I come from Kells – not Kells in County Meath, nor Kells in County Kerry, but the twin villages of Kells and Connor in County Antrim. The fact that my father was Czech, that I grew up mainly in London and have lived for many years in Dublin probably excludes me from citizenship in the eyes of most of its inhabitants. But I still consider Kells and the nearby town of Ballymena to be my home place.
These two villages have suffered, in the words of one resident, because “they were on the road to nowhere” – deep in the County Antrim countryside, well off the main road from Belfast to Ballymena. In an introduction to a 1989 booklet, local historian Dr Eull Dunlop called them “the forgotten villages.”
It was not always so. Kells and Connor have a proud place in the history of Ulster and Ireland. As its Heritage Trail booklet (beautifully produced by the Kells and Connor Community Improvement Association) outlines in fascinating detail, St MacNissi, a disciple of St Patrick (who is believed to have tended sheep on nearby Slemish mountain during his first period of slavery in Ireland), built a monastery here. By the 11th century Connor boasted a Romanesque cathedral richly decorated with Celtic carving and standing at the centre of a populous settlement led by the Ó Floinn family, part of the Uí Thuirtre confederation, who had successfully resisted the Norman invaders for many years.
Connor continued to thrive under the Normans. An Augustinian abbey was built and in 1178 a Norman, Reginaldus, became Bishop of Connor. Its ‘golden age’ ended when a Scottish army led by Edward Bruce, who had recently declared himself High King of Ireland, defeated an Anglo-Norman army before sacking this then strategically important town in 1315. It was never to recover its previous significance.
In the early 17th century Kells and Connor were part of the Ulster Plantation, and were settled mainly by Scottish Presbyterians. They were to become two of the North’s most predominantly Presbyterian villages (they still have no fewer than four Presbyterian churches of various denominations). The religious revival which was to sweep Protestant Ulster in the late 1850s began in a school hall near Kells.
In 1798, while Henry Joy McCracken was attacking Antrim, 500 men from Kells and Connor successfully attacked and took nearby Randalstown. One source states that “they were almost to a man engaged in the rebellion.” In the aftermath of the defeat of the United Irishmen, a guerrilla campaign was waged in the nearby glens and several local leaders were captured and hanged.
Meanwhile the twin villages were becoming part of the Industrial Revolution. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries numerous woollen and linen mills grew up along the Kellswater River. In 1780 Francis Dinsmore came from Donegal and in 1796 set up what was to become the Old Green Woollen Mill, which would thrive, under successive Dinsmores, liberal and progressive employers, until the mid-1980s. Dinsmore Textile Solutions, with a headquarters and a dyeing and finishing plant in Kells, and factories and offices in England and Russia, is now an internationally successful company in finishing and trading fabrics.
In 1912 Kells and Connor, like so much of Protestant Ulster, came out massively in support of the Ulster Covenant. In 1914 the local Church of Ireland minister’s car was the first to arrive to pick up guns at Larne harbour during the Larne gun running.
Now there is no more British village in Northern Ireland. Last week, nearly two months after the ‘Twelfth’, its streets were festooned with Union flags (or bristling with Union flags? One’s use of words often depends on one’s political viewpoint). It boasts four Orange lodges, the oldest dating back to 1810. Anybody who continues to doubt the existence of two radically different and mutually uncomprehending Irelands (Do such old-fashioned nationalists still exist?) should spend a couple of hours in Kells and Connor. People here, when they think of the South of Ireland at all, consider it to be a foreign country.
Yet if you strip away the politics and turn a blind eye to the flags, Kells looks and feels like scores of suburbanised Irish villages, with its Supervalu supermarket, its Chinese and Indian takeaways (God bless the leavening element brought by the hardworking Chinese, Indians, Poles and other immigrants), its computer shop and its post-1990 housing estates.
As this all-too-brief outline makes clear, Kells’ history is deeply entwined with the story of Ireland. Yet how many people south of the border know or care about its fascinating and multi-faceted history, or that of similar northern villages? Situated as it is in the heartland of Ulster Unionism, is it perhaps the least known historic village in Ireland? For the vast majority of Southerners the beautiful and historic lands of Antrim north of Belfast are terra incognita, an area that they rarely if ever visit and which is ‘beyond the Pale’ in a host of different ways.
All this is a dilemma for those of us who insist on thinking of Ireland as one island and one country, whatever the political and constitutional barriers. A leading Belfast community worker with a loyalist paramilitary background was once described to me as “politically British and culturally Irish.” That’s how I see the forgotten villages of Kells and Connor. It makes me sad because I believe that any non-violent solution to the age-old imbroglio of Ireland and Northern Ireland has to accommodate the ‘British Irishness’ of places like these. And I can’t see how that is going to happen – unless perhaps a new non-sectarian Northern Irish identity can be allowed to emerge.