By Claire Nolan
The site of a prehistoric round cairn and reputedly the pre-Christian inauguration site of the Kings of Uíbh Eachach Cobha, Knock Iveagh in County Down, Northern Ireland, is the centre of an important archaeological landscape. In 2017 a broadband mast, and later a wind turbine, were erected adjacent to the cairn without a lawful planning process or environmental impact assessment. This work also resulted in closure of the site to the public. In response, the Friends of Knock Iveagh launched a campaign in 2017 to remove these structures, protect the cairn and raise awareness regarding the archaeological significance of the site and its wider historic landscape. The broadband mast has since been removed, but the campaign continues. Dr Claire Nolan talks to Anne Harper of the Friends of Knock Iveagh about how these changes to Knock Iveagh have personally impacted her, as well as other residents, and how, if adequately protected and reopened to the public, the site can benefit the local community.
CN: I watched your talk  again, and I’m just amazed at the work you’ve done. It’s phenomenal really – that you’ve taken all of that on board yourselves. You’ve basically been surveying – It’s amazing!
AH: We had no option. We had to prove to them that they were wrong. Because before this happened, the local people knew about Knock Iveagh, but nobody really had looked at it in any kind of landscape context at all. People knew it was an important old cairn, but did they know it was more than that? No, not at all. But it was more or less hunches, and knowing the landscape and all that kind of stuff, and the road names and the placenames, and you think, there’s definitely more to it. The work has never been done here.
CN: Yeah, yeah.
AH: One of the biggest problems that we have in the North is our political situation because that has allowed so many balls to be dropped and, um, so many failures. And it’s become habitual and ingrained and it’s generational. And, um, it’s been the inability of our executive to work together and take responsibility for anything, you know. Like, it’s a huge problem. Um, and of course they’ve always got other battles to fight, you know. And I know that it’s not the most important thing in the world right now and all of that, but actually in some ways to me and to other people, like, if you don’t know who you are, you know, that’s major – from a psychological point of view and a healing point of view – it’s kind of important, so.
CN: Were you always aware of Knock Iveagh?
AH: Was I always aware? Yes, my granny and my great granny and my mother’s family have come from the area around Knock Iveagh and they’ve lived there since the late eighteenth-century, at least. Um, so they would have been regular visitors. In fact, they farmed, not the bit where the cairn is, but the other side of it was owned by my family, um, for a long time. So, it’s been a place that we’ve always gone for walks. And lots of local people have always gone up there. But I took my kids, you know. So I’ve always been aware of it, and it’s always been a place that we were dragged out to on a Sunday or so. We didn’t live there – I didn’t grow up here, although I live close now. But yeah, always known it, and loved it and just went there with boyfriends and stuff, you know?
CN: So, you were living farther away and making the journey there?
AH: Yeah, so we lived all over place. You see, my dad was in the church, after he was an archaeologist. So we travelled around, lived in all different places. And my mum’s mum, my granny who lived close to the Knock, um, and all of her brothers and sisters, were all from around there. And so that was kind of a home from home if you like. So it was the place that we kept going back to. So for us it was, it was home.
CN: Yeah. I know what you mean. Like a kind of a, somewhere you could come back to – like one place that was fixed and permanent?
AH: Totally. And fixed way back, and fixed down the mother’s side and all of that. And you know, how women are – men tend to move around, but women don’t move so much, I think.
CN: Yeah. And, so your dad was an archaeologist. So, you must’ve had some understanding of the significance when you were growing up?
AH: As much as he did. I mean, my dad would never overstate anything. So when we went, he never said, ‘oh, you know, they would have brought their Kings up here and whatever’, you know, none of that. But he did, I remember really well, him and I going there and, uh, just the two of us, and he sort of explained to me that it was not just any cairn – it was older and potentially much more significant. And of course it’s been damaged because it was looted so it doesn’t look how it should. Um, but I just remember that really, really kind of took me aback, because I knew it was a cairn and there are cairns on hills all over the place, but for him to say that it was more than that, and I think he probably told me about the sub-cairn layer at that time, but he certainly did after that. So, there’s more to the cairn and underneath the cairn than, you know – it’s not just a pile of stones, as the landowner described it when I challenged him.
