SEA GODS, SHIPWRECKS AND SONGS

NORTH COAST LORE

There are many tales of ghosts that roam the dark brooding fortress of Dunluce Castle, standing on a rocky crag overlooking the sea. Parts of the castle, which was the headquarters of the Clan MacDonnell, date back to the 14th century.

First built by the Irish noble Richard Óg de Burgh in the 13th century, the earliest documented records from 1513 show that at that time it belonged to the MacQuillan family before being taken by the MacDonnell’s.  However, the outcrop on which it stands has a history of human involvement that goes back many centuries to ancient times.  The site has been seen as significant both spiritually and strategically and has often been fought over.  Many people have met their deaths on this rock that stands high above the sea with sheer drops on all sides.

Now the ruined castle on its summit can only be reached by a narrow bridge from the mainland.  Within its cold grey stone walls there have been reports of ghostly sightings and apparitions for hundreds of years.  One such story is that of Maeve Roe, thought to be the only daughter of Lord MacQuillan.  Defying his wishes to become betrothed to Richard Oge, MacQuillan had her held in the north eastern turret of the castle.  Maeve had given her heart to another, Reginald O’Cahan and every day and night she looked out of her prison in the hope that he would come for her.

It was a dark and stormy night when Reginald O’Cahan did eventually come to the castle to rescue his love.  With the wind whistling through the battlements and beating against the thick stone walls the couple secretly fled the fortress. Into the cold night air they descended to a large cave that opened in the rocks below Dunluce.  Their spirits high the two lovers set out in a small boat to cross the turbulent seas towards Portrush. Fighting against the white topped waves the small boat was tossed mercilessly by the cruel sea.  Pushed in all directions, this way and then that, the little vessel eventually succumbed and was thrown against the rocks.  Maeve Roe and Reginald O’Cahan clung together as they sank down into the cold salty depths.  It is said that the body of Maeve was never recovered from her watery grave.

Although her earthly remains have gone forever the story of the love of Maeve Roe can never be forgotten.  For her spirit haunts the dark wind swept ruins of Dunluce Castle.  On similar dark stormy nights visitors to the castle come back with strange stories of disturbing heart rending wails and screams coming from the northeast tower, also known as MacQuillan’s Tower.  Those that know the history of the castle will be able to tell them exactly the source of these frighteningly sad cries.  Lamenting her lost life and love it is the Banshee of Dunluce Castle; Maeve’s sad and troubled soul forever looking out across the sea from her prison tower, searching for a rescue that will never come.

Mermaids have always been part of the ancient Irish seascape.

Muirgen (Daughter of the Sea)

According to the Annals of the Four Masters Libran was a mermaid who was caught in the net of a fisherman from Bangor Monastery on the strand at Glenarm or Larne in AD 558. She was subsequently baptised by St. Comgall as Muirgen (daughter of the sea) and after her death was venerated as a saint.

The Portmuck Mermaid

In the same area the Belfast Commercial newspaper reported the stranding of a mermaid in 1814 at Portmuck in Islandmagee, where hundreds of people flocked to see her.

The Dunseverick Mermaid

In his excellent book The Fishermen of Dunseverick James McQuilken recounts the sighting of a mermaid by the crew of one of Dunseverick’s fishing boats, while returning from their fishing grounds off Rathlin Island.  One spring morning in the 1880s she was spotted on the rocks at Keardy’s Port. On landing the crew walked quickly to the rock, but she had disappeared.

The cynical, of course, may blame the local seal population as the source of these apparitions.

Another sea mammal, the whale, was a source of wonder.  A very interesting whale stranding along the Mourne coast in 753AD  is recorded in the Annals of Ulster.  This large creature had three gold teeth, each weighing fifty ounces, one of which was presented to the monastery of Bangor.

There is another ancient tale which links the inspiration for the invention of the Irish harp to the noise made by the wind blowing through the sinews of a whale skeleton which had been stranded in the Bann estuary.

Several instances of an optical illusion known as the Fata Morgana, caused by temperature inversion,have been recorded on the North Coast.

In the early 19th century it was observed over the surface of the sea from Bushfoot Strand, Portballintrae and also from Rathlin Island.

One lady had a tremendous shock during the height of the Napoleonic threat, when she saw a large French fleet off Torr Head. By the time she had raised the alarm, however, it had vanished.

