Evidence of people in Glenarm dates back to over 9000 years ago and points to a continuous presence of people in the area. Below is a summary of the different periods and some information on known local sites.
Mesolithic (approx. 9000 to 5500 years ago)
Mesolithic people fished, hunted and gathered for food. They set up temporary camps along coastal sites and along rivers. The combination of a proximity to water for fishing and the forests for hunting and gathering would have made Glenarm an attractive prospect. The abundant local flint would have been used to make blades for weapons and tools such as knives, arrows and axes.
The temporary nature of these sites means that there is not a great deal of archaeological material found compared to more recent occupation periods. However, a number of sites have been found in the area and would suggest there was quite a bit of activity here at this time. Excavations in 1934 by Harvard University uncovered a Mesolithic occupation site at The Cloney. A large amount of flint material was uncovered.
Harvard excavation at the Cloney in 1934 (Photograph from Hallam Movius. A Stone Age Site at Glenarm, Co. Antrim in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Seventh Series, Vol. 7, No.2 (Dec. 31, 1937), pp. 181-220, Fig 2.)
Neolithic (approx. 6000 to 4500 years ago)
The Neolithic or New Stone Age period is marked by the arrival of farming and is associated with a move towards more permanent settlement. Evidence of occupation during this period still tends to be found near to the coast or rivers in areas with looser soil, which could be easily ploughed with the technology available.
A Neolithic site was uncovered to the west of Glenarm Castle during an excavation in the 1960s. The excavation revealed a large number of flint tools. A second site was also discovered during excavation on the cliff platform to the south of Glenarm, near Mad Man’s Window. It is now the site of a quarry.
Megalithic (Large Stone) tombs can also date to the Neolithic period. This type of burial is thought to have been reserved for the burial of important people as they create a significant marker on the landscape for many years. There are records of such sites in the area but they have never been discovered.
The geology around Glenarm features a lot of limestone containing layers of flint nodules. When the flint is struck or ‘knapped’ with a hard stone sharp pieces can be broken off to create tools or weapons. Flint tools were traded within and beyond Ireland. Worked flint can still be found along the beaches along much of the Antrim coast, including Glenarm.
Bronze Age (approx. 4500 to 2500 years ago)
The Bronze Age is characterised by the arrival of a new technology, resulting in metal tools and weapons. Although flint was very sharp and strong, it is easily chipped meaning that the blades would have to be reworked or replaced quite frequently. The new metal technology would have associated with wealth and prestige. This led to a more hierarchical society than the previous egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups.
A new pottery culture known as Beaker pottery is also associated with the arrival of metal. Beaker ware has been discovered at the archaeological site near Mad Man’s window, mentioned above.
The tradition of building megalithic tombs continued in the Bronze Age, Gowkstown wedge tomb is believed to date to this period. Standing stones and stone circles can also date to the Bronze Age, such as the standing stone at Mullaghsandall on the Killyglen Road.
Iron Age (approx. 2500 to 1500 years ago)
There is not much evidence of this period in the Glenarm area, the nearest known site is Knockdhu Promontory Fort. This site features massive banks and ditches running for 300 metres, cutting off the promontory from the rest of the upland Antrim plateau. Excavations
Early Christian (approx. 850 to 1550 years ago)
The Early Christian period is well represented in the archaeological record and also marks the beginning of the historical record. Around 500AD Glenarm lay within the kingdom or tribe known as Dalriada, who occupied the coastal area from Glenarm to Bushmills.
In terms of archaeological remains, ringforts (also known as raths, forts, cashels) are the most common sites of this period. Ringforts were small fortified farmstead and were scattered throughout Ireland and there are a number around Glenarm. These farmsteads protected cattle, which were very valuable at this time. Due to improvements in ploughing technology, groups were also able to spread out to live in areas with more difficult soil conditions.
This period was a very unsettled time in the Glenarm and County Antrim area. Souterrains such as that at nearby Dickeystown, built during the Early Christian period, were underground tunnels and caves built to store valuables and as locations to seek refuge.
Medieval (approx. 500 to 850 years ago)
There are a number of buildings in the Glenarm area dating to the medieval period. Some historical sources suggest that the layout of Glenarm town may be medieval. It is believed that Glenarm was awarded town status in 1206 by King John. According to Samuel Lewis in 1837 the town ‘contains 145 houses, and is said to have been incorporated by a charter of King John, in the 4th year of his reign; but since the conquest of Ulster it has not exercised any municipal privileges.’
The medieval period was a very turbulent time in this Ireland. A medieval castle, built by the Bissets in 1242 was destroyed in 15th Century. It was later known as the market and court house and is now used as a Baptist Hall.
In the 15th Century the Bisset family built a Friary at the north of the village, beside St Patrick’s Church of Ireland. The Franciscan Friary, built around 1456, was one of the largest third order friaries in Ulster. The abbey and its lands were granted to Alexander MacDonnell in 1557. Remains of the friary can still be seen in the church graveyard.
Suggested reconstruction of Glenarm Friary from Chris Lynn, Some fragments of carved stone from the site of Glenarm Friary County Antrim.
In 2006 an archaeological excavation of part of the site was required when some improvement works were happening at St Patrick’s Church. The excavation revealed the chancel of the present church was built on top of one of the friary walls. There are some stone remains of the friary now on display in St Patrick’s.