Letter to the editor of the Dublin Penny Journal 1833

BURT CASTLE, COUNTY DONEGAL.

     Whoever has visited Lough Swilly has seen and admired the romantic tower-capped promontory on its southern shore, distinguished by the name of Castlehill. The last time I entered the singular edifice from which the hill is named, was in company with an esteemed friend; the weather was delightful serene, and the surrounding scenery, with mountain and valley, water and woodland, brightened by the mellow radiance of a July eve, was such as in a dream of music might have been conjured up before the mind’s eye of Poussin or Claude Lorraine. The hill is conical, and may be seen from an immense distance, as it rises nearly seven hundred feet above the level of the sea. Having climbed this ascent, and passed over a fosse of extraordinary dimensions, which must have been accessible only by means of a draw bridge, you enter the outer area, and pause a moment to contemplate the venerable pile. It is a quadrangular structure, with circular towers at its alternate angles, and was evidently a place of some strength, as there are many embrasures for cannon, and the walls are from four to five feet in thickness, while the merions of blue purheck stone are perforated for musquetry. You enter, by a ruined archway, what was once the great hall – once, perhaps, the scene of feudal splendor, garnished with the trophies of warfare or the chase, and resounding with the revelry of wine and wassail. The vaulted ceilings of this, and all other apartments immediately above it, have fallen in, rendering the chambers of the northern tower inaccessible, except by means of ladders. Turning to the left, you ascend by a spiral stone stair, at each winding of which there is a circular room, lighted by a few embrasures, and vaulted with stone, for no wood has ever been used in any part of the building. There is a breach in the casement wall of the third story, where persons of sensitive nerves usually pause.

Having reached the top, you perceive that what you mistook for the roof is only the floor of another range of apartments, for two more stories formerly rose majestically from what is now the top; these, as well as the eastern front, were probably much injured in the storming of the place, which followed the attainder of its last proprietor, as a shattered bomb, of about nineteen pounds weight, was found a few years since the ruins, and another portion was thrown down, to furnish materials for building, by a rustic vandal, who was only deterred from his work of dilapidation by the tasteful and spirited interference of the late Earl of Wicklow. Another turret, of eighteen feet high, from which the banner of the chieftain flaunted, or his beacon watchfire fling its lurid gleam upon the night, was overturned, in the summer of 1825, by a thunder storm. Up to that period Burt Castle was sixty feet in height, at present it is only forty-two. From the top the prospect is uncommonly grand and expansive, extending over a space of not less than fifty miles by thirty-seven. Within the circuit of five miles from its base, stood the ruins of several religious edifices, besides another castle at Rathmelton, one at Drumbuoy, and one at Castleforward; but the castles at Inch and Ailagh, with Burt Castle, were border fortresses of “the O’Doherty,” the strength of which availed more than the justice of the tenure in preserving their patrimonial territories to the chieftains of that noble house. Of these Ailagh, situated within three miles of Derry, was by far the most ancient and important, a sketch of which, and of the Abbey of Killydonell, I reserve for a future communication.

Burt Castle was most probably erected during the commotions that ensued during the vice-royalty of Kildare, in the reign of Henry VIII. A medallion of that date, with the armorial bearings of “the O’Doherty,” and a coin dated from the accession of Edward VI., have been found in its vicinage; the latter is now in the possession of the Rev. James Conegland, of Ballyscullin, in the County of Derry.

In the year 1318 we find the chieftain of Ennishowen affianced to the daughter of the grand northern dynast, O’Neil, as a reward for his services during the invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce. Again we find the name of O’Doherty in the list of those chieftains who perished at the battle of Knoctore, in 1492. Thenceforward there is little mention of that family, till Sir John began, in the reign of Edward VI., to offer resistance to the measures of the English government as determined as it was unavailing; and dying, he bequeathed his estates and his misfortunes to his son and successor, Sir Cahir, who saw the impending ruin of his house, and vainly laboured to avert its fall. His estates were confiscated in 1608, and he went down, after a fearful and unequal contest, like a stately bark, foundering amid whirlpools and quicksands; and many a tear bewailed his doom, but not one hand recorded his expiring struggle. Of the particulars of his death there are many conflicting traditional narratives, one of which nearly corresponds with that given in your seventh number.

