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16 October 2014
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Ballycastle's Mysterious Carved Head

There's a single small rock in the sea near Ballycastle. On that rock is carved a life-sized face.

Myth & Mystery

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Why? and who does it represent?

Article by Brian Willis

Map showing Viewing Rock - where to see carved face
Map showing Viewing Rock - where to see carved face.

Where to find it

Go eastwards through Ballycastle and take the A2 out of the town. Half a mile or so along that road, turn left just after the ruins of Bonemargy Friary and take the B road towards Corrymeela. About a mile along there, before the houses on your left, you will see the long wooden bridge at the "Salt Pans". Now it's a pleasant walk along the sand to your viewing rock which is beyond the bridge.

Who does this face represent?

The Sea God?

At the other end of Ballycastle Bay is a submerged rock which the waves crash over. This is called Carrick Manannan after the sea god Manannan who was one of Lir's sons. Perhaps that's who it is.

Incidentally Manannan Lir (or McLir) was supposedly born on the Tuns sandbank in the Foyle estuary. Is that a familiar name to you? Probably. For it is in the news quite regularly because that sandbank is the proposed location for a huge array of wind electricity generators.

Rocks in sea with carving circled
Rocks in sea with carving circled.
The Rock

I took this photo from what I have dubbed the "Viewing" rock (see the plan above)

In the background on the right is Rathlin Island.

The blue circle shows where the head is. It is underneath a section of rock that looks rather like a top hat.

Deirdre of the Sorrows?

Another possible contender is Deirdre. King Conor wanted Deirdre, his ward, to marry him but she fled to Scotland with her lover Naisi (or Naoise). Conor lured them back and one version of this traditional tale says they landed at Carrig-Usnach a rock at the east end of Ballycastle Bay. Conor killed Naisi and Deirdre committed suicide. Is this rock Carrig-Usnach? And is this Deirdre?

Close-up of carved face.
Close-up of carved face.
And here it is.

The carving is not easy to see so I have masked out the rock around it in this photo. As you see it is not just a trick of strange rock formation but a definite stone carving.

So who did it?

I don't know. Do you? Surely there must be someone, especially a Ballycastle resident, who must know the origins of this mystery?

I'm told there are Italian mosaics in one of the local churches. Perhaps one of the craftsmen spentsome of their leisure time chiseling away at this rock?

YOU rise to the challenge....

Dolores - Nov '06
My mother came from Glenshesk (aged 86 in 2003 - now deceased) and she frequently took us over to Pans Rocks and the Devils churn when we were youngsters, telling us the priest/nun story similar to that of Nanno and Jack McCaughan's. As they have Ballycastle connections there must be some ring of truth despite the legends and tales which grow up around phenomena such as this carved face.

She also spoke of going to the beach on 'wild' days and listening to the waves roar and crash onto the beach - she also talked about the 'blow-hole' at the devils churn and on 'wild' days this can still be seen.

Peter Magee - Aug '06
My grandfather is from Ballycastle, I visited with him from Michigan in 1970's, when he was in his 80's. He told me that the face was a man that a lady was not allowed to marry by her sisters.

She vowed, if she could not marry her true love, to never marry to spite them. She returned from making the carving with bleeding hands and was credited with having healing powers from then on, and was thought by many to be a witch having restored the sight of a blind girl in the fields . After the healing, she went into a convulsion state and surprisingly gave birth to baby girl and nearly bled to death in the field. The girl with the recovered sight raised the alarm and both the lady and her baby survived after removal to the hospital by a passing cart man .

Apparently, he was the de barred man from the marriage and threw himself to the waves at the rocks at the thought of his love and the newborn, not surviving and never being his.

My grandfather said she would go out to the carving and weep for her lost love, and her wails were heard above the lashings of the sea and that her sisters were tormented by her wails long after her death, so much so that they believed she had come back to haunt them. One sister was so scared that she left Ballycastle for may years to Scotland. On her return to Ballycastle she woke to the screams and entered a senility from the fear.

The other, being called to the hospital at the direction of the doctor stooped down to look at the sister and was so shocked at her appearance, remained stooped for the rest of her life

She is said to have left her curse on her sisters and their descendants for stealing everything from her.

Bowers - June'06

Gordon Watson - March '06
When I was a lad I remember seeing five faces carved into the rock but there is only one visible now.
The Devil's Churn referred to is at it's best when there is a storm from the north, I always believed the story about the little girl drowning was the correct one.
The usual bathing place was on the Pans Rocks where the remains of the irons which held the diving boards in place can still be seen.

