Fascinating History 0f Romance And Revolution

BY sheer coincidence, the focus was fixed recently on two of the most famous families to have ruled over the Newry region, an amalgam of power, wealth, romance, revolution and betrayal.

The reign of the Bagenals has been recalled by the discovery of a medieval castle in the frontier town. Hidden for centuries, it was at the centre of a bloody struggle between the O’Neill clan and Queen Elizabeth’s forces.

Meanwhile, at Bessbrook, also to mark National Archaeology Day, the historic Derramore House was the setting for a unique re-enactment of the stormy debates between the Patriot Party’s leader, Henry Grattan and his former colleague, later Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer and MP for Newry, Sir Isaac Corry. They ended in a duel!

Many outstanding events and personalities have been associated with this area, dating from St Patrick planting the Yew Tree, which gave the town its name. The composer, Handel, conducted his works in 1742; Jonathan Swift, who described Newry as “High church, low steeple; dirty streets and proud people,” was a regular visitor; and John Wesley preached at the Meeting House on High Street.

Wolfe Tone attended many meetings with the United Irishmen in the locality, - two of whom, Cochran and Lowans, were publicly beheaded. `The Liberator`, Daniel O’Connell was impressed, during a visit to St Clare’s Convent school; John Mitchel and John Martin were sentenced to transportation, while Union leader James Larkin hailed from Burren.

But back to the Bagenals. And there occurred a dramatic tale of romance and tragedy, which should grip the imagination of some author or playwright, with a feel for history and politics, - maybe Paddy O’Hanlon! It involved Mabel, the beautiful, 16-year-old daughter of the Marshal of Ireland, Sir Nicholas Bagenal, and the legendary Hugh O’Neill, chief of the powerful clan, a bitter enemy of Queen Elizabeth.

No records exist as to how the relationship between the young girl and the Gaelic chieftain began. She was born and reared in privilege at Bagenal Castle in Newry, the English seat of power in East Ulster. The Gaelic Chieftain, based in Tyrone, ruled most of Ulster. We also have no information as to how the romance survived, despite the bitter battles.

All we know is that Mabel, whose father had died, agreed to marry the 45-year-old widower. Her brother, Sir Henry Bagenal, kept in ignorance of the relationship, strongly objected, and despatched his sister to reside with a friend, Sir Patrick Barnwell in Dublin. But Hugh O’Neill followed Mabel, and arranged for an English acquaintance to carry the girl off on horseback.

The two lovers were married at Drumcondra by the Bishop of Meath, Dr Thomas Jones, after which the newly-weds travelled to the O’Neill stronghold at Dungannon. Sir Henry Bagenal refused to accept the marriage, tried to prove it was invalid, and would not pay the dowry of £1,000.

Tragically, the fairy-tale romance had a tragic ending, as Mabel died about five years later, unreconciled with her family. Indeed, Sir Henry had stated: “I cannot but accurse myself and fortune that my blood, which has often been spilled by my father and myself, in repressing this rebellious race, should be mingled with so traitorous a stock and kindred.”

In 1598, the Marshal of Ireland, as commander of the English Army, marched out from Newry to engage the forces of Hugh O’Neill. He led over 4,000 men on the expedition to Armagh. They encountered the enemy, waiting at a place known as the Yellow Ford. The ensuing battle was to become one of the most important of the war, Sir Henry being killed by a gunshot to the head.

Newry’s oldest building had been constructed in 1568 by the founder of the Bagenal dynasty, Sir Nicholas, close to the site of a 12th century Cistercian monastery. It was also near the spot where, according to legend, St Patrick planted the Yew tree, which gave the town its Gaelic name of Iubhar Cinn Tragh.

Indeed, the ruins of the castle have become one of the most fascinating archaeological finds in recent years. Many alterations had disguised its origins over the centuries, the only clues being some stone carvings. These were shown to Stormont prime minister, Terence O’Neill, during an official visit to the town in 1966. Ironically, the Bagenals and the O’Neills had been in a state of warfare, 300 years earlier.

Curator of Newry Museum, Noreen Cunningham played a major role in the discovery of this unique link with our heritage. And the Heritage Lottery Fund is supporting the restoration of this historic structure, which will house the Newry and Mourne Tourist Information Centre.

First recorded reference to Newry came in the sixth century, when the King of Ulster referred to “an entertainment by poets at Iubhar Cinn Tragha.” Then, in 832, it was reported that the Danes had “disembarked at a place known as Iubhar Cinn Trachta,” and had marched to the town of Armagh.

Fast-forward to 1135, when monks from the Benedictine Order settled in the town, and founded an abbey. A few later, 13 Cistercian monks came from Mellifont, re-organised the monastery, and were presented with a charter by the High King of Ireland, Murtagh Mc Laughlin, granting them “the land of Newry and its hinterland in perpetuity.”

But disaster struck in 1182 when “the monastery at Iubhar Cinn Tragha was burned, with all its furniture, and books, also the yew tree, which Patrick himself had planted.” During the Reformation, Gaelic chief Art Magennis, persuaded King Henry the 8th to allow the Newry abbey to be converted for secular purposes. But the Warden later “voluntarily surrendered the church, college, land, 73 cottages, two salmon weirs, and the customs for the market in Newry.”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008