The enchanted hill where dancing fairies once stole a child whose spirit returned

"Fairs, communal meals and parades, and children danced around a maypole."
"Fairs, communal meals and parades, and children danced around a maypole."

Roamer’s page today hails the forthcoming May Day festival with a seasonal fairy tale.

There’s also a reminder for a Maytime event marking the 1718 Bann Valley migration.

First, regular contributor Mitchell Smyth, formerly from Ballycastle and now living in Canada, travels through time and springtime mythology, back to the town where he brought up.

Here’s Mitchell’s evocative story:

William Butler Yeats was thinking of his beloved Glencar in Co Leitrim when he penned his poem The Stolen Child:

Come away, O human child

To the waters and the wild!

With a faery, hand in hand.

For the world’s more full of sadness

than you can understand.

But he could have been referring to Ballycastle, Co Antrim – specifically to the Norman-era hill fort of Dunamallaght (or Dun-a-Mallaght), overlooking the Tow River, a few hundred yards from the town centre.

Growing up in what is now Dunamallaght Road, my sister and I walked over the hill, then crossed the little footbridge on the Tow River on our way to school on Castle Street.

Later, when we lived on Ann Street, groups of us pre-teen boys played cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers among the trees of a little copse on the mound.

But we always viewed Dunamallaght with some trepidation, for we all knew the story of the enchanted hill and its stolen child. Not for nothing does the word translate as The Fort of the Curses, though that didn’t stop a one-time entrepreneur from building a tea house there.

The café is long gone and the mound has reverted to nature.

The Dunamallaght story is closely connected with May Day, generally known today throughout Ireland as a Bank Holiday, held each year on the first Monday in May (May 7th this year).

But in olden days, up to the first part of the 20th century, it was observed on the first day of May, following the ancient Celtic festival La Bealtine, marking the start of the season of blossoming flowers and fruit trees and, in rural areas, the beginning of the courting season.

Bonfires were lit on May Day Eve, and on May 1st there were fairs, communal meals and parades, and children danced around a maypole. (The old-fashioned festival, with Morris dancing and a maypole and the crowning of a May Queen is still celebrated in many parts of mainland Britain.)

One spring night (so the story goes) a group of Ballycastle girls had an argument with a man who scoffed at their tale of fairies dancing on Dunamallaght on May Day Eve.

“Take us there and we’ll show you,” they told him.

And so, on the night of April 30th, just before midnight, they put the story to the test.

They went to the mound and began to dance, barefoot and blindfolded.

The man, Daniel McCurdy, and a friend, stayed on the other side of the Tow River.

They could hear the girls chanting up on the hill.

Suddenly the chanting stopped.

The men tried to get to the fort but, although it was a moonlit night, a strange darkness overcame them, they said, and they were turned back.

Next morning (I’m still quoting the story as we were told it) the two men went back to the fort and found three girls asleep.

McCurdy woke them and they explained that at midnight fairies had arrived and danced on the top of the hill. At that moment, they told him, they all fell asleep.

And what about the fourth girl?

Ballycastle historian Robert McCahan, re-telling the legend in 1923, wrote: “From that night their youngest companion was never seen again.”

He added: “But it is said that on every May Eve at midnight there are six gentle knocks on the door of the house in the Milltown where she lived and that the form of a girl clad in a white ethereal garment walks six times in front of the house and a little above the ground, and laughing in a low and pleasant manner.”

The old Milltown (now Fairhill Street and Mill Street) has been substantially re-developed and no one I spoke to when I visited last year could identify where the supposed stolen child had lived.

As mentioned earlier, the child in the Nobel laureate’s fantasy disappeared:

Where the wandering water gushes,

From the hills above Glen-Car (Yeats’s spelling.)

As a young boy Yeats used to go picnicking there on summer holidays from his home in Dublin.

Perhaps, if he had gone north instead of west for his holidays, Dunamallaght might have found a spot in literary history.

Thank you Mitchell Smyth for sharing a story with us that will undoubtedly move News Letter readers to visit Ballycastle’s enchanted hill.

Roamer’s page has several times referred to the ongoing tercentenary of the 1718 Bann Valley migration.

One of the first local dates on the commemorative calendar of events is an entrance-free conference in the Garvagh and District Development Association Community Building, Garvagh, on Saturday, May 12th.

Hosted by Garvagh Museum in association with the Ulster Historical Foundation and funded by the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, the half-day conference is entitled Penal Laws, Poverty and Migration.

Five authoritative speakers will explore the epic story of 1718 and the traumatic transatlantic migration of 100 local families – the first of so many who profoundly and dramatically shaped America’s future.

Further details are on Garvagh Museum’s Facebook page.