The Irish Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Belfast to the Causeway.

The Lough of Belfast has a reputation for beauty almost as great as that of the Bay of Dublin; but though, on the day I left Belfast for Lame, the morning was fine, and the sky clear and blue above, an envious mist lay on the water, which hid all its beauties from the dozen of passengers on the Lame coach. All we could see were ghostly-looking silhouettes of ships gliding here and there through the clouds; and I am sure the coachman’s remark was quite correct, that it was a pity the day was so misty. I found myself before I was aware, entrapped into a theological controversy with two grave gentlemen outside the coach-another fog, which did not subside much before we reached Carrickfergus. The road from the Ulster capital to that little town seemed meanwhile to be extremely lively: cars and omnibuses passed thickly peopled. For some miles along the road is a string of handsome country-houses, belonging to the rich citizens of the town; and we passed by neat-looking churches and chapels, factories and rows of cottages clustered round them, like villages of old at the foot of feudal castles. Furthermore it was hard to see, for the mist which lay on the water had enveloped the mountains too, and we only had a glimpse or two of smiling comfortable fields and gardens,

Carrickfergus rejoices in a real romantic-looking castle jutting bravely into the sea, and famous as a background for picture. It is of use for little else now, luckily; nor has it been put to any real warlike purposes since the day when honest Thurot stormed, took, and evacuated it. Let any romancer who is in want of a hero peruse the second volume or it may be the third, of the “Annual Register” where the adventures of that gallant fellow are related. He was a gentleman, a genius, and, to crown all, a smuggler. He lived for some time in Ireland, and in England, in disguise, he had love-passages and romantic adventures he landed a body of his countrymen on these shores, and died in the third volume after a battle gallantly fought on both sides but in which victory rested with the British arms. What can a novelist want more? William III also landed here, and as for the rest, “M’Skimin, the accurate and laborious historian of the town informs us that the founding of the castle is lost in the depth of antiquity.” It is pleasant to give a little historic glance at a place as one passes through. The above facts may be relied on as coming from Messrs. Curry’s excellent new Guide-book; with the exception of the history of Mons. Thurot which is “private information,” drawn years ago from the scarce work previously mentioned. By the way, another excellent companion to the traveller in Ireland is the collection of the “Irish Penny Magazine,” which may be purchased for a guinea, and contains a mass of information regarding the customs and places of the country. Willis’s works is amusing as everything is, written by that lively author, and the engravings accompanying it as unfaithful as any ever made.

Meanwhile asking pardon for this double digression, which has been made while the guard-coachman is delivering his mail-bags — while the landlady stands looking on in the sun, her hands folded a little below the waist — while a company of tall burly troops from the castle has passed by, “surrounded” by a very mean, mean-faced, uneasy-looking little subaltern — while the poor epileptic idiot of the town, wallowing and grinning in the road, and snorting out supplications for a halfpenny, has tottered away in possession of the coin -meanwhile, fresh horses are brought out, and the small boy who acts behind the coach makes an unequal and disagreeable tootooing on a horn kept to warn sleepy Carmen and celebrate triumphal entries into and exits from cities. As the mist clears up, the country shows round about wild but friendly: at one place we passed a village where a crowd of well-dressed people were collected at an auction of farm-furniture, and many more figures might be seen coming over the fields and issuing from the mist. The owner of the carts and machines is going to emigrate to America. Presently we come to the demesne of Red Hall, “through which is a pretty drive of upwards of a mile in length: it contains a rocky glen, the bed of a mountain stream — which is perfectly dry, except in winter-and the woods about it are picturesque, and it is occasionally the resort of summer-parties of pleasure.” Nothing can be more just than the first part of the description, and there is very little doubt that the latter paragraph is equally faithful; — with which we come to Lame, a “most thriving town,” the same authority says, but a most dirty and narrow-streeted and ill-built one. Some of the houses reminded one of the south. A benevolent fellow-passenger said that the window was “a convenience.” And here, after a drive of 19 miles upon a comfortable coach, we were transferred with the mail-bags to a comfortable car that makes the journey to Ballycastle. There is no harm in saying that there was a very pretty smiling buxom young lass for a travelling companion; and somehow, to a lonely person, the landscape always looks prettier in such society. The” Antrim coast-road,” which we now, after a few miles, begin to follow, besides being one of the most noble and gallant works of art that is to be seen in any country, is likewise a route highly picturesque and romantic; the sea spreading wide before the spectator’s eyes upon one side of the route, the tall cliffs of limestone rising abruptly above him on the other. There are in the map of Curry’s ‘Guide-book points indicating castles and abbey ruins in the vicinity of Glenarm; and the little place looked so comfortable, as we abruptly came upon it, round a rock, that I was glad to have an excuse for staying, and felt an extreme curiosity with regard to the abbey and the castle.

