Proud World Gathering Of Unique And Historic Clan

NOWHERE in Ireland is there a townland, which contains so many families with the same surname as the legendary McAteer clan at Ballyholland, on the outskirts of Newry.

A World Gathering of the unique and historic Mac an t-Saoir sept took place in 2004, as emigrants from North America, Australia, New Zealand and Britain joined their Irish cousins for a re-union celebration of reminiscence and craic.

One of the most illustrious members of that famous clan, Dr Seamus McAteer, - Gaelic scholar, historian, and civil liberties campaigner, - explained that the family name went back to 500 years before Christ.

“It is a proud record; and we are still marching onward, proud of our heritage, name and country. I urge all the McAteers to remember the motto: `Thought of mind, skill of hand, - these are our own, for we are freemen of Cine Mac An t-Saoir.”

And the distinguished GP reported that St Ciaran McAteer had founded the famous Clonmacnoise monastery; also there was an Archbishop Mac An t-Saoir of Dublin; Bishop McAteer of Monaghan; Canon Eddie McAteer; and Fr McAteer from St Clare’s Avenue, who has served in the missions to South America. Oldest member of the clan is Sr Adelaide (91), Irish Sisters of Charity, based in Dublin.

“To be a McAteer you must be a person of your word and honour. You must never have spilled blood, and you must never be in debt to any person. You must dedicate your strength, heart and tongue to your fellow human being,” added Dr McAteer, who was a close friend of the late Cardinal O Fiaich, accompanying him to European countries, where Irish missionaries had established Christianity.

Incidentally, Dr Seamus McAteer was recently bereaved by the death of his genial brother, Sean, who had a stone-cutting business on the Mall. He had also been president of the Holy Name Sodality, attached to the Dominican church. The doctor’s son, Enda, has joined his uncle’s company.

So prolific was the surname at Ballyholland that it posed problems, especially among newcomers, strangers and Post Office officials. So nicknames had to be adopted such as Covey, Cosey, Connie, Curley, Rusty, Do-all, John the Butcher; James the Shark, Mickey the Mouse, Wee Peter, Cuddly Patrick, Peter the Potter, Hairy Russell, French Geordie, Peter Baa and George Black McAteer.

As Stephen Pat Sands, who was married to a McAteer, commented: “If you weren’t one of the McAteers, then you married into the clan, - otherwise you were an outsider!”

The clan has produced personalities in various walks of life, - politics, commerce, the professions, sport and the arts. For example, Eddie McAteer was leader of the Nationalist Party at Stormont in the 60’s, - his son, Hugh, being a welcome guest at the first World Clan Gathering, ten years ago.

Councillor and Assemblyman P.J. Bradley, - whose great grandmother was a McAteer, known as `Kate Connie,`.- was responsible for inaugurating the idea of a World Gathering. During a tour of South Armagh in 1993, while accompanying American visitors, he came upon a pageant being enacted at Mullabawn. It was the O’Hanlon Clan re-union.

The estate agent recalled: “This got me thinking that we should have something like that in the area that I represent. I considered the great family names of the Burren/Ballyholland district, such as the McGoverns, McMahons, O’Hares and Magees. But when you think of Ballyholland, you automatically think of McAteer.”

Incidentally, P.J.’s grandfather was Peter Barry of Corrags, whose son, Peadar, was chairman of Newry No 1 rural district council, President of Down GAA, as well as an Old IRA veteran. Three sisters of Peter Barry’s wife married Ballyholland men, - William Murtagh, John Smyth, and Peter McAteer.

But one local politician was outstanding. John (Covey) McAteer, who had been a farmer and rural councillor, sprang a surprise when elected first chairman of Newry and Mourne district council in 1993, carrying out his duties with aplomb. He was a founder member and president of Ballyholland GAA Club.

A man of stature and integrity, big John’s son, Colum, is principal of the local primary school, while a daughter, Marion, is long-time secretary of St Mary’s High School in Newry. He once reported how the electoral division embracing Ballyholland had more than 90 McAteers entitled to vote, out of total of 450 in the rural council electorate.

“The McAteers ruled the roost in Ballyholland, but always lived agreeably with everyone. I was in the USA for four years, but could not resist coming back to `the Bog`. Pitch-and-toss was very popular, starting with small stakes, but then the players became gripped with excitement. When ready cash ran out, calves and bullocks were put up for stakes. Woe betide the spectator who spoke to distract the pitcher, when a small farm was at stake.”

A major sporting triumph came to the townland in 1963, when the Harps squad, managed by Fr Anthony Davies, captained by Pat Kearney, and leavened with McAteers, won the County Junior Championship. They also gave the star-packed Ballykinlar side a tough match in the Senior Championship.

Of course, Sean Og McAteer was Press Officer of the Co Board, when the Mourne county won the Sam Maguire Cup during the early 90’s, and is a member of the county management team. He comes from a family of Gaels and historians, his grandfather, Eddie and father, the late Sean, being poultry merchants.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008