Ancient ruins, old stone walls and rocky landscapes rich with history

Steep Path to the Remains of Kenbane's 16th Century Tower House.
Steep Path to the Remains of Kenbane's 16th Century Tower House.

In this modern era of the worldwide web, with the News Letter available on computer screens all around the globe, more than a few of the accounts and reminiscences that adorn this page arrive in Roamer’s mailbox from distant corners of the planet.

One of the more unusual narratives came from Emeritus Professor Glen Chilton five years ago.

Professor Chilton, a biologist from the James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, contacted Roamer while he was on a research project near Mount Unzen, a volcanic peak in Japan.

Bizarrely, whilst surrounded with smouldering lava he e-mailed some intriguing information about a rare, stuffed Labrador Duck that he’d previously discovered in Dublin, and proffered the unnerving prospect that ‘killer rhododendrons’ might well be flourishing in Northern Ireland!

Other reports, slightly less bizarre, have come from a far-flung beach in New Zealand where a traveller discovered the wreck of a ship built in Belfast in 1855; there was a story about a prefabricated bungalow in India that was manufactured in Ireland, and a report arrived from a racing yacht on the wild Atlantic.

The yachtsmen fed solely on Irish porridge!

Today we’ve an account from afar, but with a distinctly local flavour – Northern Ireland’s beautiful north coast.

Ballycastle-born Mitchell Smyth has shared several stories here recently.

After a spell with the News Letter and other regional publications, Mitchell went to Canada and became a well-known travel writer and ultimately travel editor of the Toronto Sun.

He often returns here, and recently wrote a short travelogue about Kenbane Castle (or Kinbane) which means ‘white head’ and refers to the white limestone on which the castle stands, in the townland of Cregganboy, near Ballycastle.

There’s not much left of Kenbane Castle left today, just the ruins of the gatepost and tower house, approachable by a steep path on a rocky promontory jutting into the Atlantic.

The rest of today’s page is Mitchell’s:

Kenbane Castle is an important landmark in Irish history with its connection to Sorley Boy MacDonnell – ‘the Fighting Prince of Ulster’ – who took on Queen Elizabeth I’s English invaders and fought them to a standstill in the 16th century.

And when the English couldn’t subdue him they saved face by making the MacDonnells Irish aristocracy, which they are to this day.

A word about that name.

Sorley Boy is the anglicized version of Somhairle Buidhe - meaning ‘yellow-haired (buidhe) summer soldier’.

The blonde warrior was at Kenbane Castle in July 1575 with his troops. He had heard that the English planned to attack because he had become such a thorn in Elizabeth’s side.

To shield his people, he sent the old men with the women and children to Rathlin Island, out in Ballycastle Bay.

It was a fatal mistake.

The English didn’t attack Kenbane.

Sir Francis Drake - the hero who would later defeat the Spanish Armada - landed arms on Rathlin and his troops attacked.

It was a clear day and from Kenbane Sorley Boy watched impotently as the English massacred his kin.

Those who weren’t put to the sword were thrown over the cliffs.

The death toll was 300 to 400.

It was one of the worst atrocities of Elizabeth’s reign, but she wasn’t worried.

She sent Drake’s lieutenant, who supervised the massacre, her ‘heartfelt congratulations.’

Kenbane was one stop on my recent tour of locations connected with the Fighting Prince.

I started in Ballycastle town centre, where the parish church is built of stones from nearby Dunanynie Castle, where Sorley Boy was born in 1505.

‘Baile an Chasitil’ the original name in Irish, means ‘the town of the castle’.

Next I visited Bonamargy, on the outskirts of town.

It’s a golf course now, but in 1559 it was the scene of a famous battle which - you guessed it - Sorley Boy won.

In the vaults of the ruined friary, in the middle of the golf course, lie the remains of Sorley Boy and other MacDonnells.

The fighting prince died in 1590, aged 85.

By that time Elizabeth, having been fought to a standstill, had signed a warrant recognizing his right to a huge swathe of land in Ulster, and her successor, James I, made Sorley Boy’s son Randall the first Earl of Antrim, the ancestor of the present holders of that title.

The Fighting Prince had won.

Other sites associated with Sorley Boy MacDonnell include

Orra, about 20-km inland from Kenbane, the site of a famous MacDonnell victory when the Ulstermen, under cover of darkness, spread branches and reeds over a deep bog near their camp.

The English attacked, thinking they were on solid ground, but their horses and men sank in the marshy ground.

Another historic site is Dunluce Castle, possibly the most photographed ruin in Ireland - another MacDonnell fortress.

Another is Castle Carra, where only a wall survives of this MacDonnell stronghold at Cushendun.

This is where Sorley Boy tricked his rival Shane O’Neill, who was in cahoots with the English, into coming for a banquet. The festivities ended when the MacDonnells cut off O’Neill’s head and Sorley Boy sent it, pickled, to Queen Elizabeth.

Port na Spaniagh, near the Giant’s Causeway, is where the Spanish Armada ship Girona foundered in 1588.

Locals say that Girona’s treasure funded the refurbishing and extension of Dunluce Castle.