The first reference to Castlereagh in the ancient history of Ulster comes in AD 1148 when a battle was fought in this vicinity between the men of Ulidia and those of Tyrone. The soldiers of Ulidia, who were beaten, were the last remnants of the Danes who once held a tight grip on all the chief Irish seaports.
The name Castlereagh, which far pre-dates the beginning of local government, is derived from the ‘Caislen Riabhach’ or ‘Grey Castle’ of the O’Neills that once perched on the Castlereagh Hills. During the 13th Century the O’Neills of central Ulster spread eastwards into County Antrim and from thence into North Down.
The clan divided up and a branch, the children of Yellow Hugh O’Neill, settled in the Castlereagh area, which at that time was also known as Upper Clandeboye or Clannaboy. The castle is said to have been built in about 1350 by Aodh Flann O’Neill during the reign of Edward III.
The Grey Castle, once called the ‘Eagles Nest’ due to its situation and the powerful influence of Conn O’Neill, the last great chieftain of the Clandeboye O’Neills, was lost to the family in the early 17th Century. In 1603, accordingly to manuscripts of the time, Conn was holding a ‘great debauch at Castlereagh, with his brother, his friends and followers, when they ran out of wine. He sent some of his servants to Belfast to procure fresh supplies but Queen Elizabeth's soldiers waylaid them on the way back and their wine was taken from them.
On enquiring into the circumstances, Conn became very angry when he discovered that the soldiers of the Crown had easily overcome his servants, as they were very drunk. Threatened with dismissal from his service unless they avenged the affront done to him and themselves, the servants armed themselves as best they could and returned to execute the revenge sought by Conn. They later engaged the same soldiers and during the ensuing scuffle one of the soldiers sustained a wound from which he died that night.
As a result of this incident Conn was promptly arrested, charged with levying war against the Queen, and was imprisoned in Carrickfergus Castle, from which he escaped to Scotland some months later with help from High Montgomery, the Laird of Braidstaune in Ayrshire. He reputedly escaped by means of a rope brought to him by his wife and hidden in a large cheese. He was eventually granted a free pardon by King James that cost him two thirds of his lands.
He returned to Castlereagh in 1605 but due to his taste for high living, he was periodically forced to sell off or lease parts of the remainder of his estate to meet his obligations. Conn once owned 224 freehold town lands and held many others by various tenures, but at the time of his death in 1618 only two remained.
The Castle, town and lands of Castlereagh were sold to Sir Moyses Hill, the founder of the family of the Marquises of Downshire in 1616, along with most of Conn’s remaining lands.
The Castle fell into ruins after this, but survived until the early years of the 19th Century. It is said that 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. We are told that it was a ‘square building, one hundred feet square each way and with turrets at the angles’.
However, the Coronation or Inauguration Chair of the O’Neills has survived the castle in which it once stood. It was found in the castle ruins in 1755 and, after several adventures, was brought to Belfast in 1771 by Stewart Banks, and built into the wall of the Butter Market in Tomb Street, where it remained for more than fifty years.
The chair, which is roughly hewn out of a white sandstone boulder, was then given to the Ulster Museum at Belfast for safekeeping.
Conn’s eldest son spent his life in the service of the Stuart monarchs and went into exile with Charles II. He died childless. His younger brother was killed earlier in the Civil Wars and, with the passing of the O’Neills Castlereagh fell into obscurity for many years.
Stewart, in his Topographica Hibernica dated 1795, reports that ‘Castlereagh is now the estate of Lord Hills, and though made up of a few scattered houses, yet is the head of a manor where his seneschal holds his courts. Fairs are held here on 5th July and 27th October. Dating from the same period is Castlereagh House, which, as its inscription testifies, was built by Robert Leathem in 1786. This attractive, whitewashed dwelling is in size something between a small country house and a substantial farmhouse, and is still in use after over 200 years.
The Castlereagh Presbyterian Church, not far away, is another building worthy of note. It was first founded in 1650, but the present structure, consisting of a pillared front, surmounted by a circular belfry topped with a copper dome, dates from around 1835. Its quaint appearance earned it the following description in Cathal O’Bryne’s book As I Roved Out – A Book of the North published in 1946.
“Further on, by the wayside, a grey church stood, an ugly one, suggesting on the outside an Egyptian Mausoleum topped with a pepperbox cupola.”
In the southwestern corner of the hills lies the extensive Lisnabreeny Estate (Lisnabreeny means ‘fort of the fairies’) once owned by the Robb family and given to the National Trust by Dr Nesca Robb, poet and scholar, in 1938. The 156 acres contains Glencregagh glen and waterfall, as well as Lisnabreeny House, which stands in beautiful wooded grounds.
On 2 December 1943, a United States military cemetery was established at Lisnabreeny in which 148 American Service personnel were interred. For several years a memorial service was held each year involving the American and British Forces together with American citizens resident in Northern Ireland. The cemetery was closed in November 1947 when the bodies were exhumed and re-buried either in the United States or England.
The Castlereagh Hills are today an area of strict control by the Planning Service of the Department of the Environment. The ‘green belt’, which they provide is a notable feature of the Greater Belfast area, and are regarded as such an important amenity to city dwellers that they are protected against the encroachments of further development. The urban sprawl therefore halts firmly at their feet.
In addition to the area known as Castlereagh, from which the Borough takes its name, a number of other areas combine with it to form the whole area administered by the Council. These are best dealt with separately, and the following accounts contain historical data, together with interesting features and general information relating to each of them.