Sunday 3 March 2013

En Route for the Giant's Causeway (1876)

The Grey Man's Path, Fair Head, Ballycastle
From 'Ireland: Historic and Picturesque' (1902)
The tourist proceeding round the north-east coast of Ireland, en route for the Giant's Causeway, should make the most of whatever enjoyment he may find in the early stages of his progress. A traveller who has reached the pleasant little seaside village of Cushendun by easy stages, each of which he may consider pleasanter and prettier than the preceding, naturally supposes that the improvement is likely to continue, and is apt to look forward to the Causeway as the grand climax to his travels through a country in which he expects to find the pretty and the picturesque gradually develop into the imposing and sublime.

Anyone setting out from Cushendun with anticipations of this kind will be the victim of a grievous disappointment, more especially if he should happen to be so unfortunate as to make one of a carload of explorers among whose impediments is a huge hip-bath wedged into the body of the car, with one of the handles so adjusted as to dig into his spine at every jolt of the cranky vehicle. If in addition to this trifling circumstance he should have taken the car starting late in the afternoon of a dull, bleak day, and should have sent on his travelling rug and portmanteau before him, he may very probably before getting far on his journey, find himself looking forward to the famous Causeway with something of the feelings of a weary pilgrim on his way to Mecca. At Cushendun the road strikes off from the coast and winds over a stretch of country which, on a dull autumn evening at all events, is unutterably dreary and depressing. A great part of the journey extends over a wild and barren heath, in which dark pools of water and curious fissures are spanned by diminutive bridges, each of which has been made to perpetuate the name of the engineer entrusted with so mighty a work. Only a few wild looking sheep are to be seen, and occasionally, perhaps, one or two quaint figures cutting out clumps of black peat; but for miles never a human habitation and never a tree. Even the unflagging spirits of the driver, a genuine "Pat," may well be insufficient to counteract the depressing influence of such scenery as the dusk draws on, and the wind becomes keen and cold, and the handle of that bath seems to grow sharper and to dig more viciously. But the rogue is indescribably droll, and gets as much fun out of that wretched old screw of his as many a less gifted mortal would be able to do with a whole menagerie. Pat will have it that it is absolutely necessary that we should hold on securely, or when his animal has "jist shook off a mighty braif fit o' the blue divils, he'll be off, and we'll all be afther being shot out and left behind." The fit of the blues, however, holds out as far as Ballycastle, and then the tourist finds a comfortable hotel, where he is glad to break the monotony of a dull and wearisome journey, for which he cannot doubt, after all that has been said about it, the Giant's Causeway will prove ample compensation. The drive into this little town is beneath a pretty avenue of trees, and under a bright sun it may look pleasant enough. But after a dull and tedious journey, and under a wet and stormy sky, Ballycastle is felt to be a rather uninviting little settlement, especially if one happens to be aware that the place is a kind of spent rocket-case -- a kind of exploded fisgig, which for a while had the dazzling reputation of being the most rising and prosperous town in Ireland, and then suddenly went out in doleful obscurity. Some 140 years ago one Hugh Boyd built a church here, and set up furnaces and foundries, and salt pans, and tanyards and breweries, and goodness only knows what beside; in short, "he constructed," says Mr. Hamilton, "a most excellent machine" -- a social machine, that is to say -- "but, unfortunately, left it without any permanent principle of motion," and in less than fifty years Ballycastle was all in decay, and even to this day presents ruins of factories and warehouses, and forsaken mine workings, and many other traces of well-meant, but misdirected enterprise. Rather an interesting place, therefore, is this town of Ballycastle for social economists; but tourists do not, as a rule, come out to such corners of creation for the study of social economy, and the great majority of those who wend their way thither will be infinitely more interested in the coast scenery which lies within an easy walk of the town. It is, indeed, rather vexatious to a traveller with limited time to know that between Cushendun and Ballycastle lie some of the most admired spots around the Irish coast, nearly all of which he has lost by the dull inland route of the car. The one supreme point of interest, however, is Fair Head, and this he may comfortably reach from Ballycastle in the course of a morning's walk, The bold grandeur of this headland has often been dilated on, but rarely exaggerated. The view of it from the base is very impressive, towering up as it does to an altitude of over 500 feet from the sea level, though its great height is somewhat obscured by the wild wreck at its feet. There is nothing of the kind, perhaps, in the British Isles more astonishing than the terrific chaos of rocks that have from time to time shattered down from the cliffs above, and now lie in heaps, which might indicate the spot where Milton's contending angels had made the --
      "Hills amid the air encounter hills
      Hurled to and fro with jaculation dire."

There is something, too, indescribably grand in the majestic roll of the Atlantic waves over this vast chaos of jagged rocks. It is easy to reach the summit of Fair Head, especially if, as it may possibly happen, the traveller finds his ins and outs the subject of growing interest on the part of a frisky little Irish bull, who bellows and climbs nimbly about the rocks just a little way below him. With or without such stimulant, however, the Head is not difficult of access, though the face of the cliff stands as perpendicular and almost as regular in form as the pillars before some Grecian temple. To look over the precipice from the summit is most frightful, and the majority of visitors will be content to peer down at the ocean through the Grey Man's path, a tremendous fissure in the cliff which, in the belief of many of the natives of Antrim, the "Grey Man" hewed for himself in a single night. If there is any spot around this part of the Irish coast which would seem to bear out a belief in sea kings, with giants in the retinue, it undoubtedly is just here. It is not merely the stupendous that one may find, however. Nothing in coast scenery can be much more enchanting, at least in some conditions of the atmosphere, than the scene through this crevasse, with the ocean -- the bluest of things green, the greenest of things blue -- down there m the dreary distance, with tiny vessels stealing hither and thither, leaving faint trails of white foam; sea birds skimming through the haze, now in shadow, and now flashing in the sunlight; and the dull, far-away murmur of the waves coming up like music from a world to which you do not belong. It is a very curious fact that right on the summit of this lofty head are one or two tolerably extensive lakes of fresh water, from one of which at times a small rivulet leaps down into the dreadful void overhanging that expanse of broken rocks. Fair Head is undoubtedly a very fine object in the coast scenery here; but comparatively few people rind their way to it. Even of those who "do" this corner of Ireland the great majority are allured by the fame of the Giant's Causeway, and miss this and a score of other most interesting features lying just a little out of the beaten track. -- Globe.

(This article was originally published in the Belfast Newsletter on 16 October 1876. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies ExtractsImage:

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