The Unexpected Past

Parade, Bangor

James Lloyd celebrates Orangemen’s Day by looking back at one of the many tragi-comical ironies of the history of Northern Ireland.

The future does not always turn out as one expects. History is a compendium of past futures and therefore contains more than a few things that most people, both at the time and looking back, would not have anticipated.

This Tuesday is the Glorious Twelfth, a public holiday in Northern Ireland, when Orangemen celebrate the two victories that secured the Revolution of 1688, the deposition of King James II and the establishment of the Protestant Ascendancy that would administer Ireland for the next two hundred years. The Battle of the Boyne was fought on the first of July 1690, followed a year and eleven days later by the Battle of Aughrim. By adjusting the date of the Boyne to take into account the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, Orangemen are able to celebrate both battles on the one day and they do so by donning the uniforms of the various Protestant and Unionist fraternities and processing through town and country, playing Rangers songs.

It is an occasion that, according to the news, is marked by riots, hooliganism (an Irish word, appropriately) and sectarian hatred but, as is so often the way with the news, this is a skewed interpretation. The majority of parades go off disappointingly bloodlessly but, of course, since when has “Everybody had a lovely time and no one died,” been news? What is even more surprising is that Orangemen’s Day celebrations are not confined to Northern Ireland but are celebrated in Glasgow, Liverpool, Canada (it is a public holiday in Newfoundland) and even in Rossnowlagh in the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, in 1998, President Mary McAleese, herself an Ulsterwoman by birth, marked Orangemen’s Day at her official residence.

This conciliatory gesture may seem surprising in a Catholic woman whose childhood home was machine-gunned while she was at church but it is far from the first time that the two very different sides of Ireland have come together in a way other than violent. Sometimes, in the long and turbulent history of the country, opposite poles have become attracted in a most surprising fashion.

Although the English Crown had had notional suzerainty over Ireland since Henry II landed in 1171, Ireland’s own political fragmentation into kingdoms, sub-kingdoms and clans, each one founded on a principle of tribal sovereignty, rather than on a feudal ladder of ownership with the Crown at the top, frustrated its effective exercise until six Henries later. The Tudor policy of “Surrender and Re-Grant” was a programme of systematically seducing, or when that failed forcing, the traditional Irish nobles into renouncing their titles and ceding their territories to the English Crown, to receive them back again as fiefs, along with shiny new English-style titles (ranging from esquire to earl, depending on the size of the estate returned). Some caved in, most refused and so began nearly a century of on/off warfare, in which one chief after another was either crushed by the English for not complying or deposed by his own clan for complying.

The Kingdom of Ulster, with which the modern Province of Northern Ireland is largely coextensive, was ruled by the Ui Neill, descendents of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the fifth-century Irish king, who, according to some legends, was the pirate who kidnapped Saint Patrick from Britain. The dynasty split into two branches in the thirteenth century. The senior branch, headed by the O’Neill Mor (Great Son of Niall), was based in Tyrone and the junior, headed by the O’Niall of Clanaboy (from “Clann Aedha Buidhe”, the children of Hugh the Blond), was concentrated in the modern Counties of Antrim and Down. So, when the English started seriously colonizing Ulster in the sixteenth century, they had more than one O’Neill with whom to deal. The O’Neill Mor, who was created Earl of Tyrone for his initial acquiescence, would prove to be a severe strain on England’s war-chest but relations with the O’Neills of Clanaboy were more complex.

Brian O’Neill, Prince of Clanaboy, had had to partition his territory in 1555 with his brother Hugh and cousin Conn. He initially supported Elizabeth I’s administration, even being knighted for his services in 1567, though his compliance had more to do with enhancing his own position against his brother and cousin than with any desire to get with the programme. He switched sides, however, when he discovered that the English were planning to colonize Clanaboy despite his loyalty and an attempted negotiation with the Earl of Essex in 1574 ended with his arrest and the mass-execution of his household, regardless of age or sex (a conservative estimate puts the death toll at two hundred). Sir Brian was himself hanged, drawn and quartered in Dublin but his son Sean did manage to retain the family’s castle in County Antrim.

One of Essex’s fellow soldiers was Sir Arthur Chichester. His brother, the Governor of Carrickfergus, had been decapitated by the troops of the O’Neill Mor, who played football with his head and Sir Arthur rewarded them with a scorched earth policy. He took perverse pride in sparing no one, even civilians and in 1605, with the war over, Sir Arthur was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. In this position, he executed two Catholic bishops (one of whom was eighty years old) and cleansed public offices of their co-religionists.

Despite these wretched events, the O’Neills of Clanaboy would actually develop a much happier relationship with the English Crown subsequently. Sean’s son Henry was made a baronet by Charles II and even married the sister of the Lord Deputy. Their son, Sir Niall O’Neill, was killed fighting for James II at the Boyne and his brother, Sir Daniel, was lucky not to be stripped of his castle by the victorious King William. His grandson, John O’Neill, Governor of Antrim, was made a viscount by George III and was killed in Tone’s rebellion of 1798, skewered on a pike by one of his own tenants. His son, Charles, supported the Union of the British and Irish Parliaments in 1800, for which he was made an earl. He was also Lord Lieutenant of Antrim and Grand Master of the Orange Order but one ornament he lacked was progeny and, after the death of his own brother in 1855, Shane’s Castle (yes, English readers, it really is called that) devolved on their sister Mary.

This is where things turn ironic. Mary, the descendent of the O’Neill of Clanaboy who was executed by the Earl of Essex, married the Reverend William Chichester, the descendent of Essex’s ally Sir Arthur. As if that were not bizarre enough, William bucked the patriarchal trend of the time and took his wife’s surname, in order to be able to inherit Shane’s Castle. In 1868, he was ennobled and his descendents include Terence O’Neill, third-to-last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and the current fourth Baron O’Neill of Shane’s Castle. After Brian’s execution, the chiefdom had passed to a separate line who went into exile in Portugal but in 1982 Dom Jorge O’Neill was inaugurated as chief of the name of O’Neill of Clanaboy at a ceremony held at Shane’s Castle.

History can surprise us but only because the future can surprise us and history is nothing more than accumulated futures. At the present time, the whole British Isles find themselves in a state of uncertainty and many people, particularly in Ireland, are casting grim prophecies. Perhaps this week, as the Orangemen don their sashes once more, the strange and surprising history of Shane’s Castle should remind us that the future, tomorrow’s history, cannot be predicted and that even an episode that seems inevitably gloomy can end in a happy sequel. It is not the certainty of what is to come that makes us apprehensive but the uncertainty. Maybe it should not.

Shane's Castle
Shane’s Castle

Photo credits: Parade, Bangor (Rossographer) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Shane’s Castle (Kenneth Allen) / CC BY-SA 2.0


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