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LONDONDERRY AND THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY
LONDONDERRY was the original site of an abbey for the canons of the Augustinian order founded by St. Columbkille in 546. There was also an abbey for Cistercian nuns founded in 1218, and a Dominican friary founded in 1274, “by request of St. Dominick,” as the chronicles put it, whatever significance that statement may have.
Derry, as it is commonly called, owes its name to the confiscation of the estates of the O’Neills in 1609, most of the lands being bestowed on various citizens of London. Derry, the ancient name, means “the place of oaks.” All this part of Ulster was once heavily forested, but it is now conspicuously bare. Nearly 160,000 acres of the county are still owned by the Irish Society, while two London livery companies, the Skinners’ and the Drapers’, are also owners of large holdings.
Derry is usually described as “a prettily situated town, built upon a high hill.” It is quite in keeping with the description, and is also a place of much interest, as will be found upon a close acquaintance, though it is unquestionably a curious mixture of old and new, of foundries, distilleries, and manufactories, which, at every turn, are contrasted with a celebrity and an interest quite of the past.
Londonderry was formerly fortified, contrary to the usual Irish conception of military science and architecture, which favoured the method advanced in the Spartan proverb, “The city is best environed which has walls of men instead of brick.”
There were originally four gates (afterward six) piercing the city walls, Bishops Gate, Ships Quay Gate, New Gate, and Ferry Gate.
The Cathedral of Derry is a plain Gothic structure far inferior in rank and splendour to those of its class in other lands, and dates only from the early seventeenth century. The episcopal palace occupies the site of St. Columbkille’s abbey.
The chief event in Derry’s history, and one which is called to the visitor’s attention at every turning-point and stopping-place, was the siege so graphically described by Macaulay.
In brief, the event took place thus:
“A letter was sent to the Earl of Mount Alexander at Cumber in County Down on December 3, 1688, giving the information that six days later certain numbers throughout Ireland, in pursuance of an oath which they had taken, were to rise and massacre the Protestants, men, women, and children. This letter furthermore warned the earl to take particular care of himself, as a captain’s commission would be the reward of the man who would murder him.”
The information reached Derry too late to secure the safety of the city. The terrified Protestants were filled with doubt as to what measures of precaution should be taken. Two companies of the Irish appeared on the opposite bank of the stream, and the officers were ferried over to make proposals for entering the town, which was nearly betrayed into their hands by the treachery of the deputy mayor, who was inclined to favour King James II. Impatient for the return of their officers, the soldiers crossed the river, and came to within three hundred yards of the Ferry Gate.
“The young men of the city observing this,” says Gordon’s “History of Ireland,” “about eight or nine of them, whose names deserve to be preserved in letters of gold, viz., Henry Campsie, William Crookshanks, Robert Sherrard, Alexander Irwin, James Steward, Robert Morrison, Alexander Coningham, Samuel Hunt, with James Spike, John Coningham, William Cairns, Samuel Harvey, and some others who soon joined them, ran to the main-guard, seized the keys, after a slight opposition, came to the Ferry Gate, drew up the bridge, and locked the gate just as Lord Antrim’s soldiers had advanced within sixty yards of it.”
The siege lasted one hundred and five days, during which time the townspeople were reduced to the direst extremities. “Reduced,” writes the historian, “to the extremity of distress, and endeavouring to support the remains of life by such miserable food as the flesh of dogs and vermin, even tallow and hides, nor able to find more than two days’ provisions of such substances, the garrison was still assured by the harangues of Walker, in a prophetic spirit, that God would relieve them; and men reduced almost to shadows made desperate sallies, but were unable to pursue their advantage.” The besiegers had thrown a boom across the river to prevent all navigation, and Kirk, the Orange admiral, had already been deterred by it from attempting the relief of the town. At length two provision ships and a frigate drew near to the city. One ship “dashed with giant strength against the barrier, and grounded, though subsequently floated out into deep water.”
Nearly twenty-five hundred citizens died of famine or at the hands of the enemy during the siege.
