Downhill, Benone & Magilligan Rare Poem
Downhill Strand, more commonly referred to as Benone Strand, is a stunning seven mile long beach on the North coast of Ireland. The iconic Mussenden Temple stands majestically above it. I have spent many happy days in the area. It is a must-see for any one visiting the area.
Here are a few fragments of an exceptionally rare poem from 1794, by John Searson, about Downhill and Magilligan. Searson was formerly a merchant from New York, who subsequently made his home on the North Coast of Ireland and found employment as the “Late Master” of the Freeschool in Coleraine. The Freeschool (sometimes referred to as Free-school in the media of the early 1800s) was in Freeschool Lane, which was near Bishop Street in the town.
I discovered a few parts of the original prose in two local newspapers – the Londonderry Sentinel and the Coleraine Chronicle – from May 1898. Apparently way back then, David Hamilton of Limavady had a copy of the poem in his possession and gave the Londonderry Sentinel access. There were only a handful of others who had copies – seemingly: Connolly McCausland, of Fruithill, who had twenty-one copies of the original work. Other copies were held by George Ash of Ashbrook, the Reverend Babington, William Church, Mrs. “Willson” of Derry; the Reverend William Scott, Thomas Skipton, James Major of Derry; Henry Newton, the Reverend John Pit Kennedy, the Reverend Knox of Anlew. Other subscribers included: Leckys, Giveens, Lyles, and Waddys.
John Searson says that he wrote the poem during a winter’s retirement at a gentleman’s seat at Magilligan. He adds that he was “surrounded with the proper materials for poetic amusement – namely, ponderous rocks, caskeads of water, large grazing flocks, the exercise of hunting, and an extensive marine prospect.”
The work, which apparently covers several pages of prose, is described in the Derry newspaper as a “Rural Pathetic and very Sublime Performance.” It’s unclear if that is the title. But I much prefer as title the beautiful line: “I almost said a palace, near the sea.” Without further adue, here are some lines to wet your emotional tastebuds, of a gentleman on a winter walk along Downhill beach in 1794.
In subsequent pages, John Searson makes glowing reference to the interior of the beautiful house overlooking the ocean at Downhill, “where gods and goddesses appear still more.”
He also makes reference to the death of his close friend Cust, “whose dear remains I saw interred in dust.” And at a later point, Searson mentions Castle Lecky. He has glowing praise for it’s owner.
I knew him well, and when he built this place,
’Twas always happiness to see his face.
Always obliging to the rich and poor,
None went away disgusted from his door,
Longevity seem’d painted in his walk and mien,
Temp’rance and health was always round him seen.
In another line, the writer refers to spending time with a local friend: “To my friend Alexander’s I will go, and sweetly pass an evening hour or so.” And lest someone, of modern times, is tracing their Smith family roots from the late 1700s, it may be worthwhile to add that the author states in one line: “I pass the house of Robert Smith, Esquire.”
On to the fascinating poem is appended a prayer apparently full of earnest devotion.
Referring to Searson’s earthly foes, the author says:
Even to their markethouse they call,
A junto to their band,
And nothing less than prostrate down,
Before them I must stand.
Note, ‘Markethouse’ most commonly is a reference to where a local market is held – but sometimes it was used to refer to an alehouse/bar. The term “junto” is first seen in print in 1623. It refers to a faction, a clique, or an ingroup. It would appear that John Searson felt, for whatever reason, very much like an outsider among some locals.