Knock is used as the name of a modern district in East Belfast. This is a built-up area of the city, close to the A55 Outer Ring Road and the major artery that is the Newtownards Road. Near the high point of the road on the Outer Ring, on the short side-street called Knockmount Park, is an ancient walled graveyard, easily missed by the thousands of drivers who hurry by on their important business every day
800 years ago, Knock was an important prominence in the woodlands that climbed each side of the valley of the River Lagan. At that time, most people lived in the hills above the river. The Lagan was a wide and meandering river that merged into the muddy tidal estuary in the shallow eastward-facing sea lough, not very safe or suitable for habitation.
The elevated site of Knock was, like that of Shankill, the ancient Christian church across the valley, one of the mother-churches of the Belfast area. The Knock site has no doubt been occupied since prehistoric times, and it is said that a Cromlech (or Dolmen) stood on this height. The date of the foundation of the church is lost in time – it could as likely be 700 AD or 1200 AD. It is believed that the name ‘Capella de Dundela’ referred to this site when noted in the papal taxation rolls of 1306. Dundela is still used as a name to describe a nearby area. ‘Dun’ is the Irish word for a defensible height, which describes this location very well, with ‘Dela’ possibly being a personal name. In the Irish Christian tradition the site was long referred to as Knockollumkille (Columbkille’s Church), after a much-venerated early saint who spent time in this area of County Down. He is most famous for founding an abbey at Kells, County Meath, further to the south, and another abbey at Iona in the Scottish Islands. Iona became the venerated seat of the Scottish Celtic church in the early Christian era. These two sites are best known as two most likely places of origin of the Book of Kells, the most sophisticated and highly decorated gospel volume in early Christian Europe, about 1200 years ago.
There was a well close to the church site, an important consideration for those living at a height above the valley. The church was recorded as a ruin in early Victorian times, with gable walls still standing, but all that now remains of the building is one side that has been incorporated into the boundary wall.
This medieval church stood close to the location of Castle Reagh, the seat of the Clandeboye O’Neills, who from these hills above Belfast ruled an area encompassing all of North Down and stretching to the southern bank of the River Lagan. Knock would have been the chapel-of-ease for the local ruling Gaels, the O’Neills. They are on record as being the main sponsors of this foundation. Many of the oldest maps of this area have ‘Reagh’ marked for the castle, but also ‘Columbkille’ is marked between Reagh and the important Christian foundation at Holywood. Knock is the only prominence of note in that area. By the time that Con O’Neill became Lord of Clandeboye in 1601, it is believed that the local church was in decline, and it was superseded in 1737 by a new church which still stands at Knockbreda, about three miles away. The early 1600s were volatile times, and it is impossible to know how active this church foundation was at that time. Many native Irish Roman Catholic churches were at that time in the process of being replaced by the Anglican church.
When he died in 1619, it was recorded that the fallen Lord of Clandeboye, Con O’Neill, was not buried at Knock, or Holywood, or indeed at the ancient O’Neill clan burial site in Carrickfergus, but at another ruined church called Ballymaghan, between Knock and Holywood. Possibly the impoverished Lord was so forgotten that he was just interred in the nearest convenient location. Ballymaghan has been cleared, and nothing remains above the surface, but Knock, a place that would have been very familiar to Con O’Neill, where he may have been baptised, and possibly even married, still stands. In a spot unknown by most who pass by, old stone walls and tilted and overgrown gravestones hint at an uncertain ancient past.