A Narrow Sea - Episode 14
The Escape of Conn O’Neill
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
During the final years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign Conn Mac Néill O’Neill was Lord of Upper Clandeboye, a territory encompassing north Down and the Ards peninsula. Conn had fought with the Earl of Tyrone against the Crown - but after the rout of Kinsale he had submitted to the governor of Carrickfergus, Sir Arthur Chichester. Conn, however, failed to keep out of trouble and his rash antics were to lead directly to the most successful Scottish colonisation carried out anywhere in Ireland.
During a feast lasting several days in his tower house of Castlereagh, the wine, unsurprisingly, ran out. Conn sent his men to Belfast nearby to get more. As the Montgomery family papers inform us:
The said servants being sent with runletts to bring wine from Belfast aforesaid, unto the said Con, their master…then in a grand debauch at Castlereagh, with his brothers, his friends, and followers; they returning (without wine) to him battered and bled, complained that the soldiers had taken the wine, with the casks, from them by force…on this report of the said servants, Con was vehemently moved to anger; reproached them bitterly; and in a rage, swore by his father, and by all his noble ancestors’ souls, that not one of them should ever serve him…if they went not back forthwith and revenge the affront done to him and themselves, by those few Boddagh Sasonagh soldiers (as he termed them).
Conn’s men – ‘as yet more than half drunk’ – returned to Belfast and killed a soldier. Accused of levying war against the Queen, Conn was cast into a dungeon in Carrickfergus.
It was not long before news of Conn’s fate travelled across the North Channel to Ayr and reached the ears of Hugh Montgomery, the 6th Laird of Braidstane. Montgomery had commanded Scottish troops fighting for the Protestant cause in France, and ‘forseeing that Ireland must be the stage to act upon’, realised he could profit from Conn O’Neill’s plight.
Both Hugh Montgomery and his brother, the Reverend George Montgomery, were close confidants of King James VI of Scotland. In effect they served the King as spies in England by employing a footman in Elizabeth’s court to collect ‘with letters of intelligencies and of business and advice, and in requittal he received more and fresher informations (touching the English Court and the Queen)’.
Hugh Montgomery’s moment came when Elizabeth died in the spring of 1603 and James VI of Scotland became James I of England:
The said Laird in the said first year of the King’s reign pitched upon the following way (which he thought most fair and feazable) to get an estate of lands with free consent of the forfeiting owner of them.
In other words – Montgomery thought that if he helped Conn O’Neill out of his current predicament then he, Montgomery, would profit.
An elaborate plan was laid to spring Conn O’Neill from jail in Carrickefergus Castle. Thomas Montgomery, a relative of Hugh Montgomery, was sent over to Carrickfergus in a small boat to woo the Town Marshal’s daughter, Annas Dobbin. This Thomas did with striking success:
This took umbrages of suspicion away, and so by contrivance with his espoused, an opportunity one night, was given to the said Thomas and his barque’s crew to take on board the said Con, as it were by force, he making no noise for fear of being stabbed.
According to another account, Conn’s wife Éilis assisted by smuggling in rope in two big cheeses,
‘the meat being neatly taken out, and filled with cords, well packed in, and the holes handsomely made up again’.
Annas Dobbin opened the cell and Conn lowered himself down the rope to the waiting boat to be taken across to Largs and freedom. At Braidstane Castle – Hugh Montgomery’s home - the deal was finalised. In return for half Conn’s lands, Hugh would obtain for Conn a royal pardon. Conn and Hugh then travelled to Westminster, there to meet up with Hugh’s brother, George Montgomery - who for some months had been serving as chaplain to King James. Persuaded by the Montgomerys, James received Conn – the escaped prisoner - graciously, knighted Hugh Montgomery and ordered that the arrangement to give half Conn’s lands to Hugh should be confirmed by letters patent.
It was at this point that two other Scots at court intervened. They were Sir James Fullerton and James Hamilton, like Montgomery, natives of Ayrshire. Both had lived for many years in Dublin, teaching there and acting as informers for King James. Fullerton, now a gentleman of the bedchamber, approached the King, saying that ‘the lands granted to Sir Hugh and Con were vast territories, too large for two men of their degree’. He reminded King James that he had granted land in the Ards peninsula in 1604 to a London merchant, Thomas Ireland, in return for £1,678 6s 8d, and that James Hamilton had bought this patent.
Now, in 1605, King James quickly revised the grant, dividing Upper Clandeboye equally between Conn O’Neill, Sir Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton. The crucial condition of the patents issued to Montgomery and Hamilton was that they ‘should promise to inhabit the said territory and lands with English or Scotchmen’.