Near Londonderry is the Grianan of Aillach, upon which are the remains of what is thought to have been an ancient royal residence which, in splendour and importance, must have ranked high among the ancient palaces of the Irish kings.
By some, however, it has been asserted that this remarkable work, of which, to be sure, only fragmentary ruins remain, was a former temple dedicated to the worship of the sun. At any rate, it was evidently a splendid and imposing structure.
Its present appearance is that of a truncated cairn of extraordinary dimensions, which, on closer inspection, proves to be a building constructed with every attention to masonic regularity, both in design and workmanship. A circular wall, of considerable thickness, encloses an area of eighty-two feet in diameter. Judging from the numbers of stones which have fallen off on every side, so as to form, in fact, a sloping glacis of ten or twelve feet broad all around it, this wall must have been of considerable height, probably from ten to twelve feet; but its thickness varies, that portion of it extending from north to south, and embracing the western half of the circle, being but ten or eleven feet, whereas, in the corresponding, or eastern half, the thickness increases to sixteen or seventeen, particularly at the entrance.
One of the inevitable illustrations of the old-time school geographies of our youth was a representation of the “Giant’s Causeway,” with its queer, hassocklike, basaltic stones, built in fantastic forms, like the structures children themselves are wont to erect from their building-blocks.
Next in order come the books of pictorial travel and “table books” of the “wonders of the world,” where the same picture appears again; and, finally, the astute proprietors of ardent spirit which is distilled at Bushmills, — an ancient town of perhaps a thousand inhabitants, between Portrush, Coleraine, and the basalt-bound coast of Northern Ireland, — have covered walls and fences with quite the most pleasing and alluring of all the pictorial representations of this unique rocky formation.
By these various means, the aspect of “The Giant’s Causeway” has become familiar to all. So, too, most people are familiar with the chief characteristics; for which reason it is useless to repeat them in detail here.
It was in the last years of the seventeenth century that this wonderland of nature first attracted the attention of the inquisitive, and from that time on its peculiarities have drawn many thousands of visitors of all ranks, from the mere pleasure and sensation loving tourist of convention to the profound scientist and antiquarian.
The five and six-sided basalt rocks are piled perpendicularly one upon the other, in contrast to most rocky formations, which lie on their sides, and the varying heights of the columns form those significantly named groups known as the “Organ and Pipes,” “Samson’s Ribs,” and the three “Causeways,” the chief of which gives its name to the group.
By those who have delved into the subject, armed with a profound geological knowledge, plummet and line, and rule and level, we are informed that “There is only one triangular pillar throughout the whole extent of the three Causeways. It stands near the east side of the Grand Causeway. There are but three pillars of nine sides; one of them situated in the Honeycomb, and the others not far from the triangular pillar just noticed. The total number having four and eight sides bears but a small proportion to the entire mass of pillars, of which it may be safely computed that ninety-nine out of one hundred have either five, six, or seven sides.”
For a further description, which shall be brief and to the point, we have the remarks of Köhl, the antiquarian who devoted so much of his energy to a study of Ireland’s peculiar and rare beauties.
THE HONEYCOMB, GIANT’S CAUSEWAY.
He says: “With all the explanations that can be offered with respect to the origin of this phenomena, so much is left unexplained that they answer very little purpose. On a close investigation of these wonderful formations, so many questions arise that one scarcely ventures to utter them. With inquiries of this nature, perhaps not the least gain is the knowledge of how much lies beyond the limits of our inquiries, and how many things that lie so plainly before our eyes, which we can see and handle, may yet be wrapped in unfathomable mystery. We see in the Giant’s Causeway the most certain and obvious effects produced by the operation of active and powerful forces which entirely escape our scrutiny. We walk over the heads of some forty thousand columns (for this number has been counted by some curious and leisurely persons), all beautifully cut and polished, formed of such neat pieces, so exactly fitted to each other, and so cleverly supported, that we might fancy we had before us the work of ingenious human artificers; and yet what we behold is the result of the immutable laws of nature, acting without any apparent object, and by a process which must remain a mystery for ever to our understanding. Even the simplest inquiries it is often impossible to answer; such, for instance, as how far these colonnades run out beneath the sea, and how far into the land, which throws over them a veil as impenetrable as that of the ocean.”
