Back in 1989 I moved with my wife and young family to Whitehead. We moved for a number of reasons. We needed more space. At the time I was working mainly as a freelance illustrator, producing pictures, for advertising. I still illustrate, but not in that particular field.
When we moved away from North Belfast and the big smoke it was like moving back in time about twenty years. It was, and still is, a fairly small place. You got to know people. Our children went to play group up at the chapel, then the state primary school, then the Presbyterian church and so on . . .This confused a few people but it worked for us.
You see Whitehead, isn’t like a lot of other places. It’s truly weird in a good way. People, in the main, get on with each other and “sectarianism” is regarded as something imported by blow-ins from Carrickfergus or Belfast. Men in their fifties and sixties consistently talk of all their childhood friendships across the, so called, divide in Whitehead. They describe to me how the Troubles didn’t break these deep bonds of trust which exist to this day.
I got to know a man called Paddy O’Donnell. He ran a local garage, repairing and servicing cars, round in the Kings Road (no streets in Whitehead you see). But there was much, more to Paddy, than just his day job. In his spare time he was a very keen golfer, historian, tribal elder and “keeper of the flame” in this wee seaside village. Whitehead, in its early days, was almost going to be called “Chichester on Sea”, but someone soon put a stop to that. (“Hey wind your neck in councilor!”) Paddy told me an unusual story once, of an old archaeological site called Rath Cimbaeith (Rath Kimbay), a royal site of King Nemed (King Nevie), who came to Ireland, from the east, following a pillar of gold (the setting sun). “It’s mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters”, Paddy informed me. “Oh aye.” as he puffed on a cigarette. A small man with a big presence.
This special site was on Muldersleigh Hill (Mullagh Sluagh, or the Bald height of the hosts/spears). Muldersleigh dominates Whitehead in the same way Knocklayde would sit up behind Ballycastle, (just on a smaller physical budget).
Eventually, after one of our many conversations about, old sites in the area, I said I would venture into the Linenhall Library, in Belfast, to see what I could find out about Rath Cimbaeth. Now, I need to point out to you that this old site isn’t round, it’s oddly rectangular. It points off towards the Knockagh Monument on the Antrim Plateau. (Knockagh was once a big ancient cemetery, as was Dunadry.)
Well, the day came when I popped up to the upper floor of the Linehall and asked to see the Annals of the Four Masters, just as Paddy had described to me. The helpful librarian asked me which volume I would like to see and which year? I said I didn’t know. Then he told me that there were seven thick volumes. I thought for a while and just asked for them all. I carried them in a big pile, over to my chosen table. I set them down. Then something within me decided to turn the pile upside down. I opened the top book. Volume one. I opened it at page 11, the right hand page and there, in the bottom right hand corner was what I was looking for. Rath Cimbaeith, as described by Michael O’Cleary, one of “the Four Masters” himself.
He lived for a time in the monastery that was situated where Carrickfergus town hall now sits. Shortly before the Plantation of Ulster. This surprised and unsettled me a bit but I passed on this information to Paddy, describing my experience to him and suggested that it might be a good idea to mark this site with a stone. For, how could you go looking for a needle in a hay stack only to find it within the first few seconds of your search?
Now what I haven’t told you is that the site of Rath Cimbaeith contains the second green of Whitehead Golf Club, up upon Muldersleigh Hill (the Bald Height of the Nine Irons). Paddy had helped shape the golf course in the early 1970’s and in doing so, he had found axe heads and protected the site. You play right through the middle of an ancient ritual site. (I’m sure there must be the odd druid, bard or chieftain rolling their eyes in their head, as they turn in their burial chambers. Yet grateful for Paddy’s efforts and foresight).
It took about ten years, but, with Paddy’s persuasion and push, the idea gained momentum and support. I designed the marker stone. We found a sympathetic local stone mason, Hector Nelson ( a living relative of Willie Nelson, a martyr of 1798, Ballycarry), who carved the stone. The stone coincidentally came from Cork where king Nemed died, from the plague, after fighting the Fomorians. Finally this hole stone (a hole in one) was raised high above the plains of Semne (Shevna/Islandmagee) on the 28th of February 2004 and the Golf Club introduced a new challenge cup, the Rath Cimbaeth Trophy which contains Porcellanite axe heads found close by to the site.
In my long winded way I’m describing how one man can live in an area like Whitehead and literally leave his mark, on the town, as a skilled mechanic, husband to Stella (the local principal of Lourdes Primary School), father to Patrick, Pascal and Paul, grandfather, golfer, historian, investor in local heritage, friend, and many other things besides. Sadly, Paddy died from cancer on the 8th of October (a full moon). He was a friend to me and my family for over 25 years. We never argued over religion or politics. We didn’t distrust each other or pile up walls or boundaries between each other. Paddy smoked manys a cigarette in my company. He was in his early to mid eighties and had virtually no medical records at our local health centre and had never taken a tablet in his life. “Who was this guy?” they asked . . .
His manners were old school and he had a certain way of doing things. He was, as they say . . . “himself”. He played golf all over Ireland. He bought “Ireland’s Eye” on a regular basis. He was a thorn in the side of our Carrickfergus councilors, reminding them to not forget Whitehead. A gentle man, walking the shores and promenade of Whitehead at night, with Stella long passed, keeping the silent grey heron company on its nightly watch.
So, while the hole stone up at Rath Cimaeth is there to mark king Nemed, Macha and their druid Mide, who was first to light the Beltaine fires at Isneach (Ishnak, Co. Westmeath) it will always be “Paddy’s stone” to me. A marker for the sharing of things, a marker for friendship and to draw our attention to a shared heritage.