Among the poetic and pugnacious people of South Armagh

Last summer, during my Belfast to Dublin walk, I spent two days walking through south Armagh: over the Cooley mountains into Ravensdale, then across Slieve Gullion to Mullaghbane and Forkhill and over the border into Dundalk.

It was the most interesting and eye-opening part of my journey. The Ring of Gullion area is one of the most beautiful, geologically important, culturally rich, historically strategic and yet least visited places in the east of Ireland. The reason is obvious: for at least five centuries this has been an area of conflict and banditry, one in which some of the most bloodily contested events in Irish history have taken place. But it is also a place of warm-hearted people and wonderful mythology, folklore, poetry and music.

A local  historian I met in Forkhill talked about the Slighe Mhidhluachra, the great north-south highway that passed through south Armagh from early Christian times, and which was “the channel for all movement from one part of Ireland to the other – every army had to to pass up and down it, from Cuchulainn fighting Queen Maeve to William heading for the Battle of the Boyne. It was a particularly important battleground in the first decade of the 17th century which marked one of the key turning points in Irish history: in 1600 Hugh O’Neill drove back Mountjoy from the Gap of the North; in 1601 Mountjoy returned and built Moyry Castle; in 1607 came the flight of the earls, O’Neill and O’Donnell; and in 1609 was the first Plantation of Ulster”.

In 1989, nearly four centuries later, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, the most senior police officer to be killed during the modern ‘troubles’, and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, a worshipper in my grandfather’s old Reformed Presbyterian congregation in County Antrim, were killed in the same Gap of the North near Moyry Castle, shot dead in an ambush by the IRA, whom the RUC believed had been tipped off by a ‘mole’ in Dundalk garda station.

South Armagh is much loved by geologists and archaeologists for the richness of its geological formations and prehistoric monuments. Geologists believe Slieve Gullion, the 1,900 foot mountain at its heart, is the centre of what remains of a large extinct volcano, with the peak being the magma (the hardened core of formerly molten rock) and the surrounding hills, forming almost a complete circle, being the remains of the volcanic crater. “The circular motif was very strong in megathic art and rituals, “ says Gabriel Cooney, professor of archaeology at UCD (who joined me on this part of the walk). “Today, when you’re driving up on the motorway from Dublin, it is noticeable that Slieve Gullion appears like a triangular shape, a pyramid – sometimes with a band of mist around its base – and that must been very striking to people in prehistoric times.”

We also visited one of those magnificent, almost completely neglected ancient monuments which Ireland – and particularly the border region – seems to specialise in. In the townland of Edenappa, we walked across a field full of cowpats and through a muddy gap into an overgrown meadow in the middle of which was the Kilnasaggart Stone. This eight foot sculpted granite pillar, probably put up around 700 and marked with one large and ten smaller crosses, is the oldest dateable inscribed Christian monument in Ireland. The south-east face of the pillar bears an inscription in Irish that Ternoc, a Christian hermit who was related to the great Magenis and Macartan families, put this place under the protection of Peter the Apostle.

I experienced a feeling of peace while contemplating this ancient stone in the July morning sunshine that I can only explain by a sense of this place having been a centre of prayer and spiritual contemplation for many centuries. But it is shamefully neglected by both the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Historic Monuments Council of Northern Ireland, probably because it is so close to the border. How many people speeding along the main Dublin-Belfast motorway two miles away know that this marvellous and unique Christian site is only a few minutes away by car? How many visitors does a site which in continental Europe would be a major tourist attraction receive every year? The Tourist Board has no way of measuring the number of visitors to this forgotten monument in a muddy field.

I walked on towards Mullaghbane, the home of my friend Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, sean-nós singer, composer and author of the acclaimed book A Hidden Ulster: People, songs and traditions of Oriel, about the rare songs in Irish from Armagh and Louth, with their historical background, biographies of the poets who composed them, the collectors who collected them and the scribes who wrote them down. Many of the songs were written by fine – although now largely forgotten – 17th and 18th century poets like Peadar O Doirnin, Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta, Art Mac Cumhaigh and Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (who wrote ‘The Yellow Bittern’).

