Monday, 4 October 2010

The Gobbins Cliffs

The Gobbins cliffs in Islandmagee run almost continuously between the sea-ports of Whitehead and Portmuck, so that these two tiny harbours were the only places the cattle trade from Dalway's Bawn to Scotland could operate from. This 100-year old romantic painting of the Gobbins does not capture the terror which these cliffs held for me as a young boy. There were sea caves that could only be explored by boat, and I remember being taken in a local fishing boat from Boneybefore - the only time I ever saw those caves up close.

In the 1960s we could still walk along parts of a cliff path from the Whitehead end, but the footbridges had collapsed before the stretch where the caves were.

The Gobbins path was built as a tourist attraction for visitors traveling from Belfast to Whitehead on the newly constructed railway in the late 1800s. It was a marvel of engineering with iron suspension bridges giving spectacular access.

As a boy, we could actually 'tight-rope' walk across some of the remaining girders, until the whole path was closed off for safety reasons in 1961.

But the real terror for me was when we would walk along the cliff tops. I had - and still have - a fear of heights, but the Boneybefore boys were intent on adding seagulls eggs to our collection. Egg-collecting is of course illegal and regarded as 'bad behaviour' now. But we thought it was only bad if you ignored the 'one-egg-only-per-nest' rule.

It was the other lads who went down the cliff, not me! But that wasn't because of any scruples I might have had about egg-collecting. The last time we tried it my friends got stuck half-way down, and called up above to me to go and get a rope from a farm. So off I went to the nearest farm across a few fields as fast as my trembling legs could take me. The two men in the farmyard just shrugged their shoulders as if a cow had got out of the field again, lifted two ropes hanging ready, and effected a rescue. Hardly a word was spoken, even back at the farmhouse where we were given a cup of tea. "Ye'll stick to the road in future then?" the older man said. "Ay", I said, and meant it.


  1. Interesting scenery. Good story.

  2. Wow! Those are quite the cliffs. Would you guess them to be about 200 feet high? That would make them about as high as the cliffs at Dun Aengus on Inishmore in the Aran Islands. These were terrifying to me, and gave my wife bad dreams. Perhaps the Cliffs of Moher are about the same height. In North America there would be guardrails the whole way, I suppose :) Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy has similar cliffs on its western side, I've been told.

  3. That hundred year old painting of the sail boat,is indeed romantic and almost ethereal. Those caves you could only get to by the sea, I hope no-one ventures inside. How terrifying should the tide rise. I myself am also frightened of heights and I am sure that suspension bridge would shake when you walk across.I would rather look from a safe distance than sway precariousley. Lovely old world photos, and great knowledge.
    Bless you Phillip.

  4. You probably see a bit more of this on your side of the pond, Phil, but I found the post below interesting:

  5. Thanks Gorges for this link. It is fascinating, and once I got my head around the fact that it is New England, Australia! Boy would I have loved that stuff when I was younger (and single). Lots to browse around at my leisure - but how does 'Woodrunner' manage to have lived in the woods for 30 years, without a TV, and do such professional blogs?

  6. Gary, The Gobbins cliffs aren't as high as the cliffs of Moher - I'm not sure how high, but big enough to scare the living daylights out of me!
    There is no public access to the cliff tops - hence the lack of rails or notices, you had to walk across farm fields and get through the post and wire fence about 20ft back from the edge, and then walk along that. The fence posts (wooden) were what our farm-hand 'rescuers' tied their ropes to as I kept my eyes glued to the post rather than on their progress down the cliff!
    There is a lobby group trying to get the cliff path restored and reopened, but a much stronger bird protection lobby group wanting to keep it man-free.

  7. Crystal Mary,
    There are bigger cliffs on the North Antrim coast (about 40 miles north) and there is a tourist attraction called the "Carrick-a-rede Rope Bridge", which really does sway as you cross it. Young lads love to wait until there are girls about half-way across and start to shake it. This is one tourist attraction to be avoided at all costs!

  8. Oh those naughty would hear me scream my head off...
    I read up on William 111 who tripped in a mole hole. It said he fractured his shoulder and died a few days later with pneumonia..probably very painful. I saw photos of him with his thin face and long curly hair which may have been a wig? very interesting.
    I love reading old grave stones also because they contain so much interesting information.