hunted for food, fished in the nearby sea, and foraged, “hunter-gatherers”. Evidence of Iron Age habitation was found in the top layers excavated in the Ballintoy caves. So, the earliest evidence of habitation in Ballintoy was in the New Stone age. Even further inland, farmers have often dug up polished stone axes from their fields probably brought over from Rathlin Island.

Excavations at Larrybane reveal a multi-layered fort set on the headland. This was described as a half fort, having only three sides. Habitation took place here during the Iron Age, and an interesting glass bracelet fragment from Europe was discovered, suggesting trade with other countries.

Druids

The Pre-Christian era in Ballintoy is marked by the abundance of altars and standing stones, all evidence of a culture that worshipped the gods. Certainly, there are many references to Druid stones, the most famous of which stands near the Rectory in Ballintoy. The Rectory is, in fact, called Mount Druid House. This Druid stone was situated in the centre of what would have been a stone circle, a chamber tomb.

Druid stones were places of human and animal sacrifice and worship. The Druids were thought to have been the sons of noblemen, and were prophets and wise men, as well as having knowledge of medicine. They knew the history of the tribes, were law-givers, and foretold the future.

They decreed oak trees to be particularly sacred, as were lakes and springs. Although there are no oak trees in Ballintoy now, there is much evidence that they grew in abundance many years ago, as they have been discovered in the many bogs in the area. Oak fencing with pointed tops, were also found in the local bogs, in vertical positions, suggesting enclosures had been there at a time.

There are frequent referrals to Danes’ houses in the area along the coast and to Kistvaegs, Viking burial places, in the Ballintoy locality. The abundance of fortifications all along the coast tells us that there was always the threat of invasion of some kind. High cairns dotted along the coast would have been places where fires were lit as a means of signalling across the sea to the islands. This has been suggested by the excavations undertaken at Goodland, on the far side of Ballycastle.

Migration

The fact that Ballintoy is by the sea, and less than 20 miles from Scotland, has influenced its history over the years. Most of the family names in the area are Scottish in origin, there having been close association between the two countries for centuries.  There is no evidence to suggest that the Romans ever came to Ireland, except perhaps to trade, as a Roman coin was found in a cave near Portrush some time ago.

There is much evidence of Viking occupation all along this coastline. Many burial grounds are to be found, with bones discovered in large urns, in underground caves and assorted tumuli. Animal bones have also been found alongside, suggesting ritual burial.  Viking burial sites are often associated with standing stones, which occur with great frequency in the Ballintoy area.

TemplastraghTemplastragh Church todayTemplastragh

Perhaps Christianity has had the greatest impact on Ballintoy. The mysterious church at Templastragh has had an interesting history. Templastragh means Church of Lasair, after its saint. Lasair means fire, or flame, hence the idea of the Church of the Flame. The earliest reference to it is in the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, written in the 6th century. Although the story of the flame, marking the place where the church should be built, is now discounted, perhaps there had been a beacon, signalling out to the islands?

The present church adjoins the site of an earlier structure, the only evidence of which lies in the ornately-decorated stone found lying in a ditch, but now embedded in the wall. Templastragh is similar in structure to churches found in the neighbouring Western Isles of Scotland, such as Kilnave Chapel on Islay. Some metres from the church itself there were to be found a Priest’s Well, and a Priest’s House, but this House was demolished in 1800. The Church has two graveyards, the Scotch graveyard and the Irish graveyard, where Catholics were buried. The graveyard is still in use.

 

Ballintoy Castle

The castle was home to the Stewart family who had fled from Bute in 1560, having lost their lands in Scotland. The castle would have been similar in design to Ballygally Castle, two storeys high, and surrounded by a huge wall. By 1838, only 65 feet of the original wall was still there. TemplastraghReconstruction of Ballintoy Castle Some outhouses were still there, but had been converted as dwellings for the local farmer. What had once been a magnificent building, with extensive gardens, a fishpond and high stone walls was now in ruins.

Apparently only the best materials had been used in its construction and it stood on a wonderful site, near to where Ballintoy Parish Church stands today. The castle was pulled down in the 1790s by the then proprietor, Downing Fullerton, Esq., and the timber and other valuables were sold by auction. The wooden staircases and panelling went to Cambridge University.  The Fullertons, later landlords of Ballintoy, came to this area with the Stewarts in 1560.

1641 Rebellion

The church in Ballintoy, was the scene of a terrible siege during the rebellion of 1641. There had been previous uprisings by the native Irish, but during this insurgence, the castle nearby was attacked, and women and children fled to the church for safety. They would have starved had it not been for the heroism of a local priest, Fr. Mc Glaime, who managed to smuggle oats in the bottom of buckets of water, and the people survived until the ruthless General Monro liberated them.

whitepark houseRemains of Whitepark HouseWhitepark House

Whitepark Bay has wonderful views over the sea to the Scottish islands of Islay and Tiree, and we find evidence of a large dwelling having been here: Whitepark House. The original house was two storeys high with a slate roof, but by 1838 most of it had fallen into decay. At that time it was occupied by a water guard officer, and was later used as a Youth Hostel.

