Travelling in Britain and Ireland can be quite damp. While there are certainly moments of glorious sunshine, any traveller should also be prepared for days and days of drizzle, grey skies, and mud. Yet this can be a bonus for viewing historical monuments, adding drama and mystery to the landscape. Northern Ireland is one place that sees its fair share of rain each year, as I discovered on this circular drive around several key sites of the ancient Kingdom of Ulster.
Ulster is today mostly a geographical concept, a ‘traditional province’, and it is divided between the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and the three counties that became part of the Republic of Ireland when these two political entities were separated in 1921-22. The name comes from a Norse form of the Irish words Ulaidh, the tribes that lived in the area, and tír, or land. The instantly recognisable symbol of the province is the red hand, the symbol of the O’Neill family since about the 13th century, but with legends stretching back much earlier, to a king’s bloody hand on a white banner used to rally soldiers in battle. Since the 16th century, the red hand of Ulster has become a symbol of resistance to English rule.
I encountered another powerful visual symbol of O’Neill authority in this region on one of my first days of a trip I took in April 2018 to Belfast to attend a history conference. In the magnificent Ulster Museum next to Queen’s University I marvelled at an ancient stone slab that was once the princely ‘inauguration chair’ of one of the branches of the O’Neills, the Clandeboye, from Castlereagh in County Down.
This was a good inspiration for the circular trip I then set off on around Ulster—staying within Northern Ireland; the Republic counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan would have to wait for another trip. In this journey, I explored sites associated with Ireland’s ancient past, coronation mounds and sacred burial spots, and some that were more modern, such as the seat of the Irish branch of the great Scottish house of Hamilton, the dukes of Abercorn. I did this loop in only five days, partly to meet up with an appointment to give a talk at Ulster University-Coleraine; a much more leisurely trip would certainly yield more treasures. As usual, I like to drive with local music wherever possible, so I found a nifty CD from a London band (with Ulster roots) called Lick the Tins, who had hits in the 1980s with a cover of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ and ‘Belle of Belfast City’, which I offer here.
On my first morning out in the car, I wanted to get into the countryside swiftly, so I did not go to two of the largest built attractions in the Belfast area, Carrickfergus Castle to the north or Hillsborough to the south, and instead headed east towards the coast and deep into County Down. This was O’Neill of Clandeboye country. This branch of the old royal house of Ulster pushed eastwards in the 14th century and took over the areas now known as Down and Antrim (to the north). They took their name as the Clan of Hugh the Blonde (Clann Aodha Bhuide), today spelled often as Clandeboye, Claneboye or Clanaboy. Their main seats of power were in Castlereagh, noted above (just outside Belfast), Bangor, further east on the coast, or Edenduffcarrick, in western Antrim, on the northeast shore of Lough Neagh (the large lake in the middle of Northern Ireland). The latter changed its name to Shane’s Castle in the 16th century, and has been the seat of Earls, then Barons O’Neill since the 19th century (whose surname was Chichester, but descend from O’Neills in the female line).
The first major castle I came across that first morning out was Killyleagh, at times part of the Clandeboye story, but more prominently forming a centre of English power. Built by one of the first Anglo-Norman invaders of the 12th century, John de Courcy, as a defence against Vikings (or so the guidebooks say, even though Viking power in Ireland had pretty much dwindled by the 1180s, and surely the Normans themselves could be considered Vikings of a sort—we should always be slightly wary of things repeated in guidebooks). It is dramatically poised on a hill overlooking Strangford Lough and strategically watching over the channel that connects the lough to the sea.
