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.