Waterfoot lies at the mountain of Glenariff, just outside the village the Causeway Coastal Route passes through the Red Arch which was built by Francis Turnly in 1817 for easy access between his estates at Cushendall and Drumnasole near Carnlough. The Glenariff Mineral Railway operated here between 1873-85. It was the first and the highest narrow gauged railway in Ireland and crossed the coast road by the White Arch to Carrivemurphy Pier. The limestone engine shed (now a village hall) and a row of houses known as ‘The Terrace’ (which were built for the miners), can still be seen nearby. The railway ran inland from the coast, up the south-eastern side of Glenariff to the townland of Cloughcor where it served several mines. There had been plans to connect the Glenariff line to the main Retreat/Ballymena line but finances could not be raised. After the depletion of ore, the engines were sold to the Derry and Lough Swilly Railway Company, where they continued to work for another 14 years.
On the headland above the Red Arch is Red Bay Castle, known locally as McQuillans Fort. The McQuillans at one time held power in parts of the Glens. The castle was also owned by John and Walter Bissett, who had bought or acquired the glens from the Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgo, after they had been exiled here from Scotland in 1224. It was probably at this time that the first stone structure appeared on the headland, replacing an earlier wooden fort. The ruins we see today are of a castle originally built in the mid 1600s by the MacDonnells. The MacDonnells inherited the Glens and the castle through marriage with the Bissetts in the late 1390s. The castle was destroyed in 1652 during the military campaign of Oliver Cromwell. Directly below Red Bay Castle you will see another cave which is said to have been an escape route connected to the castle.
One of Waterfoot's famous sons was Captain Charles McDonnell who is buried in the Bay Cemetery. This remarkable seafarer was born in Kilmore, Glenariff in 1827. He learnt his skills around the local coast and later in Scotland and England, his remarkable seamanship led him to becoming Captain of two of the world’s fastest sailing ships during 1800s, the 'Marco Polo' and the 'James Baines'. McDonnell was the first officer of the 'Marco Polo' when it set the world record for a round trip to Australia in 1852. After the second voyage he became the Captain, at the age of 25. His next command was the 'James Baines'. On her maiden voyage in 1854, the ship shattered the world record for a sailing ship crossing of the Atlantic - 12 days and 6 hours. This record still stands today for a sailing ship between the port of Boston and the port of Liverpool. Tragedy struck the James Baines in 1858, the ship caught fire in Liverpool docks while being unloaded and became a total loss.
Captain McDonnell was so devastated by this that he retired and came home to Glenariff. A few months later, on January 25th, 1859, he died from pneumonia at his mother‘s cottage at Kilmore where he was born. He had contracted pneumonia after spending hours soaking wet while attempting to rescue seamen from a stricken ship in Red Bay.
Seafaring has played a major part in the history of Waterfoot. Before the 1800s, accessibility to the glen was difficult and local people found it easier to trade across to Scotland. The close proximity of Argyll and the similarities that exist in language, music and traditions, reflect this. The first landing stage at Waterfoot was at a place near the mouth of the river known as the ‘Black Rock.’ Ships would come in on the high tide, load and unload on the low tide, and sail out again on the high tide. References are made to ships arriving here from America and Canada with flax seed and timber in the 1830s. The Black Rock was blasted away in the mid 1840s, and used in the construction of the Red Bay Pier. For over 100 years, this pier has served the area for importing, exporting and travelling.
Along with the sea faring traditions on the surface of the ocean Waterfoot also had pioneering work being done under the ocean. The Murray Brothers, Alex, John and Archie, from Waterfoot were widely regarded as the best divers in Ulster. They began diving around the 1860s using the early bell style helmet with pipes to the surface for air and were responsible for salvaging numerous ships around the north coast. Ships such as the Taymouth Castle, Irishman, Clementine, Eslington Firth, Lake Champlain and Daybreak. During the First World War, they were called upon to salvage many war wrecks. They also assisted in the building of harbours which include Carnlough, Rathlin Island and Tramore, in County Waterford.
Another less known activity arose due to the close proximity to Scotland and the network of bays and island around the north coast, this was smuggling. Government taxes and duties imposed on goods meant that illegal trade flourished in commodities such as linen, spirit (whiskey), skins, tea and wool. Campbeltown customs officers logged many interceptions of boats trying to land goods on Sanda Island (just off the Scottish coast) from Red Bay. An incident is recorded in 1772, when HMS Lurcher was engaged in a battle with two armed smuggling cutters. Several of the smugglers were killed, including ‘Jack the Batchelor,’ who was buried in Glenarm. The Brackenridge family, who lived where the present day Cushendall Boat Club is, operated around the 1780s and were renowned for their widespread smuggling activities. Goods would arrive in Red Bay on larger ships and then be off-loaded to smaller vessels for distribution.
In the porch of the Chapel close to the Bay Cemetery there is a life size replica of the Ardclinis Crozier which dates to the 12th century and figures prominently in the early Irish Church. It can best be described as a pastoral staff belonging to a high member of the clergy and symbolizes the spiritual shepherd.
Waterfoot is also where the first 'Feis na nGleann' took place in 1904, the ‘Gaelic Revival’ began in the 1880s and spread throughout Ireland with the aim of promoting and preserving the Gaelic language and culture. The revival led to the formation of a local committee in the Glens that organised the first 'Feis na nGleann'. A member of the Gaelic League and life-long promoter of the Irish Language and Culture was Francis Joseph Biggar who helped organise and fund the first 'Feis na nGleann'. In February, 1904, the committee was formed with representatives from all of the nine glens. One of the representatives from Glenshesk was Roger Casement. He funded a ship to bring Gaelic speakers from Rathlin Island to the first 'Feis na nGleann', which was held in June 1904.
The 'Feis na nGleann' crossed religious and political divides being supported by Catholics, Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists. Since then, it has taken place every June. Each year the venue is changed so that all areas of the glens have an opportunity to host it.
Three prominent caves can be found in the red sandstone cliff alongside the road leading from Waterfoot to the Red Arch. The most notable is the Dry Cove, which was used as a hedge school during the Penal Law period. The cove nearest to the village is called Nan (Anne) Murray’s Cove. Anne Murray arrived in Waterfoot when she was 50 years old, and lived in this cove, rent free, until 1847, when she died, aged 100. She supported herself by spinning, knitting and making an illicit still known as ‘Poteen.’ Anne got round the law by charging a visitor for a drink of water and giving them the poteen free. The third cove, Blacksmith’s Cove, was used as a blacksmith’s shop and other nearby coves were used by fishermen to keep their nets and equipment.
Hedge School’ is the name given to a rural practice which began during the Penal Law period in Ireland between 1723 to 1782, this was when Catholic schools were forbidden. The Penal Law targeted education by the main Catholic religious orders and sought to force middle-class and gentry Irish Catholics to convert to Anglicanism, if they wanted a good education in Ireland. Subsequently, educated men and women from the rural areas began teaching the community in defiance of the law, the schools functioned in places where they would not be discovered too easily. Although the name ‘Hedge School’ suggests that this took place outdoors, the name is more related to the rural nature of the practice. Most Hedge school teaching would have taken place inside a building, or in the case of Red Bay, inside the Dry Cove. The establishment of the National School system in the 1830s saw the decline in the practice of Hedge schools, though many still functioned more out of rural deprivation than religious oppression.
If you drive up the Glen Road from Waterfoot and keep an eye on the landscape you'll see one of North Antrim's famous fairy trees. Even today local farmer's in parts of North Antrim would not dare cut down a fairy thorn, as stories of what has happened to people in the past are carried from generation to generation.