Again in July 1866, as reported in the Coleraine Chronicle, the fishermen of Portstewart witnessed a gigantic mirage on the coast of Inishowen, Co. Donegal, when the image of a huge castle was seen over the mouth of Lough Foyle. During the following two hours the image transformed into other fantastical scenes. At the time this occurrence was correctly interpreted as the Fata Morgana, but it was stated that anyone who had witnessed the illusion was never likely to forget it.

A number of stories are associated with the ‘Grey Man’, whose eponymous pathway is the only access route from the top of the cliff at Fair Head down to the shore below.

Sightings of this spectre-like figure have been recorded in the area, as far away as the mouth of the Bush River. He has been variously described as an evil spirit, an ancient storm god and the personification of the mists shrouding the surrounding landscape.

The account relating to the Bush River was recorded in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology in 1858, and tells of two young men who had gone out to check on some cattle before daybreak. Both witnessed a man wearing a long grey cloak standing on one of the pillars in the middle of the river, a spectacle rendered all the more perplexing by the crashing waves and the swell of the water. The Grey Man stood there motionless and unresponsive to the young men’s repeated attempts to converse with him. They were eventually overcome with fear and rapidly headed for home.

Perhaps the best known figure on the north coast, Fionn MacCumhaill was the leader of the heroes and warriors of the Fianna.

He was the central figure in the Fionn Cycle of stories, which date from the 8th century.  According to legend he was a descendant of the druids. He was wise and sensitive to nature and became a popular hero as a kingly figure in the 7th century. The other tales deal with the group’s rise and fall. Its disintegration begins with the famous love story when Diarmaid elopes with Gráinne, a king’s daughter whom Fionn, as an old man, wishes to marry.

These tales remained immensely popular in Ireland and Scotland to the end of the 19th century.  Fionn and his fellow heroes, especially his son Oisin and grandson Oscar and his chief enemy Goll MacMorna, became linked with many natural features in the Irish landscape.

Today he is most celebrated as the builder of the Giant’s Causeway. It is difficult to ascertain precisely when he became attached to this dramatic natural feature. It is known, however, that in the 19th century the local guides to the Causeway raised the creation of myths to levels befitting a major local industry for the tourist trade.

Fionn and some of the other figures, are alive and well, and still helping to promote our premier Irish tourist attractions!

For the ancient Irish, Manannán Mac Lir dominated the mythological seascape to the extent that he can be considered to be the Irish Neptune or Poseidon,and he has strong associations with the north coast.

Tradition holds that he was born in the Tunns near Magilligan, and that his otherworld residence was located under the waves of Lough Foyle. His name is, of course, perpetuated most famously in the Isle of Man, but also in the isolated rock of Carrickmannon, approximately 1 km offshore to the north east of Kinbane Head.  At high tide this rock is submerged, while at low tide the breaking waves accentuate its visibility.  For mariners in the past Carrickmannon was considered a dangerous hazard,as it was believed to possess powers of enchantment to lure vessels to destruction.

Stories and traditions of Manannán Mac Lir also link him with the Bann estuary, which, in early sources, was called Túag Inber. The name was derived from a beautiful maiden named Túag with whom Manannan fell in love and determined to make his bride.  Manannán dispatched his druid to Tara, where Túag lived, with the purpose of luring her to Lough Foyle.  The druid used magical means to cause Túag to fall into a deep slumber, and brought her north to the Bann estuary. He laid her sleeping body on the shore while he went off to find a boat to transport her to Manannán’s underwater abode in the sea nearby. Tragically, however, while he was gone the tide came in and drowned the sleeping girl. From this time on the Bann estuary was called Túag Inber in her memory.  Furthermore, the waves which drowned her were henceforth called Tonn Tuaige (Túag’s Wave).

These waves, which break over the Tunns, were one of the three magical waves of Ireland, the other two being those of Tonn Rudraige (Rudraige’s Wave)(Dundrum Bay, County Down) and Tonn Chlíodhna (Cliodhna’s Wave) in Glandore harbour in County Cork. Their roar was believed to portend events of great significance, like the death of a high king or some great calamity. There is a reference in the early literature to Aenach Tuaigh, a great fair or assembly, which was held periodically somewhere in the Bann estuary, and it was obviously also named after Manannán’s beloved.

Possibly connected with Manannán is the 1st AD gold hoard discovered in Broighter townland, north of Limavady, in 1896. The find was located on reclaimed land which was formerly part of the foreshore of Lough Foyle and may have been deposited as a votive offering to the sea-god. The most exciting part of the hoard was a miniature gold sailing boat complete with mast, yard-arm, thwarts and oars.

