The picturesque village of Glenarm takes its name from the Glen which means ‘Valley of the Army’. If you are travelling along the Causeway Coastal Route from Belfast, Glenarm is the first glen you will come to and one of the nine famous Glens of Antrim. It would be very to drive through this fascinating village following the coast road and miss the wonderful architecture, walks and heritage that can be found here just off the main road.
Evidence tells us that people were living along the shoreline and manufacturing flint tools here from 3000 BC which corresponds to other settlements around the coast, the village itself though dates to the 17th century, growing and prospering around the castle, trading harbour and the lime work industries.
Glenarm Castle and Demense provide a central focus of interest to the area and has been one of the ancestral homes of the McDonnell clan for over 400 years. It has been the family seat of the clan since 1750, prior to this it was at Dunluce Castle. The castle has a superb walled garden and tea room which is open to the general public during the summer months. The foundations of the present castle date back to 1636 and was built by Sir Randall McDonnell, the Earl of Antrim, it was rebuilt in 1750s and again in 1825 when the Barbican, outer walls and Castle Street were constructed. The castle was gutted by fire in 1929 and rebuilt in keeping with its character, a further fire in 1967 also required restoration of part of the castle. We know that the very first castle in Glenarm was let to the Bissett family during the 13th century, they had come over from Scotland to take up lands along the Antrim coast. In 1399 through the marriage of Margery Bissett John Mor McDonnell of Kintyre, the ownership and power base along the North Antrim coast gradually shifted to the McDonnell's who would eventually control five castle between here and Dunluce.
One of the striking features of the village is the architecture, dating from the 17th century it is one of the oldest coastal villages in North Antrim and like Bushmills designated a conservation area. If you venture up Toberwine Street you will find some classic period architecture. The Barbican on Castle Street complete with bridge and portcullis serves as another entrance to the castle, on the corner of Toberwine and Castle Street is the old Courthouse (1700s), this was the site of the original Bissett Castle. The Vennel which runs off Altmore Street is the start of the old road that ran from Glenarm Castle to Carrickfergus Castle before the coast road was created and dates to around the 13th century. Further up Altmore Street are the the old Estate Offices (1739) and Town Lodge Arch which leads to Glenarm Forest Park, 800 acres of woodland and walks along the Glenarm river which is maintained by the Ulster Wildlife Trust. A fabulous jewel for walkers and nature lovers.
On the coast road adjacent to the beach and river is St Patrick's Church (1769) which serves the Parish of Tickmacrevan, this was the first gothic styled church to be built in Ulster. The parish name Tickmacrevan translates to ‘the house of MacCrevan’, MacCrevan is reputed to have been a disciple of St Patrick and ministered in the first church in Glenarm that was built further up the Glen. The current church was built on the foundation of a Franciscan Friary of the Third Order built in 1465 by Sir Robert Bissett. Some ruins are still visible in the graveyard and stone artefacts are retained within the church.
It is believed that the body of Shane O’Neill was buried at the Friary in 1567 after he was killed and beheaded during a confrontation with the McDonnells near Cushendun, his head was sent to Dublin as proof of his execution. The two clans opposed each other on many occasions and had many battles for territorial power. They were both politically manipulated by Queen Elizabeth who would favour one over the other for her strategic interests and play one against the other to achieve her objectives in Ulster.
There is a consensus of opinion and evidence that King John granted Glenarm a municipal charter in the 13th century and that a Borough of Glenarm existed, this fact would make Glenarm the oldest town in Ireland. We know the original castle was leased to the Bissetts by the Bishop of Down and Connor in 1270 which suggest that the castle was older. This could therefore have been a 12th century Norman castle, their presence here makes sense with a harbour and short sea crossings to Scotland. The harbour was well used and developed from the 12th century onwards. The harbour we see today stems from the 18th century when the limestone industries where at their peak.
The quarry which you pass as you enter the village from the Larne side is owned by Omya UK. The quarry was originally a family run business which was incorporated into the Eglington Limestone Company in 1900, they also had interest in Carnlough and Ballintoy. It was later taken over by the Clyde Shipping Company. As well as lime production there was also a Bleach Whitening Mill next to the river and a Layde which took the water down from the top of the glen to the mill.
Glenarm is also the start or finish of the Slemish Scenic Drive which loops off the Causeway Coastal Route and takes you to the location where Patricius (Saint Patrick) was kept in slavery for six years and where he discovered his spiritual calling. The loop road takes you up Glenarm and back down Glencloy into Carnlough.
The harbour was given an upgrade a few years ago and now has anchorage for passing yachts, work is also planned for the seafront area which perhaps is the weakest point of this beautiful village, in terms of appearance. Having said that once you have taken the time to explore this wee village you will come back again and again. There is a certain atmosphere and quaintness to it and the walks around it superb. Ducks and swans congregate at the bridge and river mouth which seem to be a regular and well established feeding place where local people and visitors bring bread for them. A short drive out on the Larne side of the village there is nice location for a picnic site beside the ocean, much of the rock falls and boulder debris in this area comes from the past excavation of limestone here and this new section of the road was rebuilt due to rockfalls, though everything is stable today.
Glenarm is also where John Rea was born in 1922, for those who do not know the name he is regarded as one of the best dulcimer player to have graced these shores. John was the youngest and smallest of a family of ten, his father was a great fiddle player and taught six of his sons the fiddle, John was deemed too small for the fiddle so his father had a dulcimer made for him. From the age of eight he played the instrument. He did not use the traditional wooden hammers but used metal spokes wound with wool which was his own idea and gave him his own unique style. He passed away in November of 1983 and is buried in Glenarm graveyard with an appropriate dulcimer on the headstone.
Eoin MacNeill was also born in Glenarm in 1867, he co-founded the Gaelic League in 1893 with Douglas Hyde who would become the first President of Ireland. The League was set up as a non political organisation to study Irish Language, Literature and Culture. He was a great linguist and historian and became Professor of Medieval Irish History in 1909. In 1913 he became instrumental in the founding of the Irish Volunteers along the same lines as the Ulster Volunteers, both were preparing for conflict over the issue of Home Rule. By 1916 he was Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. A split occurred in the volunteers after the majority sided with the nationalist John Redman's call in agreeing with Edward Carson, to support Britain in the war against Germany. The remaining 10,000 members though remained under MacNeill's command.
When he heard of the secret plan by the Irish Republican Brotherhood for an Easter uprising, he confronted Pearse who was one of the leaders. MacNeill refused to support the plan as he felt the Volunteers where not well enough equipped but hearing of the planned gun shipment from Germany involving Roger Casement, he was reluctantly persuaded to stay with the plan and have those loyal to his leadership readied. When news broke that the ship had been intercepted by the Royal Navy and scuttled by the crew with the loss of all arms, he countermanded his force which restricted the Easter Uprising to Dublin.
Although he took no part in the Easter uprising he was tried by court-martial and sentenced to life imprisonment but subsequently released under an amnesty in June 1917. He became Minister for Education in the Executive Council of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1925. He gradually withdrew from politics and became Chairman of the Irish Manuscripts Commission and published several books. He died in Dublin in 1945 aged 78.