Mining was for long an important feature of local industry. Coal mining in the Ballycastle to Fair Head area dates from the seventeenth century, but took a great leap forward in the eighteenth. In 1717, the Irish Parliament offered a prize of £1,000 to anyone who could deliver 500 tons of Irish coal to Dublin. Two Dublin merchants secured the local mining rights, and won the prize in 1720, but it was a local man, Hugh Boyd, who developed the industry, securing the mining rights in 1736. He opened new mines and extended the existing ones, and by the 1750s was employing over 100 men, exporting over 5,000 tons a year. He developed other industries in Ballycastle, setting up a glass factory, a brewery, a bleach works, a soap works, and a sandstone quarry. He bought the town from the Earl of Antrim in 1727, and petitioned parliament to build a quay and harbour. It was a one-man industrial revolution but it came to an end after his death in 1765.
Technical problems, and the cheapness of imported coal, brought an end to large-scale coalmining, though if lingered on a tiny scale until the 1950s. Iron and aluminium have also been mined. Iron ore mining took place in several locations in the Glens. James Fisher at Ballynahavla was the first to develop this industry, and several rivals emerged in the 1870s and 80s, but foreign competition killed the industry, which finally died out by the 1920s. Bauxite, the principal ore of aluminium, took over as iron ore mining declined, and continued to be mined up to the Second World War, when there was a new demand because of the need for aluminium-framed aircraft.
Whiskey distilling in the Bushmills area has been traced back to 1494, but it was in 1608 that a licence to make “aquavita” was granted to Sir Thomas Phillips, and this was the beginning of the world’s oldest distillery. The water used in the manufacture of this product has always come from St Columb’s Rill, a tributary of the River Bush. The water used for the distillation rises in peaty ground and flows over basalt rock. Bushmills is unusual in that the major processes-malt distillation, blending, maturation and bottling-are all carried on at the same site. There were formerly distilleries at Coleraine and Limavady.
Linen was one of Ulster’s major industries from the eighteenth century onwards. Although it was concentrated in the Belfast area, there were at the end of the nineteenth century also linen mills in Ballymena, Balnamore near Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Larne and Limavady. The finest fabrics came from Coleraine, and the name Coleraine ‘colerains’ was given to the finest quality linen cloths, even if they were manufactured elsewhere. Several of the leading Belfast mills were actually outside the city, in Doagh, Mossley, Whiteabbey and Whitehouse. Mossley Mill is now the headquarters of Newtownabbey Council. Flax, the crop from which the linen was made, was grown extensively, though eventually replaced by foreign imports. Scutching mills were common in the countryside, removing the useless parts of the flax plant before spinning can take place.
Agriculture was the dominant occupation, with potatoes, oats, hay and flax as the mainstays, and also barley, wheat and beans. The Braid area and the Bann Valley are two of the best farming areas in the province. Cattle and sheep were grazed extensively. The breeding and rearing of sheep has traditionally been carried out in the Glens, where the limestone escarpments have been a very suitable sheep-rearing environment.
Chalk, or white limestone, quarried at places along the coast and burnt in lime kilns to reduce it to a powdery mixture, was spread over the fields, to reduce the acidity of the soil. Seaweed, was also used on the soil, and burnt in kilns to produce kelp, which was used in the making of soda for the linen industry, and in the manufacture of iodine. In the form of dulse and carrageen, it is also edible, and considered by some a delicacy. Fishing supplemented farming, with salmon being especially prized. The most famous salmon fishery was at Carrick-a-Rede. Lobsters and crabs were trapped along the coast, and sea trout and herring netted.
Tourism needed improvements in communications before it could be developed. The area from Larne to Ballycastle was isolated until the building of the Antrim Coast Road between 1832 and 1842. At a cost of £37,000, this was the biggest civil engineering project in Ireland up to that time. The director was William Bald, a Scottish engineer, but Charles Lanyon, remembered today as Belfast’s greatest architect, was also involved. Lanyon designed the Glendun Viaduct, the most impressive of the many bridges on the route. Railways also opened up the area, with most places covered by 1860, though it was not until 1880 that trains reached Ballycastle.
The Giant’s Causeway Tramway, the first hydro-electric powered line in the world, was opened in 1883, and did not finally close until 1949. It covered the six miles from Portrush to the Giants Causeway, and helped establish the hitherto neglected natural wonder as one of the world’s great attractions.
The development of sea services between Larne and Stranraer was also a great boost to tourism, and Henry McNeill was the great pioneer, bringing over many visitors from Scotland and England to his hotels, which included Garron Tower, and developing some of the earliest package tours. The railway brought people from Belfast to Parkmore Station and then they were taken down Glenariffe by jaunting car – a memorable “day out” for city dwellers.