The Children of Lir

Manannán’s father, Lir, also has links with the north coast through the association of his children with the sea of Moyle.

The very popular late medieval tale of The Children of Lir concerns the four offspring of Lir who were turned into swans by their wicked stepmother and compelled to spend 900 hundred years in exile in that form.  The first 300 years were spent on Lough Derravaragh in County Westmeath, the next 300 on the sea of Moyle, between Antrim and Scotland, and the last in the Atlantic off Erris, County Mayo.

The Girona

The Girona was a galleass of the 1588 Spanish Armada which foundered and sank off Lacada Point on the night of 26 October 1588 after making its way eastward along the Irish coast. The wreck is noteworthy for the loss of life that resulted, and for the treasures recovered and still to be recovered…  The Girona had anchored in Killybegs harbour, Donegal, for repairs to her rudder while two other ships had been lost on attempting to enter the harbour. About 800 survivors from two other Spanish shipwrecks were taken aboard at Killybegs, from La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada, which ran aground off the coast of County Mayo, and the Duquesa Santa Ana, which went aground at Loughros Mor Bay, Donegal.

With the assistance of an Irish chieftain, MacSweeney Bannagh, the Girona was repaired and set sail for catholic Scotland on 25 October, with 1,300 men on board, including Alonso Martinez de Leyva.  Lough Foyle was cleared, but then a gale struck and she was driven ashore at Lacada Point, near Portrush the following night.

Of the estimated 1300 people on board, there were nine survivors, who were sent on to Scotland by Sorley Boy MacDonnell; 260 bodies were washed ashore. The first salvage attempts of the Girona were made within months by Sir George Carew, who complained at the expense of “sustaining the divers with copious draughts of usequebaugh [whiskey]”.  Sorley Boy MacDonnell recovered 3 brass cannon and 2 chests of treasure from the wreck.

In 1967 and 1968, off the coast of Portballintrae a team of Belgian divers brought up the greatest find of Spanish Armada treasure ever recovered from a wrecked ship.  The Girona’s recovered gold jewellery is on show in the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

De Sci

Some of the crew from an English privateer were aboard the De Sci which went too far east of the Skerries and in the gale force winds was driven aground on the White Rocks beach. The privateer managed to got into safe shelter and rode out the gale. All the cargo that was saved from the De Sci was taken to a Mr. Hunter’s of Ballymagarry, who at that time was Lord Antrim’s agent and receiver of wrecks. Whether it is myth or fact, nobody can say but word spread that the French Captain had prior to be taken tied all his money around his waist and when he realised that there was no escape, leaped overboard off the Skerries.

It was also told by local people of the district that there was a large chest on board full of money to pay the French soldiers waiting for the De Sci to arrive in the East Indies, this was never found. The fact that the ship was going out to re-supply French soldiers adds some substance to the story of lost treasure maybe somewhere close to the White Rocks, where it still lies undiscovered.

Charley

In 1844 the schooner Charley loaded with oatmeal in Portrush and bound for Scotland came to anchor in the shelter of the Skerries after encountering a strong headwind on leaving Portrush. The wind veered to the south and went to gale force, she dragged her anchor and ended up on the rocks. This was during the famine times in Ulster and oatmeal was selling at five shillings for 20lb, many people were in need of food locally who could not afford this price. As the gale subsided people with boats headed out to the ship and unloaded the cargo, dispersing it amongst those in need – there were no fatalities in this wreck.

Charlotte

On 17th June 1851, a large brig called the Charlotte of St John, New Brunswick bound for Portrush with a load of timber, was wrecked on Ramore Head trying to get to the shelter of the Skerries as the tide was too low for her to enter the harbour.  No lives were lost in this wreck either.

Providence

In 1863, The MacDuff schooner Providence was on route from Troon to Portrush with a cargo of coal, as she came by Bengore the wind came up from the west, which was dead ahead. She managed to get up to the Skerries but could not get right up into the sheltered deeper water and stood off the White Rocks. She dropped her two anchors, unfortunately the wind veered to the north-west and dragged her anchors and grounded her in the breakers of the strand. Being in the breakers she broke up and her crew washed off, three were drowned.

Two boats came out from the shore to give assistance, one with a crew of fishermen and the other of coastguardsmen – -they also got into difficulties with the loss of two fishermen, David Martin and John Hammond, Jack Winters of the coastguard also lost his life in the other boat.