(11) Justice at McArts Fort : The Sword of Truth. Part 2. Memories of The Troubles Down South.


Memories Of The Troubles Down South

In Dublin I was 10 years of age on the 17th of May 1974 when my father arrived back late from work one evening. He had blood on his face and hands from cuts and scratches and I remember my mother throwing her arms around him as he walked into the kitchen. He had been in Parnell Street in Dublin in a motor factors store there when the first of three bombs placed around Dublin timed 2 minutes apart went off in the middle of rush Hour at 5:28 in the evening during a bus strike when the city was particularly busy with pedestrians going for the train.

He was standing at the front of the store when the blast blew the windows in and he described how he saw time suspended for a moment as he saw the glass shatter, but hanging there in the air in front of where he was standing as if it was happening in slow motion and then the tiny pieces of the window momentarily were sucked inwards towards the shop on top of him and a shop assistant, thankfully, but only from his point of view, it suddenly changed direction and blew outwards into the street outside where sadly 10 people were killed by the real force of the blast. He walked out into the street to collect his bicycle that, strangely perhaps, only had some of its spokes broken, to see the utter carnage of devastated people, the destroyed cars and buildings everywhere around.

He said it was truly awful, Dad was very shook and I was later to learn that a boy from my class in Killester School on the Howth Road had lost his Auntie in the blast. Maureen Shiels was one of 26 who died horribly in Dublin in the three bombs.

7 more died in Monaghan at 7pm later evening. Numerous others suffered horrendous injuries. 

Outside Manipulations

This was just one of many many incidents that occurred during these times and this incident is well known to have had the agent provocateur involvement of the British Security Forces who used loyalists as proxies. Over the years British officers have come forward. They were also involved in the bombings in Dublin in 1972 and 73. I will never forget their dreadfulness.   This entire incident is similar to the sort of manipulation and interference with peoples lives that went on all through The Troubles. What it must have been like living in Ulster during The Troubles must have been horrendous as innocent and good people; had to live day to day with this awful type of brutality. I pray the like of it never happens anywhere in Ireland or England ever again. The true purpose of the violence as it turned out was to use The Dublin Monaghan Bombings to put an end to anyone pursuing the Sunningdale power sharing executive peace agreement of December 73 at that time on top of the the unionist workers strikes also being used to end the agreement. Sunningdale collapsed on the 28th of May, 11 days after the bombings. 


Back To The Present But With The Lessons Of The Past.

Going to visit Belfast has been an important thing to do. I feel what happened during the Troubles should never be forgotten and history should not be revised untruthfully.  I say this because I notice that my children and grandchildren know very little of it and It’s my personal view that we should embrace the truth and wholeheartedly take profound lessons from the past. We live in our time for a reason and though most of us live quietly that does not mean that we should not actively try to understand the difficulties of our epoch. 

On past trips we visited the museum at the Crumlin Road Jail. We ended up on that day there because what we really wanted to see was the Maze Prison (also known as the H-Blocks) . But we found out that all roads to it were completely blocked off or detoured. It was almost impossible to see it. This was an unusual experience because I cannot tell you how much we had heard about the H-Blocks growing up. The hunger-strikes, the indifference of Thatcher to the political prisoners rights and the daring escapes from the jail were etched in our memory. We really wanted to see it as we wanted to be a witness to History and not merely another southern Irish person hearing about this horrendous period of Irish history through our TV.s and radio alone.  We tried to get access a number of ways and the nearest we got was meeting security in a gate hut where the gentleman told us we could not get through anymore and that the area was being used currently as an aerodrome. That’s a few years ago now but the surreal experience of circling but never arriving at what must after all be a very large complex stays with me. It felt as if the events associated with that building were being blotted out of history as if it never happened.  This hardly can be good.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HM_Prison_Maze

Trying to find the H-Blocks
Trying To Find The H-Blocks (the outer gate closed to the public)

We have been coming up to Belfast regularly now for 20 years. We like Belfast very much,  everyone I know who visits the city says the same. The people are kind to us and down to earth. We have found ourselves exploring the city, we have also visited  the famous political murals which have changed in their message since their first incarnations. We have met interesting people and have visited St Georges Market in the city a few times which is to be recommended for the music the crafts and the bustling stalls. We visited The MAC contemporary arts Centre where we saw the work of Gilbert and George and the work of one of my favourite artists David Hockney who has embraced landscape painting of late.

