By James O'Laverty
[From An Historical Account of the Diocese of Down and Conor, Ancient and Modern, Vol. I, 1878]
THE modern barony of Ards, which comprises the whole of the peninsula between Lough Cuan, or Strangford, and the Irish Sea, and extends to a line drawn from near Newtownards to Carnalea on the shores of Belfast Lough, represents the ancient territory of Ard-Uladh. This ancient designation has been translated the high land of Ulidia, thus in the life of St. Comgall of Bangor, quoted by Ussher, the saint is said to have built "the monastery which is called Bangor in the region named Altitudo Ultorum." This record is interesting as it proves that the territory even at that early period included Bangor. The Ards formed a little kingdom yielding allegiance to the larger kingdom of Ulidia. A poem in the historical tale descriptive of the Battle of Magh Rath, fought A.D. 642,
"The standard of Feardomhan of banquets
The red-weaponed king of the Ard-Uladh
White satin (srol) to the sun and the wind displayed
Over that mighty man without blemish."
This Ferdomun, son of Imoman, king of Ard-Uladh, is not mentioned in the Irish Annals, nor is his name found in the ancient genealogies, but the historical tale represents him as a renowned hero of the Ultonians, who conducted from the field of slaughter six hundred warriors, the surviving remnant of their forces. An ancient document relating to the See of Down states that in the year 1034 "There reigned in Ards (in Ardo) Cathalan M'Muriedaig, who gave to the bishop and the church of Down eighteen carucates in Ardgune (Ardquin) along with a chapel in spiritualities." According to the Book of Rights the king of Uladh was bound to pay
"The stipend of the king of Arda
Eight foreigners, eight fierce horses,
Eight drinking-horns, eight cloaks with ring-clasps
And eight exquisitely beauteous ships."
The inhabitants of the Ards were not of the Ulidian, or Irian race, but belonged to the Dal Fiatach, the descendants of Fiatach Fin, a Heremonian prince, whose descendants were driven along with the Irians into the territory which constitutes the counties of Down and Antrim; the Dal Fiatach however possessed themselves of all the County of Down except Iveagh, Kinelarty, and Dufferin. Ard-Uladh is only twice mentioned previous to the English Invasion, by the annals that have come down to us; and both entries refer to hostile incursions of the Kinel-Owen. A.D. 1011 "An army was afterwards led by Flaithbheartach (king of Aileach or of the Kinel Owen), till he arrived at Ard-Uladh, so that the whole of the Ards was plundered by him; and he bore off from thence spoils the most numerous that a king had ever borne, both prisoners and cattle without number." The Kinel Owen again in the year 1130 led by Connor O'Loughlin, invaded Ulidia "and they plundered the country as far as the east of Ard, both lay and ecclesiastical property, and they carried off one thousand prisoners, and many thousand cows and horses." A tract upon the princes and families of the Dal Fiatach taken from Dual MacFirbis' Geanealogical Work, given by Dr. Reeves, Ecclesiastical Antiquities, p. 358. states that Donnsleibhe, Dal Fiatach prince, fought the battle of Derry-Ceite about the year 1172 against Cooley O'Flathri, king of Ulidia, and sustained a terrible defeat, in which were slaughtered many of the people of the Ards and of the Hy-Blathmac. The latter people received their name from Blathmac, whose father Aodh-Roin, king of Ulidia, was beheaded A.D. 732, on the large stone which is at the door of the church of Faughard, County Louth, by Aedh Allan, monarch of Ireland. Their territory extended from the vicinity of Bangor to that of Carrickmannon, and included the modern civil parishes of Holywood, Dundonald, Comber, Killinchy, Kilmood, Tullynakill, with parts of Bangor, Newtownards, and Knock-breda. The stipend which the king of Uladh paid to the king of that territory is thus recorded in the Book of Rights-
"The stipend of the king of Ui-Blathmaic is
Eight handsome extensive bondmen;
Eight steeds not driven from the mountains,
With bridles of old silver."
