It’s unusual to come across a place which sits in-between two major cities, but still has an identity and a character all of its own. Castlereagh is one such place. Not many will know the history of Castlereagh, so allow me to give you a brief insight. One name that is synonymous in this area is Conn O’Neill, a member of a minor branch of the powerful Ulster Gaelic noble family. Conn McBrien O’Neill succeeded his cousin, Sir Conn McNeill Og O’Neill, in the lordship of upper Clandeboye in 1589. The fort of Castlereagh, and territory from Belfast to a few miles from Portaferry, passed into his possession under English law.
History reports stories of imprisonment in Carrickfergus Castle and escape plots of hollowed out cheeses. History has painted Conn O’Neill as one with a taste for the finer things in life which reputedly lead to him being forced to sell off or lease parts of the remainder of his estate due to hefty debts. Herein lie the roots of the connection between Hillsborough and Castlereagh. In 1616, the castle, town and lands of Castlereagh were sold to Sir Moyses Hill, the founder of the family of the Marquises of Downshire and anyone familiar with Hillsborough will know that only seven years before in 1611, Sir Moyses Hill was given possession of the village of Cromlyn, now called Hillsborough.
Why am I telling you this? When you visit Castlereagh, you geographically feel more naturally aligned with Belfast so hopefully I’ve helped you understand why Castlereagh is more historically partnered with the original Lisburn City Council area, now called Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council.
So, lets delve deeper into the “Last King of Castlereagh”
As I mentioned, in late 1602, Conn O’Neill was imprisoned for treason by Sir Arthur Chichester in Carrickfergus Castle after fighting broke out between Conn's troops and English soldiers in Belfast in which one of O’Neills men had killed one of Queen Elizabeth I’s soldiers. Chichester no doubt saw this as an opportunity to gain control of the O'Neill estate.
In 1606 Ellis O'Neill, the wife of Conn O'Neill, contacted Ayrshire aristocrat Sir Hugh Montgomery and proposed that if he could secure a royal pardon for her husband, the O'Neill's would give him half their lands, Montgomery arranged for Conn O'Neill's escape from Carrickfergus Castle. O’Neill was taken to Lags and then to Montgomery's seat at Braidstane Castle where the deal was concluded, after which they set out for London to seek the Royal pardon. In exchange for the promise of a royal pardon, Conn would give up much of his land, leading to an influx of Scottish settlers.
Photo: Carrickfergus Castle where Conn O'Neill was held prisoner.
Just when you thought being a King was glamourous! I doubt that modern day royals would have as much to worry about on such matters, but I don’t evny those from bygone years. You would be misguided and misinformed if I told you, Mr and Mrs Conn O’Neill lived happily ever after in the Scottish highlands.
Conn O’Neill is believed to have died in poverty in about 1619, living in a small house in Holywood, Co. Down. His story has been described as "a fall from grace" by Gordon McCoy, the Irish language education officer at Turas, an east Belfast project which promotes the Irish language and history among the Protestant community.
Photo : Clandeyboye O'Neill Inauguration Stone Chair, which was found at the site of Grey Castle, beside Castlereagh Presbyterian Church. It is largely made of Standstone and has undergone little modification.
It's believed O’Neill had requested to be buried in Knock Cemetery but this was sadly denied to him with some sources suggesting he was buried in the old graveyard of the church which was known as Bailie O'Meachan, now known as Ballymaghan. The site is currently Moat House, which was built in 1862 off the Old Holywood Road. Imagine being a person of such standing and then sinking to the levels of having no definitive grave site to commemorate your life. Personally, I find this very sad but that’s the historian in me coming out.
I’ve been asked recently what happened to O’Neill’s Castle. Again, another sad story! If you re-call from above I mentioned that almost all of the O’Neill land was sold off to Sir Moyses Hill the founder of the family of the Marquessses of Downshire, in 1616
The Grey Castle, once called the ‘Eagles Nest’ due to its situation and the powerful influence of Conn O’Neill, was lost to the family in the early 17th Century. The Castle fell into ruins after this, but survived until the early years of the 19th Century when the landowner directed his agent to build a wall around the site and the mason who was entrusted with the work demolished the remains of the castle in order to find sufficient stones to build the wall.
Nothing now remains of the castle, and it is impossible to identify the site even though it must have been a substantial building. Again, the historian in me cries out, probably as much as poor old Conn O’Neill from beyond his lost grave site Described as a square building, one hundred feet each side and with turrets at the angles you would imagine it taking some time to knock down but very sad that a castle said to have been built in 1350 by Aodh Flann O’Neill during the reign of Edward III is now lost forever and with it the memories of the people who once occupied it. This has to be the greatest loss to Castlereagh.
Photo: Conn O'Neill Bridge. Long ago the Connswater river was used first by smugglers, and later by traders to bring in raw materials to the factories and mills, and to take the finished materials back out. 400 years ago the river was a wide deep river free of pollution and full of fish (particularly trout), and with sandy banks, and the only place for people to cross was up stream at the Conn O’Neill Bridge which today is still standing, a 400 year old bridge.
When it’s safe to do so, visit Castlereagh and take with you Conn O’Neill and walk in his footsteps, whilst he mightn’t have eaten in any of the fine eateries which are now there it’s likely he walked The Castlereagh Hills Golf Course albeit looking somewhat different then. Castlereagh is a commercially important area in the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council portfolio and one which I’ll bet you didn’t know was perfectly and seamlessly aligned.