Founded by Squire John Stewart in the mid 1700s, Whitepark House was also the site of a school for gentlemen, under the tutelage of a Mr Sterick. We have reference to it in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of 1838, in which it is stated that Stewarts, Whealeys and Macnaghtens were educated there. Local folklore suggests that Lord Castlereagh (Robert Stewart, 1769-1822), spent some of his school days there, but there is no evidence to confirm this. Part of the gardens of Whitepark House are known locally as the Bowling Alley, situated in a large flat area at the site. There is a wall still standing, which may have been a boundary, on the edge of the dunes towards Port Braddan.

Few trees remain in the Ballintoy area possibly because people were given free rein by Randal MacDonnell, the 2nd Earl of Antrim, in the 17th century, to use them for building, and making agricultural tools. The locals could use the salmon fisheries at Port Braddan and Carrick-a-Rede, but the Earl kept the salmon fishery at Larrybane for himself.

The strip fields near Ballintoy village are possibly feudal in origin, each householder having his own land to cultivate.

There was also a church at Kilmahamogue, long before Ballinlea church was built. A branch of the Stewarts lived here, possibly the same family who built Whitepark House. There is an old graveyard here, long destroyed, and under tillage.

Rev. Robert Trail

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Rev. Robert Trail played a significant role in the history of Ballintoy. He was Rector of the Parish from 1777 to 1842.

He conducted a Parish Census of all inhabitants in 1803, and wrote extensively of life in the Parish during his time as Rector. He also rebuilt the Church in 1813. We get a wealth of social history from his comments, and he describes spinning, weaving and agriculture as the main occupations of the people.robert trail imageRev. Robert Trail's headstone

When Jane Stewart died in 1766, she left money for a school to be built, (the building is now Ballintoy Orange Hall), with the annual sum of £15 to be paid to the teacher, who would be elected at the Easter Vestry Meeting. According to the Rev. Robert Trail, and despite his efforts to redress it, the Vestry elected the teacher by choosing the person who provided the most whiskey to drink!

Things had not improved by 24 March 1845, when Hugh Harton, a boy of only 12 years, was elected schoolmaster. The Rector of the day, Rev. Henry Carter, wrote of his disgust at this event. Hugh was replaced a short time later. 

The Great Famine

By 1845 famine was already having an effect on the country, and Ballintoy was no exception. Letters of the period describe the suffering of the people, the high price of food, the potato crop failing. An emergency kitchen was established at Cloughcorr, the home of the Mackinnon family. The Mackinnons were known as the Brachan (porridge) men, and their home, the Brachan house, and it was here that the poor were offered food.

Thomas Mc KendryThomas Mc Kendry, fishermanIndustry in Ballintoy

Salmon Fishing

Ballintoy was mainly associated with salmon fishing, at Port Braddan, Larrybane and Carrick-a-Rede, famous for its swinging rope bridge. Sadly, the salmon have disappeared, but in its heyday, dozens of cartloads of salmon wound their way along the hilly roads to catch the train at Ballycastle, thence to Belfast.

Local people would have preserved the salmon in ice-houses, one of which still remains on the hill above Ballintoy, at Ballaghacreevy. Ice was collected from frozen ponds on the top of the mountain, and also imported from Norway.

 Another ice-house, long gone, stood at the top corner of the field on the left side at the junction of Harbour Road and the main road. Perhaps this ice-house belonged to the castle, or was used by the villagers to store salmon.

Sett Making

One industry that was at its height in the 19th century was sett-making. Setts are rectangular stones hewn from the local basalt quarried at Brockey mountain above the village. These setts were the cobbles which paved many a street. The industry was still going strong in 1901. These setts were transported to the harbour and put on sailing ships bound for Glasgow. It is said that Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow got its name from Knocksoghey Hill in Ballintoy.

The Textile Industry

Flax was widely grown in the Ballintoy area right up to the 1960s. There were flax mills in the area, and farms had “Lint Dams” dug out in the corners of fields, where the newly-pulled (not cut), flax was placed in stooks to soften, before being sent to the mills. Every house had at least one spinning wheel for wool, right up to the early 20th century.

Emigration

Ballintoy has a long history of economic migration, with many of its people leaving home to work temporarily in Scotland for the potato harvests. Many also worked in the shipyards on the Clyde. Enough people were emigrating from Ballintoy to warrant an Emigration  Agency in the village, where passage could be bought, sailing from Moville, Derry, Glasgow and Liverpool. America was the popular destination, although some went to Australia and New Zealand. Young men left, often in groups, to work in the redwood forests of Eureka in California. A few returned home, but most never saw Ballintoy again.

Nowadays, Ballintoy is a pretty little village to visit and admire. Who would have thought that it was shaped by so much history?