Ballygally is a few miles outside Larne on the way to Glenarm, located in the Parish of Cairncastle (Cairn of the Castle) which derives its name from the old castle on the rock island near Ballygally Head. The castle is sometimes referred to as O’Halloran’s Castle and is said to have been the home of a poet named Agnew at some time in its past. The stone ruins were originally built by the Anglo Norman Knight Duncan Fitzgilbert who was given lands here in the early 13th century.
The small village is home to Ballygally Castle, a classic example of a Scottish baronial house. It was built in 1625 by James Shaw who arrived here in 1606 from Greenock during the Plantation of Ulster. In 1621 a grant was made to him by the Earl of Antrim of land which included one hundred and twenty acres at Carnfunnock and eighty acres at Corkermain and Ballyruther. Today the land at Carnfunnock is part of the well used Carnfunnock Country Park.
This castle was a fortified residence and would have originally had four walls around it much like we see in the bawns, the musket loop holes indicate the seriousness of the times. It was used as refuge on several occasions, during the 1642 rebellion it withstood several attempts to capture it by an Irish garrison from Glenarm. The castle remained in the Shaw family into the 1800's, it then it passed through a couple of families until it was acquired in the 1950's by Cyril Lord, he was an entrepreneur who was widely know for carpet manufacturing. He refurbished the castle and opened it up as a hotel, then in 1966 it was bought by the Hastings group who developed the hotel to what we see today. The castle is said to be home to several ghosts, one of these being Lady Isabella Shaw who is said to frequent the old part of the castle having fallen to her death in mysterious circumstances from a tower window. There is a special turret room kept in her honour and aptly named ‘The Ghost Room’.
The area has been occupied since man first crossed from Scotland, this is evident in the finds of flint workings during excavations in 1957 and 1989. Like most other early settlements along the coast, the location provided a ready source of fish from the sea, fresh water plus materials needed for the early manufacturing of arrows and spears. The 1989 excavation found similarities with finds on the Isle of Arran indicating the possible route of migration to Ireland after the last ice age. Many believe these early settlers or ‘hunters and gathers’ as they were known, walked across the retreating ice sheet to get here.
In December 1894, a hurricane force storm hit the north coast which continued unabated for two days, severe damage was caused all along the coast including the removal of the spire on Ballintoy church. Parts of the coast road was washed away, barns were blown over, cottage roofs went on fire, others were blown off, several ships wrecked on the shore and low lying areas were flooded. In Ballygally the storm claimed the life of a women called Jean Park who lived in a stone and wood shelter not too far from O’Halloran’s Castle. Jean was regarded as an eccentric and kept to herself, she was described as having tanned weathered features, long grey hair, soiled clothes and smoked a pipe. She arrived in Ballygally aboard a small drifting boat in the arms of her dead mother, she was adopted by a local family and grew up here. She married a local tenant farmer who supplemented their low income by working aboard ships for a month or so at a time.
During one of his trips Jean dreamed that he had been lost at sea and was so convinced by her dream that she could not focus on her chores or work. When he did not return she started going down to the shore everyday in hope of seeing his boat coming in. After many months of doing this their farm became neglected and her rent too, eventually the farm was taken from her and she was evicted. Homeless with no money and without her husband she wandered to the only place she knew to go and that was the shore. Here she built herself a rough shelter from stone and driftwood and survived from local charity and gathering shellfish along the shore. She had been warned by neighbours and the constabulary on many ocassions to move up from the below the sea wall for safety. Previous storms had brought water into her door but she was stubborn and insisted to stay in case her husband returned, so he would find her there. The storm swept all before it including her house and took her life too, she was found half a mile away from her shelter. In 1907, William Clarke Robinson from Glenarm published a book of poems and dedicated one to her called ‘Marina Jane’ in it he say: ‘The hungry sea had claimed what first it gave; She doubtless joined him after severance long; And o’er them both, beyond the broken wave, The sea wind sings its ever plaintive song.’
