“To the rocky wastelands west of Kilmacrennan..”

If the Twelfth is a celebration of the triumph of force, it is not the only one. The Easter Rising of 1916 was an assertion of force that eventually led to the establishment an independent Irish state. Eamon McCann notes the historical roots of an altogether civil celebration of the Battle of Glenmaquinn and the securing of the plantation of the part of East Donegal known as the Laggan. And he also notes the endorsement of such celebration of separate identities, by the Belfast Agreement and its more recent successor.By Eamon McCann

A yin hunnèr yin thoosan fair faa ye! Or céad míle fáilte, as might be said in another of our minority indigenous languages. Fair faa ye at any rate to the cultural extravaganza planned for Donegal this weekend, when the legacy of the Lagganeers will be celebrated in a “fun-filled festival for all the family.”

This will be the biggest Ulster Scots carnival of the year. There’ll be bouncy castles, tug-o’-war, a band parade and, tomorrow night in the Diamond in Raphoe, an open-air concert featuring the (very good, as a matter of fact) Dundee celidh-rock band Cutting Edge. The centrepiece of the event will come on Saturday afternoon in the festival field at Glenmaquin, in the shadow of the Mongorry Hill with a breathtaking view across the Swilly, where the Battle of Glenmaquin in 1642 between the Lagganeers under Sir Robert and Sir William Stewart and the Irish troops of O’Neill will be re-enacted.

The Laggan is, roughly, the area of Donegal between Lough Foyle and the Swilly. Although vastly outnumbered, the Lagganeers, led by veterans of the 30 Years War in Europe, routed the Irish and secured east Donegal and parts of Derry and Tyrone for the Protestant planters. Said one of those involved in organising the weekend, “The Battle of Glenmaquin was the key to our survival here. If the Lagganeers hadn’t won, we would have been back on the boats to Scotland. Those who survived, anyway.”

The plantation of the Laggan had been inaugurated only a single generation beforehand, in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Gaelic feudalism with the Flight of the Earls in September 1607. Within days of the Earls’ departure from Rathmullan, the king’s sheriff appeared in the square at Lifford to order the families abandoned by O’Neill and O’Donnell to betake themselves immediately with whatever goods they could carry to the rocky wastelands west of Kilmacrennan, or else. On the following day, the sheriff reappeared to issue title deeds in the name of the king to a throng of Scots and English soldiers, in parcels of 500, 1,000 and 3,000 acres, according to rank. It was formally declared that henceforth and for all time, these would be the only legal deeds to land in the Laggan.

They will have been the first title deeds in the area held by those who worked the land, the followers of the Earls having been, in effect, serfs.

The Lagganeers were to defend the lands thus acquired by whatever means necessary. The Rev. Alexander Lecky wrote with grim satisfaction of the aftermath of Glenmaquin: “Any of the Lagganeers’ neighbours who may have meditated deeds of this kind soon found out that they would have enough to do in preserving their own lives and possessions, for the Laggan forces let it be seen that any who showed themselves disaffected towards British rule, if within their reach, would soon be taught who their masters were, and made to suffer for their disloyalty.”

In Saturday’s re-enactment, the Lagganeers will be represented by local Ulster Scots, the Irish by a contingent from the Mourne Valley Cultural Association in Newtownstewart, Co. Tyrone. Obviously, it would have been more authentic to have the Irish roles played by local Catholics. But perhaps that would have been indelicate. A reminder that the events of the mid-17th century can still resonate and give rise to resentment came on Tuesday afternoon when, initially unable to raise any of the organising group, I called a community worker in Letterkenny asking for alternative ‘phone numbers. “You’ll just have to keep trying,” I was advised. “A lot of those people would be out on their farms.” Pause. “They still have the land, you see.”

And so, in many instances, they do. But then, they’ve had the land for as long as Europeans have had land in America, and were tilling the soil here generations before any white farmer fenced off a tract in Australia. In which connection, it’s worth calling to mind that at least the indigenous inhabitants of the Laggan, unlike their counterparts in Bermuda or Tasmania, for example, weren’t hunted down like animals until not a single soul survived.

This weekend’s event is the brainchild of East Donegal Ulster Scots (EDUS) and has been funded by Donegal County Council through the European Union’s Peace and Reconciliation Programme. EDUS chairman Stewart Buchanan hopes that the result will be “greater understanding of the Ulster Scots identity.”

The impetus to form the EDUS and to set about recovering the history of the Lagganeers came from the Multi-Party Agreement of April 1998, with its promise to respect diversity and celebrate separate identities. In the context of the Agreement, the Protestants of east Donegal who feel themselves Ulster Scots are surely as entitled as any other group on the island to proclaim and celebrate their distinctive heritage.

This is not to say that the ritual reinforcement of a sense of identity rooted in a savage history has anything positive to contribute to the present or future. But it’s inherent in the settlement endorsed, as we are daily reminded, by majorities North and South. So I anticipate supporters of the Agreement, Nationalist and Unionist, converging on Raphoe and Glenmaquin to cheer on the Laganeers as, once again, they rout the rebel Irish.

Next year, perhaps, a re-staging of the land allocation at Lifford?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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