Category: Archive

A View North: C’sar, Billy McKee and the fairy thorn

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

It often took a supreme act of imagination to picture Belfast as anything other than the dreary Victorian industrial city that it was when I grew up there in the 1950s. It was especially hard in the winter time, with the thick fogs deepening the gloom of black slate roofs, factory chimneys spewing smoke, and sputtering gas lamps. But it was possible to see the whole city in a new light, thanks to "As I Roved Out," written by the historian of Belfast, Cathal O’Byrne. Originally published in 1946, it was reissued by Blackstaff Press in 1982. In it, O’Byrne catalogued in loving detail the places, the people, the legends, and the myths that put the city in an entirely different context for those of us who knew only its "dark satanic mills."

O’Byrne was particularly fond of trying to establish the city’s links to Irish folklore with tales of banshees and fairies. He claims that the city had several fairy thorn trees, one of which grew on the site of St. Comgall’s School, on Divis Street, at the foot of the Falls Road. According to O’Byrne, in years gone by there was a meadow there, not far from the course of a stream which until recently could still be traced. There was also a fairy well, but by the time O’Byrne came to be interested in such things it had long vanished, replaced by streets, factories and cobble-stones. However, something of the old place managed to survive within the school grounds even in his day. He notes that though "the meadow has long been built over . . . it is pleasant to note that, at the moment, there are beautiful shrubs and bushes growing on the spot where once it grew."

This is definitely another instance (common enough in Ireland) where legend and history intertwine, for St. Comgall’s School has a place in both. The school has long serviced the local community of what once was the Pound Loney. But in August 1969 it embedded itself in local history for another reason. It was there on the night of Aug. 14 that a handful of IRA men prepared to take on the loyalist mobs that were pouring down the streets between the Falls district and the Shankill Road, firebombing Catholic homes as they went. The mobs were planning to spread their terror to the Divis Street area. Among the IRA men were Billy McKee, Seamus Twomey (who later became Provisional IRA chief of staff) and Liam Price — representatives of an organization that, demoralized by recent policy changes dictated from Dublin, seemed on the verge of extinction. The IRA men had only six handguns and an old submachine gun among them.

The school afforded them a good view of the road and the streets on the other side of it, where homes were going up in flames and Catholic refugees were fleeing in panic toward the Falls district. As the mob approached, supported by the B-Specials, the all-Protestant paramilitary force attached to the police, the IRA at first fired over their heads. In a subsequent exchange of fire, eight Protestants were wounded. Hebert Roy, aged 26, was shot dead, as he peered around the corner of Dover Street and Divis Street — one of the very first fatalities of the Troubles that would go on to claim more than 3,000 lives

St. Comgall’s School has since become the Belfast equivalent of the GPO on Easter Monday 1916. If every man who claimed to have been there on the night of Aug. 14, it would have been standing room only.

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Probably none of those who were actually there, of course, knew about the nature of the place, and its associations with the Little People. Such spots were regarded by the Irish as "gentle places," though it might not have seemed that way to McKee and his men as the bullets whizzed overhead.

According to O’Byrne, there was another fairy thorn which grew about two miles further up the Falls Road. It was in an area known as the Giant’s Foot, which ran from the road, alongside the grounds of a convent, in the direction of the Whiterock Road. The Giant’s Foot was in fact an outcrop of red sandstone, the sedimentary rock underlying the Lagan Valley and the basalt and chalk hills around it. I would frequently take it as a short cut on my way to St. Thomas’s Secondary School on the Whiterock Road. The thorn was destroyed, and a Fairy Ring next to it demolished, to make way for a playing field.

I am surprised, given the amount of superstition that still clings to fairy thorns about their power to bring bad luck to anyone who harms them. I saw an example of that in September 1989 when I was visiting Rostrevor in County Down, that beautiful village which crouches between the Mountains of Mourne and Carlingford Lough. Just outside the village, a new housing development was being built of middle-class bungalows. But the course of the access road had been blocked by a fairy thorn tree. Refusing to cut down the fairy thorn, the builders had diverted the road so that it looped around the tree, adding a few hundred yards to its length. Rather that than tempt the fairies to wreak revenge. In the early 1960s, the same considerations made road builders leave a fairy thorn standing in the middle of a bypass a few miles south of Belfast.

One of those who defied the fairies was Julius C’sar. During his conquest of the Celtic nations of ancient Gaul, on one occasion C’sar was confronted by a rebellion within his ranks. Many of his troops were Gauls themselves. On being ordered to cut down a "sacred wood" to provide posts for the stockade, which it was customary to construct after the day’s march, they refused, saying it was bad luck. C’sar, to show them how much he despised such superstitions, took the axe and cut down the first tree himself. A few years later, many of the Gallic legionaries who had warned him must have nodded their heads knowingly when they heard of his assassination. One could forgive them for indulging in a chorus of "We told you so!"

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