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Northern Ireland's real Game of Thrones: Author's search for the real Con O'Neill

He gave his name to the Connswater river in east Belfast and a million people currently live on land he once controlled. But who was the Gaelic chieftain Con O'Neill? Ivan Little speaks to the Co Down school principal-turned-author who has spent the last 10 years finding out

The launch of the Van Morrison trail at Con O’Neill bridge
The launch of the Van Morrison trail at Con O’Neill bridge
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Hundreds of Van Morrison fans from around the world have had their pictures taken beside the tiny stone bridge in part of east Belfast called the Hollow, made famous by their hero in his classic song Brown Eyed Girl.

But few visitors, or indeed local people, could tell you a single thing about the Con O'Neill bridge, which was spruced up several years ago to form part of a tourist trail for Morrison aficionados to follow around his old haunts.

To promote the trail, Morrison was photographed standing on the bridge, which is right beside his old primary school, Elmgrove, on the Beersbridge Road.

But now, Con O'Neill is getting his rightful place in history, with a new book by Roy H Greer, the principal of Moneyrea Primary School, who has uncovered a fascinating series of tales linked to him, ranging from rebellions, wild parties and deaths to an escape from Carrickfergus Castle on a rope smuggled inside in a cheese.

Actors Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in a scene from Game of Thrones
Actors Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in a scene from Game of Thrones

And that's not even half of the story that, according to the blurb on the cover of the book, makes Game of Thrones "look tame".

Con O'Neill: Last Gaelic Lord of Upper Clannaboy is an impressively researched and richly illustrated 220-plus-page publication that has been a 10-year labour of love for its author, who was anxious to find out more about the man who once ruled east Belfast, Lisburn, Castlereagh, Newtownards, Bangor, Comber and Saintfield.

"More than a million people now live in what was once the great medieval lordship of Clannaboy," said Roy. "But I doubt that even a dozen of them even know it."

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Roy said his Con O'Neill odyssey that became an obsession started as he walked his Labrador dog in the Castlereagh Hills.

"I wanted to find out more about the castle at Castlereagh, where it went and who had lived in it," he added.

"I was brought up in east Belfast, so I knew a little about Con O'Neill and his connections to the area, but not much.

"I began searching on the internet and going to libraries to see what was available, but history isn't my background so I had to learn on the job.

"I also accessed state papers and they revealed some important information about not only Con O'Neill, but also about the Clannaboy dynasty, who were one of the great Gaelic dynasties of late-Medieval Ulster."

The rise of the Clannaboy dynasty was bloody and brutal, according to the book, which says, "they erupted out of Tyrone to conquer much of the eastern Ulster, reaching the height of their power in the early 16th century".

Eventually, the territory of Clannaboy - the English name is "Clandeboye" - was split in two, with Con O'Neill later proclaimed chief of Upper Clannaboy in 1601 on the coronation mound at Castle Reagh, believed to be where a thicket of trees now stands at Manse Road. The sandstone coronation chair of the O'Neills ended up via a circuitous route in the Ulster Museum in Belfast in their Saints and Scholars section.

"The coronations were quite spectacular," said Roy.

"They would have rivalled the modern-day coronations of the Royal family. They were full of powerful symbolism."

Roy said he would love to see the coronation chair returning to an appropriate home in the Castlereagh area.

Nothing of the castle remains, alas, but it's thought to have been situated close to the current site of Castlereagh Presbyterian Church, where coincidentally the Z Cars actor James Ellis, another famous son of east Belfast, is buried.

Roy said parts of the castle were apparently taken down stone by stone by local people, who used them to construct houses.

Carrick Castle
Carrick Castle

"There's an interesting story, too, that the Downshire family from Hillsborough, who eventually took possession of Con's castle, tried to protect the building at one stage in the early 1800s.

"But, in doing so, the builder assigned to the task is said to have taken the stones from the castle for use in a protective wall. So, ultimately, he dismantled the very building he was supposed to be saving."

Roy also said that a number of archaeological digs had been carried out in the Castlereagh Hills in the 1960s and 1980s, but there were questions about whether or not the excavations had been focused on the right site. There's also been talk of sonic scans at fields in the area where Con O'Neill's demise was blamed on Scottish immigrants arriving in Ulster to sweep away his lordship and the Gaelic way of life.

Roy's book relates how, in the turmoil of Ulster history, Con was captured and then released before, in 1602, a huge party he was hosting in the Castlereagh Hills ran out of wine and, in a subsequent clash with English troops, a soldier was killed.

Con was taken back to Carrickfergus Castle but he escaped with the aid of the smuggled rope and fled to Scotland.

But he lost two-thirds of his land back home and his debts increased, forcing him to sell more and more of his land.

By the time of his death in 1619, Con had only six of his townlands left, compared to the 150 or more that he had once owned.

"He died in relative poverty," said Roy, who wants the 400th anniversary of his passing to be marked not only by his book, but also by a commitment to honour him.

"He was a complex, flawed character, who lived at an absolutely seminal moment in Irish history.

"He was totally out of his depth as he struggled to cope with huge historical forces that were really beyond anyone's power to manage."

It's generally believed that Con O'Neill was buried in the old Ballymaghan (or "Baile Ui Mhiachain") graveyard, which is now in the middle of the Motelands housing development off the Old Holywood Road in east Belfast.

There are no signs or headstones to show that it is O'Neill's final resting place, but Roy said there were concerns that his grave could be built upon.

Roy H Greer
Roy H Greer

"And that's another sad indictment that this man is not recognised and not seen as part of the history of east Belfast and Ards and Castlereagh and beyond," he added.

