Creggan And O’Neill Clan Put South Armagh On The Map

WHEN the Clan O’Neill vault was discovered at Creggan graveyard, 35 years ago, it was an event of tremendous interest and importance, not only in South Armagh, but nationally, as well as in Spain, France and America.

Descended from Niall, High King of Ireland, the famous Red Hand clan, based in Tyrone, had invaded South Armagh, conquering the region known as `the Fews.` Producing such legendary chieftains as Owen Roe and Red Hugh O’Neill, they had defeated Queen Elizabeth’s forces, driving them back to England.

However, following defeat by Mountjoy’s army at the “Gap of the North,” and the disaster at Kinsale in 1601, came the “Flight of the Wild Geese.” The Celtic princes and their warriors fled to the Continent, winning fame and glory in the French and Spanish armies.

In 1973, during renovations at Creggan graveyard in preparation for the Art McCooey bi-centenary celebrations, local historian, the late Jem Murphy and Michael Hearty were clearing up beside the Eastwood vault when they noticed a tractor-driver, Owen Hearty on his knees, peering down.

Jem recalled: “We thought he was examining a large stone, on which he had caught the tiller. He waved us over. What he was looking down at was the long-lost Clan O’Neill vault. Silence ensued for a short while, as the realisation set in. Excitement was high, - the tension almost tangible.”

Tipped off about the historic find, I drove to the scene, and was permitted to climb down the makeshift iron ladder with my camera. Despite the bright sunshine outside, it was difficult to penetrate the gloom. Gradually, the eyes grew accustomed to the dim light.

Visible in the large enclosure was an amazing array of human skulls and bones, remains of the O`Neill clan chieftains, their ladies and warriors. They were laid out around the stone walls, beneath the arched roof, with lintels, limestone quoin and chiselled sets, constructed by artisans, 500 years before.

Later, Jem Murphy wrote: “As we left the graveyard at Creggan that evening, the moon was coming up over Drumbally, throwing all kinds of shadows over the giant beech trees. The river was singing beneath us, and around us were centuries of buried kith and kin. For Creggan pulls the centuries together.

“At no time do the whispers of the past become more vibrant than at twilight time, here in Creggan of the princes, the Irish chieftains, and Cromwellian landlords; Creggan of the Gael, the priest-hunter, the men of `98, the famine and the Land League; Creggan of the clergy, - Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic; as well as countless thousands of ordinary people.”

That noted historian wrote a descriptive piece in the “Creggan” Journal about the ruins of Carnally House, built by Francis Forde, whose name is commemorated in Ford’s Cross, on the road from Newry to Crossmaglen. A Protestant, he was married in a Catholic church to Mary McMahon from Ballsmills. While the house was being built, a son was given ten years’ penal servitude. And one year after they took up residence, another son was killed when falling off a horse, on the way home from Newry. Mary died of a broken heart.

“Lonely, neglected and roofless stands the big house, its bare walls rise stately against the winter sky. The winds lament through the fine old Georgian doorway, through the great holes in the walls, where windows once looked out over a pleasant lawn. Empty and desolate, except for the strange sound the wind makes as it buffets a few dry leaves into a corner. And as they whirl around the grass-grown floor, they become mutilated. Finally, the winter rains will beat them into the earth,” wrote the late Jem Murphy.

A church has stood at Creggan since the 15th century, built by the O’Neill’s, while the adjoining graveyard is brimming with headstones from a turbulent past. The present church was erected in the 1700’s, with the tower added in 1798. According to the historian, John Donaldson, the graveyard was “the last resting-place of all creeds and classes, as well as many bitterly opposed in life, sharing it with princes, poets, pastors and paupers.”

A number of well-known Gaelic poets are buried there, including Art MacCooey, Seamus Mor McMurphy and Pat MacLiondain. A memorial to MacCooey was unveiled by Senorita Conchita O’Neill from Seville in Spain, to mark the burial-place of the poet.

Among the poems he had written was one about the priest’s housekeeper, Mary Quinn, who had insulted Art MacCooey by offering him buttermilk, instead of something stronger. The poem was called “Blind Mary Quinn.” As a result, the priest refused to perform MacCooey’s marriage ceremony. The Church of Ireland Rector, Rev Hugh Hill obliged.

Ostracised by his neighbours, the poet had to leave the area. Later, he made peace with the priest, and spent his last years at Tullyard. Twenty-five of his poems have survived, and they have given Creggan an important place in the literature and history of Ireland.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008