August 18th - Islandmagee and surrounding area Archaeology.

The picturesque small fishing harbour of Portmuck can trace its origins to a medieval grange owned by Inch Abbey in County Down. The site of a medieval church, known as Portmuck Abbey, is located in the ‘Kirk Field’, a small way inland from the harbour. The first firm reference to this church dates to the early 14th century (1306), however there is evidence to suggest that it sits on the site of an earlier ecclesiastical site dating perhaps to the 6th or 7th century.

Portmuck Abbey (NISMR Ref: Ant 041:004)

The Kirk Field contains no remaining above ground traces of this medieval church; however portions of the east gable stood into the 19th century when there are descriptions of the field being improved and the foundations cleared away. They were recorded to be some 60 feet long and 20 feet wide.

We know archaeological remains of the church continue to survive beneath the ground due to the results of a geophysical survey of the field in 2001 which showed the outlines of several buildings, including the church itself, a precinct wall enclosing the church and graveyard, and a network of trackways.

Around the church and graveyard traces of medieval settlement have been found, both shown on the geophysical survey and discovered during excavations in advance of an electricity interconnector trench being dug in the southern end of the Kirk Field in 2000. This excavation revealed several buildings, probably byre-houses of the local medieval peasants, along with mettled tracks and rubbish pits. It seems the area from the Kirk Field to the harbour was a nucleus of medieval settlement activity. Interestingly the locals were using pottery fired at the medieval kiln in Carrickfergus.

An excavation at the north-eastern edge of the Kirk Field in 2001 uncovered 64 burials from the church cemetery. Radiocarbon dates indicate that the earliest burials, which tended to occur in graves lined with substantial chalk slabs, date from the late 6th to mid 9th centuries AD. This would indicate an early monastic origin for the site. By the post-medieval period this peripheral area of the cemetery had become a cillin, used for the burial of unbaptised children.

Portmuck Castle (NISMR Ref: Ant  041:003)

This site is described in PSAMNI (1940) as a stump of a castle gatehouse, 12-15ft high with a barrel vault over the ground storey. A sallyport built up the side of the cliff would give access by ladder to the sea. Originally the walls ran from the gatehouse to the cliff edge, but the structure has been much robbed of stone. The OSFR refer to it as "the keep of an ancient castle... believed... erected in C11th".

The earliest firm reference to Portmuck Castle can be found in maps dating to the mid-late 16th century and it is likely that the castle was built to control the harbour at Portmuck shortly after the Reformation when the lands at Portmuck would have transferred from church to secular control. The Magees of Islandmagee, under the overlordship of the Clandeboy O’Neills, may have been responsible for its construction.

Ballylumford Dolmen (NISMR Ref: Ant 041:004)

Situated in front of an Edwardian house on the summit of a steep sided N/S ridge. The megalith consists of three angular basalt orthostats on which is set a substantial capstone which tilts down to the distal end. Within the chamber is a recumbent slab.

In the past this type of tomb was often known as ‘druid’s alter’, after which the adjacent house was named the Druid’s Cottage. This single-chambered tomb is probably the remains of a portal tomb, dating to the early Neolithic period (c. 4000-3600 BC) when the first farming communities were becoming established in the area. This is one of the finest examples of a megalithic tomb surviving in East Antrim, the majority of others cleared away during land improvements. Ironically, this site has been protected within the curtilage of the Druid’s Cottage.

There have been several recorded discoveries of Early Bronze Age gold ornaments from the neighbouring fields and Bronze Age burials between here and Larne Lough, showing that the tomb remained a focus of burial and ritual activity for many hundreds of years after its initial construction.

St John’s church, Ballyharry (NISMR Ref: Ant 041:017)

St John's Church, founded in 1595, may occupy an earlier site. The OS memoirs record finds of "human bones with many silver coins" within 200yds of the church. There is now no local knowledge or tradition of an older church here. The existing church is a rectangular building, with a modern extension at the W end. The original construction is not now visible as it has been coated.

