The Glens of Antrim
An account of the nine glens of Co Antrim
The Glens of Antrim stretch over some 80km of shoreline, encompassing grasslands, forests, peat bogs, mountain uplands, churches and castles. The Antrim Coast Road, built in the 1830s, winds its way between bays and high cliff lines for nearly 160km. There are nine glens in all.
Glentaisie is named after Princess Taisie, the daughter of King Dorm of Rathlin Island. The glen is about 8km long and is the most northerly of the nine glens. This small glen lies to the western side of Knocklayd mountain, and winds it way along to Ballycastle.
One of Glentaisie’s most famous stories is that of ‘The Children of Lir’, who were turned into swans and swam off the coast for centuries until released from enchantment by the sound of a Christian bell.
In 1565, Glentaisie was the scene of a great battle between the O’Neill forces, led by Shane O’Neill, and the MacDonnell’s, led by the three brothers, James, Sorley Boy and Angus. James and his brother Sorley were taken prisoner, and Angus was killed that day. James later died in prison of his many wounds and Sorley Boy was freed, but the MacDonnells were avenged two years later when they murdered Shane O’Neill.
The seventh glen, Glendun, is described as deep, steep and wooded, its name literally meaning 'brown glen'. A quiet peaceful glen, it has the largest area of deciduous woodland due mainly to landlords such as the Whites of Broughshane, who planted the 29 hectares known as Cregagh Wood. Hidden among the trees is ‘The Altar in the Wood’, a rock carved with a scene from the crucifixion dating from the sixteenth century when penal laws forced Catholics to attend mass in secret.
Glendun viaduct, built in 1836 by the 22 year old architect Charles Lanyon, spans the glen and the River Dun.
Glenshesk, meaning 'glen of sedge' (reeds), is a wooded, wild and unspoiled glen lying to the south of Knocklayde mountain, opening out to the sea at Ballycastle. A forest park and picnic area is situated here, and splendid views of Rathlin Island and the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland can be seen on clear days.
This glen is full of historic lore. At its foot lie the ruins of the Franciscan Friary of Bunamargy, built by Rory MacQuillan in 1485 and famous for its one time resident Julie MacQillen. Known as ‘The Black Nun’, MacQuillen made many prophecies and wished to be buried at the entrance of the chapel so that she might be trodden under the feet of those who entered. Her grave is marked by a round holed cross. Glenshesk is also peppered with standing stones marking the burial places of saintly men and women and of brave clan leaders killed in battle
The gentle slopes of this small glen run south to north from Glenann, merging into Glendun. Traces of early man can be found on the hillsides. In the townland of Falnaglass there is a mound always referred to as ’The Fort’, but identified a few years ago as a Bronze Age barrow burial mound dating from 2500 to 500BC. There are also remains of early defended Christian farmsteads (raths) in the townlands of Laney (Gortin) and Tromra. The name ‘Glencorp’ means ‘glen of the bodies’ or ‘glen of the dead’.
Glenaan lies near the village of village of Cushendall and is well known as the site of ‘Ossian’s Grave’. Described as a double chambered horned cairn, this megalithic tomb was built in the late Stone Age, 4000 to 5000 years ago. According to legend, Ossian was a poet, warrior, and son of Finn, leader of the Fianna brotherhood.
The 'glen of the little fords' was once heavily populated, as evidenced by the remains of many wallsteads and the deserted village of Knockban. In the nineteenth century, it was almost self-sufficient, relying on farming, spinning and weaving. Glenaan was also home to a corn mill, a tuck mill, a flax mill, a shoemaker’s and a carpenter’s. Today, there is no arable farming in the glen, only sheep and cattle grazing. Peat is still cut by hand and by machine, but this tradition is dying out as other heat sources have become more popular.
The famous poet Dusty Rhodes (James Stoddard Moore) was born at Glenaan and wrote many poems expressing his love of the glens.