CN: Oh, okay. So, with that kind of knowledge, I guess when you were going there over the years – did you feel it was a special place?
AH: Definitely. Yeah. And, funny, some of the people who are involved in the campaign, like Arlene, who’s one of my best friends now, we didn’t know each other – we were all dead suspicious of each other – but, um, we all independently, well, not all, but most of us had very strong feelings about it, you know. For us, it was a very atmospheric place. And maybe it’s because of the views, maybe it’s because of the family connections and the memories and all of that, or maybe it’s just one of those places that you kind of feel – I feel it’s a different place. It’s definitely special.
AH: And it’s a bit like a cathedral. You know if you build a cathedral, it’s just stones. But if lots of people go there and light candles and venerate it, then it feels special. And like, this is the same. I would argue – I know Arlene would argue as well – that it’s definitely special.
CN: Some of you have personal, you know, historic relationships with it, in terms of family, and then living around it. Um, outside of your group, I know you said locals kind of knew there was something about it, but they didn’t really – ?
AH: I think a lot of local people, if you’d gone back two generations, a lot of people would have known. My grannies, they would have known about the cairn. They would have gone there. The Brontës went there – the Brontës are from very close by. Um, so it’s a place that we know that people have visited since it was no longer in use as an inauguration place. So, whether there was any folk memory of an inauguration, of it being used in that way, I haven’t found any evidence that that survived, but then don’t forget that in the eighteenth century here, the land went – the Magennis, by the middle of the seventeen-hundreds, that was no more, um, they’d all gone.
AH: But what’s really interesting is that we’ve had a lot of support from the Ulster Unionists – um, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, Doug Beattie, who calls himself Irish and calls himself British at the same time. And hasn’t got a problem with a sort of dual identity. So that’s really good. Um, and we’ve got support from both sides of the community, which is great.
CN: That is amazing! So, when did you become sort of, even more engaged with it?
AH: Well, when they started to wreck it. I mean, to be fair, no, I moved back to Northern Ireland. And then we gradually moved closer and closer to the Knock, sort of, and my parents who live there. And so we began going more and more. And I went there with friends and I went there with family. So, it was a place that I then started to visit with my children. Because I’d gone there as a child, you know, so it was part of our family life, and we rolled our Easter eggs there, which I know that many other people have done as well. It used to be a place to go and roll the eggs. Which I think is fascinating, given the time of year and some of the stuff that’s going on on a solar level around that time of year. And it’s really interesting that people still go up there at that time of year.
AH: So, then, yeah, obviously whenever I actually wrote to the Historic Environment Division (HED) before anymore – there was a road appeared going up to the top of the hill and I didn’t like the look of it. And I thought it came too close to the cairn and it did. And wrote to them on the 1st of September, uh, got a reply, um, saying someone would get back to me. And then on the 5th of September in 2017, they started digging and putting up a broadband mast that had no permission. So literally, to be quite honest, I had been saying to my husband, ‘I need to do something, I need to ring up about that road. Something’s not right. It’s not planned’. And that had been happening for about maybe three years and I had ignored it until it got so – the last time that we went – it was just so loud, this sort of sense that, you know, that I had to do something. But it was only four days later when they started to actually do more work.
CN: So, um, when you saw this damage being done, what happened for you on a feeling level? Like personally, how did it affect you?
AH: So, well, you might – I come across as confident and fine, one-to-one, um, I perform and that’s fine. But, I didn’t feel confident about going up and, you know, interrupting a load of people with diggers. Um, however I was absolutely, absolutely livid, like I have never been, and I was shaking. Like, I was just, ‘you can’t fucking do this’. Um, and I was really, and so after I finished sort of with the digger man, and I went to my parents and my mum gave me a beta blocker and my dad gave me a big glass of wine and I was just like this [gestures to show how shaken she was]. So, I really feel like I had to go and, um, I feel like, sounds terrible – I don’t feel like I was on my own.