The abbey only exists in the unromantic shape of a wall; the castle, however, far from being a ruin, is an antique in the most complete order-an old castle repaired so as to look like new, and increased by modern wings, towers, gables, and terraces, so extremely old that the whole forms a grand and imposing-looking baronial edifice, towering above the little town which it seems to protect, and with which it is connected by a bridge and a severe-looking armed tower and gate. In the town is a town-house, with a campanile in the Italian taste, and a school or chapel opposite in the early English; so that the inhabitants can enjoy a considerable architectural variety. A grave-looking church, with a beautiful steeple, stands amid some trees hard by a second handsome bridge and the little quay; and here, too, was perched a poor little wandering theatre (gallery 1d., pit 2d.), and proposing that night to play “Bombastes Furioso, and the Comic Bally of Glenarm in an Uproar.” I heard the thumping of the drum in the evening; but, as at Roundwood, nobody patronised the poor players. At nine o’clock there was not a single taper lighted under their awning, and my heart (perhaps it is too susceptible) bled for Fusbos.

The severe gate of the castle was opened by a kind, good-natured old porteress, instead of a rough gallowglass with a battle-axe and yellow shirt (more fitting guardian of so stern a postern), and the old dame insisted upon my making an application to see the grounds of the castle, which request was very kindly granted, and afforded a delightful half-hour’s walk. The grounds are beautiful, and excellently kept; the trees in their autumn livery of red! yellow, and brown, except some stout ones that keep to their green summer clothes, and the laurels and their like, who wear pretty much the same dress all the year round. The birds were singing with the most astonishing vehemence in the dark glistening shrubberies; but the only sound in the walks was that of the rakes pulling together the falling leaves. There was of these walks one especially, flanked towards the river by a turreted wall covered with ivy, and having on the one side a row of lime-trees that had turned quite yellow, while opposite them was a green slope, and a quaint terrace-stair, and a long range of fantastic gables, towers, and chimneys;-there was, I say, one of these walks which Mr. Cattermole would hit off with a few strokes of his gallant pencil, and which I could fancy to be frequented by some of those long-trained, tender, gentle-looking young beauties whom Mr. Stone loves to design. Here they come, talking of love in a tone that is between a sigh and a whisper, and gliding in rustling shot silks over the fallen leaves.

There seemed to be a good deal of stir in the little port, where, says the Guide-book, a couple of hundred vessels take in cargoes annually of the produce of the district. Stone and lime are the chief articles exported, of which the cliffs for miles give an unfailing supply; and, as one travels the mountains at night, the kilns may be seen lighted in in the lonely places, and flaring red in the darkness.

If the road from Larne to Glenarm is beautiful, the Coast route from the latter place to Cushendall is still more so; and, except peerless Westport, I have seen nothing in Ireland so picturesque as this noble line of Coast scenery. The new road luckily, is not yet completed, and the lover of natural beauties had better hasten to the spot in time, ere by flattening and improving the road, and leading it along the sea-shore, half the magnificent prospects are shut out, now visible from along the mountainous old road; which according to the good old fashion, gallantly takes all the hills in its course, disdaining to turn them. At three miles’ distance, near the village of Cairlough, Glenarm looks more beautiful than when you are close upon it; and, as the car travels on to the stupendous Garron Head, the traveller, looking back, has a view of the whole line of coast southward as far as Isle Magee, with its bays and white villages, and tall precipitous cliffs, green, white, and gray. Eyes left, you may look with wonder at the mountains rising above, or presently at the pretty park and grounds of Drumnasole.

Here, near the woods of Nappan, which are dressed in ten thousand colours — ash-leaves turned yellow, nut-trees red, birch-leaves brown, lime-leaves speckled over with black spots (marks of a disease which they will never get over) stands a school-house that looks like a French chateau, having probably been a villa in former days, and discharges as we pass a cluster of fair-haired children, that begin running madly down the hill, their fair hair streaming behind them. Down the hill goes the car, madly too, and you wonder and bless your stars that the horse does not fall, or crush the children that are running before, or you that are sitting behind.

