The townland of Ballyhanna 

                  seen from the South
Looking at Ballyhanna from the Aghanloo Road

Ballyhanna - in the parish of Aghanloo just outside Limavady - is a townland in Northern Ireland. The townland system of land division is an ancient and rather idiosyncratic method of decorating the map of an area with colourful names and confusing outlines - thereby giving amusement to map makers and headaches to postmen in about equal measure.

Apart from Ballyhanna, the Roe Valley has townlands called Carbullion, Gortnamoney, Drummagavenney, Ballyriskmore, Killylane, Drumballydonaghy, Carrowmuddle and many more. These rather entertaining names owe their existence to years of cross-cultural interaction. Most of them started life as Gaelic place names which were then anglicized with often stunning effect. Ballyhanna is quite ordinary in this respect though. The name simply meant 'The homestead of the O'Hannas'.

Originally a townland seems to have been an area large enough to supply the living for one family, hence the townlands in the valley tend to be small, sometimes just a couple of fields, whilst those on the hill-tops are much larger.

Ballyhanna, as townlands go, is of medium size. It is part of the Benevenagh chain of hills and from its southern slopes one has a most stunning view across the Roe Valley, the Sperrin mountains, Lough Foyle and the hills of Donegal.

The view from Ballyhanna

The view from Ballyhanna

The population density of Ballyhanna is rather low at this time (2014). It consists of nine humans, two dogs, two cats, four occasional donkeys, a horse and many sheep. Not counting foxes, badgers, hares, rabbits, crows, buzzards, spiders and dozens of other interesting creatures. A transient population of wild goats can also be smelled at times.

On  the 1911 Census of Ireland return forms four families are listed as living in Ballyhanna. The Johnstons, the McIvors, the Moores and the Fishers. The details of 15 people are entered in the forms.

Interestingly, in 1831 the total population of Ballyhanna was 33, which by 1981 had sunk to zero. So things are looking up again!

The townland is partially covered by forest. The rest consists of heather covered hillside and a few green fields on a southern slope of Benevenagh. The climate is wet and windy with occasional sunshine. The latter is usually interrupted by some wind and rain.

The history of Ballyhanna

Ballyhanna's history is largely unrecorded and consists mainly of one old ruin, one ancient monument and the odd remark in that wonderful publication 'The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland' which were compiled after the Duke of Wellington, who was prime minister at the time, authorised Colonel Thomas Colby to perform the first ordnance survey of Ireland. It is this enterprise which first established the Lough Foyle base line, an account of which is hidden behind this link.

To the above may be added the memories of people still alive - and that's about it. The oldest human monument in the townland is the Ballyhanna Cairn and - considering that this ancient monument is a scheduled site - not much is known about it. The 'Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record'  betrays a severe lack of detailed knowledge. They describe it as a round well-preserved cairn of prehistoric origin. Now, prehistoric can mean anything from the big bang to the iron age, so this entry is not exactly very informative.
This is not surprising. Every few years they send a man to inspect the monument. He generally runs about the mountain a lot, wonders where the thing may be and then disappears again. Hence it comes as no surprise that they don't even have a photograph of the place on their website. As can be seen below, we can do rather better.

The Ballyhanna cairn

The cairn has weathered a bit  during the last 180 years or so, because in 1835 a gentleman with the name of Thomas Fagan gave this description:

'There stands at present on the summit of the mountain in the townland of Ballyhanna and holding of William McLaughlin, a circular mound raised with stones and at present nearly grown over with soil. The base of this mound is set round with a row of stones sunk in the ground and many of them 1 foot higher than the soil. This mound is convex on the top and the summit from 7 to 9 feet higher than the level of the field on which it stood. It is 48 feet in diameter. On the summit and the centre of this mound there is an enclosure or building much resembling a vault or grave, enclosed by stones sunk on their ends in the ground. This vault is 4 feet 3 inches long, 2 and a half feet broad and 2 feet deep. I have inspected the above mound on 1st July 1835.

Mr Fagan also reports the presence of two 'Giant's Graves', but they were being demolished by treasure hunters even then and in our time there isn't a trace left. Presumably their stones have been incorporated into some of the many drystone walls decorating the borders of the fields. The Ordnance Survey memoirs refer to Ballyhanna only a few times. One entry mentions the fact that farmers converted turf into charcoal.  Ballyhanna was covered in bogs in those days.
Did they make charcoal here?
'The following is the process: good black turf is cut, and when perfectly dry, are put into pits in the earth about 2 feet deep. Fires are put into these pits and about 3 or four inches of earth is strewn over the pit. One day's cutting of one man with two men to attend will cut turf sufficient to make 1 ton of charcoal. Total expense when at home will be about 10s.'