CN: Mmm, you were doing it on behalf of – ?
AH: Yeah. And I’m so sick of, I’m sick of people wrecking the joint. And nobody’s ever held accountable. I am genuinely sick of it, like on so many levels. And I was like, ‘no, you’re not fucking going to wreck this place as well, like just, no’.
AH: Partly that.
CN: But wrecking, it sounds like – is it on a kind of visceral level or?
AH: It is, yeah. I mean, if you watch some place that you love actually being dug up, it’s really hard to look at. I mean, I remember watching trees being cut down and that hurt like viscerally because they were healthy trees and they should have been left alone. And so I don’t understand this desire, this need to dominate things, you know. And my dad, um, he’s written a poem called The Rape of the Knock. Because in a way, this place that embodied the land goddess that was seen as, you know, this was the sort of ritual marriage location for the king to marry the land.
AH: So, she was venerated because she, she provided. And then what do you do? You go and you stick a great big, and I liken it to a sort of dagger in the heart or whatever, but they literally did that.
AH: And that was really awful. Like it was awful. It wasn’t just awful on a sort of archaeological level. It was awful on a cultural level. Um, you know, totally disrespectful. Would you go and put that? Would you go and put a wind turbine up Stonehenge? Would you, would you go and put one in a graveyard now, without asking? Would you, you know. So no, totally outraged.
CN: Yeah. It sounds like there are multiple levels for you that are affecting, you know, not in any order, but, um, there’s the personal connection through family and going up there as a child and all those kinds of things. And then there’s the connection to, like you say, the history of the land and kind of its cultural history and meanings.
AH: It’s kind of like, we’re sort of at odds in a way. One of the organizations here, Friends of the Earth, have been great, even though it’s a wind turbine.
CN: Yeah, yeah.
AH: But it’s because of the mentality. It’s, if you respect the land as the goddess, as the mother, as the provider, as vital for your future, and then you go to the very place that was the focus for that relationship, and you destroy it, then that is the embodiment of what is wrong with our culture. Like, it is just encapsulated in that act, you know. That’s how far we’ve come from where we were, that we would actually be at that place. So I don’t care if it’s a turbine or whatever it is. So, in a way, for me, it encapsulates the damage to nature, even though it’s a wind turbine.
AH: It’s still, it’s that attitude.
CN: Yeah. It’s not just about heritage? It’s, it’s almost what that heritage, what that archaeology symbolizes, because of the connection to – ?
AH: With ourselves, within our – humans, you know, and our relationship with the earth, embodied in certain places around the world and often the mountains, you know?
CN: Yeah. And like, so, I mean, you’re not opposed to green energy, it’s just putting this thing in the wrong place, basically?
AH: And without any consultation.
CN: That’s kind of the worst part in a way, isn’t it?
AH: I’m not even sure it is the worst part. I think if they’d asked HED – if you looked at their response to this, to a second turbine, they had no idea what that hill was, absolutely none. They said it’s a cairn and you can’t see it from the road. And that was their response. So they didn’t understand the site at all, whatever they said after we got involved. And after Eamonn Kelly  got involved in, and you know, our campaign started, that changed. And thank God it did. But if they’d asked them in 2014 or whenever it was, about the first time, I don’t know what they would have said. I can’t be sure that they wouldn’t have said, ‘oh, that’s alright’. I, I really, I don’t think they understood it at all.
AH: So they just, it was a complete mess. And the problem is that nobody wants to be accountable for it. Because they’ve changed all the names of all the departments, and Stormont’s been rejigged. And so they’re all just saying, that’s not our problem.
CN: Yeah. Um, do you think that if they had, or even now, if the government did a series of interviews, public consultation, do you think, not just Friends of Knock Iveagh, but like other people in the community, would be up in arms about or?
