Saturday, 19 June 2010
Right in the heart of the Commons, just alongside the old cattle trail, is a spring-well marked on the Ordnance Survey map as ‘Bryan O’Neill’s Well’. This was named after Bryan McPhelim O’Neill who was the Gaelic lord of Clandeboy (south Antrim and north Down) in the 1570s. What makes this surprising is that the Commons were contained within the ‘County’ of Carrickfergus, and for 350 years the Old English of the town had owned and controlled this area continuously.
(This is the third of a series exploring the history of the Dalway cattle drove trail)
Carrickfergus Castle was built in the 1190s, and within 20 years the new settlement had become the Anglo-Norman ‘capital’ and main sea-port of the Earldom of Ulster. When King John arrived in Carrickfergus in 1210, the Earldom of Ulster then extended over the whole of east Ulster, that is, the present counties of Antrim and Down. Until the Vikings raided and then settled on parts of the coast before 1150, the native Irish ‘Ulidians’ were a loose confederation of petty kingdoms that had actually fought on the side of the Vikings when they were defeated by Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf near Dublin in 1014.
In the early days of medieval Carrickfergus, the Ui Neill were nowhere to be seen in Antrim. They were the ruling dynasty in west Ulster only, having moved into Tyrone and Armagh from the south and west. But as the Earldom of Ulster weakened in the 14th century, a branch of the O’Neill’s took the opportunity to push east across the Bann, and by 1400 had effectively split the Earldom in two. These incursive O’Neills were called the Clandeboy O’Neills after the Clann Aodh Buidhe Ui Neill (clan of Hugh Boy O’Neill) which had first entered the territory about 1380. In county Antrim it was only the town and ‘county’ of Carrickfergus that survived intact. In fact, it was a mutually advantageous arrangement. The town continued to prosper with an international sea-trade by paying ‘black-rent’ (protection money) to O’Neill, and the vast cattle-wealth of the interior of the county was able to continue to feed in as the true hinterland of the port.
The chief of the Clandeboy O’Neills was Sir Bryan McPhelim O’Neill when John Dalway arrived in Ulster with the Earl of Essex in 1573. Sir Bryan had just brought 10,000 head of cattle to the vicinity of Carrickfergus as a pretended sign of his support and loyalty, but when he learnt that Essex wanted to use him to attack the Highland Scottish MacDonnells that occupied the ‘Glens’ of north-east Antrim north of Larne, he removed his cattle (along with some he had rounded up from the Commons) back towards the ‘ford’ of Belfast. Then, in 1574, he invited Essex to a feast near Belfast.
When the hospitality was over, Essex and his men arrested Bryan O’Neill and put 200 of his supporters to the sword when they tried to resist. The Earl then took 3,000 cattle and a great number of mares from Sir Bryan’s enclosures near Belfast, and had Sir Bryan taken to Dublin and executed on the grounds that he had taken a “prey of cattle” from the Commons of Carrickfergus that had belonged to the freemen of the town.
The two sons of Bryan McPhelim O’Neill, Shane and Con, were content to receive their late father’s title to the south Antrim estate of Lower Clandeboy. Con became lord of a territory on the north shore of Lough Neagh between Toome and Randalstown, while Shane Mac Bryan O’Neill inherited the bulk of his father’s lands at Shane’s Castle, beside Antrim town. Shane’s undisputed lands extended from the eastern shores of Lough Neagh and up the Sixmilewater valley towards Larne. It included the less certain northern margins of Carrickfergus, and the Parishes of Templecorran, Kilroot and Islandmagee to the east. But this area in the east was vulnerable to incursions from the English at Carrickfergus and from the MacDonnells of the Glens north of Larne. With Essex’s plan to settle his followers along the coast between Belfast and Carrickfergus, Shane McBryan O’Neill had only one way to get his cattle to the coastal ports of Larne, Whitehead and Islandmagee - round or across the Commons.
There was a stark contrast between the character of the English settlement at Carrickfergus and the Irish peasants working the lands under the Clandeboy O’Neills. More than differences of religion, language and ethnicity, the Irish cattle farmers practiced a Gaelic system rather than a money-based weekly market economy. Under the Gaelic system, the Irish peasant bondsmen did not ‘rent’ land or own their own property, but provided rent ‘in kind’ to the clan leaders, and the bulk of the cattle they minded were ultimately the property of the Gaelic lord.
By 1573, the Town and County of Carrickfergus had declined to a perilous state. It was on the verge of collapse and in imminent danger of being over-run. Within a few years, John Dalway was living in a tower-house in High Street in the town with rights to graze cattle on the Commons, had married Jane McBryan O’Neill (a close relative of Shane McBryan O'Neill) and had struck a deal with Shane for lands at Ballynure and Ballycarry, at both ends of the cattle drove trail from the Sixmilewater to Whitehead.
One of the townlands beside Ballynure is Bryantang which is a tongue of land between the two rivers that meet up at Ballynure to feed the Sixmilewater to Antrim. Like 'Bryan O'Neill's Well', this is also a reference to Bryan McPhelim O’Neill ('Bryan’s Tongue of Land'). The County of Carrickfergus did not have any ‘Irish’ townland divisions in the Elizabethan period, so the place-names surviving from that time are English (The Commons, North-East Division, West Division, Middle Division). In the Commons, however, some Gaelic names still survive for local features such as the Craignabraher ('Friar's Rock') Burn which almost runs into Lough Mourne before disappearing into a collapsed cavern called Lignaca ('hollow' or 'hole of the mist'). In Kilroot parish, where Dalway’s Bawn was built, the original Gaelic townland names have also been altered, but the road from Kilroot up to Dalway’s Bawn between the Kilroot River and Copeland Water (in the townland of Dobbsland) is called ‘Tongue Loanen’ – a tantalising reflection of ‘Bryantang’ at the far end of the Dalway cattle trail.