Towering high over Belfast on a rocky ledge at the top of the Cave Hill is the Iron Age fortification of McArt’s Fort. From this viewpoint the whole city and Belfast Lough can be surveyed. On a clear day you can even see the coast of Scotland.
Little remains of the ancient rath set on the basalt outcrop overlying deposits of white chalk formed 65 million years ago when the lava cooled. The flat stone surface measures 150ft north-south and 180ft east-west. It is protected on three sides by the sheer cliff faces and on the fourth by a man-made ditch. This ditch or fosse is 10ft deep and 25ft in width.
The fort’s exposed position and lack of water suggests it was never a permanent residence. However, at a height of 1,207ft above sea-level it was ideal for surveillance.
“The situation is not less picturesque than bold and commanding; nor could the most watchful enemy approach, either by sea or land, without attracting observation from its stern and towering summit”George Benn, History of the Town of Belfast, 1823
Origin of the McArt Name
The name McArt was popular in the O’Neill family, who long held this part of Ireland. The fort is believed to have been named for Brian McArt.
“The cliff is crowned by an extensive ancient fortification of earth-work, called MacArt’s Fort, from it having been one of the last strong-holds of Brian MacArt (O’Neil), who, with his sept, was exterminated by Lord Deputy Mountjoy, in the reign of Elizabeth”McComb’s Guide to Belfast, 1861
The Cave Hill (or ‘Cavehill’)
The hill itself, in past times, was known as Ben Madigan from the Gaelic “Beann Mhadagain” meaning Madigan’s Peak. It commemorated a ninth century king of Ulster, Madagan, who died in 856AD.
The hill, as with the surrounding uplands, has many archaeological sites, including Stone Age and Bronze Age ringforts and raths, a stone cashel (defensive circular structure) and a crannog (artificial island).
There are also the remains of ancient cairns. These are upright stones with a horizontal capstone laid on top. Usually these are seen as burial places and often urns with cremated human bones have been found within.
Cave Hill Treasures
Traditionally the Cave Hill cairn is said to mark the spot of a long-forgotten battle.
Tales of buried treasure hidden on the Cave Hill by the Vikings have long abounded. Many hopefuls have searched the hill, spade in hand.
“It is not gold scattered about in dust, or even in nuggets, which forms the object of the search, but gold compactly laid up in chests, deposited….upon the summit of the hill by the Danes in those days when they were compelled to make a hasty retreat from this part of the island”Rev W O’Hanlon 1852
The treasure chests were assumed by some to be protected by spells to prevent discovery. Rev O’Hanlon noted on visiting Sandy Row, for example, that the belief persists that “the chests still remain precisely where the Danes placed them, and these indefatigable Sandy Rowites are, at the present time, making inquiry, far and wide for the seventh son of a seventh son, gifted with second sight, and possessing the power, as the legends tell, to take off the spell which has for ages rested upon this gold“
Some of these adventurers must have been successful for at Sotheby’s on 20th December 1856, a portion of a silver armlet, possibly Viking ‘found at Cave Hill, Co Antrim’ was offered for sale (Ulster Journal of Archaeology 1983).
The Throne of the O’Neills
A crude stone chair found at McArt’s Fort was believed to have been an ancient throne of the O’Neill chieftains. It was comprised of 3 large stones and is sometimes referred to as the Giant’s Chair. The O’Neill throne was deliberately destroyed in 1896
“…this unique relic of the real Ulster’s ancient sovereign glory was rolled over the summit by some anti-Irish vandals and dashed to splinters at the base”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
To this day a number of sites on the Whitewell Road in the shadow of the Cave Hill commemorate the great chair eg the former Throne Hospital building and the Throne shopping development.
Note: The O’Neills Cave Hill throne should not be mistaken with the stone throne of the Castlereagh O’Neills which (after an eventful history) was acquired by and is on display in the Ulster Museum.
Origin of the Cave Hill Name
The modern name Cave Hill comes from the presence of 5 large caves, the topmost cavern consists of 3 connected chambers.
The caves face east to southeast and are regularly formed suggesting that they are man-made, possibly due to iron mining. The highest of the caves is also the largest and very difficult to access. It is said that in times of war, folk would use the caves as places of refuge.