Roy said few people in east Belfast fully appreciated the ties with Con O'Neill, whose name lives on in the likes of the Connswater river, which is the title of a Van Morrison instrumental on his 1983 album Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.

A song by local singer Duke Special, Some Things Make Your Soul Feel Clean, also celebrates and namechecks the Connswater river. Connsbrook Avenue, near Glentoran's Oval football ground, also took its name from O'Neill, a fact that eluded many of its residents - including this writer, who was brought up on the street.

Roy H Greer lived at the bottom of Connsbrook Avenue, on Larkfield Road, and was married in Connswater Congregational Church, but he wasn't aware of the link to O'Neill for a long time.

"I was within touching distance of Con, but I didn't know it," said Roy, who now lives close to the site of the old castle and wants to put Con back on the map.

"We should be celebrating the memory of Con and the fact that the connections with the Ulster Scots transformation afford us the opportunity to celebrate the two traditions here.

"If we share this part of Ireland, Northern Ireland, then the history that is associated with it is our history, so we can look back to a proud Gaelic Celtic tradition, as I do to a proud Ulster Scots tradition, as well," added Roy, who said the history of old Con O'Neill bridge in Morrison's Hollow was surrounded by confusion.

"There are several views about it. In Belfast folklore, it was called the 'King's Bridge'."

It was suggested that it was built by King John in the 1200s, but some people argued that the name was in honour of King William having crossed it on the way to the Battle of the Boyne, but that's unlikely given the size of it and all the soldiers and cannons who would have had to go over it.

"But a number of old maps clearly show that the bridge was the Con O'Neill bridge for centuries and it would seem that it is definitely one of the oldest stone structures in Belfast."

Many people spell O'Neill's Christian name 'Conn', but Roy found concrete evidence that there's only one 'n', not two.

He said: "That was one of the most emotional moments of my research. I was in the Public Record Office in Belfast where I came across an old yellow indenture of a land exchange and there, at the bottom, was the signature of CON O'Neill.

"I actually cried, because I was able to run my finger over his signature, the first time I'd ever seen it for real."

Con O'Neill: Last Gaelic Lord of Upper Clannaboy by Roy H Greer is published by The White Row Press, priced £14.95

10 fascinating facts about Con O'Neill

1. More than a million people now live on the lands once ruled by the Clannaboy, whose sprawling lordship ran from what is now Antrim, Ballymena and Larne, through Belfast and Lisburn, to Bangor, Newtownards and Saintfield, and most of the Ards Peninsula.

2. Con O'Neill comes second only to members of the royal family in the extent to which his name is represented in the place names of east Belfast. The Connswater River, Connswater Shopping Centre and Con O'Neill Bridge, and numerous street names are all associated with him. The Clannaboy are also commemorated in the modern name "Clandeboye".

3. The story of the Clannaboy O'Neills is a saga which in terms of gore and savagery can only be compared to Game of Thrones. The Clannaboy wiped the Anglo-Norman earldom from the map, and became one of the great Gaelic dynasties of medieval Ulster, defending their territory against all comers for nearly 200 years.

4. Roy's book may end the debate about which is Belfast's oldest bridge. The Con O'Neill Bridge, off the Beersbridge Road, memorably described by Charles Brett as "a hoop of ancient stonework crumbling shamefully at the foot of a pylon in the derelict wasteland behind Abetta Parade", was once thought to have been a Victorian folly. However, its appearance on a newly unearthed map of 1683, named "Conns Bridge", suggests that it dates from Con's time, or before.

5. The streets of Belfast ran red with blood after hundreds of the Clannaboy were massacred by the Earl of Essex following two days of feasting in Belfast Castle, a gathering intended to cement the bonds of unity between the Clannaboy and the Crown. The Clannaboy got their revenge a few years later when they mercilessly butchered the Belfast garrison, ordering, "their throats cut and their bowels cut out of their bellies".

6. No trace of Con's castle at Castle Reagh now remains. An attempt was made to preserve it around the year 1800, when the Marquis of Downshire ordered his agent to have a wall built around the castle's still substantial remains. According to tradition, however, the instruction was muddled and the wall was built using stones from the castle, thus obliterating all trace of the monument it was intended to preserve.

7. Con McNiall McBrian Faghartagh O'Neill was an Irish prince of impeccable lineage. He could trace his ancestry back through 14 generations to "Hugh the Fair" (Aodh Buidhe), who founded the Clannaboy in the 13th century, and his four Christian names were deliberately chosen to invoke the great leaders from whom he was descended. Con, the leader who once had so much, died with virtually nothing at the age of just 44. This year marks his 400th anniversary.

8. The sacred inauguration mound of the Clannaboy O'Neills, where the 14-year-old Con was inaugurated chief amid elaborate ritual in 1589, now lies covered in brambles and buried deep in forest, with all recollection of its once exalted purpose forgotten.

9. By some miracle, the coronation chair of the Clannaboy O'Neills has survived and, after 70 years built into the wall of the Belfast Butter Market in Tomb Street, where it was used as a seat by the Weigh Master, is now in the Ulster Museum. It is the only surviving medieval throne of its kind.

10. Con's rebellion against the Crown, which ended when his camp was overwhelmed in a daring night attack, did not cost him his kingdom. This was lost after a "grand debauch" at Castle Reagh, after which he was charged with waging war on the Queen. He was restored, but lost two-thirds of his lands to Scottish adventurers James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery. The success of their plantation went on to create the Ulster we know today.

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