Sir John de Courcy subdued the Ards and Hy-Blathmac; and the English formed those two districts into a county, the chief town of which was Newtownards, which was called "Nove Ville de Blathwyc," and the county was styled "Comitatus de Arde" and sometimes "Comitatus Novae Villae." In the county there were two baronies, or Bailiwicks, the Balliva de Blathewick and the Balliva del Art. A.D. 1345, Edward III. appointed "Robertas de Halywode" to be sheriff of the "Comitatus Nove Ville de Blawico," and commanded Robert Yafford, the former sheriff, to deliver to him the public documents. Henry IV. in the first year of his reign, appointed Robert, son of Jordan Savage, to be sheriff "de Arte in Ultonia." De Courcy, the De Lacys, the De Burgos, successively earls of Ulster, parcelled out the Ards among the monasteries and their own retainers. The principal retainers were the Savages of the Little Ards, the Mandevilles, who were possessed of lands around Kircubbin; the Talbots, landed proprietors around Ballyhalbert; Nicholas Galgyl, who held the lands around Ballygalget; and Fitz Nicholas, who had property at Slanes. So late, however, as 1397 the Earl of Ulster held in his immediate possession lands in the present civil parishes of Ballywalter, Ballytrustan, Ballyphilip; and in 1425 when the earldom of Ulster was possessed by the Duke of York, then a minor, Henry VI. committed to Galfridius Sloghtre, the care of the lands of Ardkeen, which were then, though greatly wasted by the Irish, held directly by the Duke, as Earl of Ulster. The greater part of the Ards and all the adjoining territories except Lecale and Dufferin, had already fallen into the possession of the Clannaboy O'Neills. Some of the native Irish of the Ards and the neighbouring districts, who had experienced the tyranny of the Anglo-Normans, hailed these invaders and their clansmen from Tyrone and Derry as deliverers, while others were forced to accept such exchange of territory as suited the convenience of the new conquerors. The O'Gilmores were confirmed in their ancient territory throughout the parishes of Holywood and Bangor; the O'Mulcreevys were pushed from the banks of the Lagan and the neighbourhood of Castlereagh, to the district around Groomsport. The O'Flinns were carried with the Kinel-Owen conquerors from the shores of Lough Neagh and the Bann to the lands of Inishargy. The "M'Kearnyes" (the name is now Kearney) were a powerful sept in the Ards,- probably of Kinel-Owen origin, for Kearney is still a name of frequent occurrence in Derry and Tyrone; at all events they were not much loved by the English. The M'Gees were located at Portavogie, while the descendants of the Anglo-Normans were cooped up in the Little Ards, which from this period became the acknowledged possession of the family of Savage, around whom all the English interest centred. No serious attempt was made by the English to repossess themselves of the Greater Ards until the year 1572, when Queen Elizabeth granted to Sir Thomas Smith extensive portions of Antrim and Down, including the Ards. Sir Thomas appointed his natural son, Thomas Smith, as the leader of the colony, which he designed to plant in the Ards; and to obtain for him a kindly reception, Sir Thomas wrote a wily letter to Domino Barnabeo filio Philippi-in plainer language, to the renowned chief, Sir Brian Mac Felim O'Neill, the lord of Clannaboy, who was incessantly engaged by warfare and negociation in resisting every attempt to seize his lands by English arms or plantation. The 10th of August, 1572, young Smith landed at Strangford, and proceeded to build a castle upon the Ards; but he soon found that Sir Brian Mac Felim was not an agreeable neighbour, and in September he wrote to Burghley complaining, that Sir Brian would not part with a foot of the land. In the meantime Sir Brian, fearing that the colonists would convert the old monasteries into garrisons, burned the monasteries of Newtown, Bangor, Movilla, and Holywood. Smith felt it necessary to withdraw his men from Newton in the Ardes to Renoughaddy (Ring-haddy) in the Dufferin. At this time Walter, Earl of Essex, was also engaged in a similar scheme of colonizing, and had received from the Queen a grant of Claneboy, the Route, and other lands in Down and Antrim. He placed a garrison at Belfast, and another at Holywood, under a Lieutenant Moore. The fate of Smith is thus told in a letter written by Essex from Carrickfergus, the 20th of October, 1573:- "The same day at my coming home I received letters from Mr. Moore, the pensioner, and from a brother of Mr. Secretary's, that his son, Thomas Smith, had been slain in the Ardes that afternoon with a shot, and was stricken in the head. His men finding his house scant guardable have sent unto me for a band of horsemen to convey them to Mr. Moore's at Hollywood, which this day I have sent unto them." Smith's men were relieved by Ferdorough Savage, who brought them into the Little Ards. The death of young Smith extinguished that enterprise, which cost Sir Thomas £10,000: but the Smith family continued even till about the year 1700, to petition the Crown to restore to them the benefit of their patent. Marshal Bagenal's Description of Ulster in 1586 contains the following