This is a neighbourhood rich in historical associations. About a mile distant lies the Canon Isle, once the site of a monastic establishment, and, till of late years, a cemetery; and two miles from hence, in a deer park, is a druidical cromlech, from which an urn has been lately extracted – but of this hereafter. These, with edifices I have enumerated, present a scene than which Glendalough or Lindisfarne scarcely furnish a richer field for the historian or the antiquary.

I love to contemplate these hoary fragments of feudal towers – these mouldering monuments of days gone by. Whatever flings the mind forward to futurity, or makes it revert to “the deeds of days of other years”, improves at once the understanding and the heart. “That man,” says Johnson, “is not much to be envied for his stoicism, whose patriotism would not be warmed upon the field of marathon, or his piety exalted and inflamed amid the ruins of Iona.” The elevated situation of Burt Castle prevent ivy , or other perennial plants, from growing around it; the wind hums dolefully through its vaulted chambers and ruined portals; and not all the æolians in the universe could abstract the mind for contemplation, or so mould it for moody melancholy.

The view of Derry, which is only seven miles distant, is partially obscured by the lofty hill of Grynan; on the top of which, nearly one thousand feet above the level of the sea, stands an ancient temple of the sun – perhaps the most complete in the kingdom, resembling in shape the old Roman amphitheatre. It is built of flag, and limestone, seems uninjured by time, and interspersed with pieces of quartz. The wall of white stone is about one hundred and eighty yards in circumference, and contains a subterranean passage of the same length. What were the superstitious rites performed here, it were vain to conjecture – why it was built on a site so inaccessible, it were folly to inquire – what reason did not dictate, reason never can explain. This we know, on the occurring testimonies of Keating, Vallancey, and O’Connor, that the Phoenicians and Celts brought into this country the sun worship of their own.

This was undoubtedly one of their temples, and the very etymology of its name strongly corroborates the opinion, for the Celtic name of the sun is GRYAN, and ANE is a temple ; similar names have been given to other places dedicated to the same divinity. Strabo, confirmed by
Pausanius, mentions a grynium at Eolis, and describes it as a temple and grove of Apollo (or the sun.) Eupherion of Chalais, writing on the origin of oracles, describes a circular grynium, sacred to Apollo. So Virgil, in his sixth bucolic—

” His tibi Grynai nemoris dicatur origo
Ne quis sit lucus, quo se plus jactet Apollo.”

   What a train of awful reflections presses on the mind while contemplating this time-defying structure. In truth, it is a homily of fine moralities. The mind seems to shrink within itself, and shudders with instinctive awe as we cast a retrospective glance up the tide of life that has rolled by into eternity. How forcibly does it remind us of our fleeting and ephemeral mortality. This ancient ruin—compared with its duration how transitory is our own. Erected at a period antecedent to the time of Confucius or Lycurgus, or his greater cotemporary, Ollamh Fodhla, it has survived the system of its founders, as well as the more mysterious and sanguinary rites of druidism. It has outlived the rise, the glory, and the decline, of the Greek, and Persian, and Roman empires. It has witnessed the rise and progress of Christianity— the feudal system—the impostures of the Koran—the extension and the decay of the empire of Charlemagne—the age of chivalry—the invention of printing, and consequent revival of modern literature. More antique than Stonehenge or Palmyra, and, perhaps, coeval with the mounds of Tartary, or the labyrinths of upper Egypt. The dark blue vapor that, while I write, sweeps around this rocky turban of the hill, and shrouds it from my view, is not more impervious to mortal vision than the sombre mists of time that will for ever veil the period of its rise from the scrutiny of the antiquarian.

Peter McLoughlin.

Castleforward.

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