Lisburn's castle and cathedral
BY J. F. BURNS
In Volume 4 of the Society's Journal published in December 1982, Mr. Hugh Dixon, in his interesting article about the legacy of Sir Richard Wallace woven into the fabric of Lisburn, makes the observation:
"The original Castle of Sir Fluke Conway begun in 1622 had been a great symmetrical manor house of brick and framework facing westward towards the church (now Cathedral) with projecting wings and a classical entrance in a jutting central bay with canted sides."
The inference here, I imagine, is that Sir Fluke Conway, when he acquired what were known as the Killultagh lands in 1611, built himself a house and church at Lisnagarvey and these were the first buildings in what is now the Castle Gardens and on the site of the present Cathedral. There are authorities like F.G. Bigger, M.R.I.A., Fynes Morrison (a chronicler of those far-off days) and anonymous writers in the State papers in the days of Elizabeth I who hold a different view that Conway, far from building a new house in 1622, merely converted what was already there and which, before the O'Neill rebellion against the authority of the Crown, was in almost daily use.
The last O'Neill to hold sway over these Killultagh lands is known to history as the Captain of Killultagh with castles in Lisburn and at Portmore amongst other places. He appears to have been quite a character with enough strength behind him to challenge the Queen when occasion demanded. Indeed he was a very prickly thorn in the side of the Virgin Queen about whom he could and quite often was anything but polite. Much of it carried back to Elizabeth, for most of it can still be studied in the Irish State Papers of the era. This in his more unfortunate days did not help his cause.
He ruled over 20,000 acres and in his Castle, says Bigger, maintained all the feudal dignity of his race. Only a very limited part of his vast estate (a great deal of which was eventually to form the Hertford Estate) showed any sign of cultivation, the rest being covered in bush and bramble. In many places giant oaks and towering elms were undisturbed monarchs of the forest, which covered great portions of O'Neill's land.
O'Neill had under his command a host of kerns or native infantry trained in the military tactics of the day so that he was greatly feared not only by the English but by fellow native chieftains, whose main occupation seems to have been raiding one another's territory and carrying off what cattle they could capture, though some writers claim the chieftains never took each other's cattle; it was only the cattle belonging to the natives. A very dramatic incident in O'Neill's life which speaks both of strength and stubborness finds its place in many histories of the times and has become something of an Irish legend. It was all enacted somewhere near the Castle Gardens. It is chronicled by a number of scribes of the day so it must possess some semblance of truth.
The year was 1585 and O'Neill, the Captain of Killultagh, was at the very zenith of his power and prestige. He acknowledged the sovereignity of none, native or English. Sir Henry Sydney, Elizabeth's Irish Viceroy (called Lord Deputy in those days) was making a tour of Ulster with his chariots, officers and servants - travelling, says one chronicler, like an Eastern potentate. On arrival at the Castle of Lisnagarvey he sent an equerry to announce that the Queen's Lord Deputy desired to pay his compliments to O'Neill. In accordance with protocol Sir Henry remained in his carriage outside the Castle. Had he entered it to pay his compliments that would have demeaned both himself and his Royal mistress.
The attitude of the Lord Deputy roused the Captain's native Irish blood because by waiting thus and expecting O'Neill to emerge to receive him he was placing the haughty chieftain in the position of a vassal.
In reply to the message O'Neill sent this reply:
"Tell the Lord Deputy that the King of Killultagh is in his Castle where he will be happy to receive him but he would not cross his own threshold to meet the Queen herself."
So with his tail between his legs, Sydney had to pass on his way, but reporting later to the Queen on his tour of Ulster Sydney wrote:
"I came to Killultagh which I found rich and plentiful after the manner of the country. The captain was proud and haughty. He would not come out of his castle to see me but he shall be paid for this before long. I will not remain in his debt."
O'Neill was certainly paid in the coin Sydney had in mind, because within twenty years he had lost or been dispossessed of all his property which was handed over to those who had loyally served the Queen and her successor, James I, in the Irish wars which overthrew the armies of Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone and head of the O'Neill clan.
Here is a description of the castle in which O'Neill lived in Lisburn:
"Very imposing was the appearance of the deposed O'Neill's residence which consisted of an immense pile of buildings situate on a mound that overlooked the valley through which the River Lagan ran and in its outward aspect seemed rather like some place of defence rather than the home of an Irish Prince. In its architecture the leading features were castellated turrets and high-peaked gables while right above the windows were numerous loopholes from each of which projected the muzzle of a cannon. The interior of the Castle, its living rooms, dormitories and audience chambers exhibited little, either in form of promotion or of comfort, carved panellings marked the finish of each apartment, and, as wood formed the principal fuel, the hearths occupied very large spaces."
