Childhood memories: best served with a side of hanging and disembowelment

I grew up in an area called Harryville, which is in the south of my home town, Ballymena. Not exactly the top of the list of places to see if you’re a tourist in Northern Ireland – but we do have one of the best surviving examples of a Norman motte-and-bailey fortification in this country. With my recent developing interest in the history of my country, I decided to go for a stroll around the 12th-Century monument that stands a 5-minute walk from my parents’ house. Because, seriously – how cool is that?!


It was like stepping back in time… not to the 12th Century, but to my childhood.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of going to the Moat Park. The swings and slides in the play park; the trees where we made our forts; the hills that were just steep and rubbly enough to seem like dangerous mountains to 8-year-olds; the rope swings and the rickety steps; the endless games of hide and seek around the “big hill” and the “wee hill”; the Easter Mondays spent rolling our eggs down the slopes and having picnics on the grass; the grazed knees and muddy clothes from taking a tumble down the “big hill”.

harryville motte and bailey

How it looked in my childhood: bailey on left, motte on right, both surrounded by trench. PHOTO CREDIT: Northern Ireland D.O.E.

We never really thought, in the midst of all that, about the historic site we were playing on, and all that had taken place there centuries before. I mean, you wouldn’t. Especially as an iron cage with an executed outlaw’s body in it probably sat on the exact spot where we sat for a breather after climbing the “big hill”…

The motte and bailey is a type of early castle, where an artificial hill (“motte”) was built by digging a deep trench and throwing all the earth into the middle. There would be a wooden tower or a stone “keep” at the top of the motte, and a separate enclosed courtyard next to it, known as a bailey. Both the motte and bailey were surrounded by a trench.

The Harryville motte-and-bailey was built by the Normans, who conquered most of County Antrim in the 12th Century and created lots of mottes in high places, as defensive structures. The “Moat Hill” (as it’s called locally) is better known round these parts for its more recent history: the story of Thomas Archer, leader of a band of social outcasts – who ran around Ballymena robbing and plundering and maiming and murdering and the like – at the time of the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

An armed, dangerous, and wanted criminal, Archer went into hiding at a friend’s house, never suspecting that the “friend” had a plan already in place to earn a hefty cash reward by betraying him to the police. What a Judas. It was all very complicated, involving a laundry woman and a shopkeeper and a marked half crown (the old coin as opposed to a broken headdress!), but anyway, it worked, and they came for him in the night as he lay in bed.

The friend’s son warned him that the police were approaching, and he took off, but they hunted him down. He fought till the end, attempting to shoot them, but his “friend” had properly stitched him up, wetting the powder in his gun and disabling the weapon using a nail.

Archer was publicly hanged from a tree next to the Harryville motte-and-bailey, and his body was taken to the local castle to be disembowelled or something equally unsettling. His remains were then put in an iron cage and hung in chains on the top of the motte, where local people would see him every day, to serve as a warning. “Don’t run round robbing and murdering!”? “Don’t rebel against the government!”? “Don’t trust your friend to hide you if there’s a cash reward for your capture!”? 

Anyway, that’s what happened previously on the “big hill” we used to climb up and build forts on. It doesn’t look all that scary in the day time, but I wouldn’t want to be there on a dark and spooky night, all the same. When I went for my wander last night, I found it all very overgrown, and couldn’t climb to the top because the waist-high grass and weeds meant clouds of midgies that have me half eaten to death as it is. My mum gave me this photo of how it used to look (although I don’t know who actually took it):


This is how I remember it, although it was taken a bit before my time judging by the car and lamppost! The house was a play park by the time I was born, and remains so today. The motte, behind it, is how it was when we used to climb it. The bailey is next to it (the flat, lower hill on the far right). Today, the trees have been cut down to stop them blowing over and pulling down the entire structure, and the hills are almost hidden under long grass, weeds, and wildflowers.

They hold a lot of history, though… and a lot of memories.

old moat

And although no one has any information about this photo, I think it is the coolest one I will ever see of the “big hill” where I got the permanent scar from tripping on a tree root and skidding down through the dried mud and stones on my knees!

One thought on “Childhood memories: best served with a side of hanging and disembowelment

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