The castle and its lordship became part of the Clandeboye territories as the Norman earldom of Ulster crumbled in the 14th century, but following the destruction of power and the redistribution of the lands of the native Celtic princes at the end of the 16th century, Killyleagh was given to a loyal servant of King James I, James Hamilton (a distant kinsman of the main branch of Hamiltons who became dukes in Scotland—see my separate posting for them). Hamilton acted an agent and informant for the King in this part of Ireland, and was rewarded with one of the confiscated O’Neill baronies in 1602. He brought Protestant settlers over from Scotland and was given the title Viscount Claneboye in 1622. His son, also James, attempted to keep the region loyal to the Crown during the Civil Wars of the 1640s, and rebuilt the castle towers to fend off the invasion from Cromwell, and was raised to an earldom, of Clanbrassil, in 1647 (this name is taken from estates further to the west in County Armagh). This line came to an end in 1675; the earldom was re-created for a cousin in 1756 (already Baron Claneboye); but extinct again in 1798. A cadet branch had already taken over the lands and castle of Killyleagh, and as the double-barrelled Rowan-Hamiltons, still inhabit it today. It was largely re-designed in the 19th century to resemble a French Renaissance château from the Loire Valley.
Meanwhile, the dispossessed O’Neill Clandeboye chieftains emigrated first to France, where they were prominent soldiers in the Jacobite armies who fought for the king of France in the 18th century, then to Portugal in mid-century, where they remain today. They have estates and palaces around Setubal, outside Lisbon, and the head of the family regards himself as ‘The O’Neill’, or head of the entire Clan O’Neill (and they also sometimes claim the earldom of Tyrone, the family’s more senior title; see more on this below). He is also sometimes called ‘Prince of Clanaboy’. One was prominent in the mid-19th century, an intimate of the Portuguese royal family, served as a prominent official in the judiciary, and was created Viscount of Santa Monica in 1876. Today’s Clan Chief is Hugo O’Neill.
I couldn’t go inside Killyleagh, but the sun came out so I was pleased to press onward towards the coast, and drove up a rather steep hill into the town of Downpatrick, and even further up to the Cathedral, a special place for all of Ireland as the supposed burial place of Saint Patrick himself. The town is named for the Fort of Patrick (Dún Pádraig), though it seems to have been called ‘fort’ (and given its name to the surrounding county of Down) long before. Details of Patrick’s life are murky, but notionally he was born in northern Britannia, came to Hibernia (Ireland) to convert the locals to Christianity, and after his death sometime in the 5th or early 6th century, was buried here, along with the bodies of St Columba (who travelled in the opposite direction, from Ireland to Scotland, and died in the late 6th century) and St Brigit (originally from Kildare near Dublin). Both Columba and Brigit’s remains (or parts of them) were brought here later, in the 9th century. The very traditional looking stone marking the spot was in fact placed here in the early 20th century, but there are crosses inside the Cathedral and in the local museum that genuinely date back to the 9th century.
The town of Downpatrick became a centre of English settlement in the north of Ireland from the 13th century onward, and Down Cathedral is today part of the (Protestant) Church of Ireland, not Catholic. The name was also used more recently as the third of the titles given to Prince George, the Duke of Kent, on the occasion of his marriage in 1934 (along with the earldom of St Andrews). Today, the grandson of the current Duke, Edward Windsor, is called ‘Lord Downpatrick’. Such titles are a means by which the royal family demonstrates its shared interests in all parts of the United Kingdom, not just England, but it doesn’t come with lands or castles connected to the name.
After lunch in this nice town, I headed south to the coast, and encountered a tiny seaside cottage that I had read about in the excellent book, Aristocrats, by Stella Tillyard, about the four fascinating Lennox sisters, daughters of the Duke of Richmond in the mid-18th century. The second of these sisters, Emily, married the Earl of Kildare (a Fitzgerald, see my earlier blog post about driving around Leinster and the south of Ireland). They became the 1st Duke and Duchess of Leinster in 1766, and produced an army of children. As part of their education, Emily hired William Ogilvie, whose Enlightenment-era teachings included the physical exploration of nature, and he and the Duchess built a small retreat on the seaside at Ardglass where the children could collect shells and study sea life up close. The little bathing house that is in the marina now was built long after the children had gone, and after the Duchess had married the tutor: Ardglass became their getaway from Dublin society in the first decades of the 19th century.