One time we met a community group practicing for the parades. We spoke to some women bystanders there who were having a drink while watching the practice session on the street. They patiently explained to us the ritual of the Lambeg drummer who ‘beat the pope” when he lashes at the huge bass drum on his chest with all his might.  

We also visited one of the areas where enormous bonfires of wooden pallets twice the height of the houses in the local estate were being readied to be burned during the celebrations of the 12th of July . This was an aspect of Ulster life we would have been afraid to come near to before the Good Friday Agreement because of its association with the violence at Drumcree during the years before the ceasefire and the controversy it causes to this day still.  But it was educational and helpful to come up to the Orange tradition face to face.  I live in the Boyne Valley in the south and its this old Battle of The Boyne of 1690 that is triumphantly celebrated every year by the Orange Men in July.

Esoteric Symbols of Unionism and Nationalism

Not far from The MAC, St Annes Cathedral in the city is most unusually designed, it has a very large X symbol on the side of one wall. This symbol has deep meaning for the Orange tradition and its origins go back to medieval times when the X symbol was adopted by those who disagreed with aspects of orthodox catholic doctrine and were labelled “heretics”. This “branding” promoted their differences and the symbol became a banner for those who went underground and protested against misguided aspects of catholic dogma during the reformation. Some of their ideas merged with other groups who believed in gnosticism or alternative forms of religious Christian belief. Many guilds and societies that grew up in Europe and indeed also in America maintained this symbolism and an incarnation of  the “X“ form can even be found on the Confederate flag in America. The masonic Lodges of Ulster adopted many symbols that had special meanings for its members who were initiated through the different degrees or stages of their induction with knowledge of the deeper meanings within their paraphenalia such as the royal arch, the lantern, the square and the skull and crossbones displayed on apprentice boys banners and posters going back through the years. 

The Rainbow and the Vesica Pisces
The Rainbow and the Vesica Pisces
The X on the Cathedral
The X on Belfast Cathedral

Known also as the “Saltire” this “X” form can also be found on the flag of Scotland where it is known as the St Andrews cross. Andrew , a follower of John the Baptist according to St Johns Gospel, was amongst the “first called” apostles, called by Jesus along with his brother Peter to become “Fishers of Men”. Andrew was martyred on an “X” shaped cross and according to legend he asked that he not be crucified on the same shape of cross as that of Jesus.  Saint Andrew’s cross as represented on the flag of Scotland has another importance for Ulster Protestants as many Scots came over to Ireland during the Elizabethan Plantations to occupy the entire island of Ireland and take charge of its lands. This Scottish flag goes back to 1542 and its “X” form was incorporated into what became the known as the flag of “the union of the two crowns” ….the English and Scottish crowns in 1606. This today is know as the “Union Jack” and is flown over many protestant areas in and around Northern Ireland.

Belfast Cathedral Lanterns
Belfast Cathedral Lanterns

Nationalist Flag Origins

Opposite it in Nationalist communities is flown the Irish flag with its colour symbols of green, white and orange. Its meaning ironically symbolises a lasting peace represented by the white rectangle between the green representing the catholics of Ireland and the orange representing the Protestants. The nationalist “Tricolour”  as it is often called first became generally well known when it was raised as a flag over the GPO in 1916 as a symbol of Irelands independence from Britain during the Irish rebellion of that year. However the origins of the Irish flag go back to the days after the Irish famine when a million Irish people died. Thomas Meagher and the Young Irelanders, inspired by revolutions across Europe in 1848 wanted to use a symbol as their flag which united Protestants and Catholics together against the British occupation of Ireland.

Going back to the ‘X‘ form in the Union Jack, it has popped up as a symbol from time to time in even southern Irish organisations when it is known as the “saltire of St Patrick” and it found an incarnation in the flag of the Irish fascist organisation, Eoin O’Duffy’s “Blueshirts”, strongly associated with Fine Gael in the 1930’s. The Blueshirts were officially called the “Army Comrades Association” and they were formed by ex-IRA soldiers and they set about providing security for the Pro-Treaty party Cumann na nGaedheal which split from Sinn Féin and eventually in time became the more conservative Fine Gael party. This is one of the three main political parties remaining in Ireland today that in contradiction of it initial aims is now very strongly now aligned with The European Union and ideas about globalisation.  

The  Original Nationalist Blueshirt Symbol
The Original Fine Gael Nationalist Blueshirt Symbol

There are taxi tours which I would recommend to anyone who wished to see some of the history of Belfast. I gather from my reading of the way it is organised that if you are from the south they send you a nationalist taxi man that is well aware of the republican historical sites but who will also show you the loyalist areas. 