According to the Ordnance Survey Memoir of the parish (1830s), prior to 1828 the church measured 88 feet by 28 feet and there was an aisle or transept attached to the west end of the north side. In that year the aisle and 28 ft of the main body of the church were removed. The compiler of the Memoir commented, ‘The original church must have at one time been a building of some consequence, to judge from the superior quality of the white oak and that of the cut sandstone sold on its alteration’.

An arched wall recess built into the wall of the house W of the church looks very much like part of a window & probably came from this remodelling of the church.

In advance of construction of the new house immediately to the west of the graveyard a rectangular Neolithic house was discovered. Two more similar Neolithic houses were found upslope and to the east of the church during installation of the gas pipeline in the late 1990s. This area was clearly a focus of early Neolithic settlement activity.

Castle Chichester, Whitehead (NISMR Ref: 047:025)

Castle Chichester is believed to have been built around 1604 by Sir Moses Hill and named after his landlord, Sir Arthur Chichester, then Governor of Carrickfergus. The castle is recorded as being roofless by 1683. This is the oldest building in Whitehead and predates the predominantly Victorian and Edwardian seaside town by over 200 years. The local townland name, Castletown, is called after this site.

The building measures at the base 8.2m E-W x 8.1m N-S and is approx 11m high. It is built mainly of basalt boulders with some old (C17th?) brick and originally consisted of three storeys with intra-mural stairs connecting the floors. The entrance, on the seaward side is now bricked up for safety, leaving no access to the interior. There are narrow windows on the 1st and 2nd floors and one incorporates a reused piece of moulded stone. The castle would have been positioned within a defensive walled yard or bawn, traces of which appear to survive in surrounding property divisions to this day.

The castle was positioned to control trade from the nearby Port Davy, located ½ mile to the north-east (beyond the modern harbour), which was one of the main historic ports of travel between this area and Scotland. The castle would have functioned as a Customs House and there are records from the later 17th century of trading tokens being issued from here.

Glynn Old Church (NISMR Ref: Ant 040:010)

Suggested as the site of a Patrician foundation Glenn Indechta. Now substantial ruins of medieval parish church, but no early material (Hamlin, 2008). The ruins sit on a sharp, localised rise on the South bank of the Glynn River, surrounded by a post-medieval graveyard. The first firm documentary reference to Glynn comes from the Taxation of Pope Nicholas in 1306.

The church ruins are aligned ENE-WSW & consist of a nave and chancel. It is clear from the styles that the latter is a later addition - most local churches were built without a chancel. The church was entered by a door in the W of the S wall, leading into the nave. A round-headed chancel arch standing 10 ft high and 6 ft wide would have separated the nave and chancel.

The nave represents the parish church mentioned in 1306 and likely constructed during the 13th century. Interestingly the fabric of this earlier portion of the church appears to contain re-used stone from an earlier stone building, perhaps an earlier church on the site. The wicker-centring employed in the construction of the fine pointed gothic east window, along with the apparent simple ‘switch-line’ tracery it contained, would indicate a 14th century date for the addition of the chancel.

Recent conservation works revealed more detail from the building’s construction phases, including a small splayed medieval window in the south wall of the chancel which was infilled during the insertion of a later window when the church was partially renovated at the start of the 17th century.

The ruins stand NE of the present C of I parish church, itself a Listed Building built to the designs of Charles Lanyon in 1838.

Andrew Gault

Field Trip Reports 2012Field_Trip_Reports.html

©All images on this website are copyright

Fig. 1 Interpretation diagram of results of geophysical survey at the Kirk Field, Portmuck (from: Sue Anderson & Alastair Roy Rees, ‘The Excavation of a Medieval Rural Settlement Site at Portmuck, Islandmagee, County Antrim’.

UJA Vol 63 (2004), 76-113.)

Nineteenth-century ink sketch of Ballylumford Dolmen (JRSAI 16,1883-4)

Fig. 3. Post-excavation plans of Neolithic houses discovered in Ballyharry townland, uncovered during gas pipeline excavation (right) and in advance of house construction near St John’s church (right). (from CAF Data Structure Report CAFDSR27,180986,en.pdf)

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