From here I drove around the southern coast of County Down and around the impressive Mourne Mountains. Bright sunshine emerged just as I passed some lovely looking beach towns, but I pressed on to where I wanted to spend that evening, in Armagh. I turned inland at the Carlingford Lough, which intrigued me since the Earl of Carlingford is one of the figures I encounter often in my research about the Duchy of Lorraine—I was tempted to cross over the border into the Republic of Ireland and see the Carlingford estates, but I continued inland and arrived at my B&B on a broad plateau looking over the rolling grassy hills of County Armagh, named for the goddess Macha, about whom I would soon learn more about.
I had arrived at my accommodation at about 4 PM and wanted to see if I could squeeze in a visit to Navan Fort, and got there just before closing. They made a production about how they would now have to put on one more tour, just for me, and I insisted that they really didn’t, especially since I only wanted to see the mound itself, and not the re-constructed early Celtic village and the costumed interpreters there. But they insisted, so I went and sat in a muddy hut filled with smoke and pretended to be interested in the songs about hunting being sung by a man dressed in furs while his woman weaved fabrics in the background. Don’t get me wrong, things like this are great for kids, and I did enjoy bantering with them about pretending to not know anything about the modern world (they wondered how I had travelled to Hibernia from Britannia; and I tried to throw a wrench in by saying I was well travelled in Gallia and originally came from the unknown lands over the seas to the west), but I was truly grateful when they finally released me to go see the actual site itself.
One of the site guides took me up, and as it was her last round of the day, she had to lock up various fences, so she dawdled and talked to me for ages—a really excellent and knowledgeable guide. The site is very ancient, neolithic, so actually predates the Celts, probably raised somewhere around 3 or 4,000 BC. There are two embankments that encircle the mound, atop which there is evidence for wooden buildings back to at least the 8th century BC. Roundhouses built and re-built and built again, so the idea seems to suggest that this was not a residence, or a coronation spot (though it may have been used as such by the later Ulaidh people, in part because from here you can see into almost every corner of the Kingdom of Ulster, or fires lit atop similar mounds in each county), but more likely a ceremonial royal immolation spot, with buildings and effigies (or actual people) burnt as part of the process for transitioning from this world to the next. As it became a Celtic or Gaelic site, it continued to be a site associated with kingship, and came to be known by an Irish name: Macha, a goddess associated with land and kingship. Eamhain Mhacha (mound, or more poetically ‘brooch’ of Macha) was somehow morphed into the English Navan (if the Irish ‘mh’ in Eamhain is pronounced ‘v’, as in the name Niamh).
The site was abandoned by the Middle Ages, as a Christianised population moved its main focus about 2 miles away in ‘Macha’s Height’ (Ard Macha, Armagh), where reverence to the goddess gradually made way for a Christian shrine, and ultimately the centre of the Church in the north of Ireland. For centuries the Archbishop of Armagh was the most important religious figure in the north, rivalled only by the Archbishop of Cashel in the south. I wandered around the town in the early evening, looking for something to eat. It’s a lovely place, built on fairly steep hills, though the main cathedral—as with Downpatrick—is now Church of Ireland, and the Catholic cathedral (both are called St Patrick), built in the 19th century, is on the opposing hillside. In both church hierarchies, the archbishop of Armagh is still the Primate of All Ireland. The older church, with some foundations from the 5th century, was remodelled several times over the centuries, and is also the (supposed) burial place of a major figure of Irish history: Brian Boru, one of the greatest of all High Kings of all Ireland, killed in battle in 1014.
The next morning I headed northwestwards into County Tyrone—the real heartland of O’Neill territory. As noted above, there were two main (and many, many junior) branches of this clan, one of the most dominant in Irish history, comparable to the princely houses of O’Brian or MacCarthy in the south. I first crossed the Blackwater, roughly the ancient dividing river between the kingdoms of eastern Ulster and the Tír Eoghain, or ‘land of Eoghan’, one of the legendary founders of the O’Neill dynasty in the 5th century (anglicised as ‘Owen’), pals with St Patrick, and founder of a new kingdom called Ailech. The dynasty founded by Eoghan were called the Cenél nEogain, the ‘kindred of Eoghan’ (forgive my spellings here—there seem to be quite a lot of variants in printed and online sources, and I am certainly no expert in the Irish tongue). I paused at Blackwatertown, where the English built a major fort in the later 16th century to attempt to impose their authority over this region, but were in fact repelled here during the Nine Years War in which the native chieftains fought back against the forces of Elizabeth I.