notice of this territory:- "Little Ardes lieth on the North side of the River of Strangford, a fertile champion countrey. It is th' inheritance of the Lord Savage, who hath now for certain yeares farmed the same to Capten Peers. There are besides dwellinge here certeine anncient freeholders of the Savages and Smithes, able to make amongst them all, some 30 horsmen and 60 footemen. They are often harrowed and spoyled by them of Clandeboye, with whom the borders of their lands do joine. Great Ardes is that countrey which was undertaken by Mr. Smithe; it is almost an Island, a champion and fertile land, and now possessed by Sir Con M'Neill oig Onele, who hath planted there Neil M'Brian Ferto, with sondrey of his owne sirname. But the anncient dwellers there are the Ogilmers a rich and stronge sept of people alwaies followers of the Neils of Clandeboye. The force of th' enhabitantes nowe dwellinge here is 60 horsmen and 300 footemen." Con O'Neill, the sixth in descent from Aodh Buidhe II. slain in 1444 (see Dufferin), who possessed those lands, which the swords of his ancestors won, having been imprisoned as a rebel, because he ordered his servants to recover his wine, which some drunken soldiers of the garrison of Belfast had seized for their own use, as it was being carted from Carrickfergus to Castlereagh, agreed to divide his lands with James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery on condition that they would obtain his pardon and a grant from the Crown for the remainder. The lands were accordingly divided, Con retained the Castlereagh district, Hamilton succeeded in procuring for his share of the spoil the entire civil parishes of Bangor and Ballyhalbert, while the remainder of the Greater Ards fell to the lot of Montgomery, yet such was the mutual hatred engendered between the two Scotchmen in the division of the booty that Hamilton in his will directed that none of his sons or daughters should marry any of the posterity of Montgomery. Hamilton's property descended to Henry Hamilton, Earl of Clanbrassil, who made a will leaving the estates absolutely to his Countess, and afterwards died suddenly on the 12th of January, 1675. The various members of the Hamilton family contested this will and eventually purchased out the interests of the representatives of the Countess. The estate consequently became broken up, and much of it passed into other hands, in order to procure money for the payment of the purchase and the lawsuits. A similar fate befel Montgomery's share; the family sold to Sir Robert Colvill the Manor of Newtownards in 1675, and that of Comber except Mount Alexander in 1679, while Mount Alexander and the remnant of the vast estates belonging to the Montgomeries were bequeathed by Henry Montgomery last Earl of Mount Alexander, who died in 1757, to his Countess, and by her to her nephews, Samuel Delacherois and Nicholas Cromelin. The inhuman butcheries perpetrated against the natives by the military men employed during the wars of Elizabeth made the Greater Ards a desert, and most of the natives when the Scotch colonists arrived sought an asylum in the Little Ards among their fellow Catholics, the descendants of the early English settlers. The following description of the desolation existing in the parishes of Comber, Donaghadee, and Newtownards, given by the author of the Montgomery Manuscripts, may be taken as a picture of the state of the entire district " In the spring time, Ao. 1606, those parishes were now more wasted than America when the Spaniards landed there, but were not at all incumbered with great woods to be filled and grubbed, to the discouragement or hinderance of the inhabitants, for in all those three parishes aforesaid, 30 cabins could not be found, nor any stone walls, but ruined roofless churches, and a few vaults at Gray Abbey, and a stump of an old Castle at Newton, in each of which some gentlemen sheltered themselves at their first coming over."* Yet it seems some few of the natives still lingered in the neighbourhood of their birth, for when Sir Hugh Montgomery was roofing the chancel of a ruined church, the manuscript says, "he needed not withdraw his own planters from working for themselves, because there were Irish Gibeonets and Garrons enough in his woods to hew and draw timber for the sanctuary."
* This affords a strong argument in favour of Tenant-right. It was not for the landlord but for themselves that the Scotch Colonist and his descendants built the farmsteads and reclaimed the lands ; and the proprietors inheriting from the purchasers from Con O'Neill should bear in mind that Con only held, or represented chiefs, who only held by Tanistry, or in other words as the stewards of the lands, which were for the use of the people. The hardy warriors from Tyrone and Derry did not spill their blood to make the Clanna-boy Chiefs proprietors of the conquered territory, and if the chiefs usurped such powers, the usurpation arose from the confusion of troubled times. The settlement of the Tenant question is only a review in calmer moments of unjust powers conferred by the Crown too hastily; while the political cry of the Sacred rights of property is too frequently a successful argument for the perpetuation of injustice.