This deep, wide glen sweeps down towards the village of Cushendall, often called the heart of the glens. Cushendall was bought by Francis Turnly in the early part of the nineteenth century. He was responsible for the building of the Curfew Tower and completed the Glens of Antrim Hotel. In 1923, it was one of the first villages in Ireland to have a hydroelectric power scheme.
The summit of Lurigethan towers above Cushendall. It features a fine example of a promontory fort enclosed by a series of banks and ditches. To the right of the village is Tievebulliagh, a famed Stone Age flint factory where many axe-heads have been found. Glenballyemon also offers views of Trostan, the tallest mountain in Co Antrim, standing at 553m high. Its name means 'Edwardstown Glen'.
The first or most southerly of the nine glens, the ‘glen of the army’ contains the seaside town of Glenarm. This privately owned wooded glen also forms part of the estate of the Earl of Antrim, the main dwelling place of the MacDonnells since 1636. Glenarm Castle dates from around 1750 with early nineteenth century alterations. The remains of the old Templeoughter upper church lie nearby. The body of Shane O’Neill is reputed to be buried here, minus his head, which was displayed on a spike at Dublin Castle.
On the seaward side of the coast road near Glenarm is a pile of rocks with an opening called ‘The Madman’s Window’, a supposed suicide spot.
At least one court cairn and several wedge tombs represent late Stone Age settlement in Glenarm. There are also a number of Iron Age raths and souterrains. The Department of the Environment recently excavated a raised rath at Deerpark Farm in the upper glen. It was occupied from approximately AD500 until AD950.
Farming provides the main source of income in Glenarm, with the Eglinton Lime Company and the Northern Salmon Company providing some employment.
This glen is shaped like a sword and its name means ‘glen of the dykes’ or ‘glen of the sword’. It sweeps out to the sea at Carnlough and is surrounded by white chalk quarries. Its most distinctive feature is the White Arch over the coast road near the harbour.
Archaeological excavations at Bay Farm have uncovered evidence of Neolithic occupation from around 4000BC. The Norman mottes, Doonan Fort (Little Fort) and Dungallan Fort, are 3.2km south and north of Carnlough respectively.
Drumnasle waterfalls are approached by a passage called ‘The Goats Parlour’. At the end of this path is Tubberdoney, a well believed to cure eye related problems.
Drumnasole House was built by Francis Turnly in 1808 and is still in the possession of the Turnly family. From the great headlands of Drumnasole (‘the ridge of light’), the Antrim Scots communicated with beacon fires to their kinsmen across the sea of Moyle.
Hidden from the road is Garron Tower, built as a summer residence by Frances Anne, Marchioness of Londonderry. She inherited this part of the Antrim estates from her mother, Anne Katherine MacDonnell, Countess of Antrim. Garron Tower and its grounds were purchased by McNeill’s Hotel in Larne in 1915, and were acquired by the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor in 1950 for use as a boys’ boarding school.
The harbour at Carnlough was built by the Marchioness of Londonderry around 1850. Limestone was exported from here until 1945 when the Glencloy quarries closed down. The Eglinton Lime Company of Glenarm used the harbour until the late 1950s when silting became a problem. Today it is used by yachts and pleasure boats.
Glenariff, meaning 'glen of the plough', is the largest and the most famous of the nine glens, often referred to as the 'Queen of the Glens'. A perfect u-shaped valley with beautiful views and spectacular waterfalls, the glen meets the sea at the small village of Waterfoot.
Around 100 years ago, trees were planted in the glen to enhance the native woodlands of hazel, oak, ash and willow, and to make the area more attractive to visitors. It is bounded by rugged precipices between 200 and 400m in height.
Glenariff Forest Park is a nature reserve with breathtaking views across the Irish sea to the Scottish coast. Walkers can explore its magnificent waterfalls and wildlife, then follow the Moyle way to Ballycastle.
Other places of interest nearby include Red Bay Castle, near Waterfoot, and Garron Head.
© Danny Carson 2004