Hidden Gems Competition - Highly Commended

Niall  McCaughan reveals the history of Bunamargy Abbey

The north Antrim coast is famous for a lot of things including the Giants Causeway, Carrick-a-rede rope bridge and the Glens of Antrim, but as people pass through Ballycastle they miss out one of our hidden gems.

On the outskirts of the town, in the middle of Ballycastle Golf Course is Bunamargy Abbey, a late 15th century small friary, the transept chapel of which has been turned into the burial vault containing the remains of the celebrated MacDonnell chieftain, Sorley Boy, as well as several Earls of Antrim. I remember as a child visiting this mysterious place which was, and in many ways still is, a place of prayer, beauty, of murderous deeds and history.

The abbey was only occupied for a short while before the monks had to scamper up Glenshesk after it was burned in 1584. I remember first learning of the stories about the famous Black Nun, Julia Mc Quillan who moved into the property just after it was attached and lived in it until she was murdered.

We were warned not to stand on the '7th Step' of the stone staircase, as this was the place where she was murdered; a window slit in the wall beside this step marks the place where she met her doom! Us local 'wans' in the know, jumped over this step so that we would not hear her blood drip or be cursed; we had a vivid imagination then and hopefully still the same today. Her strange prophesies often sent shivers down our backs as we learned how she foretold the drowning of a priest in the 'Devils Churn' off Ballycastle beach, and how a horseless carriage would fly over local forest; 100 years later a train track with bridge was built over the forest! We still wait for Knocklade to erupt and disperse its rock and earth over the Glens! She also insisted on her deathbed that people should walk over her grave, and thus a peculiar cross gravestone with hole in the middle marks her grave at the entrance to the main part of the church.

The graveyard also means a lot to me personally as my ancestors including my great grandfather are buried there. Stepping amongst the stones with my own children today,  I still get a real feeling that we are stepping through history both local and international, whether it is on the sidelines of local battles between the McQuillans or McDonnells or even the bigger world wars; it's stepping through the social landscape of the glens over the past 400 years. The infamous Scottish hero Sorley Boy McDonald was buried here as are many well known local farming and towns’ people, not to mention sailors from the two world wars.

The beautiful ruined abbey is a must see for all, tourist or local, set at the foot of Glenshesk looking out to Rathlin and the Mull of Kintyre. Bunamargy Abbey is a real hidden gem set into the jewels of the Glens of Antrim.

By Niall McCaughan