Just a few minutes’ walk from the popular seaside town of Ballycastle in County Antrim, sits the remains of a fifteenth century friary. Set amidst a golf course (!) the ruined church and graveyard tell the stories of rival clans, battles, priceless manuscripts, buried treasure and, of course, a ghost!
The original name Bun-na-Mairgie comes from the old river Mairgie, which is formed when the rivers Carey and Shesk meet at Drumahammond Bridge.
An ancient market was held here, in the parish of Culfeightrin. This eventually developed into the town of Ballycastle. The Bay of Ballycastle was once known as Mairge-town.
This small Franciscan friary was established in 1485 by Rory McQuillan. The McQuillan’s were known as Lords of the Route. The Route (‘An Ruta’) was territory on the north-eastern coast of Ireland. It stretched from Coleraine to Ballycastle and formed part of the ancient kingdom of Dal Riada.
It is possible that an earlier religious foundation was already on the site. There is a reference to a priory dedicated to the ‘Honour of God and the Virgin’ founded in 1202 by William de Burgh around the same spot.
“The situation of Bona-Marga is strikingly romantic. Though the adjacent county is now destitute of the luxuriant woods by which the monastery is said to have been formerly surrounded, the site was admirably chosen for religious meditation, and shows that a taste for the magnificence of nature was not unfelt even in the barbarous and turbulent period of its foundation”Dublin Penny Journal 6th April 1833
Bonamargy and the MacDonnells
In 1588 Bonamargy was captured and taken over by the rival clan of the MacDonnells. They used the location as a family burying ground. A special closed vault contains the remains of several Earls of Ulster and the famous chieftain Sorley Boy MacDonnell.
Sorley Boy MacDonnell – A Brief History
Sorley Boy (Somhairle Buidhe) was the youngest son of the Lord of Islay and Kintyre, Alexander MacDonnell, and Catherine, the daughter of Lord Ardnamurchan in Scotland. He was born in 1505 at Dunaynie Fort near Ballycastle. The Macdonnells were a strong force in north Antrim due to a marriage alliance with the Bissets of the Antrim Glens (otherwise known as the Glynns).
Sorley Boy spent a lifetime negotiating and retracting treaties with the rival clans of the O’Neills and the McQuillans while also trying to survive the incursions of the English. After bloody battles at Bonamargy and Glenshesk, Sorley Boy drove the McQuillans from the Route, aided by his Scottish ‘redshanks’.
However, Sorley Boy, the MacDonnell chieftain, was defeated by Shane O’Neill (his brother-in-law) in 1564 near Coleraine and taken prisoner. After Shane’s death at Cushendun in 1567, Sorley Boy managed to recapture the Glynns and re-establish his power in the Route.
Following the massacre of his entire family on Rathlin Island by the English, Sorley Boy submitted to Elizabeth I’s representative, John Perrott and was ‘regranted’ his own lands.
“In 1575 the earl of Essex, finding out that the women and children of the MacDonnells had been sent to the island of Rachrai [Rathlin] for safety, despatched ships under Norris, who burned and slaughtered all upon the island. The proud English earl thought this a fair return for the defeats inflicted upon him in the open field”Friary of Bon-na-Margie by Ardrigh 1908
In 1584, English troops, under the leadership of the Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrott, were stationed in the friary. This was part of Elizabeth I’s plan to extinguish the power of the MacDonnell’s in Ireland.
However, in a surprise attack, the MacDonnell’s defeated the English troops. In the course of the action, the thatch on the church caught fire and the whole friary was badly damaged.
Sorley Boy ultimately died in 1590 in the same castle in which he was born. His earthly remains now enclosed in the Antrim Vault at Bonamargy.
The Fate of Bonamargy Friary
The friary was rebuilt and continued to be a place of worship. The Franciscan friars who lived in this community were ‘tertiaries’, that is, from the 3rd order of St Francis. For the most part they were lay preachers and teachers, plus some ordained brothers.
The last recorded religious ceremony held at Bonamargy was at All Hallows in 1639. At this event 700 Highland Scots were confirmed by the Franciscan Dr Bonaventure Magennis. These men were refugees, escaping religious persecution from the Scottish Covenanters.
The wars of the 1640’s, which saw the destruction of so many holy places are thought to have led to Bonamargy’s downfall.
The Bonamargy Ruins
At the entrance to the friary complex, is a small 2-storey gatehouse. This contained a store and workroom. A stone staircase led to sleeping accommodation on the first floor. The building has a chimney and fireplace and was probably used as a guesthouse. All the buildings are constructed of Ballycastle sandstone infilled with rubble and small stones, only the thatched roofs have disappeared.
The church itself, is rectangular and about 100ft long by 24.5ft wide. There are windows on three sides. The east window is particularly impressive. It was erected in 1621 by Alice MacDonnell, the first countess of Antrim. The entrance door is on the south wall. There were no openings on the northern gable, this is quite usual as a protection from cold northern winds. The remains of the altar and staircase are still visible.
At right angles to the northern side are the domestic rooms – kitchens, dining room and dormitory. The cloister stood in the angle between the north wall and the west wall of the refectory. It was a wooden structure, so nothing remains.
In line with these to the southern transept is The Antrin Vault and mortuary chapel. Here were laid to rest the mighty of the MacDonnell family. The dark, dank chamber is now sealed with a metal door.
“The whole place literally heaves with MacDonnell dust, the chieftains having found a last retreat in a very gloomy vault, while the humbler members of the clan sleep around in the sunshine of the open cemetery”Rev George Hill Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol 8 1860
The Black Nun
Only one McQuillan was ever buried in this MacDonnell stronghold, and that was seventeenth century Julia McQuillan. She is better known locally as the Black Nun.
Julia was said to be a prophetess and mystic. She was a descendant from the ruling McQuillan clan. In her youth she was “reported to have inherited the personal lineaments (appearance & characteristics), as well as the reckless pride and extravagance of her race”. However, in later life, perhaps as penance, she lived a reclusive life among the ruins of Bonamargy.
“…this Abbey was for many years inhabited by a woman of extraordinary piety, called Sheelah Dubh ni Vilore, or Black Julia McQuillan, but better known by the name ‘the Black Nun of Bona Margy’. She is said to have spent her time in the constant exercise of the most austere devotions, and to have possessed a wonderful knowledge of future events. Many of her predictions are believed to have been verified, and even yet some of them are alleged to be in the course of fulfilment”Samuel McSkimin 1833
Whether her prophecies were accurate is a matter of conjecture. In one she claimed to see the waters of the nearby Tow River turn red. For some believers this came true, two centuries later when an unfortunate workman fell into the river and was sucked up into the water wheel. The River Tow ran red with his blood.
Another prophecy was that the standing stones at Barnish and Carnduff would one day stand side-by-side. The fact that in ancient times these sacred stones were located four miles apart seemed to make this impossible. However, when Ballycastle harbour was being constructed the two stones were transported and stood together!
When Julia died, her request was to be buried at the entrance to the church. This was seen as a final act of humility, as anyone entering the building would have to walk on her bones. She also wished her body to be removed from the coffin before interment so that it could be given to some poor family for a deceased relative.
A stone marker with a central hole, marks the spot of her grave. It may originally have been a Celtic Cross, which has eroded over time.
“The peasantry, who speak of her almost as vividly as of an acquaintance who had died last year, do not seem to have ever puzzled themselves about the ‘time when’ she lived. Dates with them are matters of no importance. What is past is past, but how long, they do not care to inquire”Rev George Hill, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol 8 1860
Julia’s Death and Ghostly Sightings
However, it is the manner of Julia’s passing that has caused controversy. One story is that the hermit, in her long gown, simply had an accident on the stone steps and fell to her death. This was supposed to have happened on the 13th step. Even today it is said to be unlucky to stand on this step. When viewing the flight of stairs, it is noticeable that the 13th tread is less well-worn than the others, as visitors skipped this step to avoid misfortune. The staircase is now closed off for safety reasons.
Another theory is that poor Julia was hit by a falling rock. Bonamargy was in ruins when she inhabited it. Hence this would seem a plausible, if mundane explanation… supported by an incident that happened fairly recently.
A photographer was taking a picture of Julia’s gravestone, when a visiting family walked into shot. They apologised and ducked into a dark chamber to be out of view. Suddenly a loud rumbling noise was heard and the family raced out into the daylight in obvious distress. The family, parents and two teenage boys, had narrowly missed being hit by a large boulder. The rock had fallen with great force and lay shattered on the earthen floor. The incident was reported to the police and heritage authorities, as it was feared the whole chamber was about to collapse. On investigation however, it was discovered that the rock had not fallen from the ceiling but had come from a side wall “as if pushed from behind”!!! Could a similar spooky event have been the cause of Julia’s death!?!