AH: Um, not, well, I think, yes, a lot of people do really support us now, who didn’t have a clue at the start. So we’ve done quite a successful campaign – we’ve educated people, and they feel proud and they’re cross about it. Um, but because people in the country don’t like to fall out with their neighbours – I don’t know if it’s the same where you’re from – but people tend not to, they’re very glad someone else has stuck their neck out, so they don’t have to, because they won’t. So, um, coming in as a, I was going to say, ‘blow-in’, and I’m not a blow-in, I’m a ‘blow back’. That way gave me the freedom to be argumentative. It sounds terrible – I didn’t enjoy this and I haven’t done it on my own, but it has, at times felt quite lonely. Um, so I, yes, I think we have a lot of support and I think we have raised it to the point where people more widely are very supportive. Um, but there’s a Spotlight Northern Ireland program that was done on wind turbines and they featured the Knock Iveagh turbine. Um, and they talked about the lack of consultation and about the amount of money that’s being made and the places that have been damaged. And that was what they were looking at, not in terms of being anti-green, but in terms of another Stormont mess.
CN: Mmm, mmm.
AH: And, um, that helped, because people now see that thing is earning hundreds of thousands of pounds for its developers. The local people have lost access and, and there’s a, you know, a heritage site has been damaged, so that has helped as well.
AH: Um, but it’s really, it’s very complicated to explain to people the whole thing.
CN: Yeah. Yeah.
AH: I feel like one of the things that’s really missing from the process is, it’ll either happen from the governmental point of view, or it’ll happen from a council point of view, but we need heritage officers who understand their patch to be involved in the planning process, so they can act as a linchpin between the community and plans – the system. We have nothing like that. We’re quite articulate and, um, well-resourced. But it’s taken four years and it’s taken unimaginable hours, you know, to do.
CN: Mmm, mmm.
AH: There should be someone within the system. We have no local heritage officers. The guys in HED sit in Belfast in an office, and rarely, um, they don’t know the area. They didn’t know us at all. They’ve been useless since.
AH: So, I really feel like – it used to be that you had a heritage officer for each patch, you know. I know we have wardens, but you had somebody who would know the farmers and would know maybe a wee bit more, or could help people with their local heritage, you know, whatever. And I’m not aware of anyone that does that role in this area at all.
CN: Okay. And it might be that HED – like I know in the South, they’re just so understaffed and under resourced that they can’t cover –
AH: Yeah, but when we met them, I said, this is exactly what you need – what you really need to get more money, is a community on your case, you know? And then you speak to the Minister and, you know – turn it into a good news story. They’ve got the opportunity. Um. So, you know, um, in order for something like a community liaison to become a kind of a regular routine thing, we have to be able to say, we’d have to communicate, you know. At the moment you can’t go up to the site as it is.
CN: Um, and how has that changed your life? And how would it change for the better if this place was opened up and the turbine was removed – how do you think that would change your life, but also the rest of the community? What difference would it make?
AH: I think, for a start, loads of people want to go and aren’t able. People have been turned away from there. So, on a personal level, I just love, I feel at home there. When I die, they’re taking me up there and they can pour me into the ground, you know, or scatter me. That’s the place where I am most at peace as a person, genuinely. And I’ve been up with a couple of the others, you know, um, and we sat there and cried, me and Arlene, when we went up together, because we just missed it so much. We went a lot, um, before. So it’s like on a Sunday afternoon, instead of going for a walk by the river, we’d have gone up the hill. Um, and that’s a part of your life. It’s part of your children’s life. And you kind of just go there and you press the reset button and then you go back to your life. Like other people go to church. And I actually said that to Doug Beattie, who’s the UUP leader. I said, you know, ‘that’s my church’.
CN: Yeah. And you haven’t been able to access it since – ?
AH: No. And it’s not that I go there to pray, because that’s not what I’m going there to do, but it is a place where I go to [pauses to think], to sit.
CN: Yeah. And just reflect, and sort of renew yourself?
AH: Or be with my gods, whoever they are, you know. It’s a search, it’s not spirituality – we like to put it into little boxes and I don’t think that that’s fair. I think everybody has their own relationship with, you know, their own gods or maybe they don’t have any at all. And they just go somewhere pretty.
CN: Yeah. So, it sounds like it’s a huge personal resource, really?
