A hidden hoard of gold and a legendary black nun who predicted a united Ireland
Whether interested in golf or not, just about everyone is aware that Northern Ireland's world-famous Royal Portrush Golf Club is hosting the 2019 Open Championship next July.
Tens of thousands of visitors are expected to attend and with the many tens of millions of pounds that will come with the Open, the magic words “gold rush” have been used more than occasionally in discussions about the historic event.
Roamer’s page has shared stories about Irish gold rushes in days of yore – in Avoca between 1795 and 1830 and more recently in Monaghan and Connemara – and while the Curraghinalt gold project near Omagh is a modern example, I hadn’t heard until last week that there was one 60 years ago.
And it happened not far from the Royal Portrush Golf Club itself.
When we were discussing last week’s story about the havoc wreaked on the high seas by the CSS Alabama, Mitchell Smyth asked me in passing: “Have you heard about the Ballycastle gold rush, also known as Gold Diggers of 1958”?
Mitchell, originally from Ballycastle, proceeded to tell me about his recent visit to Bonamargy, the ruined old Franciscan friary on the outskirts of the north Antrim resort.
“When I was a boy,’’ he recounted, “we’d roam all over the ruins, climbing the walls, exploring the rooms, playing hide-and-seek. But now they’ve put gates and padlocks all over so you can’t get in.”
Mitchell reckons that if the gates had been there 60 years ago the gold rush of ’58 wouldn’t have happened.
His story began when Hugh A Boyd, the history master at Ballycastle Grammar School (now Ballycastle High), gave a lecture on Bonamargy and mentioned that when it was abandoned, in the middle of the 17th century, the monks – according to legend – put their sacred vessels and many other items of gold and silver in an iron chest and buried it.
Ancient tradition, Mr Boyd said, held that the hoard is buried “as far north-east as a lighted candle in the east window can be observed”.
That started tongues wagging.
Mitchell was a cub reporter in Coleraine at the time and his editor, Bob Acheson, asked him to “investigate”.
The police confirmed that they’d had reports of holes appearing in the friary grounds and they patrolled the area for a couple of nights but saw nothing untoward.
Then, by luck, Mitchell was told of a group calling themselves The Gold Diggers of ’58 who were planning a midnight search for the hoard.
“It wasn’t hard for me to infiltrate the group,” Mitchell recalls, “they were all former school friends of mine”.
On a moon-less night “one of us climbed up and lit a big candle in the window” his story continues.
“Somebody had brought a compass and we followed it to the north-east, clutching our picks and shovels.”
But they didn’t strike gold.
Maybe the candle was too bright, for the glow reached beyond the outer walls to the golf course which surrounds the ruin, and they didn’t want to damage a golf course.
So they went home to their beds.
He remembered the escapade in later years when, as a travel writer, he visited gold rush country in California, the Klondike in western Canada and the Comstock Lode in Nevada.
He thought about Bonamargy and Julia MacQuillan – the devout Sister Julia who lived in the friary in the 17th century and has gone down in north Antrim history and legend as ‘the Black Nun’.
Her spirit is said to haunt the place to this day (though the lure of gold led Mitchell and the gold prospectors to ignore the ghost story that night in 1958).
Sister Julia was something of a prophetess, a sort of Irish Nostradamus.
Mitchell outlined some of the things she is alleged to have foreseen, “and note that word ‘alleged’”, he stressed.
She declared that the Tow River in Ballycastle would one day run red.
This came to pass two centuries later when a worker fell into the mill race and was dragged through the water wheel in the Milltown and his blood stained the stream.
She said two standing stones four miles apart, at Carnduff and at Barnish, would become united.
This prophecy was fulfilled when the stones were placed side by side in one of the piers of the old harbour.
“Ships will one day sail between Ireland and Scotland without sails,” was another of her pronouncements, two centuries before the first steamship was built.
Sister Julia said a red-haired priest would drown at the Pans Rocks on Ballycastle strand. That one took its time to be fulfilled, but in 1940 Father James McCann of Belfast (a redhead, right!) was caught in a rip current and drowned near the rocks.
And here’s a prediction that has yet to be realised – the Black Nun is reported to have said that the people of Ballycastle would get the news that Ireland had become an independent nation when a ship arrived in the bay with her sails on fire.
Mitchell reckons that partition in 1921 put paid to that prediction – for now, anyway!
Sister Julia is buried just outside the entrance to the Bonamargy chapel.
A stone with a hole marks the spot.
It is said that she chose this place so that everyone entering the chapel would tread on her grave – the ultimate gesture of humility.