From here I proceeded to Dungannon, once the main stronghold of the O’Neills. This town is a nice market town, with a newly redesigned museum about the O’Neills and in particular the ‘Flight of the Earls’, the eventual result of the Nine Years War, when dozens of native chieftains and their followers left Ireland altogether, rather than submit to English rule. The castle atop the mound at the back of the museum is just a ruin, and in fact the two remaining towers are from a much later structure, built by the politician Thomas Knox, 1st Earl of Ranfurly, a member of the Ulster Scots community that had re-settled the area after the departure of the earls in the early 17th century. Castle Hill did play one more prominent part in Irish history, in 1641, when it was the site of the Proclamation of Dungannon, by Phelim O’Neill, by which Irish chiefs declared their loyalty to Charles I and against the forces of the English Parliament.
To get more of a genuine feeling for O’Neill kingship, I drove a few miles north of town, to another mound: Tullyhogue, of Tulach Óc, the ‘hill of young warriors’. Like Navan, it had been a ring fort long before the O’Neills shifted their capital from a spot further north in Tyrone (Inishowen), but by the 9th century it became their chief secular ceremonial space, for inaugurations (with Armagh becoming the complementary spiritual space and burial site). It was a great muddy slog up to the hill, now ringed with trees, and it still has a great aura of history and mystery—enhanced certainly that day by black clouds and misty rains. I was covered with black mud by the time I got back to my car.
Like many Celtic monarchies, the O’Neills were served by another clan in a hereditary position; in this case the O’Hagans were for centuries the stewards of this site, and were in charge of running the ceremonies needed for kingship (sort of like the Earl Marshal in Britain today). During an inauguration ceremony, the chief vassal of the O’Neills, The O’Cahan, threw a golden sandal over The O’Neill’s head, to suggest good fortune, then The O’Hagan placed this shoe on the new king’s foot, and handed him a rod of office. You can see this in the much magnified detail from a map from 1602 (below). The last genuine inauguration ritual here took place in 1595, and it is said that the inauguration stone (the Leac na Rí, ‘flagstone of kings’) was smashed soon after.
With the crushing of the stone and the flight of the earls, the Kingdom of Tyrone ceased to exist, and traditional O’Neill power in the region was destroyed. According to legend, this power stretched all the way back to Niall of the Nine Hostages, a mythical high king of all Ireland who lived in the 5th century. Closer to provable territory was Niall, High King of Ireland, 916-919, a member of the ‘kindred of Eoghan’ noted above. Much of this early history is quite murky, but it becomes clearer by the mid-12th century when the O’Neills replaced the MacLochlainns as the main power in Ulster, just in time to join with other northern chieftains to try to repel the Anglo-Norman invasions of the 1170s. Aodh Méith (d. 1230) stabilised the Kingdom of Tyrone, made peace with newly emergent English earldom of Ulster to the east, and became the most powerful of the native princes of the north of Ireland. Their history was not always about resistance, however; the relationship of subsequent O’Neill kings with the English was often quite positive—several went on crusade with English monarchs, or fought alongside them in France in the Hundred Years War. This changed with the emergence of Tudor power in the 16th century, and the rebellion of the Fitzgeralds to the south in the 1530s (supported in part by the O’Neills). The Tudors transformed the Lordship of Ireland into a Kingdom of Ireland in 1541 and, not able to tolerate the idea of independent kingship within a unified kingdom, introduced a ‘surrender and regrant’ policy, which meant that a native chief could relinquish his claim to being a sovereign prince in return for a title in the new Irish peerage, given by the new King of Ireland. Conn Bacagh O’Neill, King of Tyrone, did indeed surrender his claims in return for the earldom of Tyrone, in 1542 (with the subsidiary title Baron of Dungannon, named for their old royal capital). When he died in 1559, a succession struggle ensued, in part because the newly introduced English titles were based on primogeniture, rather than the traditional tanistry system which does not pass directly from father to son. The first Earl’s grandson Hugh was recognised as second Earl, but a kinsman, a half-brother, Shane (Seán, John), proclaimed himself as The O’Neill, a title no longer recognised by the English overlords. As a point of interest for this blogsite, Shane sometimes took the titles ‘Prince of Tyrone’ and ‘Dux Hibernicorum’ (duke of the Irish). He fought against the MacDonnells, a Scottish clan settling along the Antrim coast, until he was murdered by them in 1567.