Every now and then, at a trip of the horse, a disguised lady’s -maid, with a canary-bird in her lap and a vast anxiety about her best bonnet in the bandbox, begins to scream: at which the car-boy grins, and rattles down the hill only the quicker. The road, which almost always skirts the hill-side, has been torn sheer through the rock here and there an immense work of levelling, shovelling, picking, blasting, filling, is going on along the whole line. As I was looking up a vast cliff, decorated with patches of green here and there at its summit, and at its base, where the sea had beaten until now, with long, thin, waving grass, that I told a grocer, my neighbour, was like mermaid’s hair (though he did not in the least coincide in the simile) — as I was looking up the hill, admiring two goats that were browsing on a little patch of green, and two sheep perched yet higher (I had never seen such agility in mutton)-as, I say once more, I was looking at these phenomena, the grocer nudges me and says ”Look on this side — that’s Scotland yon.” If ever this book reaches a second edition a son net shall be inserted in this place, describing the author’s feelings on HIS FIRST VIEW OF SCOTLAND. Meanwhile, the Scotch mountains remain undisturbed, looking blue and solemn, far away in the placid sea.

Rounding Garron Head, we come upon the inlet which is called Red Bay, the shores and sides of which are of a red clay, that has taken the place of limestone, and towards which between two noble ranges of mountains, stretches a long green’ plain, forming, together with the hills that protect it and the sea that washes it, one of the most beautiful landscapes of this most beautiful country. A fair writer, whom the Guide-book quotes, breaks out into strains of admiration in speaking of this district; calls it “ Switzerland in miniature” celebrates its mountains of Glenariff and Lurgethan, and laflds, in terms of equal admiration, the rivers, waterfalls, and other natural beauties that lie within the glen.

The writer’s enthusiasm regarding this tract of country is quite warranted, nor can any praise in admiration of it be too high; but alas! in calling a place “ Switzerland in miniature do we describe it? In joining together cataracts, valleys, rushing streams, and blue mountains, with all the emphasis and picturesqueness of which type is capable, we cannot get near to a copy of Nature’s sublime countenance; and the writer can’t hope to describe such grand sights so as to make them visible to the fireside reader, but can only, to the best of his taste and experience, warn the future traveller where he may look out for objects to admire. I think this sentiment has been repeated a score of times in this journal; but it comes upon one at every new display of beauty and magnificence, such as here the Almighty in his bounty has set before us; and every such scene seems to warn one, that it is not made to talk about too much, but to think of and love, and be grateful for.

Rounding this beautiful bay and valley, we passed by some caves that penetrate deep into the red rock, and are inhabited — one by a blacksmith, whose forge was blazing in the dark one by cattle; and one by an old woman that has sold whiskey here for time out of mind. The road then passes under an arch cut in the rock by the same spirited individual who has cleared away many of the difficulties in the route to Glenarm and beside a conical hill, where for some time previous have been visible the ruins of the “ancient ould castle” of Red Bay. At a distance, it looks very grand upon its height; but on coming close it bas dwindled down to a mere wall, and not a high one. Hence quickly we reached Cushendall, where the grocer’s family are on the look-out for him the driver begins to blow his little bugle, and the disguised lady’s-maid begins to smooth her bonnet arid hair.

At this place a good dinner of fresh whiting, broiled bacon, and small beer was served up to me for the sum of eightpence, while the lady’s maid in question took her tea. “This town is full of Papists, said her ladyship, with an extremely genteel air; and, either in consequence of this, or because she ate up one of the fish, which she had clearly no right to, a disagreement arose between its, and we did not exchange another word for the rest of the journey. The road led us for 14 miles by wild mountains, and across a fine aqueduct to Ballycastle; but it was dark as we left Cushendall, and it was difficult to see more in the grey evening but that the country was savage and lonely, except where the kilns were lighted up here and there in the hills, and a shining river might be seen winding in the dark ravines. Not far from Ballycastle lies a little old ruin, called the Abbey of Bonamargy: by it the Margy river runs into the sea, upon which you come suddenly; and on the shore are some tall buildings and factories that looked as well in the moon-light as if they had not been in ruins: and hence a fine avenue of limes leads to Ballycastle. They must have been planted at the time recorded in the Guide-book, when a mine was discovered near the town, and the works and warehouses on the quay erected. At present, the place has little trade, and half a dozen carts with apples, potatoes, dried fish, and turf, seem to contain the commerce of the market.

A picturesque sort of vehicle is said to be going much out of fashion in the country, the solid wheels giving place to those common to the rest of Europe. A fine and edifying conversation took place between the designer and the owner one of these. “Stand still for a minute, you and the car, and I will give you twopence!” “What do you want to do with it?” says the latter. “To draw it says he, with a wild look of surprise. “And is it you’ll draw it?” “I mean I want to take a picture of it: you know what a picture is!” “No, I don’t.” “Here’s one,” says I, showing him a book. “Oh, faith, sir,” says the carman, drawing back rather alarmed, “I’m no scholar!” And he concluded by saying, ”Will you buy the turf or will you not?“ By which straightforward question he showed himself to be a real practical man of sense; and, as he got an unsatisfactory reply to this query, he forthwith gave a lash to his pony and declined to wait a minute longer. As for the twopence, he certainly accepted that handsome sum, and put it into his pocket but with an air of extreme wonder at the transaction, and of contempt for the giver; which very likely was perfectly justifiable. I have seen men despised in genteel companies with not half so good a cause.

