Belfast Telegraph

Where the streets have both names - many east Belfast landmarks have long-forgotten Irish roots, as Ivan Little discovers on a bus tour


Gordon McCoy at Motelands House on the Old Holywood Road in east Belfast
Gordon McCoy at Motelands House on the Old Holywood Road in east Belfast
Gordon McCoy at Con O’Neill bridge

La" was well and truly "chucky-ed" as I went on a voyage of discovery through my native east Belfast, a place I thought I knew so well, but found out I didn't really know at all.

For this was a journey that taught me a side of my birthplace that many Protestants of today would not give a "cead mile failte" - that the Irish language is the heartbeat of the area's heritage and history.

On a two-hour bus tour I learnt that names which rolled off English-speaking tongues like Braniel and Ballyhackamore were actually rooted in Irish - with the former a derivative of "a bright-fronted place" and the latter meaning "the townland of the slob (or bog) land".

I always had an inkling that Knocknagoney and Lisnasharragh didn't sound like anything that would be found in the leafier suburbs of Surrey or Kent.

But it wasn't until I joined the self-proclaimed Gaelic bus tour as part of the EastSide Arts Festival that I was able to establish that Knockagoney comes from the Irish for "the hill of the rabbits" and Lisnasharragh from the "fort of the foals".

Indeed, who knew that true-blue Ballymacarrett had what some of its most loyal souls might see as tinges of green in their cultural cupboard?

Even Ballymacarrett has a touch of the Irish about it.

Sign In

It's the anglified version of Baile Mhic Gearoid, the townland of McCarrett, or MacGarrett.

Dozens more eye-openers were revealed by our guide, Gordon McCoy, the educational officer of the Turas Irish Language Project in the East Belfast Mission.

He revealed that even local footballing heroes Glentoran take their famous name from Cluain Teorann, the meadow of the boundary.

Tullycarnet is derived from Tulaigh Charnain, the hillock of the little cairn, and Lisnabreeny comes from Lios na Bruine, the fort of the fairy dwelling.

Gilnahirk, meantime, is Eadan Ghiolla na hAdhairce, the hill brow of the horn bearer, which is news to even the wisest wise men from the east.

Gordon also breathed life into long-forgotten place names like Ballyrushboy, the yellow townland of the wood and Multyhogy, Joy's mills, close to what is now Orangefield.

But Gordon's tour wasn't just about the game of the names.

He also introduced his tour bus travellers to little-known snippets of Gaelic history in east Belfast.

Con O'Neill was the man of most of the moments through the past on the trip around sites which are synonymous with the ill-fated chieftain, the last of the great O'Neill warriors who controlled virtually all of what is now east Belfast.

Gordon said: "Some people have told me that O'Neill was a smuggler, but for someone who owned 224 townlands here and was the lord of all he surveyed, it was a bit of a comedown."

O'Neill's long-lost Grey Castle is reputed to be high in the Castlereagh hills and there's talk of a sonic scan being carried out soon of a field in a bid to pinpoint its precise location.

The mound where O'Neill was inaugurated as chieftain in 1601 is said to be in the middle of an inaccessible thicket of trees on the Manse Road.

Gordon was able to take his 22 intrepid tourists to see at close quarters Con O'Neill's bridge off the Beersbridge Road, in the middle of Van Morrison's Hollow, eulogised in his song Brown Eyed Girl.

Gordon had his doubts about the veracity of the claims that the well-known bridge was actually built by O'Neill, or if that was a Con because the structure went up long after his time.

But Gordon was more certain about what he's convinced is O'Neill's final resting place in the unlikely setting of the Motelands housing development off the Old Holywood Road, in what was the old graveyard of Ballymaghan, or Baile Ui Mhiachain (O'Meehan's townland).

There are no signs to tell anyone that O'Neill may be buried there, but it's high time there was one, said Gordon, who's from Saintfield.

He does openly admit that east Belfast has now become his passion - especially its Irish backstory.

He's not alone in the area where interest in the Irish language has been growing steadily thanks to the East Belfast Mission, which now runs a series of classes in the Skainos centre on the Newtownards Road.

Last year, the Turas project had 173 Irish learners registered. About 64% were Protestant; 32% were Catholic and 3% were listed as "other".

The majority were from east Belfast, but a significant number were out-of-towners, who Gordon said were uncomfortable going to classes near their homes and preferred to travel to the Newtownards Road, where they could be more anonymous.

"It's the only place I have seen poppies being worn by learners of Irish," Gordon said.

"Some Catholics come to us because they have been put off by the republican image of the language."

Throughout the tour, Gordon highlighted how the Irish language was embraced many years ago by Protestants - including 21 Methodist missionaries who were active throughout Ireland, where 12 of them spoke Irish.

Missionaries from the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church spoke the same language.

The tour turned into Short Strand via Bryson Street, named after a Presbyterian called Samuel Bryson. He preserved important documents in the Irish language and later set up home in Cluan House, which is Irish for meadow, but which not so long ago was an anything but pastoral place during interface disturbances between loyalists and republicans.

The homes of several pioneers of the Gaelic League in east Belfast in the 19th century were pointed out on the tour, but Gordon said that some Protestants became disillusioned and left by 1916 when the organisation took on a more nationalist ethos.

Even so, several Protestant individuals still espoused the language and spoke only Irish in their homes.

Gordon showed us the site of the home on the Castlereagh Road of a more republican Gaeilgeoir, Joseph Campbell, who wrote the song My Lagan Love. He later went to America to lecture and wrote a book called Orange Terror: The Partition of Ireland, a publication banned by the Stormont government under the Special Powers Act.

Gordon said that by the 1950s, many Protestants in east Belfast had no idea about the Irish language.

He cited the example of Protestant schoolchildren, on hearing a Catholic family conversing in Irish at their Bloomfield home, said: "They're the mickeys who speak Chinese."

The difficulties faced by Irish speakers in east Belfast in later years were underlined as the bus passed a Presbyterian church where the East Belfast Mission classes were held at the height of the City Hall flags riots on the Newtownards Road five years ago.

Officials from the EastSide festival said they were delighted with the response to the Gaelic tours and it's hoped they will be repeated in years to come.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph