Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The sweeper of Dunluce

The Curran Index reports that handwritten author credit for this piece in the Once a Week account book appears to read "H. G. Pechell;" that would then most likely be Hervey Charles. Illustrated by Henry George Hine.


On the northern coast of Antrim, about midway between Portrush and the Giant’s Causeway, perched on a rock almost wholly separated from the mainland by a precipitous chasm, stand the romantic and interesting ruins of the castle of Dunluce. They are endowed with peculiarly impressive associations, and for those who take a melancholy pleasure in the contemplation of the grandeur of things whose glory has faded, there could hardly be found a spot which could rouse more poetic or pathetic imagination, from the idea it gives of decayed strength and majestic solitude. You cannot tear yourself away from this magic spot where you wander with rapture. Its walls convey the idea of being fraught with reminiscences of dark and hidden deeds, and the roaring of the wild waves, as they dash irritably on the rocks some hundred feet below, seems to struggle to give utterance to some painful secret of which they alone have been witnesses. The sole means of entering the fortress is by a bridge, of about fifteen inches in width, which spans with a single arch the dreadful abyss beneath, and being unprotected wholly on either side, requires a steady head and foot to enable you to cross it; though the idea of falling is far worse than the actual danger of doing so. Hollowed out of the rock on which the castle is built, and immediately beneath it, is a cavern of vast dimensions, and the beating surge re-echoes with thundering monotony through its lofty recesses.

If you have courage to cross the bridge, on reaching the other side, you are conducted to the right, into a circular apartment called Mava’s Tower, and are desired to remark how carefully it is swept.

“Who undertakes that office?” you ask.

“No living being,” is the answer. “Every night this prison-like chamber is swept like a ballroom, and yet no one enters it.”

“Who, then, keeps it in order?”

“Mava, the Sweeper of Dunluce, and the banshee of the Macquillains, the ancient lords of Dunluce.”

In the fifteenth century, Mava (according to the old legend connected with the spot), a young girl of seventeen, was the only daughter of the Lord of Dunluce. Gentle and charitable, she rose at day-break, and went forth daily to relieve the wants of her father’s poor dependents.

“Look at her!” said the shepherds, as they saw her pass along, “she is as bright as the spring sun, and fairer than the morning star.”

But, alas! a handsome cavalier had met her several times in her walks. He had even spoken to her. Who was he? Mava had not discovered; she only knew him by the name of he. When she saw a bark glide slowly and secretly under the castle-walls,—she felt her heart beat.

“It is he!” she said. When, at eve, a distant voice was heard in the cliffs—“It is he!” she said,— “He!” That word said all. There is but one he in a woman’s life.

The secret of her love was soon revealed to the Lord of Dunluce.

Macquillain, the proudest of chiefs, was the harshest of fathers. He vowed the year should not pass without her being married to the son of one of his powerful neighbours. “I will die first,” thought the young girl, and anticipating, as it were, the sacrifice of her life, she began to prepare her shroud. Happiness could no longer be hers, since she could now be nothing to him.

Her father, one day, finding her sewing a white robe, asked her drily:

“Is that a bridal dress?”

“No, my father,” answered she, “it is a shroud for my tomb.”

“A shroud! We shall see that.”

“Yes, father, you shall see it.”

These words were uttered in a prophetic tone. Macquillain seemed troubled by them. Unfortunately Mava had no longer a mother to defend her against her father. The lord of the castle shaken in his determination, for an instant, persisted in it more firmly than ever. Convinced that he had exhausted all means of persuasion with his daughter, he tried what severity would effect.

The poor child, condemned henceforward to see no living thing, was shut up in one of the towers of Dunluce. Her food was thrust in through an opening in the wall: she herself was obliged to make her bed and sweep her chamber. She had nothing near her but the walls of her prison,—no hope, save the tomb; no support, but prayer. Mava, resigned to her fate, took her broom every evening and swept her chamber in silence.

“You have only to say one word,” cried Macquillain, one day from without, “and I will restore you to liberty. Promise to wed the noble chief, whom I have destined to be your husband.”

