Report by Sandra Millsopp
The members of Bangor Historical Society met on 10 March 2022 for a talk by Roy Greer about Con O’Neill. Mr Greer is the principal of Moneyreagh Primary School. In his spare time he had researched the story and background of Con O’Neill for a book which was published in 2019. He stressed that he was an amateur researcher and not an historian.
Con O’Neill was the last Gaelic Lord of Upper Clannaboy, who died in 1619. Mr Greer said that when he was growing up in east Belfast he was familiar with placenames connected to Con O’Neill such as Con O’Neill’s Bridge, and the Connswater Shopping Centre. This encouraged him to try to find out more. He had no idea that Con O’Neill’s Castle was close to where he walked his dog in Castlereagh. When he discovered this he tried to find out more. He went to places like the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland where he was able to see documents, including maps.
He referred to the arrival of St. Patrick in Ireland in the 5th century A.D. At that time it was divided into five kingdoms. The O’Neills trace their lineage back to Niall of the Nine Hostages who was High King of Ireland 379-405. According to legend he had 12 sons who dispersed throughout Ireland. Two settled in North-west Ulster: Eoghan in Tyrone and Conaill in the far North West in what became Tyrconnell or Donegal. The descendants of Niall were important rulers in Ireland for centuries including during the arrival of the Vikings and then the Normans in the 12th century. One descendant was known as Aodh Buidhe or Yellow Hugh. This was the origin of the name Clandeboye – the Clan of Yellow Hugh. He was born about 1230 and was an ambitious warrior chief who fought members of his own family as well as the Norman invaders. He married Eleanor de Nangle, a cousin of the Norman Earl of Ulster. He was killed in 1283.
In 1315 Edward Bruce invaded North East Ireland, but was defeated by the Normans near Dundalk.
Later Henry Buidhe, grandson of Yellow Hugh, became King of Tyrone with the support of Richard de Burgh 2nd Earl of Ulster. Henry was eventually deposed and he was the last of his clan to be King Of Tyrone.
Now the O’Neills were being pushed across the Bann to east Ulster as the Norman grip there weakened. From about 1350 there was constant warfare among the Gaels, Normans and Scots. By 1395 the O’Neills controlled north Down & south Antrim. A castle was built at Castlereagh, although historians disagree about the exact date. It was like a tower house. By the sixteenth century the clan had split in two: above the Lagan was Lower Clandeboye and below it was Upper Clandeboye.
Now Mr Greer turned to the story of Con O’Neill. He should never have been chief as the heir was a Hugh O’Neill. In 1589 Con was inaugurated as chief on a chair which is now in the Ulster Museum. The site of the inauguration was about 400 yards from the castle. Con was only 14 so his father acted as regent until he was of age. Later he was put under pressure to take sides in the conflict between the Irish and English. The latter were led by Sir Arthur Chichester. Con changed sides and rebelled against the English, but he was captured following a battle at Ringhaddy and taken to Carrickfergus Castle. He was later released and returned to his home at Castlereagh.
At Christmas 1602 Con O’Neill had a party. A servant was sent to get more wine in Belfast. It had been hidden in order to avoid paying tax. The wine was intercepted by the English. The servants went again to get wine, but there was a skirmish and one of the English soldiers was killed. Chichester arrested Con and imprisoned him in Carrickfergus Castle.
With the succession of James I in 1603, Con’s imprisonment became more relaxed. He got to know Thomas Montgomery, nephew of Hugh Montgomery. Thomas plotted with Con’s wife Eilish to release her husband. The plan was for Con to woo the jailer’s daughter. Thomas would take a boat and moor it off Carrickfergus. Con plied the English with wine. A rope was supposedly smuggled into the prison hidden in a cheese and Con used this to climb down and get into Thomas’s boat. They sailed across the lough to Bangor where Con hid in the tower of the Abbey for 3 days.
Hugh Montgomery later took Con to London where a deal was made. Hugh was to get half of Con’s lands and in return obtain a pardon for Con. James Hamilton, a spy for James I, now became involved in the deal so that there was a three-way split of Con’s land. Hugh and James became rivals, with Hugh settled at Newtownards and James at Bangor. James developed a Scottish settlement at Bangor which is shown on the Raven Maps of c1625 now in the North Down Museum. He became the first Viscount Clandeboye in 1622.
Meanwhile Con was in financial difficulty. He eventually disposed of his land to Hamilton and Montgomery. He had only two townlands left when he died in 1619. He was buried in an old church at Ballymaghan. Traces of Con remain in placenames and other artefacts, mainly in east Belfast.