A third claim is that Julia was murdered while she sat at an upstairs window. This is said to explain why her ghost still haunts the friary. Numerous folk have witnessed a female form in a long black robe flit among the headstones. Others believe they have seen her face looking from an upstairs window. Such stories have attracted those interested in the supernatural. One such group set up a ‘spirit box’ at the gate to Bonamargy and called out to Julia. Reputedly a woman’s voice was recorded saying “I was killed!”
However, those who have reported seeing the spectral Black Nun, all claim that the experience was peaceful and that they felt a sense of serenity and well-being both during and after the ghostly visitation.
The Bonamargy Manuscripts
In 1822, while repairs were being carried out, a large oak chest was discovered in the friary. This contained four manuscripts dating from 1338 – 1380. One was entitled ‘St Bonaventure’s Life of Christ’. It was a handwritten English translation in 35 double-columned pages. The capital letters of each section were penned in gold and surrounded by brightly painted flowers. Another tome was written in Latin on vellum and was the theological writings of St Aquinas.
It is believed that the ancient documents originally belonged to the Monastery of St Anthony in Amiens, France and had been removed to the remote Bonamargy for safekeeping.
“It is certainly the finest specimen of penmanship we have ever seen, and the ink is superior in brilliancy and intenseness of colour to any at present manufactured in Europe”Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1822
The manuscript was sold by Mrs F Boyd of the Manor House Ballycastle to the British Museum in April 1887. (See = Friends of Bally Castle Museum)
Victims of the Viknor
Within Bonamargy graveyard is a monument marking the graves of 6 men who lost their lives with the sinking of the Viknor in 1915. Their bodies washed ashore on the nearby beach.
The steamer, built in 1888, had been part of the Viking Cruising Company, but had been commissioned to the 10th Cruiser Squadron during the First World War.
It is believed the ship hit a mine somewhere off Tory Island on 13th January 1915. No distress signal was received. All 294 lives were lost.
Local tradition claims that the friars of Bonamargy, in fear of imminent attack, buried a box containing relics and precious objects out of harm’s way. The location of the treasure chest is said to be where the furthest rays of light reach from the altar lamp in the east window. This would put the hidden valuables near a large rock embedded in the sand above the high-water mark.
In 1851 at about the same place, an intricately carved key, overlaid with gold was discovered. While in 1859, after heavy rains, a round silver box (reliquary) was found on the shore near Bonamargy. Also, some old book covers and fragments of crosses.
In the early twentieth century a gold rod made of 3 twisted strands and measuring 38 inches was discovered in a nearby stream. However, to date, the main treasures of Bonamargy friary, still lie lost and forgotten.
In the early 1930’s, the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society carried out work within the friary. Bonamargy is the only Franciscan foundation to have survived in the north of Ireland.
“In the fertile plain, spreading from the foothills of Knocklayde to the sandy beach of Ballycastle Bay, amid surroundings of incomparable beauty, stands the picturesque ruin of the Franciscan friary of Bun-na-Mairgie. Its appearance has been greatly enhanced in recent years, not only by the important work of restoration so admirably carried out by the archaeological section of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1931, but by the fact – hardly less important- that the friary is now entirely surrounded by a portion of Ballycastle Golf Course. Viewed from Glenshesk road, the general effect of the ruins, set in the midst of an undulating green sward, is most pleasing”Irish News 20th June 1956
Bonamargy is a beautiful peaceful spot, a place of calm away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. It is a15 minute walk from Ballycastle beach and is open daily and is free to enter. (Car parking is very limited). The fact that the graveyard is still in use, gives a real sense of connection with the past. We are a continuation of history.
“Certainly its original builder selected a picturesque and appropriate position for the religious foundation. Though the sound of saintly prayer and praise may no longer be heard within its walls, yet the friary stands as a silent witness to things unseen and eternal”Hugh A Boyd 1968
James Haddock – The Ghost Who Gave Evidence in Court
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Valerie Alghanim · 11 May 2022 at 6:03 am
Found this so interesting. I vaguely remember visiting this when I was a child.. looking forward to more articles…
P&P · 11 May 2022 at 6:19 pm
Thank you. We try to cover a range of subjects but have recently added a fee Antrim Coast-related subjects.