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Cave Hill
Beann Mhadagáin
Cavehill, Belfast.jpg
Highest point
Elevation368 m (1,207 ft)
Coordinates54°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
Locationnear Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Easiest routeHike

Cave Hill, sometimes spelled as Cavehill,[1] is a basaltic hill overlooking the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. It forms part of the southeastern border of the Antrim Plateau. It is distinguished by its 'Napoleon's Nose',[2] a basaltic outcrop which resembles the profile of the emperor Napoleon. Cave Hill spelt as Cavehill is also the name of an electoral ward in Belfast. Previously it was known as Collinward Mountain, and more historically as Ben Madigan, which is derived from the Irish Beann Mhadagáin, meaning "Madagán’s peak"—so named after a king of Ulster called Madagán who died in 856AD.[1]

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. It approximately takes up to 1 hour to fully get to ‘Napoleon’s nose’.

Cave Hill is thought to be the inspiration for Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Swift imagined that the Cave Hill resembled the shape of a sleeping giant safeguarding the city.[3]


Cave Hill rises to 368 metres (1,207 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 3rd Marquess of Donegall in 1872 in the Deer Park. The slopes of Cave Hill 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 the City of Belfast by The 9th 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 top of the cliff, 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
Cave Hill 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 allegedly met at Cave Hill in 1795 to take an oath to launch the rebellion of 1798. McCracken was captured on Cave Hill in 1798.

The crowning stone Giant's Chair of the O'Neill clan was apparently sited on Cave Hill summit until 1896 and gave its name to the nearby Throne Hospital.[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 Cave Hill in the early years of World War II before relocating to Castle Archdale in County Fermanagh. Hence the German bomb may have been intentional.

On 1 June 1944, an American Air Force B-17 bomber crashed into Cave Hill 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 Cave Hill. The site of the crash is easily accessed via Carr's Glen Country Park where the field, known locally as 'The Bomb hole Field' remains entirely open to public.


The hill owes its characteristic shape to Paleocene basalt lava flows, from 65 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 Cave Hill 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]

Cave Hill 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 Cave Hill 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. ^ a b Place Names NI. "Cave Hill". Retrieved 14 January 2015.
  2. ^ BBC News website
  3. ^ "Belfast Hills". Discover Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Retrieved 18 May 2007.

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]