There are to be found in this group a great number of caves; some of a unique character, and many more like most other caves, presenting no striking peculiarity. Portcoon Cave is noted for its echo, and Dunkerry Cave for the fact that it can only be entered from the sea.
There is a “Giant’s Well,” of course, which legend tells was but one of the many domestic arrangements which nature had provided for the former Gargantuan inhabitants of these parts, but the chief of all the attractions is the Causeway itself, which is divided into three tongues, the Little, the Middle, and the Grand Causeways.
“The Giant’s Organ,” with its pipes, suggested by the basaltic erections of various heights, possesses perhaps the greatest sentimental interest. The guide-books tell one that he should imagine some gigantic personage seated as if before a keyboard, and ringing out wild melodies in quick succession. It will take an exceedingly vivid imagination to call up this inspiration, and one had much better accept the tale as set forth in the ancient legend, and not attempt to revivify the scene in these advanced days, when the electric-tram from Bushmills is depositing its hundreds daily at the very foot of the Causeway.
There are traditions without end which attempt to account for this wonderful natural production of the Causeway itself, but one shall suffice here. If the reader wants more he can get them without number and without end if he will but listen to the voluble guides of the neighbourhood. The Giant Fin M’Coul was the champion of Ireland, and felt very much aggrieved at the insolent boasting of a certain Caledonian giant, who offered to beat all who came before him, and even dared to tell Fin that if it weren’t for the wetting of himself, he would swim over and give him a drubbing. Fin at last applied to the king, who, not daring, perhaps, to question the doings of such a weighty man, gave him leave to construct a causeway right to Scotland, on which the Scot walked over and fought the Irishman. Fin turned out victor, and with an amount of generosity quite becoming his Hibernian descent, kindly allowed his former rival to marry and settle in Ireland, which the Scot was not loath to do, seeing that at that time living in Scotland was none of the best, and everybody knows that Ireland was always the richest country in the world. Since the death of the giants, the Causeway, being no longer wanted, has sunk under the sea, only leaving a portion of itself visible here, a little at the island of Rathlin, and the portals of the grand gate on Staffa off the Scottish coast.
This certainly seems an acceptably plausible legend, so far as legends can meet those conditions. It is certainly a picturesque one, and the great gateway of the island of Staffa has much if not all the attributes of its brother across the sea.
As a whole, the Causeways and their attributes are indeed suggestive — as has been said before by some discerning person — of a scene from Dante’s Inferno. More particularly they might be likened to a drawing of Gustave Doré’s, illustrating that immortal poem, as we have mostly drawn our conception of what that land was like from his work, rather than from Dante’s descriptions.
At all events, it is a huge nightmare of scenic effect, although a pleasant one.
Between Portrush, really the seaport of Coleraine, and the Giant’s Causeway is Dunluce Castle, “the most picturesque ruin ever beheld,” said an enthusiastic Irishman. As the Scot will tell you the same of Melrose, the statement may well be left in doubt.
At any rate, Dunluce, like Dunseverick, the ancient seat of the O’Cahans or O’Kanes, has been in part hewn out of the coast-line rocks, and possesses a precipitous and jagged barrier which might well be expected to forbid any attack by sea. It is, moreover, entirely separated from the mainland, though at low water connected therewith by a miniature causeway in much the same manner as was originally the famous abbey of Mont St. Michel in Normandy.
Among the ruins is a small vaulted chamber in which, it is believed by a great many folk around about, a banshee resides. The reason assigned for this belief is that the floor is always perfectly clean. It is difficult to follow this line of reasoning; more probably the true solution of the problem is that the wind, having free access to and egress from the apartment, carries dust and dirt before it. Another chamber in the northeast side has fearful attractions for the venturesome. The rock which formerly supported this room has fallen away, and, like a dovecot, it is suspended in the air only by its attachment to the main building.
