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Bishop's Road

Take the high road with spectacular views of the north coast of Ireland


Bishop's Road

Immediately west of Downhill Demesne along the coast road, the tiny village of Downhill nestles below the cliff beneath the Mussenden Temple. This is a collection of Victorian and more modern holiday flats and homes that did not exist in the Earl Bishop`s time. What certainly did exist is the narrow road that snakes suddenly and dramatically up through the lava cliffs, heading inland. It climbs very steeply – if you are in car, get down into first gear; on a bicycle, get off and push!  If you are approaching from the south, you can also access the Bishop`s Road from the A2 coast road. 

This is the Bishop`s Road. During the lifetime of Earl Bishop Hervey, it was a cart track for transporting turf, cut from the bogs at the top of Binevenagh mountain.   He undertook a reconstruction programme leading to its improvement. The construction offered employment to a large workforce that had virtually no sources of employment, with a constant programme of not only of road construction but also wall, bridge, rectory and church building, which soaked up much of his church income. But there was a method in his generosity. John Wesley, who was Frederick's guest on two occasions, commented that the Bishop was 'plenteous in good works', which rendered him the idol of his people.

One of the best vantage points to appreciate the splendour of the Bishop’s Road is at Gortmore Viewpoint, which provides stunning views over the flat lands of Magilligan, which were Glebe or Church lands, leased to the Gage Family by successive Bishops of Derry from the 1630s.

This is a land steeped in mythology: Manannan Mac Lir, the Irish Neptune, lived in the depths of Lough Foyle and navigated  its waters in a metal boat; Mangan of the Golden Slipper walked across the waters from Magilligan Point to Greencastle without getting his feet wet; the Banshee of the Roe roamed the heights of Benevenagh; and the fairies resided on the notorious Tunn Banks.

Binevenagh can best be described as the place where the lava stopped. 60 million years ago, the successive volcanic eruptions that also formed The Giant`s Causeway reached their westernmost extent here. Binevenagh looms over the surrounding landscape like a black, basalt fortress. Legend has it that Viking raiders once mistook the mountain for a fortress and fled, rather than fight the men who could build something so large!

As the Bishop`s Road crests the mountain, a small roadside car park marks the short path to Gortmore viewpoint, where visitors can peer over the very edge of the high cliff, onto the flat coastal plain of Magilligan below, across Lough Foyle and into County Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. From the hilltop behind Gortmore, on a clear day it is easy to see Scotland, particularly the Western Isles of Islay and Jura, the latter recognisable by its pyramid-shaped peaks.

The Bishop`s Road continues along the crest of Binevenagh, offering spectacular views all the way. Some say that this wild place is where the last wolf was slain in Ireland, a legend that is easy to believe.  However, at the junction with Leighery Road, marked by a black-and-white painted stone bridge, we want to leave the high drama of the Bishop`s Road and descend sharply from the mountain through modern forest plantings, until we meet Duncrun Road, where we want to go left.

Within a mile, this takes us to Tamlaghtard Church, which was commissioned by Frederick and finished by his architect, Michael Shanahan, in the English style, by 1787. Tamlaghtard is a truly magical sight; the sort of modest, well-proportioned little church that one would expect to see in a leafy English village, transposed onto the wild slopes of a volcanic mountain. The church is still in use today and the graveyard contains the tomb of John Heygate, whose main claim to fame is that he stole the famous writer Evelyn Waugh`s first wife away to this lonely corner of Ireland.

When Frederick built this church, he gave the site of the next church along the road, Saint Aidan`s, to the local Catholic congregation. This was at a time when Catholics, by law, were not supposed to build churches! Saint Aidan`s is less than a mile due south of Tamlaghtard. The church building there now is a relatively modern one, although simple and pretty, however the remains of a much older church can be seen and beside that, the grave of Denis O`Hampsey, the blind harper of Magilligan.

O`Hampsey was a contemporary of Frederick`s and often used to play at Downhill, to entertain Frederick and his guests. Frederick was so pleased with O`Hampsey`s music that he gave him a plot of land nearby, to build a house. O`Hampsey is one of the musicians credited with handing down the ancient tune that eventually became Danny Boy – the famous ‘Londonderry Air,’ of which more in our section about Limavady. 

Indeed, the end of the Duncrun Road joins the A2 coastal road again, where we continue through the pretty townland of Aghanloo and into Limavady for more stories.


Interesting Places Nearby

These locations are  specifically linked to the Earl Bishop, they are close to Binevenagh Mountain. 

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Until near the end of the 18th century the Protestant community in Magilligan worshipped in the old Church at Tamlaghtard. In 1773 the Earl Bishop decided  to erect a new church, St Cadan's, in a more central part of the parish. It is alleged that he built the church in this exposed location so that he could see who was attending church on Sundays from his residence at Downhill.

St Cadan’s formed part of Frederick’s building programme and bears striking architectural similarities to many churches all over his diocese. His building programme was to earn him the title, ’the edifying Bishop’.

St Cadan, who was venerated by the people of Magilligan, became a great disciple of St Patrick and for his devotions he was made a Bishop in the middle of the 6th century. He journeyed to the island of Bute in western Scotland, where he lived a hermit's life. From here he founded several churches throughout Scotland. Cadan died on Bute but his body was brought back and buried in Magilligan. 


St. Aidan`s church stands on the slopes of Binevenagh. An early Christian site known as Tamlaghtard, in the Earl Bishop`s time this was a Church of Ireland, but when he commissioned nearby St. Cadan`s, Frederick allowed the site to be used by Catholics. There are several interesting graves at St Aidan’s. The grave of Denis O’Hampsey stands alongside the medieval church. Denis (1695 – 1807) was one of Ireland’s most distinguished harpers. He had the distinction of living in three different centuries and marrying at the age of eighty six.


When Edward Bunting visited Magilligan in 1792 to annotate music from O’Hampsey’s vast repertoire, Denis told him that ‘It must have been the Devil that buckled he and his wife together for he was blind and she was totally lame.’ Nevertheless there was an offspring from the marriage.

There is also a headstone to the Allisons, a planter family, in the cemetery. The Allisons, who were tenant farmers, lived at Drumnahay, Magilligan. There are two grave slabs here recording the deaths of the first generation of the family; John, who died in 1736 and his wife Jane, who died in 1684.


In 1768 their descendant, Joseph Allison, had a visit from the agent of his landlord and after having paid the rent, Joseph served the agent supper with the family’s silver spoons. But as the agent departed, he informed Joseph that if he could eat with silver spoons, then he could afford an increased rent. Disillusioned, Joseph left Ireland for Philadelphia. His vessel was shipwrecked off Nova Scotia, but he got ashore and set himself up from scratch again as a farmer. His family prospered and eventually his grandson became a rich banker, who in 1839 founded Mount Allison University, the first university in Canada. The silver spoons were then presented to the University!

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