We like to think that the ash traces on the left - uncovered a few years ago on a Ballyhanna building site - are the leftover of one such enterprise.
Let's have one final quote from that marvellous book, the OS Memoirs, 'ere we close it for the last time. It is stated that in 1835 Ballyhanna was home to 33 people, 10 pigs, 9 horses, 25 black head of cattle, 18 sheep, 3 goats, 20 geese, 2 turkeys, 20 hens and 6 ducks. Crops were rotated thus: First year barley, second year oats, third year potatoes, then the land was let out for pasture for 3 years.

At first glance it seems surprising that there were only 18 sheep, when nowadays the hills are studded with the black faced darlings. But barbed wire wasn't invented until about 1875 and in those days other forms of large scale land enclosure were not economical in hilly country.

The other witnesses to the history of Ballyhanna are the ruins of some of the buildings left behind by previous generations - though they are disappearing fast and most of them only live on in these pages.

On the right can be admired the old sheep washing station. Notice the water tank at the front right. The station started out as a farm house, then a canal was built guiding water from near the top of the Bishops Road, along the side of the mountain and into these tanks.

Unfortunately the many rabbits living around here thought that this new embankment was a brilliant place to dig holes into, and the canal soon suffered from severe water shortages.

These days it has been replaced by  black plastic pipes and the sheep washing station has been out of action for many years. Our photograph is a couple of years old. Unfortunately the severe Winter of 2010/2011 dumped so much snow onto the roof of the old building that it collapsed, so only a few old walls can be admired nowadays.

The old sheep washing station in
The sheep washing station
Below are photographs of two old houses which have both disappeared without trace to make room for more modern buildings - but we would like to keep their memory alive.
Our old place
Adams' old place
Billy Moore's old place
Moore's place
The only other houses in Ballyhanna were the two seen below. They are of a much more recent origin. The one on the right was splendidly rebuilt and renovated some years ago. It was meant to be a guest house but unfortunately it burned down and spent most of its life as a smelly ruin.

 The large house on the right below has now disappeared.

Small old
The last old house in Ballyhanna
The burned out guesthouse
The old guest house
George Trimble, whose father was a plumber and who spent most of his life in Limavady, writes:

The house on the left was originally built as a forestry office and store around 1955, it was built by an old Limavady building firm called L.E.Holmes. It had a flush toilet and hand washing  facilities for the forestry workers, the office was used by the head forester who I think was called Joe Andrews.

The house on the right, or the section with the porch, was actually the forester's house where he lived with his family. It was an existing house at that time and was refurbished bringing it up to date with modern bathroom, toilet and kitchen. I can recall working as a young man with my father on the plumbing systems. The cold water supply to the buildings was pumped through iron pipe work from a spring some 300/400 Metres down the valley to the rear of the house using a Hydraulic Ram which I thought at the time was such an amazing piece of equipment using only the water it was pumping to operate it.

(Thank you George.)

The final silent witnesses of the past are some of the rusting agricultural machines and implements abandoned in Ballyhanna. They have survived the frequent rain and are now part of the collection of the author of this page.

On the left is an old hay turning machine. Slightly bent and very rusty, but full of ancient dignity. In the middle is a plough we found sticking out of a hedge-row. It is rather small and it has been suggested that it might be a donkey plough.

On the right is a collection of agricultural implements - or what's left of them - found in an old farmyard with the help of a metal detector. As can be clearly seen, this detector was set to detect iron and ignore gold and other precious metals entirely.

An old grass
              turning machine
An ancient hay turning machine
An old plough
 A rather small plough
Some agricultural
What a metal detector can do for you!

Ballyhanna's infrastructureThe Bishops Road in Ballyhanna

The single major traffic artery bisecting Ballyhanna is the Bishops Road. This connects Limavady with the coastal hamlet of Downhill. The road was built by Frederick Augustus Hervey, fourth Earl of Bristol and Church of Ireland Bishop of Londonderry.

Bristol had a weekend retreat near Downhill, now known as the Bishops Palace, and needed a good road to get from Derry to Downhill in the shortest possible time. As a by-product of this 18th century need for seaside recreation, he built one of the most scenic roads in Northern Ireland, which offers stunning views over Lough Foyle, the Roe Valley and the North Coast.

All other roads in Ballyhanna - and there are very few - can only be described as "minor". In fact, what most of them lack in tarmac, they make up for with an inordinate amount of potholes. 

A telephone relay
              station in Ballyhanna
The only other bits of infrastructure in the townland are the telephone repeater on the left, which these days supplies the Roe Valley with high speed internet access - and the major television relay station on the right, which provides the Roe Valley and distant Derry with all terrestrial television channels.

It is an example of the perversity of modern communications technology, that the only people in the area not able to receive a signal from the masts on the right, are the inhabitants of Ballyhanna.

A televison relay
              station in Ballyhanna


"Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, Parishes of Co. Londonderry III, Vol 11" - ISBN 0 85389 390 X

"The land of the Roe A social and economic history" by Samuel P Mitchell - ISBN 0 9509342 1 6

The Census of Ireland 1911


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