History has it that the MacGilmore clan used these caves as their hide-out after being driven from their native lands. Under their chieftain Corby MacGilmore they lived the lives of outlaws, plundering monasteries and robbing the rich of Carrickfergus. One cave was used to store their booty and another was used as a smithy to forge weapons. The largest cave was used as a jail. The prisoners were hauled up by rope. The captives were told they were free to leave at any time by the ‘front door’ but not many attempted the dangerous descent.
“It is a fearful prison, methinks the dungeon itself were preferable. How horrible it must me to sit on that dizzy threshold, with the open world before you, and yet to feel that, one step back to life precipitates you into the abyss of death”Samuel Ferguson, Hibernian Nights’ Entertainment: Corby MacGilmore, 1887
The United Irishmen
The caves have great symbolic importance for the people of Belfast for it was here that the founders of the United Irishmen in June 1795, swore an oath to fight for political and religious freedom. Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken, Samuel Neilson, Henry Spiers and Thomas Russell pledged their loyalty to the radical cause.
“Belfast, then a growing place of less than 20,000 souls, lay under the gaze of the five companions, a town steeped in Republican sentiment and Radical thought, with its eyes firmly set on America and France, and as these patriots drew strength from that Radical faith of their fellows, they there and then took oath never to rest till Ireland was free. That they kept their oath, even unto death, is a matter of history”Richard Hayward, Belfast Through the Ages, 1952
The Devil’s Punchbowl and the Cave Hill Diamond
Another place of interest on the slopes of the Cave Hill is the Devil’s Punchbowl. This is a large semi-circular depression used by Celtic farmers to corral their cattle. George Benn tells us that in the nineteenth century the hollow was the scene of frantic digging when rumours of buried treasure at the old site swept the town. None was found.
One local treasure that was found in 1886 is the Cave Hill Diamond (see link in Related Posts below)
The Fairy Piper
A Cave Hill story that was new to us, comes from a poem written in 1740 by James Kirkpatrick M D. In this work, entitled The Sea Piece, Kirkpatrick refers to “Traditions hoary Legend” of a fairy piper on the hill whose music led folk in a trance into a magical cave never to be seen again.
“The gaping Mountain yawn’d, from Side to Side.
A hideous Cavern, darksome, deep and wide;
In skipt th’exulting Daemon piping loud,
With passive Joy succeeded by the Croud;
The Winding Cavern, trembling as he play’d,
With dreadful Echoes rung throughout its Shade;
Then firm, and instant, clos’d the greedy Wond.
Where wide-born Thousands met a common Tomb”.James Kirkpatrick, The Sea Piece, 1740
The Sleeping Giant
Seen from Belfast the rocky ridge of the Cave Hill resembles a giant profile. This has led to McArt’s Fort being commonly known as Napoleon’s Nose.
“… the people of Belfast have put upon it the name of that Corsican man-of-destiny”Richard Hayward Belfast Through the Ages 1952
It is believed that the author Jonathan Swift, when living in Kilroot, was inspired by this ‘human-like’ landscape resembling a sleeping giant to create his most famous work Gulliver’s Travels. (See Waring Street link in the Related Posts below).
In earlier times, the distinctive outline was referred to as The Sleeper
Look up from the streets of the city,
Look high beyond tower and mast,
What hand of what Titan sculptor,
Smote the crags on the mountain vast?
Made when the world was fashioned,
Meant with the world to last,
The glorious face of the sleeper,
That slumbers above Belfast.Alice Milligan (1865-1953)
Visiting the Cave Hill
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a day trip to the Cave Hill was a popular pastime.
On Sundays, usually the only free day for most workers, the slopes would be crowded with folk escaping the industrial smog of the city.
This was further enhanced in 1881 when a tramline ran from Chichester Park on the Antrim Road to Glengormley.
In 1924 the first bus route in Belfast ran from Donegall Square South to the Cavehill Road.
Most gatherings centred around the Volunteers Well reached by the steep lane known as the Sheep’s Pad. It was here that the Volunteers refreshed themselves after training on the Cave Hill in the early 1780’s.
Easter at the Cave Hill
It was also the traditional venue for Easter activities. Apparently, thousands of people would gather on the slopes of the Cave Hill, tents were pitched and stalls erected selling food and drink, including gingerbread dolls, cockles and mussels from Greencastle, pigs’ feet, and soda farls with wedges of butter.
