Arts

Anne Hailes: Fine new book sheds light on forgotten story of chieftain Con O'Neill

The Clannaboy O’Neills drove the Normans out of Ulster in a brutal and bloody feud, according to a new history of Con O'Neill

ROY Greer set out on his voyage of discovery in 2010. It began with a castle standing four storeys tall commanding a view over Co Down and part of Co Antrim and it was the estate of the Clannaboy O'Neills. It was called Castle Reagh and was the home of Con O'Neill 400 years ago. Although there's neither stick nor stone left, the name lives on.

Next time you go to Connswater remember Con O'Neill, the last Gaelic lord of Clannaboy.

“I was on a walk in the Castlereagh Hills when I wondered where the castle was situated and who lived there. Little did I know I was standing right on the spot,” Roy says.

Those thoughts became a challenge to the principal of Moneyrea Primary School, and he decided Con O'Neill's 400th anniversary should be celebrated in a book. It has been a long and detailed labour of love for the author as he came face to face with an enigma; no image of Con exists but his story is strong and complex.

The stories are colourful – for instance, the legend of the Red Hand of the O'Neills. Two chieftains, some say from the Orkney Islands, some say Spain, raced to the shoreline of Ulster to claim it for their own. They were neck and neck so, to be sure of victory, Eireamhon cut off his right hand with a single blow of his sword and threw it on to the land and won the prize.

His severed hand became the symbol of his descendants and is still to be seen a lot in this part of the world.

Another story is of the most expensive consignment of wine in Irish history involving Con's riotous party and tax evasion... There's drama throughout this book and never a dull moment.

:: Meticulous research

What Roy discovered was a complicated family history and a tangled web of O'Neills, although the clansmen had a simple way of identifying the male line – nicknames, including Brian the Freckled – not to be mixed up with Brian the Bright Star – Niall of the Black Knee, Murtagh the Long-head and poor old Hugh the Lazy-arsed Boy.

Although this book traces the history of the O'Neills and Ulster in general, the main player is Con McNiall McBrian Faghartagh O'Neill.

:: No easy task

“I had to learn how to use a library, and trawl through the archives in the Public Records Office. I got to know the young man whose responsibility was thrust upon him when Ulster was at a crossroads yet when he died in 1619 few were aware of his story and I felt a responsibility to put that right.”

The book charts Irish relationships with England and Scotland and beyond and you'd do well to have a notebook beside you to keep abreast of fast moving events. It's a fascinating tale of love and war, possessions and land grabs – a jigsaw puzzle of events.

This is a very fine book both in content and presentation, richly illustrated, as it is, with maps, portraits and manuscripts, together with high quality colour photographs.

:: Published by The White Row Press, Con O'Neill, Last Gaelic Lord Of Upper Clannaboy by Roy Greer costs £14.95. Available in bookshops or from whiterow.net

Hats off to Lidl

ON WORLD Autism Day, April 2, 194 Lidl stores throughout Ireland will provide a quiet place to shop. Every Tuesday will be an ‘autism care quiet evening' at Lidle stores when between 6pm and 8pm people and families who find it difficult to do their shopping in an unflustered and organised way will be welcomed.

Public spaces like a large store with shelves stacked high overhead can be frightening and overwhelming to a sensitive child and anyone who is nervous will find this time to be of benefit. Understanding staff will be on hand to help, reduced lighting, no irritating announcements punctuating the air and no piped music, even the bleeping of the till will be switched off.

Those with autism and their families will have priority at checkouts and customers with impaired vision will be relieved to know their guide dogs will be welcome.

This will require other shoppers to be patient and to realise that autism is a condition which needs to be understood. Often an autistic child can be disruptive and this is interpreted as naughty, a child out of control because of bad parenting, which is totally wrong but it can lead to harsh words about letting the child away with boldness.

As the parent is trying to keep their son or daughter safe, being shouted at leads to horrible scenes all because the member of the public doesn't understand autism.

It's a spectrum condition, meaning there are degrees from mild to severe. It's not an illness nor a disease and it can't be cured but it can be managed.

Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. I once heard it described like this: we have little plugs and sockets in our brains that normally fit perfectly, an autistic child's plugs are upside down and don't fit into the socket. A crude way of putting it but the image does make you think.

There's debate among parents whether or not to announce publicly that their child is autistic. 'It's not their business,' is one line of thought; on the other hand, an explanation might ease the situation.

If you come across a difficult situation, just saying, “Can I help?” could be the most supportive action you can take. And this is exactly what the staff at Lidl are doing and, as one young man told me, they are looking forward to the experience and getting to know the families who need this space and understanding.

:: More at lidl-ni.co.uk/csr and abettertomorrow-lidl-ni.co.uk/community/#autism-aware-stores

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Arts