The serpentine Blackwater has wound its course towards Lough Neagh from time immemorial. It forms a natural boundary between Tyrone and its neighbouring counties of Monaghan and Armagh along which the earliest settlers most likely made their way. Over time people built new places to live and work, further away from the river. These early farmsteads were the core of a cattle based economy that prospered here for centuries. Thus was born the ancient settlement of Cionn Ard, ‘The head of the hill’, at a strategic bend in the Blackwater valley, where, in the medieval period, the ruling Ui Néill established a fortification on their southern frontier.
A castle at Kinard is mentioned in the Annals in 1480 as being occupied by Seán Buí Ó Néill, who defended it against the Earl of Kildare and an English army. A century later, Sir Henry Óg was restored to his lands having fought against Elizabethan forces during the Nine Years War. His son, Sir Phellim O’Neill, was one of the principal figures in the rebellion of 1641.It was Phellim who took Lord Caulfield prisoner at Charlemont bringing him to Kinard where he would meet his death at the hands of O’Neill.
General Monroe is said to have crossed the Blackwater at this point on his march to Benburb in 1646. Sir Phellim’s adversaries proved less forgiving than those of his father and following his capture he was executed in 1653. Records of that time show Sir Phelemy Ó Neale as the proprietor of more than 1,200 acres of land, including Kinard Towne & Parks. Among the lands belonging to Ó Neale were the ruins of the market town and Castle of Kinard, as well as a stone bridge over the river Blackwater.
The castle and lands were confiscated by Cromwell and granted to a branch of the Hamiltons. In time, they passed through marriage, to the fifth Earl of Orrery who developed a demesne on the site. In 1779 the lands were bought by the Alexander family who built Caledon House during the Georgian era.
The name Caledon is probably a derivation of the old Latin name for Scotland, Caledonia. The old name of Kinard became lost in history. Just east of where the O’Neill castle once stood, and stretching away from the demesne, emerged the modern village of Caledon which adopted the name of the big house.
Occupying a hill, the needle spire at the church of St John sits sentinel over this neat little village of fine terraces of stone cottages. Today the graveyard retells the history of those who built this place. The village grew as a port and a market town during the industrial revolution. By the 1830s it had prospered under the watchful eye of the Earl of Caledon and contained more than two hundred houses, most of which were built with stone. Samuel Lewis, in his Topographical Dictionary, described Caledon as ‘one of the best built towns in the North of Ireland’.
The many tributaries of the Blackwater provided the ideal environment for mills to be located along its course. The first water wheel made entirely of iron was said to have been made for the Earl of Caledon to drive a mill here in 1829. The Flour mill which had once produced more that 9,000 tons of flour each year, was converted to produce woollen cloth in the 1880s by Serrard Smith Co.
The tales and fortunes of the past two hundred years are echoed in Caledon’s architecture. The artisan’s cottages, Court House, Market House, fountain and churches give Caledon the appearance of a neat, little English market town settled comfortably among the rolling drumlins and peaceful woodlands of the mid-Ulster landscape.
In recent years some locals with an appreciation for the history and architecture of the area have worked together to help breathe new life into many of the old buildings.