“…All (the tents) were crowded with eaters and drinkers, revellers, dancers and gamesters. Dancing was the favourite pastime, reels, jigs, hornpipes, accompanied by fiddles, pipes and flutes …and there was a good run on the local poteen, for the Belfast mountains harboured many a still”F J Bigger, Belfast Telegraph, 31st March 1923
Games & Sports
Games and sports were played while the fitter would climb to McArt’s Fort.
“There is a custom, at least in most parts of this kingdom, of repairing on Easter Monday to some conspicuous or celebrated place, generally an old fort, for the avowed purpose of mirth and festivity. The good people of Belfast and the neighbouring county, are disposed to forego for one day the toils and cares of this busy world, have selected from time immemorial, the Cave hill as the scene of their convivial sports”George Benn, History of the Town of Belfast, 1823
Egg-rolling was a popular activity for children at Easter. These were hard-boiled eggs often decorated or dyed yellow with gorse petals and rolled down the slope. The owner of the first egg to reach the bottom was the winner.
Thomas Gaffikin suggests that the hill was a favoured place ‘to be seen’ wearing, of course, the latest fashions
“At this time the white duck trousers appeared to be indispensable for the Cave Hill on Easter Monday”Thomas Gaffikin, Belfast 50 Years Ago, 1875
On the eastern side of the Cave Hill is the Scottish baronial style Belfast Castle, with its formal grounds. This was built around 1868-1870 for the 3rd Marquess of Donegall (the Chichester family).
Today the castle houses a restaurant and visitors centre and is a popular venue for events and weddings. (see Belfast Castle post)
From the 1880’s the slopes of the Cave Hill, which were originally agricultural land, were planted with evergreen and deciduous trees, creating a naturalised woodland.
In 1934 Belfast Castle estate was passed to the City of Belfast by the 9th earl of Shaftesbury.
McArt’s Fort and the Cave Hill Today
This is just some of the history and folklore associated with the Cave Hill. There are other stories whispering of lost underground passages, fairy stones and restless ghosts, but those are tales for another day.
“McArt’s Fort or Napoleon’s Nose, is one of the glories of Belfast, actually lying within the city boundary, and it is one of the solid virtues of the Corporation that they have preserved this place, as well as all the glorious high land about it, for the free use of the citizens. No finer natural park than this whole elevated region could well be imagined”Richard Hayward, Belfast Through the Ages, 1952
Cave Hill Country Park
Today the site is a country park dedicated to the preservation of the natural area. There are walking and hiking trails of various length and difficulty. With every season the flora and fauna changes and delights. There is wildlife in abundance and unrivalled views from McArt’s Fort.
“From the summit of the Cave Hill, in favourable states of the atmosphere, views of great extent, beauty and variety……A number of rare wild plants are found on the hill and its neighbourhood. A large portion of the top, where the table-land slopes to the Northward, is in Summer covered with thyme, and the air is musical with the hum of bees”McComb’s Guide to Belfast, 1861
The Man who Walked up a Hill and Came Down Exhausted
There any many signposted walks around the Cave Hill country park of various levels of length & difficulty. Many walks will prove a challenge to the older or unfit.
Even the shortest walk to McArt’s Fort from the Upper Hightown Road car park involves a 30 minute uphill walk on an uneven gravel path. It is a beautiful, recommended walk if you feel fit enough but take it at your own pace, have a break on the way up if needed and be prepared for the weather. (A bottle of water would’ve been welcome on the day of our visit).
Cave Hill Country Park, Antrim Road, Belfast BT5 5GR
Tel: 028 90776925
Nora’s Grave – A True Story of Love & Death
Waring Street Belfast – From Early days to the Merchant Hotel
Belfast Castle, Cave Hill, Belfast
The Cave Hill Diamond
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Victor Strahan · 22 August 2022 at 12:24 am
Just wanted to thank you for your N.I. website which I use to keep informed of “events and people in Norn Iron” which I left with my wife and children some years ago. THANK YOU for keeping me “Up to date !!~! Vic
P&P · 22 August 2022 at 9:02 am
Thank you Victor