When Sir Fluke Conway became possessed of O'Neill's castle after his disgrace and dispossession by the British Crown for joining his famous kinsman, High O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, in his rebellion against English power in Ireland, he preserved all the outside brickwork but renovated the , interior to make it more comfortable. It was O'Neill's Castle but then owned by the Conways which was destroyed in 1641 during the famous seige of Lisburn.
There was a little village around the Castle in O'Neill's day. It had about 200 inhabitants, probably retainers, domestic workers and O'Neill's personal bodyguard, but history is silent on just exactly when it was that this little hamlet was founded. Certain it is that it was there some considerable time before any Conway set foot in Ireland.
An interesting feature of O'Neill's Castle in Lisburn was what was described as "0'Neill's masshouse." It was said to be within a few yards of the Castle wall and therein O'Neill's chaplain celebrated Mass for the Captain of Killultagh, his principal followers and the villagers. This building would appear to have stood near or on the site of the Cathedral. Dean Carmody, in his well-known book on Lisburn Cathedral, makes no mention whatever of this Roman Catholic Church on the site of the Cathedral, or near it. He claims that the Castle was built in 1622 and the next year a Church was erected called St. Thomas's which was described as a Chapel of Ease for the Castle.
As we have seen, other authorities held a different view - that Sir Fluke Conway only took over the already existing Castle and church and adapted them to his own use. At the time he took over the Killultagh estate both the Castle and church had fallen into disrepair because of the ravages of the war just ended. He had the place of worship repaired and enlarged for the use of the Protestant population which he had brought from England and had planted in or near the village as replacements for O'Neill's followers who had fled their homes after the defeat of the Irish or had been killed in the bitter struggle between Crown and rebels. This was the church which was destroyed with the Castle in 1641. Another Castle and Church were to rise after the rebellion was put down but these in turn perished in the fire of 1707 which left little of Lisburn standing. The present church dates from the time; but it stood alone for the Castle was never reconstructed and now no trace of it remains. The Cathedral would therefore appear to be the third church which has stood on the site.
Thus there was a small village dominated by this large and princly residence of O'Neill's when Sir Fluke Conway took over the place as part of the Killultagh estate - his reward for his service in the Irish wars which defeated the great O'Neill and his horde of Irish warriors and destroyed for ever the Irish clan system and the Irish way of life which had endured for centuries - in just the same way as the Battle of Culloden in 1745 wiped out the clan system in Scotland.
The term "Killultagh" is worth a second look. The O'Neill-Conway estate was certainly very much larger than what is known as Killultagh today. In 1598 it is shown as "bordering upon Lough Eagh and Clanbrassil" and in Speed's map of 1610 it occupies the position of the modern Aghalee, Aghagallon and Ballinderry - "between the Lagan river and the lake. In 1691 it is enumerated as one of the baronies of Antrim to which it then belonged. Today the district which gave origin to the name is a townland of about 700 acres in extent in the parish of Ballinderry. Possibly the whole area was called Killultagh by the newly arrived English from the title of the O'Neill - the Captain of Killultagh.
In O'Neill's time Killultagh had a notorious and fearsome reputation as a haunt of thieves and vagabonds of one sort or another, who found shelter and safety from the English forces in the dark recesses of its oak forests, which the law's agents were reluctant to penetrate in search of the law-breaker. Up to 1605 it was part of County Down and it was Sir Arthur Chichester - founder of the Donegall family - who transferred it to County Antrim. He said he did so because the Sheriff of Antrim - who was responsible for law and order in his territory - could keep an eye on the thugs of the district more easily than the Sheriff of Down who had the Lagan between him and Killultagh and thus was prevented from moving quickly when he was needed on the north bank of the river.
Incidentally one of the earliest tasks that fell to Fluke Conway was to clear his newly acquired territory of these thieves and rogues who often congregated near Lisnagarvey and spread terror and despair throughout the little colony on the Lagan and also further afield. They were known as tories and their destruction took some time and represented quite a considerable expenditure of money, The name but not the deeds survives right down to our day, for it was the sobriquet which the Whigs hurled at the opposition as a title of obloquy and disdain. Today members of the great Conservative Party glory in what was once an Irish term used by the English and Scottish settlers for rogues and terrorists.
