Creggan And O’Neill Clan Put South Armagh On The Map
(Part 2)

Art MacCooey had been inspired to write one of his best poems, mourning the death of 20-year-old Art Og O’Neill, the end of this famous clan in “the Fews.” A headstone in the graveyard, embossed with the Red Hand, commemorates his father, Daniel Art Og, the last to maintain some semblance of the family’s earlier greatness.

Another poet buried there was an ancestor of Jem Murphy, - Seamus Mor McMurphy, also known as an outlaw or “tory.” That expression comes from the Gaelic for a raider or a persecuted person, not to be confused with a British Conservative! Seamus, who was a local folk hero, robbed the rich to feed the poor, founded a School for Gaelic Poetry, and was a strong supporter of the Scottish Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

However, his reputation as a womaniser proved fatal. He was infatuated with dark-haired Molly McDacker, daughter of a Killeavy publican. However, Molly was also fancied by one of McMurphy’s lieutenants, Art Fearon, who told her that the poet was two-timing her. So Molly took revenge by betraying her lover to the authorities, being paid £50. McMurphy was hanged at Gallow’s Hill in Armagh; Molly McDacker drowned herself in Carlingford Lough.

In medieval times, the South Armagh region was ruled by the Anglo-Norman, who had invaded Ireland in 1160. They constructed a ring of castles for defence, one being Castle Roche. In 1444, the O’Neill clan burned Dundalk and invaded the Fews. Fighting under the leadership of Red Hugh O’Neill, they forced the surrender of Queen Elizabeth’s Army, under the command of her favourite, the Earl of Essex, who then staged a rebellion and was executed.

Later, the O’Neill chiefs backed the British, with the result that Turlough MacHenry O’Neill was knighted by James I, and was granted 9,000 acres of land. However, neither those in power in Ulster, nor the British in command of “the Pale,” from Dublin to Dundalk, could exercise control over the South Armagh region.

Indeed, Sir Nicholas Bagenal, former Marshal of King Henry VIII’s army, felt that the natives were such a menace that he decided to make Newry a fortified town, in order to prevent incursions into his territory. In 1572, Queen Elizabeth granted extensive lands in South Armagh to Captain Chadderton, on condition that he would bring settlers into the area, but none came. Raids by bandits were the main problem.

Then, in 1600, Lord Mountjoy defeated Red Hugh O’Neill forces and seized control of the Gap of the North. One of his garrisons was at Moyra Castle, whose ruins are still visible. But, while this victory was followed by the Plantation, the Protestant settlers were concentrated in the northeast. The result was that South Armagh witnessed an influx of native Irish, pushed out by the newcomers, which strengthened the Gaelic culture and ethos of the region.

However, the late Cardinal O Fiach stated that, after the Cromwellian era, “a deliberate attempt was made to exclude the former ruling family, the O’Neills, by the new masters. Their lands were confiscated, and they became `hewers of wood and drawers of water. `They took to the hills as Raparees. But St Oliver Plunkett secured their pardon, on condition that they went abroad.”

The former All-Ireland primate added that, by 1664, most of the O’Neill clan had vanished from Creggan and Glassdrummon. In other parts of “The Fews,” familiar names emerged, such as Terence O’Neill, (later that of a Stormont Prime Minister) and Phelim O’Neill, who gave evidence at St Oliver Plunkett’s trial in London. – the same name as a Unionist M.P of the `70’s!

St Oliver Plunkett, as Archbishop of Armagh, was associated with the parish of Creggan between 1670 and 1681, though he had a difference of opinion with the Franciscans, who had settled in the parish and were very popular. Some local people were active in the conspiracy, which led to the saint’s trial and execution in London. The parish priest of Creggan, Fr Manus Quinn, was summoned to give evidence, but refused.

Meanwhile the late 18th century marked a sharp increase in sectarian tensions, as Catholics began to compete with Protestants for small farms, as well as employment in the prosperous linen industry. The Peep O’Day Boys was an organisation formed to prevent the eviction of Protestant tenants in favour of Catholics, who were willing to pay higher rents. In response, the Catholics established the “Defenders.”

By 1783, antagonism was smouldering, as Catholics were resentful of the descendants of the Planters, while Protestants were convinced that, given the chance, Catholics would evict them from their farms. Ten years later, Catholics had become formidable in the land market. And the poorer Protestants, who were out-bidden by the new competitors, became aggrieved, adding to the sectarian antipathy.

Protestants had exclusive ownership of small farms, held at modest rent. But, with new Government legislation, when the tenures expired, Catholics bid for them with higher rents. The lure of greater profit induced many Protestant landlords to forget their aversion to Catholic tenants, and accept the bids.

The resentment of Protestants was greatly inflamed in parts of South Armagh, especially in the parish of Forkhill, where sectarian and agrarian clashes were most bitter. A local landlord, Richard Jackson, left a will which stated that “whenever a Papist’s lease was expired, they should be banished to their rocky habitations, and Protestants reinstated into the lands of their fathers.” The unrest continued up to the 1798 Rebellion, whose suppression ushered in another century of conflict.

Now, with the start of a new Millenneum, the South Armagh region can look forward to a period, free from sectarian, political or agrarian troubles. And it can capitalise on a golden age, when the legendary O’Neill clan ruled supreme, while Gaelic poets and musicians put Creggan on the heritage, cultural and literary map.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008