Monday, 1 November 2010

Whitehead and Islandmagee: The Eslers in control of the end of the cattle trail

Whitehead is a quiet sea-side town, just a short hop on the train from Carrickfergus towards Larne. The road 'East of Eden' to Larne goes past the back of the town too, but it is a bit of a push on the bike as the road climbs over the high headland of "Whitehead" at a place called the "Blaa Hole", then down a very steep side road into the town.
The Blaa Hole
(blow-hole) was, as the name suggests, a bit of a wind tunnel. I remember my dad wakening me up to show me his first car that he had brought home the night before. He took me a run to Whitehead and back before school, and, coming through the Blaa Hole, the bonnet flew up and covered the view out the windscreen. So I had good reason to remember the reason behind the name - for the sea was a terrifying 200 feet below when we finally stopped against the stone wall!

The view looking down on the town from the Blaa Hole shows the promenade, an open-air swimming pool and the small quay at the far end of the bay. This residential town I remember being full of "oldies" (retired senior citizens), and as a place where our parents took us for walks along the shore to Blackhead lighthouse on the far headland.

But as boys we sometimes walked to Whitehead along the railway track, past Jonathan Swift's "Round House" at Kilroot, and along the coast to the White Harbour, underneath the Blaa Hole. This was a hidden world with a limestone quarry on the landward side of the railway track, and the derelict White Harbour (it was silted up then)on the other. It was built of massive cut white limestone blocks, and was once used to export the limestone. It was such a marvel to us that our walks to Whitehead often never got past this point.

The railway tracks separated here, with a single track hugging the coast, and the Whitehead-bound track cutting through the headland into a short tunnel which still emerges immediately into the town. The two tracks converge before reaching the period railway station in Whitehead, surviving much as it was when it was built in 1877.

Whitehead is the gateway to the peninsula of Islandmagee. It is a Victorian sea-side "railway town", and when the station was opened, it became a tourist haven for day-trippers from Belfast, especially those wanting to visit the Gobbins Cliff Path in Islandmagee by connecting jaunting car, or the nearby Blackhead lighthouse with its similar but less daunting cliff walks.
This earlier view of Whitehead from the Blaa Hole about 1900 is deceptive. It gives the impression of a long-established settlement, but in fact the oldest buildings visible are the Customs Houses in the middle foreground with the square Watch-tower at the far end. This Customs Station was built just before the railway about 1850. The map of the townland of Whitehead in 1860 tells a very different story as far as the age of the town is concerned.

Here, in 1860, we see the railway line completed but no station built as yet, and there is no town whatsoever. The entire area of the present town, from the coast to the main Larne road, was a 100-acre farm in the hands of William and David Esler (spelled Essler in the 1860 land valuation). This included the Coastguard Buildings which were leased from this farm and the significance of these Eslers to the running of the Antrim cattle drove trails to Scotland has already been described in an earlier post ("The Big Picture: Eslers and the 'Scotch' Cattle Drove Roads of mid Antrim", August 2010). The fact that they were landlords for the Whitehead Customs buildings at this port at the end of the Dalway's Bawn Cattle Trail is quite staggering! But, as we shall see, the Esler control was even more decisive in Islandmagee proper.

The two tiny ports of Whitehead and Portmuck that link the end of the east Antrim Cattle Trail with the main Scottish Drove Roads were effectively "twinned" from the 16th century down to the 1850s. Each had an Elizabethan "castle" maintained and garrisoned from Carrickfergus - not for defence, but to control the customs duties due from trade with Scotland. These subsidiary "creeks" as they were called in the 17th century were a constant headache for the main port of Carrickfergus, and so the Customs stations at Portmuck and Whitehead were their direct descendants.
Castle Chichester in Whitehead is the only pre-Victorian building in the town (its shared history with Portmuck Castle is also described in previous posts).

Whitehead was one of two tiny ports marking the end of the east Antrim Cattle trail. The trail splits behind Muldersleigh Hill north of Whitehead, the hill whose coastal headland is the location of Blackhead lighthouse. I have added to a contextual map of Islandmagee and Whitehead not only the route of the end of the Cattle Trail, but also the location of the Islandmagee farms of Patrick and Andrew Esler in 1860 siuated side by side between the Gobbins Road to Portmuck and a small break in the Gobbins cliffs called "Heddle's Port".

