Just over twelve years ago on the 25th August 2012, a major discovery made headlines across the world. Richard the Third, the last English King killed in battle was found buried underneath a Leicester carpark. How could it be that one of England’s most famous kings would lie buried underneath the tarmac of a council carpark?
Historical research and scientific testing would later confirm that the skeletal remains found were those of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester. These remains would then eventually be laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral. The find and subsequent reburial was covered recently in a brilliant podcast by historian Dan Snow and Philippa Langley who led the search for the lost king.
While Ballycastle has yet to find their king or even chieftain in a carpark, and while I highly doubt we would be supported with financial aid or resources into any such dig, we can start much smaller with our crest in a carpark.
On a daily basis in Ballycastle, people will walk down Nailers Row or modern-day Clare Street, or down Castle Street into the Diamond. Most of us walk quite oblivious to the history that surrounds us but if we actually stop and take the time to look around us, we will see remnants of an illustrious past. Small reminders that tell us a story, that people walked these streets, lived here and worked here many, many years before us.
There is a small carpark located behind Canton House Chinese, once home to Hugh A Mc Alister’s Hardware shop and The Glenshesk Bar, which was in a previous life known as The Antrim House, owned by the Mc Auley family. In this carpark, placed into an old stone wall we can see an ornately carved piece of sandstone. On this sandstone is written “This house was built by Charles Gray 1740”
It is thought that this stone was moved from the front of what is now Castle Street and placed in its current location. When this move took place, I have no idea. It is thought that Charles Gray owned a house and gardens on the very location that the stone still stands on.
But let us dive a little deeper. I have recently managed to get my hands on a copy of the copy out books of the Mc Gildowney estate and a name cropped up that I was familiar with, that of the Gray family.
The carving of the stone is magnificent! It is a family crest with the carving of a lion rampant and a lion’s head. A lion’s rampant would be most synonymous with the Scottish flag and that is probably of a great significance in this case too as it is part of the Mc Gildowney family Coat of Arms. The Mc Gildowney’s were a landed family who lived less than a mile from Charles Gray’s house.
The Mc Gildowney’s of Clare Park would have Scottish ancestry, coming down from the Highlands of Scotland. In the mid 1700’s, the Mc Gildowney estate covering just under 4000 acres and their stately home sitting high above the cliffs of Ballycastle would be under the leadership of Edmund Mc Gildowney. The Mc Gildowney Family at this time were the principal agents for the Antrim family who would probably be better known as the Mc Donnell’s of Antrim or the Earls of Antrim, their home being Glenarm Castle at the far east of the Antrim Glens. As fate would have it, or maybe not, the front garden of Clare Park would actually look out onto the remains of a Mac Donnell Castle, the home of their most feared leader, Sorley Boy.
It is hard to know exactly when the Mc Gildowney’s came to this area but it could be that it was through servitude to the Mac Donnell’s in the 16th or 17th century. That is for a deeper bit of research at a later date. We definitely have records of the family living here in the late 1700’s
After the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion, the previously mentioned Edmund Mc Gildowney would make his tenants sign a pledge that they had and would have nothing do with secret societies and such and would play no further part in rebellion. This was actually a common occurrence across the Island after the rebellion by landlords of the time. There is a list of the Mc Gildowney tenants recorded that now lies in PRONI (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland) that signed this pledge. But it would be the son of Edmund Mc Gildowney, John Mc Gildowney that is most relevant to our story. John was born some time in around 1745 and would go onto marry a lady known as Mary Gray. A man of John’s wealth and land in the 18th century would only be allowed to marry someone of a similar ilk, someone with a dowry and of similar status. This Mary Gray that he would end up marrying would certainly have to meet such criteria. We can be relatively sure that Mary Gray would come from a background of reasonable wealth.
If we rewind things back a little and look to the Hearth Money Rolls of 1669 for the Parishes of Ramoan and Culfeightrin, a John Gray of Ballycastle is recorded as the owner of two hearths, a sure sign of wealth in the mid-17th century. The Hearth Rolls are available in a 2005 article by the Glens of Antrim Historical Society. The Hearth Tax was introduced to Ireland in 1662, the Hearth Money Rolls list the names of householders who were liable to pay tax at the rate of two shillings on every hearth or fireplace they had.
Could it be that John Gray is related to Charles Gray whose name was carved in sandstone in Castle Street? It is therefore a possibility that the Mary Gray that was to marry John Mc Gildowney was either a sister or daughter of Charles Gray.
Documentation of the Gray family is hard to find in Ballycastle. We have a Charles Gray Junior who is buried in Old Ramoan and I have myself tried to locate this grave but to no avail as yet. He is recorded living only to the age of twenty-eight years with his birth date given as 1742, only two years after the building of the Gray House on Castle Street. He died on the 5th February 1770. It is entirely conceivable that this is the son of our Charles Gray, starting his family two years after the house was built. In an article by Canon Isaac Purcell Barnes, B.A written in 1906, and then added to in later years by Hugh A Boyd, it is suggested that “Gray must have been a person of some social standing, as he is referred to in old documents as “Esquire”. His daughter Mary, married John McGildowny of Ballycastle, great-great grandfather of the late Major Hugh Cameron McGildowny, of Clare Park, Ballycastle.”
This could explain why the coat of arms on the crest differs from both the Mc Gildowney coat of Arms and the Gray coat of Arms.
John Mc Gildowney has been described by Ballycastle historian Hugh A Boyd as having owned a tan yard and a grocery store in Ballycastle and he would also own the Antrim Arms Hotel. The older generation (and some young) in Ballycastle would still call the Fairhill, the Tan Yard Brae to this day and in recent years the local bar formerly known as Halo, would change its name to The Tannery.
The Gray Family and the Mc Gildowney Family would both own property on the opposite side of the street to one another. Was it through this medium that John Mc Gildowney first set eyes on his future wife, Mary Gray?
The Antrim House, now the Glenshesk Bar, stand on what is the presumed location of Charles Gray’s house, dated 1740.
After the joining in matrimony of John Mc Gildowney and Mary Gray the couple would go on to have four children, three sons and a daughter. As was customary of the time, the eldest son would go on to become head of the family therefore inheriting the family estate of Clare Park.
After the death of John Mc Gildowney in 1817, his son Charles would become head, the other two brothers, Edmund and John Jr had predeceased Charles. Charles would marry into the more prominent landed family, the Boyd Family of the Manor House. As said previously Charles Mc Gildowney had only one sister and she would go on to marry John Casement of Magherintemple.
Therefore, the marriage of John Mc Gildowney of Clare Park and Mary Gray would in later years connect three of the four landed families of Ballycastle.
The crest that still stands from the 1740’s has both the name of the Gray family intertwined with some of the insignia of the Mc Gildowney Family of Clare Park.
. Hearth Money Rolls. Glynns 2005
. Mc Gildowney Family Tree, Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland
. Ballymena Weekly Telegraph 1945
. Hugh A Boyd writings
. Historical Building’s register.
. Copy out Books of the Mc Gildowney Estate (PRONI)
Picture: James Mc Michael, August 2022