The erection of Dunluce Castle has been assigned to De Courcy, Earl of Ulster, and the castle was in the hands of the English in the fifteenth century. In 1580, or thereabouts, Colonel M’Donald, the founder of the family of MacDonnells of Antrim, came to Ireland to assist Tyrconnel against the O’Neill, a powerful chieftain, and was hospitably entertained by M’Quillan, the Lord of Dunluce, whom he assisted in subduing his savage neighbours. Being successful in their enterprise, M’Donald returned to Dunluce, and was pressed to winter in the castle, having his men quartered on the vassals of M’Quillan. M’Donald, however, took advantage of his position as a guest, says history, and privately married the daughter of his host. Upon this marriage the MacDonnells afterward rested their claim to M’Quillan’s territory. A conspiracy among the Irish to murder the Scottish chief and his followers was discovered by his wife, and they made their escape, but returned afterward and came to possess a considerable portion of the county of Antrim. The affairs of the M’Quillans and their successors, the MacDonnells, have left endless traditions, but the descendants of the former are now no more known as “kings and lords,” having fallen to the condition of “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” says a local historian. The Scottish family became lords of Antrim and Dunluce.
In the autumn of 1814 a visit was paid to the ruins of Dunluce by Sir Walter Scott, who observed a great resemblance in it to Dunottar Castle in Kincardineshire. A detailed description of the ruins is given in his diary.
Just off the Giant’s Causeway is Rathlin Island, between which and the Mull of Cantyre on the Scottish coast all the Clyde-bound ships feel their way and the traveller by sea knows that he is well in toward the Firth of Clyde. Rathlin Island may naturally enough be presumed to be of the same strata of rocky formation of which the Causeway is built, practically a link which once may have bound Ireland and Scotland.
Robert Bruce, in 1306, during the wars between him and Baliol, fled to this island with three hundred men, returning to Scotland in the spring of the following year. A ruined castle, said to be inhabited by Bruce, and still bearing his name, is situated on a high, almost perpendicular piece of land, and from it may be obtained a view of the Scottish coast. Many of the inhabitants, who number above a thousand, speak only the ancient Irish language.
All the world knows Carrick-a-Rede and its famous rope-bridge. It has even been pictured in the school geographies along with such wonders of the world as Niagara Falls and the Pyramids of Egypt. It is a precipitous island-rock, a hundred feet or more high, which is linked to the mainland by an airy swinging bridge of ropes and “slats,” sixty feet long. There are no sights on the tiny island itself, and the bridge is only meant for the accommodation of fisher and shepherd folk, who, according to the guide-books, run across it heavily laden with baskets or carcasses, and in a manner amazing to the ordinary beholder. In practice, or at least so far as the casual traveller is concerned, they do this only as a sort of side-show before an appreciative audience who may have paid the price of admission. Nevertheless, it is a more or less frightful crossing, and one which seems to fascinate all who view it; so much so that the desire to emulate the venturesome native rises high in the stranger’s breast. There is no hand-rail to the bridge, only a rope that swings clear away from the slight foothold if it is heavily grasped; and each step makes the whole fabric quiver like a jelly from end to end. Still, by stepping quickly and lightly, and keeping the eyes fixed on the opposite rock, the pass can be made; and if the venturesome traveller misses his footing, and takes a header of a hundred feet, “he will not be drowned,” says the enterprising writer of a certain railway-guide; “the fall generally kills him outright.” The return journey is the worst, the bridge sloping downward toward the mainland. The local fisher-people, however, are quite accustomed to getting out boats in order to release some unlucky voyager from imprisonment on the rock, when discretion has suddenly over-powered valour at the commencement of the return trip; but again it is a question of price. It will be gathered from the above that the writer’s advice, concerning the crossing of the rope-bridge, is paraphrased in one word, “Don’t.”