In respect to the fine arts, I am bound to say that the people in the South and west showed much more curiosity and interest with regard to a sketch and its progress than has been shown by the badauds of the North; the former looking on by dozens and exclaiming, “That’s Frank Mahony’s house” or “Look at Biddy Mullins and the child!” or “He’s taking off the chimney now!” as the case may be; whereas, sketching in the North, I have collected no such spectators, the people not taking the slightest notice of the transaction.

The little town of Ballycastle does not contain much to occupy the traveller: behind the church stands a ruined old mansion with round turrets, that must have been a stately tower in former days. The town is more modern but almost as dismal as the tower. A little street behind it slides off into a potato-field — the peaceful barrier of the place; and hence I could see the tall rock of Bengore, with the sea beyond it and a pleasing landscape stretching towards it.

Dr. Hamilton’s elegant and learned book has an awful picture of yonder head of Bengore; and hard by it the Guide-book says is a coal-mine, where Mr. Barrow found a globular stone hammer, which, he infers, was used in the coal-mine before weapons of iron were invented. The former writer insinuates that the mine must have been. worked more than a thousand years ago, “before the turbulent chaos of events that succeeded the 8th century. Shall I go and see a coal-mine that may have been worked a thousand years since? Why go see it? says idleness. To be able to say that I have seen it. Sheridan’s advice to his son here came into my mind; [“I want to go into a coal-mine,” says Tom Sheridan, “in order to say I have been there.” “Well, then, say so,” replied the admirable father.] and I shall reserve a description of the mine, and antiquarian dissertation regarding it, for publication elsewhere.

Ballycastle must not be left without recording the fact that one of the snuggest inns in the country is kept by the post-master there; who has also a stable full of good horses for travellers who take his little inn on the way to the Giant’s Causeway.

The road to the Causeway is bleak, wild, and hilly. The cabins along the road are scarcely better than those of Kerry, the inmates as ragged and more fierce and dark-looking. I never was so pestered by juvenile beggars in the dismal village of Ballintoy. A crowd of them rushed after the car, calling for money in a fierce manner, as if it was their right: dogs as fierce as the children came yelling after the vehicle; and the faces which scowled out of the black cabins were not a whit more good-humoured. We passed by one or two more clumps of cabins, with their turf and corn-stacks lying together at the foot of the hills; placed there for the convenience of the children, doubtless, who can thus accompany the car either way, and shriek out their, “Bonny gantleman, gi’e us a ha’p’ny.” A couple of churches, one with a pair of its pinnacles blown off, stood in the dismal open country, and a gentleman’s house here and there: there were no trees about them, but a brown grass round about-hills rising and falling in front, and the sea beyond. The occasional view of the coast was noble; wild Bengore towering eastwards as we went along; Raghery Island before us, in the steep rocks and caves of which Bruce took shelter when driven from yonder Scottish coast, that one sees stretching blue in the north-east.

I think this wild gloomy tract through which one passes is a good prelude for what is to be the great sight of the day, and got my mind to a proper state of awe by the time we were near the journey’s end. Turning away shorewards by the fine house of Sir Francis Macnaghten, I went towards a lone handsome inn, that stands close to the Causeway. The landlord at Ballycastle had lent me Hamilton’s book to read on the road; but I had not time then to read more than half a dozen pages of it. They described bow the author, a clergyman distinguished as a man of science, had been thrust out of a friend’s house by the frightened servants one wild night, and butchered by some White-boys who were waiting outside and called for his blood. I had been told at Belfast that there was a corpse in the inn: was it there now? It had driven off, the car-boy said, “in a handsome hearse and four to Dublin the whole way.” It was gone, but I thought the house looked as if the ghost were there. See yonder are the black rocks stretching to Portrush: bow leaden and grey the sea looks! how grey and leaden the sky! You hear the waters roaring evermore, as they have done since the beginning of the world. The car drives up with a dismal grinding noise of the wheels to the big lone house there’s no smoke in the chimneys; the doors are locked. Three savage-looking men rush after the car: are they the men who took out Mr. Hamilton — took him out and butchered him in the moonlight? Is everybody, I wonder, dead in that big house? Will they let us in before those men are up. Out comes a pretty smiling girl, with a curtsey, just as the savages are at the car, and you are ushered into a very comfortable room; and the men turn out to be guides. Well, thank heaven it’s no worse! I had £15 still left; and, when desperate, have no doubt should fight like a lion.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07