Mava made no answer.

“Speak! child. What is your resolution?”

“To sweep my chamber.”

“For how long?”

“For ever!”

“Another dismal prophecy?” replied Macquillain. You think to frighten me with your sybilline tone, but you will not succeed. Are you still making your shroud?”

“It is finished; you shall see it.”

The lord of the castle began now to feel remorse; he was convinced that nothing would shake Mava’s determination. Either he must yield or she must die. Paternal love was not extinct in his heart; fear revived the flame of his affection. He had but this one child: could he make up his mind to lose her? but the pride of the castellan spoke as loudly as the affection of the sire. To yield to his daughter, to confess himself conquered and to retract his sentence would be an unpardonable weakness. He would be laughed at everywhere. Could he subject himself to such an indignity?

Macquillain had obtained exact information respecting Mava’s lover. Reginald was of noble birth, brave, and well-connected; wealth alone was wanting. Enough. The castellan’s resolution was taken. He would not yield to his daughter—he would not revoke his decision; but he would save his child.

One day, Mava, alone in her turret, holding her fatal broom, with her head leaning on the handle of this instrument of toil, was shedding bitter tears. On a sudden she heard the well-known sound of music of a harp through the bars of her window; the sounds came from a fisherman’s skiff which lay alongside the shore. That morning she had seen her father leave the castle with an escort of soldiers. Armed cap-a-pie, he was doubtless gone on some expedition, and would not return for several days. Mava began anew to hope.

“That boat is his,” said she; “he comes and I shall escape from this my prison by his means, and for him.”

Alas! the sea began to swell; the wind to whistle menacingly, and peals of thunder rumbled from the darkening shades which were sweeping in fast from the ocean, almost drowning the sweet and clear chords of the minstrel in the boat, which had become the sport of the elements, and, ere long, was impelled by the hurricane to the foot of the rocks beneath the castle. Was it about to be dashed in pieces there? No; the brave hand that steered it braved the billows that assailed it in broken and impetuous fury. It glided in between the rocks, and was lost to view under the steep rock which overhung the cavern of the castle.

The captive scarcely breathed. What a surprise awaited her! A key turned in the lock of her prison; one of the servitors of the castle, in a brown cloak, advanced towards her:

“You shall be saved!” said he. “Follow me!”

“And he?” she asked.

“And he also.”

“Whither must I go?”

“Under the cavern of the fort. He awaits you. Come quickly.”

“I am ready.”

Mava followed her guide, she learned from him that her lover, having procured information respecting the localities, had bribed the gaoler of the tower. Heaven seconded his designs.

Reginald perceived a glimmering light at the far end of the cavern. Mava advanced towards him, pale and trembling; her white dress torn by the rough projections of the cave; her feet wounded by the sharp pebbles which she had to traverse. What matter? She approached, she reached him.

Who could describe their transport. They forgot their dangers and their situation, their misfortunes and the storm. Years, trials, time and tide were all alike forgotten.

“Fly, fly, and speedily,” exclaimed the gaoler.

The lovers quitted the cavern, and the frail boat emerged on the open stormy sea.

Thus did Mava leave her home.


From one of the windows of the fortress, a man completely armed watched the fugitives. This was none other than Macquillain. His departure had been only a feint, and during the storm, under cover of the darkness, he had re-entered the castle unperceived. He had himself arranged everything to facilitate his daughter’s escape, and had played into Reginald’s hands. The gaoler, who had opened the prison door, was the most devoted servant he possessed, and obeyed, while he appeared to betray him. Macquillain now felt confident of the success of his scheme. He rejoiced to have discovered the means of restoring life and happiness to his child, without having in any way sacrificed his pride. Circumstances alone had changed their positions; and Providence appearing to direct everything, his own amour-propre was saved. He could not take his eyes off the little boat, as he saw it disappearing in the darkness which was creeping over the view. The little white figure in the stern was the focus on which his eyes were immoveably fixed. The crests of the boiling waves showed themselves fearfully white against the dark hollow depths from which they rose.