The church at Cairncastle was first referenced in 1306 and indeed in the old graveyard are the ruins of an older church. The church we see today was built in 1815, a Chancel was added in 1891 and the steeple in 1901. The interior has some beautiful examples of stained glass work by the Franz Mayer Company of Munich. The baptismal font is said to have connections to the author Johnathon Swift (Gulliver Travels) who is reputed to have used it while minister of Kilroot. A prominent 17th century figure in the church was the Rev. Patrick Adair who was ordained in 1646 and ministered here until 1672. As well as the pastor, he was also a negotiator, historian and leading voice for the establishment of Presbyterianism in Ireland. In 1948 along with his patron James Shaw of Ballygally Castle he was appointed to a committee for the establishment of Presbyterianism in Ulster.
On the committee were Ulster's parliamentary generals. After Charles 1st was executed by Parliament in 1649, the Presbyterian ministers of Down and Antrim broke ranks and released a signed presentation which opposed the execution and likened it to ’an act of horror, unprecedented in history’. They also stated they would pray for Charles II ( who had promised to establish Presbyterianism in Ulster - something he never did). This in a roundabout way led to Patrick Adair being later arrested on charges of complicity in a plot to overthrow the restored monarchy. The political and religous upheavals of the 17th century and the fight for Presbyterian rights were something he was closely associated with, his arrests and charges as well as his strong voice for what he believed in makes interesting reading. An account of some of his work during the 17th century can be found in an article published by the Glens of Antrim Historical Society, written by Seamus O Saothrai.
Another intriguing story of Ballygally and Cairncastle relates to the Spanish Chestnut tree that grows today in St Patrick’s Church graveyard, Cairncastle. It is said that during 1588 when the Spanish Armada was passing these shores a finely dressed sailor was washed up on the shore at Ballygally. A few local people took the body and buried it in the church graveyard. Where he came from nobody knew, he may even have been one of the 1200 who perished on the Girona at Port na Spainagh in 1588. After a year a tree emerged from the grave and grew into what we see today, a Spanish Chestnut tree (Castanea sativa). It is widely thought that the sailor had the chestnuts in his pocket and that one of these germinated. Samples where taken from the tree and dated to that period, we know they are long living trees, a similar one in Gloucestershire dates to the 13th century. Why would it have come from this sailor, well firstly chestnuts were widely used as food in Spain by the gentry, and were carried as a provisions on ships, they could be stored easily and eaten raw or cooked. It is tantalizing to think that this tree could possibly link back to the Spanish Armada.
It is well worth following the Feystown Road up to the viewpoint, this has some fabulous views over the landscape, Ballygally Head and the ocean. There is a plaque here to Judge Richard Campbell (1870-1935), which is in need of some care and attention (Larne Council). He left in 1887 aged seventeen and emigrated to America where he worked as a journalist before studying law and languages at Georgetown University, Washington. In 1902 he was appointed to the Department of Justice in the Philippines and eventually became a Judge of the Supreme Court of America. He was also secretary of the American Committee for Relief in Ireland which was formed in 1921 and by 1922 had raised 5 million dollars for distribution here.
If you look out to sea from Ballygally you will see two islands and some skerries, they are known as The Maidens. The two islands had lighthouses built on them in 1829, today there is just one automated light. The islands are a favourite place for grey seals to colonise and also a thriving sea bird colony. The Maidens have claimed dozens of shipwreck over the centuries including the 4,000 ton SS Housatonic owned by Anglo-American Oil Co. of London. In 1908 she ran aground on Russell Rock, one of the distress rockets fell back on the ship and started a fire which resulted in an explosion, the loss of two crew and ship sinking. Another intriguing wreck was a 250 ton cutter reported as sunk by the London Chronicle in 1791, it was armed with 16 guns and engaged in smuggling luxury goods, the cargo consisted of 1400 chests of tea, 100 chests of silk and 60 ankers of spirits (1 anker is around 40 litres). The ship had come from Gothenburg .This was during the heyday of smuggling around the north coast. Thirty one of the crew of forty seven were saved. The report stated that two months before this the ship had fought off an HM Customs ship in the Bay of Benluce. The radical innovative teacher John Manson was born nearby at Cairncastle in 1762 and was one of Ireland's leading grammar writer's of the 18th century.