In 1995 I worked in the North in Strabane as an artist on community street theatre briefly during the first ceasefire which was broken by the canary wharf bombing in 1996. I felt dreadful that the peace was broken as it was a very happy time that I spent there during those months during the peace, travelling back and forth between Protestant and Catholic Communities helping them make artworks for the festivities. But the history of Northern Ireland is made complex by myriad intertwining events and is far from black and white. Being brought up a Catholic I would have been more sympathetic to the plight of Catholics in Northern Ireland. But it was obvious that Britain would want to hold on to its back door for military and strategic reasons. Post-War and Cold War notions of politics reinforced this approach. The masonic leanings of unionism served this purpose. Though I understand why people resorted to acts of violence in order to defend themselves from growing hatred and victimisation, the developing ruthlessness from the Provisional IRA and its offshoots in turn ended up serving this evil also either directly or indirectly.

The influence and interference by the intelligence services further made matters worse to serve the same evil end and I would see them as the agency most responsible for prolonging and complicating the efforts to reach a peaceful agreements on numerous occasions. The indifference of the south must have been a terrible slap in the face to the nationalists in the north. The political complacency of the Irish government for a long time appeared to fuel difficulties further. 

Justice is seldom found in this life and when it is it is often far from perfect. But real Truth can be sought and found with persistent determination when you are ready to hear it. When you do, knowing it at least opens your eyes to deeper understanding. As a result of The Troubles,  which is a conflict that went back centuries into Irish history. Many outstanding matters of Justice are still being negotiated and it is unlikely that they will ever be resolved fully. It is probably better to be more hopeful for Truth, understanding and forgiveness where it is due. 

We can now visit Belfast safely and see things like the superb Titanic Quarter and its very interesting exhibition there. These days there are tours out of Belfast to see some of the Game of Thrones sights. We visited the beautiful, bright, barked branches of the misnomered “Dark Hedges” featured in the series in Ballymena.

More about the Fort

McArts Fort is absolutely a place of importance upon the Crystal Path Map. After you walk up ….its a 30 to 40 minute walk… you begin to wonder why you haven’t heard a great deal more about it, Its one of the most interesting ancients sites I have seen in Ireland to date. When you come upon the raised head that sits upon the cliff you realise that you are strategically placed over the Lough just above the Antrim Road and Belfast Castle with views of the coast of Scotland on a clear day.  In fact you are so high up that it could be quite dangerous. I immediately began to think of the symbolism of its height. One could easily imagine how the place could attain a ritual significance. There still remains the ditch that would have preceded the rising “Vallum” or wall.   When you climb up the steps to the present main entrance you arrive at a bowl shaped scooped hollow which seems to be the place were fires are lit now…. and may have been for thousands of years. I have seen a similar feature on the hill of Slane. I take note of a magpie landing beside me on a hillock there also surveying the view. That position takes in as its immediate purview the approach from the Crumlin road , The Ardoyne and on the other side the Cavehill road . 

“The hill was also known in the original Gaelic as Beann Mheadagáin or the hill of Madigan, after either a king of Uladh ulaid (Ulster) Madigan, who ruled from AD 838 to 855, or a later king Madigan (AD 933-948). The later king’s grandson, Eochaid Mac Ardgal, was killed at the battle of Crew Hill in 1003 – in which the Ulidians were defeated by their old enemies, the Kinel-Owen-, and it is from him that McArt’s fort derived its name”

The Magpie on the Mound (Digital Image by Sean O'Dwyer
The Magpie on the Mound (Digital Image by Sean O’Dwyer)

The Symbolism of the Cave

Believed to be built approximately 2700 years ago, there is plenty of evidence of numerous other mysterious manmade structures still remaining in the surrounding area that can be seen on the satellite map. These may date the site back further to around 4000 BC or even further  into the Neolithic era. This may relate particularly to some of the five caves in the precipice leading up to the Fort. There is not much knowledge about what they were used for. There appears to have been iron mining in one of them and it is thought that others were used as stores in various times in their history.  However because of the ritual significance of the site there may have been other purposes for the caves and in other Irish sites underground entrances are exclusively linked to religious and mystical associations such as Oweynagat, the cave of Cruachan at Rath Cruachan where Cormac mac Airt is said to have been born and to currently sleep in Keshcorran caves in south sligo. These caves look very similar to the ones at McArts Fort and Caves have a special symbolism associated with the underworld. It is there that the “Síd” (the Irish Fairy People ,pronounced “See”) are said to live and it is underground into these mounds and caves that the Tuatha De Dannan disappeared to when they left Ireland according to folklore traditions. The Tuatha De Dannan and the Síd may be one and the same. 