Jack Mc Caughan, Ballycastle local - Feb 06
T this face is a priest. he drowned round this area so friends carved his face out in memory of him. there is also another face carved out just round the corner. again this is another man who drowned. many people believe in the legend of a "nun" in love with him, and that she carved this face but thats only legend. there is nothing really mystrious about it.

Mary Shannon - Sept '05
my gran spent her honeymoon night in McGuire's Strand in 1917. She new the face as the Priest's head. I spoke recently with a number of locals and they were not aware of it. I have a great close up photograph of the face and it is quite scary - his eyes look out to sea.

Barry - Sep 05
it is a carved face of BARRETT

(Ed: Barry, can you give our readers any more detail? Thanks.)

Brian Hagan - July '05
I walk down to this part of the beach every other weekend, as I have a holiday home in Ballycastle for the last 7 yrs and have never seen it!! thanks will look out for it this weekend!

Clare - June '05
The face on the rock is there because a little girl and her dad lived in the little house behind the rock. and what happened was the little girl and her dad collected salt water fron the sea and left it to evaporate in the sun to make salt and sell it to make money. But tragically the little girl went down to the water and fell in and if you go there you will see the strong swirl of water within the rocks which was so strong it killed her and her daddy went out to the rock on his boat and carved her little face on the rock in memory of her.

Jason Horner - May '05
The steps are the victims soul, each time someone dies a set of footprints appear on the ground...

Aine - April 05
it is very nice to know but i heard a total different story

James Moore

I am surprised Brian hasn't mentioned the other carving on the beach.

When I was a lad some seventy years ago my brother-in-law took me to Ballycastle and we went along the beach so he could show me the carvings on many, many rocks of different faces and other subjects, which he explained had been done by the friars from the abbey across the road.

Perhaps they have been gathered by people who thought they were going to be nicer in their homes or gardens than where they were carved. But I saw them and my sister who is 92 and lives in Bangor will back me up. Hope this helps.

Best regards

Brian Boyle, Ballycastle

As a local, I always was told that the carved face was that of an early Christian priest cast to his death into the Devil's Churn by rowdy local druids. There are actually supposed to be a number of faces carved into the rock, with only this one still visible as it is in a more sheltered corner.

The Devil's Churn is the area of great turbulence at the bottom of the stairs cut into the same rock from which you view the carved face. It is I think caused by an underwater tunnel in the rock/seabed running out to sea. If you go when the water is at just the right level, it acts like a blowhole which is out of synch with the arriving waves, sucking away dramatically only to blow water high into the air seconds later.

So there you go - another theory for you.

Nanno McWilliams

Originally being from Ballycastle I always thought it was the face of a priest.

A nun had fallen in love with a priest. When she was found out for her impure thoughts or actions (not sure which) she was put on that rock alone and left there to perish. Whilst on that rock she carved the face of the man she loved before she died.

Brian Willis replies

Hi everyone, thanks for your stories about this face (or perhaps it should be "these" faces.) Let's hope more will write in with their tales and memories. What a poignant story of your's Nanno.

I first came across this rock carving when I was producing and presenting a 1987 BBC TV series about unusual places in Northern Ireland. Your point, Brian and James, that there were other carvings reminds me of the time we went to film there for that programme. I talked about a face (singular) but Cyril, the cameraman, and the rest of the crew insisted they could discern more than one face. Try as I may I could not see any more but they were so adamant they could see others that I altered my presentation and talked about "the faces".

We still often take visitors to see that rock and they too can see more faces - but not me. I am doomed to see only the one.

Nuns, priests, friars, druids, these carvings are certainly a mystery and yet I have never seen anything written about them.

Certainly James I have never heard of carvings of other subjects. It's all most intriguing.

I would love to see the blow-hole working at the Devil's Churn. I haven't been there at the right time so far. Incidentally those steps you mention carved in the rock down to that tunnel. What were they for?

Have you seen the excellent blow-hole in action at Portstewart harbour? Anyone got a photo?

Did you read what happened when I visited nearby Bonemargy Friary to take a photo of the Black Nun's grave? Spooky stuff. Click "Bonemargy" in the above article.

Have you heard this story about the nun and the priest? Perhaps you have other ideas about the origins of this carved head. Did you ever see the other carvings mentioned? Whatever you know, why not e-mail us here at or post a comment directly onto the site.
(NI Editor)




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