Shane was succeeded as The O’Neill Mór by a cousin, Turlough, who later submitted to the English and was given the title Earl of Clanconnell. Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, initially supported the Elizabethan regime, but by the 1590s he had turned against her and was one of the leaders of the great rebellion that led to the Flight of the Earls in 1607. Hugh was declared a traitor and his titles were attainted (and he died in Rome in 1616), but his descendants in Spain would continue to call themselves ‘Conde de Tiron’ until their extinction in the main line in 1695. There are a lot of people who claim the title of The O’Neill today, including the descendants of Shane (the MacShanes), the Prince of the Fews (a branch historically based in the south of Ulster), and the Marques de la Granja (today’s Carlos O’Neill), and although I found widely conflicting information, it seems that only The O’Neill of Clanaboy (in Portugal) is officially recognised on modern lists of clan chiefs.
In the evening I lodged in an ancient house that belonged to an eccentric old man whose family had owned this estate for generations, just outside the town of Omagh. I was disappointed to find that Ómaigh is not also a derivation of the goddess Macha (that would have been more fun), but ‘virgin plain’. It’s a cute town nestled in the valley of the river Strule, which means I’ve crossed a watershed since it flows west and north into the River Foyle, not east into the Irish Sea or into Lough Neagh in the centre of Ulster.
On day three I headed down the Strule valley towards the town of Strabane. A little detour on small country roads at Newtownstewart (10 points for guessing the origins of that town’s name!) and I arrived at the gates of Baronscourt, the seat of Ireland’s second extant ducal family (Leinster being the other), the dukes of Abercorn. This is, like Killyleagh, once again Hamilton country (see my Hamilton blog post for why so many branches of this Scottish dynasty came to Ireland). I couldn’t get inside—it is still run as a private estate, with agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and so on—which was a bummer, but at least I got the sense of what this end of the country looks like (this is still County Tyrone, the very western end of it). It is lush and green with rolling hills. Maybe someday the Duke will invite me for tea, but it was not that day. The estate also includes a prominent golf course, established in the early 20th century. I don’t golf.
In the early years of the 17th century, James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Abercorn (a village in West Lothian, near Linlithgow), was granted lands in County Tyrone following the Flight of the Earls and the confiscation of O’Neill lands. He was the grandson of the Earl of Arran, regent of Scotland in the 1540s-50s. Abercorn built the first Baronscourt house, and died soon after in 1618. His son (also James) had been created Baron Hamilton of Strabane (the nearby larger town) himself in 1617 (in the peerage of Ireland), inherited the earldom of Abercorn the next year, and became heir-male of the House of Hamilton in 1651 (the main Hamilton line continued, however, passing into the House of Douglas). He lost his lands in Scotland during the Commonwealth as a Catholic, so his family turned their attentions even more to Ireland. The 4th Earl was loyal to James II during the Glorious Revolution, but the 5th Earl changed tack and supported William & Mary, so was restored to lands and titles that had been lost. There were many, many sub-branches of this family, who, as Catholics, found their careers blocked within the British military or court hierarchies, so instead became soldiers and courtiers in France and Austria. The main line maintained interests in both English and Irish politics in the 18th century, rebuilt Baronscourt considerably in the 1780s, and the 9th Earl, a friend and colleague of Prime Minister William Pitt, was promoted to 1st Marquess of Abercorn in 1790. This title was in the peerage of Great Britain, not Ireland, and thus gave him a seat in the House of Lords in London.