Fluke Conway came of a Welsh family. It is believed that the family took its name from the town in North Wales in which they would appear to hane originated. Through the maternal grandfather of Fluke Conway the family inherited the Ragley estate in Warwickshire to which they moved in the first Elizabeth's reign; in the second Elizabeth's reign the family still live in Ragley Hall and run its estate. Fluke was supposed to have fallen fowl of the law and to escape the clutches of the Virgin Queen he took himself to Ireland where he joined the Army as the one sure way of hiding from his pursuers. In Chichester's wars in the North of Ireland he fought gallantly and successfully and when it came to distribute the spoils of war - in this instance large tracts of uncultivated land, his claim was a good one. Yet he seems to have lost out in the first distribution for nothing came his way. The territory which he subsequently acquired had been allocated to Hamilton of Ards, a Scot who stood high in the esteem of Chichester. Killultagh and Derryvolgie were part of the Ards estate given to Hamilton but he was not too happy with them. They are described as:
"full of bogs which had to be drained, great woods to be cut down and many places were overrun with furze, holly and hazel which had to be cleared before the labour of the ploughman could begin." --
It was a formidable task and perhaps Hamilton felt he had enough on his place with the Ards, which was then wild country like most of the North, without having to concern himself with the massive problems created by the forests and bogs of Killultagh. One writer of those tremendous days says Hamilton rejected what he assumed was useless land and it was then offered to Fluke Conway who accepted it rather than do without anything without actually realising its potential as some of the finest grassland in these islands. There is also a different side to the transaction which is ac_ by other authorities. It is that Conway purchased the territory from Hamilton and then bought out Con O'Neill in the remainder of the land, this 0'Neil being the last of that clan to live in this area. Thus was established the estate which was to remain almost unchanged in extent from 1611 to 1897 when on the death of Lady Wallace the process of selling to the tenant farmers was complete.
The date 1611 as the year when Fluke Conway acquired the estate is quoted by E.R.R. Green in The Lagan Valley 1800-50 and by others, but certain other historians quote a different year, 1609. Green says when Hamilton decided against accepting Killultagh as part of his estate King James granted the lot to Sir Fluke. On the other hand, Knox, in his History of Down, say that in the reign of James I part of the manor of Killultagh was granted to Fluke Conway and Charles I gave the remainder to Lord Conway.
We catch a glimpse of Sir Fluke as he went about his business in Lisburn and district. Bigger claims that in the course of a few years the sturdy Welshman seemed to have almost forgotten the lands of his youth and to have perfectly adopted himself to his new home and its traditions. He wrote:
"AS each succeeding Christmas came round the Yule log was seen blazing on the wide hearth of the castle and during the holidays hospitality reigned in all its Celtish glory. Barons of roast beef and immense cakes of barley bread were prepared for all followers, strangers and wayfarers and barrels of ale poured forth their contents in an amplitude the bare idea of which would cause Sir W. Lawson to weep for the wickedness of ancient Lisburn."
We know, too, that the castle in Lisburn was Sir Fluke's favourite residence, that he seldom left the estate to visit his own folk in Warwickshire and that the great object of his life was the development of Killultagh. "The pleasure he enjoyed in the prosperity of the tenants was fully reciprocated by the fealty and reverence in which during his visits through the estate he was treated by these people," says one Writer. He seems to have been a man who set a fine example to his successors on how run an estate like his, but, alas it was wasted. He was the only one of his line who lived on the estate and worked ceaselessly to improve it. All the rest were absentee landlords, interested only in what the estate could produce by way of money and some of them the very worst kind of absentee landlord.
Sir Fluke died in March 1624 and was succeeded by his elder brother. We know Sir Fluke was married but obviously it was childless else his brother would not have succeeded him. Sir Edward Conway was a soldier and gentleman whose domicle was England and for his services to the State he was in 1624 created Baron Conway of Ragley in the County of Warwickshire. 10 years later he was advanced in the peerage to Viscount as Viscount Killultagh of Killultagh in the County of Antrim. There he was created Visount Conway of Conway Castle in Carnavronshire. He died in January 1630 and his eldest son, Edward, succeeded to the family honours.
The second Viscount Conway was unfortunate in the times in which he lived. The most valuable part of his estate lay in ruins as a result of 1641 rebellion and because he was an ardent loyalist he was to fall foul of the Cromwelliam Protectorate when he was implicated in a plot to oust Cromwell and kill him. He was lucky to escape with his life. His estates at Ragley and Lisburn were sequestered by the Protectorate and only returned on the payment of a huge indemnity. He died in 1655 so he did not live to see restoration of the Stewart Kings. Had he, no doubt he would have been rewarded by Charles II for his loyalty.
Three years after he inherited his estates he appointed a Yorkshire man, 'George Rawdon, as his land agent in Ireland. Under his tutelage the town and estate began its development. Rawdon lived a great deal of his time in both the old and new Castle in Lisburn and perhaps something of this time, when the Castle was the centre of life of the area, will be the subject of a later article.
The third and last Viscount Conway was more interested in Killultagh than his two predecessors. In 1664 he had the old Castle (or what remained of it though part was habitable for Rawdon lived in it) pulled down and the new one erected. Rawdon lived most of the time in it for the Viscount on his usual visits lived in his new Castle at Portmore, also built on the site on an 'Neill fortress, and enjoyed the pleasures which his newly established deerpark provided. He died in 1683 when his Irish and English estates passed to his nephew Popham Seymour, and a new chapter in the history of Lisburn begins with the rise of the Hertfords.