Friday, December 18, 2009

Con O'Neill (15XX - 1618) - the first Ulsterman to be remembered on a gable wall?

Con O'Neill, head of the Clandeboye O'Neills, is a fascinating character. He was the last of the great clan to own the massive areas of Upper Clandeboye, Lower Clandeboye and the Great Ards - which stretched from almost Ballymena to Killyleagh and included the whole of north Down and the Ards Peninsula. I was recently sent a superb article about his estate, and how it was sold off townland by townland.

Con's lifetime saw the end of old medieval Anglo/Irish Ireland and the emergence of a new modern Ulster with Scotland at the centre of Ulster's development.

A clear message of Con O'Neill's life is just how much co-operation there was in east Ulster between him and the lowland Scots, when he traded two thirds of his estate with the Scots Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton. The legal documents of the sale of Con's estate are fascinating records, and prove beyond all doubt that the three men worked in close co-operation with each other.

In particular, Montgomery and O'Neill had a close friendship. After all, it was Montgomery who sprung Con from Carrickfergus Castle, it was Montgomery who secured the Royal pardon for Con in London, and the two men travelled back to Ulster together via Edinburgh.

On 24 December 1605 O'Neill and Montgomery signed "Articles of Agreement" with each other, within which "the parties covenant not to injure each other, but to aid and assist and defend each other and their tenants from wrong". They agreed to hold joint inquiries if any disagreements arose between their tenants, backed by a financial commitment of £1000 to each other, all written in the language of the Scottish laws of the time.

During his latter years Con moved from his grand castle of Castle Reagh to Ballylenaghan / Knockbracken (around 1608), and then to the lower tip of the Ards Peninsula to the remote townland of Tullycarnan (around 1616). Con died around 1618, and was said to have been buried at the old church of Knockcolumbkille, which was situated in what is now Glenmachan or Garnerville in east Belfast. A while ago I found an 1800s drawing of what was claimed to be Con's gravestone, which at that time had been built into the gable wall of a local farm building. It's probably long-gone by now. But it's an ironic Ulsterism that he ended up on a Belfast gable wall!

Con's old estate was in Antrim and Down - two of the counties which weren't included in the "official" Plantation - because by the time it got underway both counties already had a huge Scottish population. Of course you get the usual tiresome old story of "Planter and Gael", a stereotype narrative which seeks to pitch two peoples (incomers and natives) against each other, and which airbrushes away the uniqueness of the Scottish contribution to Ulster by lumping the Scots in with the English settlers. I suspect there's going to be a lot of that over the next few years, with the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Plantation of Ulster in 2010.

But we don't need to reinforce old selective myths and thereby fuel old hostilities. We need to return to the primary sources, the landscapes, the places, the buildings and the artefacts - and look afresh at them to find a newer, fuller, story to tell.


"...The Scots are a middle temper, between the English tender breeding and the Irish rude breeding, and are a great deal more likely to adventure to plant Ulster than the English..."
King James I


Colin Maxwell said...

You really do your homework, Thompson! I'm impressed.

I got the new "Guid wittins frae Doctér Luik" yesterday. I'm glad they kept the Virgin Birth in (as opposed to "maiden" etc.,) and indeed, they slipped it in where the AV doesn't.


Fair fa' ye!