His grandson was created 1st Duke of Abercorn (in the peerage of Ireland) in 1868, in recognition of his service as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1866-68, 1874-76), and as an intimate of the royal family itself. He had the curious honour of being recognised, somewhat, by Napoleon III as Duc de Châtellerault in France, as senior male of the House of Hamilton. This means that the Duke of Abercorn today is one of the only noblemen in the UK who has a title in the peerages of Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland and France (though this is of course only notional). The 1st Duke’s sons were both involved in the Unionist movement to keep Ireland as part of the United Kingdom in the late 19th century, and the younger son, Lord George Hamilton, went on to serve as First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State for India (1895).
This continued in the next generation, as the 3rd Duke of Abercorn was appointed first Governor-General of Northern Ireland, 1922-1945. His family were closely intertwined with the other ducal families of the UK—Bedford, Marlborough and Buccleuch—which would continue in the next generations with marriage links forged with the Spencers, Percys and Grosvenors. The 4th Duchess, Mary (d. 1990), was Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth (wife of George VI), then to Queen Elizabeth II; her sister-in-law, Lady Cynthia Hamilton, became Countess Spencer and was grandmother to Lady Diana Spencer. The current Duke’s wife, Sacha, who died in 2018, was the sister of the Duchess of Westminster—both sisters were descended from Russian royalty, and the late Duchess of Abercorn was noted as the founder of the Pushkin Trust, which encourages creative writing in pupils in Northern Ireland, especially with an eye to cross-cultural exchange, Protestant and Catholic. This seems increasingly relevant in these Brexity times, and with Baronscourt’s estate boundaries so very near to the border with the Republic of Ireland.
The next leg of my trip would of course bring me face to face with modern politics, as I spent the afternoon touring the town of Derry/Londonderry. There’s a lot to say about the recent history of this city, and ‘the Troubles’, and viewing its monuments and scars was truly moving, but I’ll keep this blog post about more ancient history. Originally called the ‘oak grove’ or Daire, the town grew up around a monastery founded by St. Columba in the 540s. The monastery church is now the Catholic parish church of the old town (the Catholic cathedral is outside the old town walls); it was built in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 1780s.
Columba, or Colmcille, is thought to be a member of another one of Ireland’s ancient ruling clans, the Cenel Conaill, of Donegal (the county just to the west, today in the Republic). These were also a branch of the original O’Neills (the Uí Néill), with the same legendary descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages (see above). The town became more important as a trading centre in the Tudor and Plantation era, and became seat of a new county, Londonderry, 1610, built and planned by London merchants—one of the first planned cities in the growing British Empire. They also built a new cathedral, St Columb’s, for the new Church of Ireland (Protestant). This church sits next to one of the city walls overlooking the broad and elegant River Foyle with its elegant new footbridge.
The new County of Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your politics) was carved out of an older county called Coleraine, named for the ‘O’Cahan’s country’, the northern reaches of the old Kingdom of Tyrone. I spent my last night of the trip here in the town of Coleraine where I gave my paper to the local university, and was given a great guided tour of the nearby seaport of Portrush (and an excellent fish supper!).
Finally, my last day, I did the one thing every tourist to Northern Ireland must do, and visited the Giant’s Causeway on the north Antrim coast. It did not disappoint, in part because for the first time I was blessed with glorious sunshine! It’s a marvellous walk down to the fantastic and queer geological feature of the (mostly) hexagonal basalt columns, the remnants of ancient volcanic activity in this part of the world. There are no dukes or princes here, but the legends about its creation centre on Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), who was either a giant or a hero-prince (or both—why not?), and even older legends about Fomorians, supernatural beings in the Irish pre-Christian pantheon, personifications of darkness and chaos, like the ancient Greek Titans.
Having hiked and marvelled at this natural wonder, I then zoomed back down the motorway, skirted Belfast, and returned the car at the airport for the short jump back across the Irish Sea to Manchester. If I had one more day, I would have visited Northern Ireland’s most dominant medieval castle, Carrickfergus, another castle built by the Normans in the 1170s (though named for a local legendary king, Fergus). It became the main seat of the English Crown in the North for the next several centuries, and still today has links with the monarchy, as one of the courtesy titles (since 2011) of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge. Another trip to this region certainly beckons.
(images my own or from Wikimedia Commons)