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Beann Mhadagáin
Cavehill, Belfast.jpg
Elevation 370 m (1,210 ft)
Location near Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Coordinates 54°38′49″N 5°57′04″W / 54.647°N 5.951°W / 54.647; -5.951Coordinates: 54°38′49″N 5°57′04″W / 54.647°N 5.951°W / 54.647; -5.951
Easiest route Hike

Cavehill, historically known as Ben Madigan (from Irish: Beann Mhadagáin), is a basaltic hill overlooking the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland. It forms part of the southeastern border of the Antrim Plateau. It is distinguished by its famous 'Napoleon's Nose',[1] a basaltic outcrop which resembles the profile of the famous emperor Napoleon. Cavehill is also the name of an electoral ward in Belfast.

All of Belfast can be seen from its peak, as can the Isle of Man and Scotland on clear days. Like Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, it lies just a few miles from the centre of a major city.

Cavehill is thought to be the inspiration for Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Swift imagined that the Cavehill resembled the shape of a sleeping giant safeguarding the city.[2]


Cavehill rises to almost 370 metres (1200 ft) above sea level. Most of its lower east side lies on the Belfast Castle estate, which has as its focal point the imposing 19th-century Scottish baronial castle. The castle was designed by Charles Lanyon and constructed by the Marquess of Donegall in 1872 in the Deer Park. The slopes of Cavehill were originally used as farmland but, from the 1880s, a major planting exercise was undertaken, producing the now familiar deciduous and coniferous woodland landscape. Belfast Castle estate was given to Belfast city by the 8th Earl of Shaftesbury in 1934.

McArt's fort with Belfast in the background

The caves[edit]

There are three large caves. The lowest is 21 feet (6.4 m) long, 18 feet (5.5 m) wide and varies from 7 to 10 feet (3.0 m) in height. Above this is another cave; 10 feet (3.0 m) long, 7 feet (2.1 m) wide and 6 feet (1.8 m) in height. Above this is the third major cave, said to be divided into 2 unequal parts, each of which is more extensive than the larger of the other caves, but the ascent is notoriously dangerous and thus few venture to it.The caves are man-made, and it is postulated that they were originally excavated for iron-mining.

Adjacent to the lowest cave is 'The Devil's Punchbowl', also sometimes called 'The Devil's Cauldron', a site where ancient Celtic farmers corralled their cattle. This consists mainly of a steep hill, mainly of rocks and boulders, and is considered dangerous to amateurs.

McArt's Fort[edit]

This fort, on the summit of the hill, is an example of an old ráth or ring fort. It is protected on one side by a precipice and on the others by a single ditch, 10 feet (3.0 m) in depth and 25 feet (7.6 m) in width; a vallum of large dimensions. The enclosed area is nearly level. The flat top of the fort is 150 feet (46 m) from north to south, and 180 feet (55 m) from east to west.

It is believed that the fort's inhabitants used the caves to store white foods for the winter and may have served as a refuge during times of attack.


McArts fort overlooking Belfast
Eastern prospect looking towards Carrickfergus and Scotland
Overlooking Belfast Lough
Cavehill from north Belfast

The hill was known in the original Gaelic as Beann Mhadagáin (meaning "Madigan's hill"), after one of two Kings of Ulaid: Matudán mac Muiredaig, who ruled from 839 to 857 A.D., or a later king, Matudán mac Áeda (reigned 937–950 A.D.). The later king's grandson, Eochaid mac Ardgail, was killed at the battle of Crew Hill in 1004, in which the Men of Ulster were defeated by their old enemies, the Cenél nEógain. It is from him that McArt's fort derived its name.

The residential neighbourhood at the foot of Cave Hill's entrance is derivatively known as Ben Madigan, with street names to match, and is a wealthy semi-outer city, semi-suburban area. The name 'Ben Madigan' can also be found attached to buildings, schools etc. close to the area, e.g. the Belfast Royal Academy has the Ben Madigan Preparatory School on the Antrim Road.

United Irishmen Theobald Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken met at Cavehill in 1795 to take an oath to launch the rebellion of 1798. McCracken was captured on Cavehill in 1798.

The crowning stone Giant's Chair of the O'Neill clan was apparently sited on Cavehill summit until 1896 and gave its name to the nearby Throne Hospital. The Cavehill Throne was destroyed by loyalists in December 1896 after a reference was made to it in an article in the nationalist paper 'Shan Van Bocht'. Parts of it may be available to view at the Ulster Museum.[citation needed]

During World War II, a bomb dropped prematurely during a German bombing raid on Belfast exploded, causing a large crater near the grounds of Belfast Castle. It is understood that RAF Bomber Command was situated on Cavehill in the early years of WWII before relocating to Castle Archdale in Fermanagh. Hence the German bomb may have been intentional.

On 1 June 1944, an American Air Force B-17 bomber crashed into Cavehill during heavy fog, killing all ten crew instantly. The incident inspired Richard Attenborough's film, Closing the Ring. Some scenes of the film were shot on Cavehill.


The hill owes its characteristic shape to Paleocene basalt lava flows, from 66 million years ago. This is underlain by Cretaceous—145 million years—Ulster White Limestone and below this is Jurassic—200 million years—Waterloo Mudstone Formation, more commonly known as Lias clay.

Limestone was mined on the southern flanks of Cavehill in Victorian times and transported to Belfast docks by way of a horse-worked railway along the Limestone Road. The railroad was abandoned in the 1890s. Two small hamlets—Daddystown and Mammystown—were built on either side of the railway track in the early 1820s as dwellings for quarry workers. Some of the local avenues and streets bear the name 'Waterloo', in reference to their geological origins.

Tourism and recreation[edit]

Cavehill Country Park, Belfast Zoo and Belfast Castle are magnets for locals and tourists alike. In the 18th century the townfolk of Belfast flocked there on Easter Monday for the Cavehill fete, near a spring known as the 'Volunteers' Well'. The summits offers stunning views southwards over Belfast City and Lough towards the Mourne Mountains, Scrabo Tower and Slieve Croob. On a clear day, the eastern prospect reveals views of Carrickfergus, the Mull of Galloway in Scotland and the Isle of Man.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ BBC News website
  2. ^ "Belfast Hills". Discover Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Retrieved 2007-05-18. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Reynolds, Philip; Turner, Samuel (1902). "The Caves in Ben Madighan". Ulster Journal of Archaeology (Belfast: McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, Limited) 8: 73–82. Retrieved 13 August 2012. 

External links[edit]