AH: A personal – I don’t like the word resource. But I know what you mean – if you’re recharging your batteries then it is a resource. Um, no, it’s just it used to be that there were certain things you didn’t do. And here’s the irony of ironies. When I went up there on the first day, I spoke to the man with the digger and I said, you know that this is a monument and there’s ash and bone on this hill, it’s not just stones. And he went, ‘well, I didn’t touch the fairy thorn. I’ll leave that alone’. They’ll leave the thorn tree. He was telling me he hadn’t pulled up the thorn tree and that was fine. And I was like, I get it, but don’t you understand? Like, you know, literally the ground here was sacred, not just this pile of stones.
AH: Anyway, that really pissed me off.
CN: The superstition around the fairy trees?
AH: I love them – we leave fairy trees alone here. It’s great. But how can you say that on the one hand and at the same time, you’ve literally just – they took the side off the cairn. HED said they didn’t, but I’ve got photographs that show that they took the curtilage, they dug through the stones, and that earth has never been analysed – that sub-cairn layer. It’s massively significant, especially if it ties in with other sub-cairn layers at Tara and Aberdeen, Wales, you know, what’s that telling us about what was going on and why, what’s in it? Like, we don’t even know what’s in it. It’s never been analysed properly.
CN: Yeah. And if everything was restored and you could go there and the community could access it – ?
AH: I think you asked a question – would it matter if we couldn’t go?
CN: Yeah – if it was restored but you weren’t able to access it?
AH: So, I think my answer is, of course it would matter – we would still miss it. But, um, but I feel like the number one job was to ensure that it was respected and didn’t get fucked with anymore. Um, that’s probably been achieved to some degree. So yes, it would be great to get rid of that turbine, but I don’t think, well, I’m hoping it will still go. In the long term, will it be forgotten again? Probably not for another couple of generations, at least, I would say. We’ve probably put the wind up them a bit. Um, so it would be a partial success, but it wouldn’t be the success it can be. We’re going to have a meeting with, um, the Minister for Communities who’s in charge of heritage here. And our hope is that we could somehow convince her to take it into State Care, like at Croghan Hill, where they’ve got the walkway up to the top. Um, now people come to Croghan to climb the hill. And that’s good for the town, and you know, the farmers – everything’s all sorted out, so it’s not pissing the farmers off. And so I would feel like that was a true success. Then if we could get State Care and get rid of the turbine, that would be a good result.
CN: Something similar happened down in Galway – Knockma. There are cairns up on that hill as well and they’ve now formally made it a place where people can walk and take their families out with sign posts –
AH: And that’s more popular, now, you know – now that we’ve had lockdown and people are connecting with their areas, it is the time to do it.
CN: Yeah. Because people will use it.
AH: Exactly. It’s really interesting who you meet at these sites, you know, and people form relationships and things get stronger. But I think on a sort of bigger level, this particular site being that it’s an Uladh [Ulster] site, um, being that it has connections to, perhaps some pre-Bronze age cultural connections, that aren’t just within the island of Ireland. Um, that’s really interesting from a, from a political perspective, I think. And obviously it’s open to abuse. But for people from Ulster who’d quite like to see things improving between ourselves, the notion that we do have a shared ancestry, whether you’re a planter or whether you’re, you know, if your family has been in the area for thousands of years, I still think there’s the common ancestry there, regardless. I mean, that’s what it looks like, um, to me anyway. So it would be interesting if archaeology could help with that, then it really could be important for peace, if you know what I mean, for relationships here.
Further information on the work of the Friends of Knock Iveagh can be found on their website: https://saveknockiveagh.weebly.com/about.html
 Friends of Knock Iveagh. 2021. ‘Breathing Life into the Embers at Knock Iveagh – The Importance of Community Guardianship in Protecting Heritage at Risk’. Ulster Archaeological Society Discovery Conference 2021. Online resource: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfZpPwp4HMc&ab_channel=SaveKnockIveagh
 Kelly, E. P. 2020. ‘Knock Iveagh and Drunballyroney, Co. Down: Investigation of a Royal Ritual Landscape’, Emania, 25, 113-135.