The Eslers' farms in Islandmagee were mostly in the townland of Balloo, about midway along the Gobbins coast, and a few hours cattle drove from Portmuck. Unlike the Eslers at Whitehead, they had no interest in the port itself, and maybe had good reason to be just out of immediate sight of the Customs Station there. Smuggling was of course, illegal, but when it involved simply the occasional avoidance of duty payments for horses being landed or cattle being shipped out to Scotland, it was not as rigorously pursued as the illicit trade in spirits and tobacco. A row of thatched cottages at the end of Sally Kane's Loanen on Patrick Esler's farm in Balloo was called "Caleery-town". According to the local historian Dixon Donaldson writing in the 1920s, this name was given because it was a popular rendezvous for the "young bloods" of the neighbourhood. Dixon Donaldson also wrote that there were smugglers caves along the Gobbins. One near Portmuck "... is called the Horse Cave where it is said stolen horses were hidden until transferred to smuggling vessels for transportation." Another cave, long forgotten, was discovered by two boys on the farm of Mr. Esler's "... on the face of the heughs above Heddle's Port. A rope and candles were procured ..." and the boys discovered the remains of barrels and other contraband. (Every time I read this, I think of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn!)
If, as seems likely, the "Esslers" of Islandmagee, Whitehead and Dalway's Bawn were all related, it is the Islandmagee farm which seems to be the earliest settlement. A local graveyard near Balloo has all the known Esler graves, some going back to the early 1800s and apparently including an "Uncle David" Esler of Whitehead.

These 'East of Eden' Chronicles have stumbled on many connections with famous writers such as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. And there are others still to be met with. But just now, for reasons which will soon become obvious, I must bring the modern crime writer Adrian McKinty into the story. He was born and raised in Carrickfergus, only a stone's throw away from Boneybefore, although he has lived for most of his writing career in America and Australia. Adrian McKinty is best known as a writer of crime and mystery novels such as the award-winning "Fifty Grand", or the one I first discovered, "Hidden River".
I was outside a shop in the south of England, impatiently waiting for my wife and browsing through some books for sale. American crime novels are not usually my scene, but the author's name (McKinty) caught my attention: a Les McKinty lived nearby to Boneybefore when I was a boy, and he cycled to work every day to Castle Dobbs where he worked on the Dobbs' estate. His sons were in the Star of Eden Pipe Band, so imagine my surprise when I flicked open the first page and found that the American detective in the story was originally from Carrickfergus! Eagerly reading whatever else of McKinty's books I could get hold of, I found that I actually liked these crime novels anyway. But the bonus was that several of his books have really strong local associations: "Orange Rhymes with Everything" is set in Carrickfergus, and "The Lighthouse Land" in Islandmagee.
In fact, the main setting of "The Lighthouse Land" is Portmuck, or to be precise Muck Isle. The book is the first of three in the Lighthouse Trilogy of "young adult sci-fantasy novels" - different from the decidedly adult crime novels. A young American boy, Jamie O'Neill, inherits the small isle of Muck through a previously unknown descent from the Elizabethan Clandeboy O'Neills - and travels to take up his new life across the causeway on the island:
"But the island has a secret, locked in the top of its ancient lighthouse ... Discovering the secret will send him on an interstellar mission that could change the course of his life, and the universe, forever."
The story is well worth reading, even as an adult, but I can't resist being parochial in my enthusiasm. The area around Portmuck is described vividly as Jamie makes local friends and travels daily to school in Carrickfergus. So too is Muck Isle, apart from the obvious fact that the real Muck Isle doesn't have a lighthouse.
That is where Blackhead Lighthouse at Whitehead comes in. Adrian McKinty has cleverly brought the two together in a way that almost makes me expext to see Blackhead lighthouse on Muck Isle when I go down the steep road to Portmuck. He still has family connections in Whitehead and Carrickfergus, but the McKinty roots are firmly grounded in the Islandmagee - Magheramorne area. I almost expect to find some of them along with the Eslers as I explore and re-trace the historical path of the old Dalway cattle trail from Ballynure to Portmuck and Whitehead.