“Alas!” said he to himself, “that I should be obliged thus to see my daughter driven from her father and her home, and myself the cause of it. Those two beings at this moment, think of nothing but their love. Night has no darkness, the storm no terrors for them. It matters not, I am content; Mava will forget me, I am resigned even to that; may she be happy—without me. I have saved her, but I weep for her!”

But a fearful retribution for his mistaken harshness was at hand. The tempest increased each moment in fury. The frail bark hurried along by the storm with resistless violence, now mounted to the summit, and now sank down in the abyss of waters beneath. No succour could be given; all was lost—hopelessly lost. The wretched father beheld with his own eyes the fate of his child, and it was he himself, it was his own blind pride, that had hurled her into the gulf. He perceived amid the flashes of lightning, his daughter on her knees in the boat with her hands raised to Heaven. The boat was perfectly unmanageable, and was being driven in towards the land, and must inevitably be dashed ere long upon the rocks. Reginald was doing his utmost to resist the fury of the waves, but even the agony of his position could not render his efforts of any avail against the cruel force of the remorseless ocean. Macquillain fancied he heard a mournful cry come upon the winds amid the howling and crashing of the hurricane; and thought he heard the words:

“My father!”

He saw the white figure throw up her hands, and dart towards Reginald, who panting and exhausted, was still manfully striving for what was dearer to him than his life. The little frail bark was again for one long moment distinguishable on the tops of the waves, the next was lost for ever in the whirl and vortex of the waters which yawned over it. It had dashed against the Skerries, and broken in a thousand pieces, had disappeared for ever from the scene.

At this dreadful moment, the castellan forgot all his pride and resolutions: he rushed from his retreat. He was heedless of all that might be thought or said. A father’s love and anguish for the loss of an only child alone animated him. He would save his daughter before all things, at the price of his fortune, his reputation, and his life. His daughter! All else was nothing to him.

“Dunluce, and half my wealth to him who will restore my child to me,” he shrieked, in paroxysms of despair. Alas! that even gold should be so powerless!

The servants of the castle ran down in numbers to the foot of the White Rocks, opposite the Skerries, many of them with torches. They had boats, and ropes, and were aided by sailors and divers, who feared neither sea nor storm; but hell itself seemed to have risen against the lovers of Dunluce. The boats were driven back on the shore, and shattered upon the rocks, the sailors and swimmers were swallowed up by the waves. The flashes of lightning ceased to play, now that their glare might have assisted in showing something of the position of the unfortunate victims, but the storm still continued. Macquillain wringing his hands, and tearing his hair, would fain have plunged into the sea.

“But an instant ago she lived,” he cried, “and then I said I weep for her! Oh! I knew not what it was to weep; Mava! my child—my life.”

Yet one more ray of hope. A man was seen swimming towards the shore; he bore along with him the figure in white. It was Reginald and Mava. He was redoubling his efforts in the struggle, when a frightful wave met him; it struck the unhappy lover, and hurled him against a rock; his skull was fractured—

On the following day, at early dawn, the body of Reginald was found on the strand, between the White Rocks and Portrush. As for the virgin of Dunluce, she had disappeared for ever. The sea never restored its victim.

Macquillain, almost mad with grief, wandered frequently along the shore, calling upon the name of his daughter. One day he was passing beneath the tower, where his captive had shed so many tears. He raised his head. Oh! strange vision. He fancied he beheld Mava at the bars of her window. She had her broom in her hand, and was clad in a shroud.

Bereft of reason, he cried:—

“For how long?”

“For ever.”

And the figure with her eyes fixed on Macquillain, continued sweeping. She showed him her shroud. He fancied he heard the words:

“It is finished: you see it.”

Since that time, at a particular hour, the sweeper of the turret never ceased to appear, cleaning her room, as of old, in spite of all obstacles.

She became the Banshee of the Macquillain family, and always appeared before the death of any of the family.

The Banshee has ceased to appear, for she can no longer announce death to the Macquillains. Her broom alone keeps constantly moving, and this is to last for ever.

R. V. P.