Going underground, being temporarily buried or spending time in a cave is a ritual that is linked to many ancient religious practices from all around the world. It is associated with being reborn and is a process aided often by some mind altering drug given to the initiate. It is a known magical process that even finds its symbolism transmitted into Christianity in the story of Jesus who resurrects Lazerus from the tomb and whom is also resurrected. 

Even the story of Platos Cave also contains the idea that as part of our development we must undergo a rebirth from the cave of ignorance where most of humanity resides and where we have come to believe that the shadows cast upon the wall are real when in fact reality is in the light of ‘The Good’ in the sun outside of the cave. The cave… and Platos cave in particular, is actually symbolic of the human skull and the mind within, with the eye socket represents the opening of the cave. We must use our mind to strive to perceive reality through our senses and see behind the illusion of the shadow world to see the reality which we ultimately travel towards after our death. The Druids and Bards of ancient Ireland incorporated this symbolism into their myths and legends as a tool for teaching and learning as they derived their knowledge through a direct understanding of nature. An example of this would be in the way they used the trees of the forest as a university of understanding taking healing and magic from the properties of these trees and the plants of the forest. They also based their alphabet for writing upon the names of the trees using their names as the letters of their alphabet such as “Beth, Luis and Nion (Birch, Rowan and Ash).” Gaelic Ogham writing which is written vertically and looks a little like a trunk and branches of a tree uses this alphabet.

“The crowning stone Giant’s Chair of the O’Neill clan was apparently sited on Cave Hill’s summit until 1896 and gave its name to the nearby Throne Hospital. The Cave Hill Throne was destroyed by loyalists in December 1896 after a reference was made to it in an article in the nationalist paper ‘Shan Van Bocht’. “  I find conflicting information available about the throne because it is also at Tullyhogue Fort that the O’Neills were said to crowned their kings.

I came upon two prominent stones up on the summit there which for some reason were painted white. I assume these were standing stones or may have been supporting stones for a dolmen or something similar to the stones at Dún Ailinne. I don’t actually know their original purpose. These stones often face in a direction of importance to do with alignment to the sun, planets or stars but no mention of that can I find in any material relatiing to the fort. However it is a site that gives a superb view as far as Scotland on a clear day and of the surrounding countryside so the place must have been used for observations either astronomical or land based. It would in fact be strange if it wasn’t used for that purpose when so many other ancient sites in Ireland are linked with that practice.

Three Calls to Cormac

There was another Cormac who in the story “The Three Calls to Cormac’ from the Echtra Cormaic Maic Airt, “The Adventure of Cormac Mac Art”… described what these forts looked like in a dream vision. Cormac found himself on a great plain and a great Dùn in the middle of it with a wall of Bronze around it and in it a house of white silver thatched with the white wings of birds. In the centre he saw  a man lighting a fire with a big Oak tree… “And then he saw on the green a shining well, and five streams flowing from it, and the armies drinking water in turn, and the nine lasting purple hazels of Buan growing over it. And they were dropping their nuts into the water, and the five salmon would catch them and send their husks floating down the streams. And the sound of the flowing of those streams is sweeter than any music that men sing” 

When you read these descriptions one wonders if in fact these Raths were really entrances to the otherworld through which men of the Fianna could enter in spirit form. 

One Last Story About Cavehill

There is another more modern story about Cavehill to finish up with. “During World War II, a bomb dropped prematurely during a German bombing raid on Belfast  and it exploded, causing a large crater near the grounds of Belfast Castle. It is understood that RAF Bomber Command was situated on Cave Hill in the early years of WWII before relocating to Castle Archdale in Fermanagh. Hence the German bomb may have been intentional. On June 1, 1944, an American Air Force B-17 bomber crashed into Cave Hill during heavy fog, killing all ten crew instantly. The incident inspired Richard Attenborough’s film, “Closing the Ring.”….Some scenes of the film were shot on Cave Hill.”

Clearly there is a great deal to write about this intriguing place but I simply had to call a stop to it for now. But I hope I have given you some inroads at least to this important ancient site.

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