South Armagh and north Louth were culturally rich Irish-speaking areas up to the mid-19th century but a hundred years later the language had all but disappeared there. There was a long tradition of educated local people called scribes writing down stories, legends, poems and songs on parchment and paper to preserve the wealth of the culture they loved. Much of this work would have been paid for by members of the genty – many of them Protestants, men like Robert McAdam in Belfast, Arthur Brownlow in Lurgan and Samuel Coulter in Dundalk – who would have collected and preserved the manuscripts in their own houses.

Ní Uallacháin went on to tell me about the little-known period in the early 19th century when the Catholic Church opposed the Irish language. The (Protestant) Irish Society was teaching the Bible through Irish to the people of the area at that time, and employing educated and literate Catholics to do it. “The scribes did not see their work as proselytising in any sense but simply teaching people to read. However it caused consternation among the Catholic clergy and their way of handling it was to instil fear in the people about the language – it was now a threat to their souls. It also affected later generations of song and folklore collectors whom people assumed were proselytisers as well. Local people became afraid to speak Irish and this was extremely detrimental to the language in this area, and scribal activity all but ceased. So the reasons for the sharp decline in Irish in this area from the mid-19th century onwards were, along with the Famine and the identification of the language with poverty, the system of National Schools and the influence of the Church.”

Ní Uallacháin finds “a tremendous enthusiasm and high regard for the language here now. In many ways it was easier to bring up my children speaking Irish than in places across the border. There is a love for it even though it is not taught in the schools except spasmodically here and there. When I came here I was the only mother speaking Irish to my children – there are at least a dozen families doing that now. I can’t ever see it coming back as a community language, but it’s certainly not going away and it’s undergoing something of a resurgence.”

I spent that night camping out on the site of the former British army base in Forkhill. Before I retired for the night I met a group of local people interested in the area’s history in the local pub. To say they are proud of south Armagh and its history is to understate the obvious: they are passionately, even fiercely, energised by it, nursing its many trials and exclusions with a huge sense of grievance.

One local historian in the group voiced the widely-held belief that there had been a conspiracy since the 17th century to portray south Armagh as an outlandish place of outlaws and murderers, with a one-sided version of history that emphasised the violence of the native people, and made little or no mention of the theft of their land and centuries of oppression by colonist ‘planters.’ This kind of rewriting of history had been constantly reinforced until the most recent ‘troubles’ period, when Merlyn Rees – Northern Ireland Secretary in the mid-1970s – dubbed south Armagh the “bandit country”.

However Rees was only the latest in a long line of politicians, clerics, historians and others to characterise the south-east Ulster borderlands, and south Armagh in particular, in this way. The Maynooth historian Raymond Gillespie writes that by the late 17th century “the tory (i.e. bandit) problem” survived in the Ulster borderlands after it disappeared from most of the rest of Ireland because “the tories could count on local support in areas with no alternative leadership and because the traditions of these areas gave sanction to their actions.”¹ This poor, underdeveloped area of marginal land was caught between the newly colonised territories further north with their improving landlords, better estate management and industrial beginnings, and the historically well-developed Pale to the south. “Similarly the spread of authority of central government, intimately associated with colonisation, left the borderland isolated and apparently more violent than the surrounding area.”

The group in the pub agreed that there was a “siege mentality” in south Armagh and a “Free State mentality” south of the border. One woman explained the former very cogently: “With the creation of the border and the Northern state in the early 1920s, in an area like south Armagh you never felt part of that Northern state and there was nothing in the North to attract you to it. There was also a sense of having been abandoned by the South. You were like an island stuck between two states: one which you had no affinity with and one which had said ‘cheerio’ to you. So there is within south Armagh the mentality of an island people. When I was growing up, the older people may not have been very educated, but they were free thinking people, who didn’t take direction from either north or south.”

And what about the IRA? People in south Armagh don’t like to talk about the role of the Provisional IRA during the ‘troubles’, and this group was no exception. But in his superbly researched book, Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh, British journalist Toby Harnden traces the formidable force that was the IRA in south Armagh back to the local branch of the O’Neill family fighting the English in the early 1600s; the highwaymen or ‘rapparees’ haunting the roads in the late 1600s; the Defenders and Ribbonmen clashing with landlords and Orangemen in the 18th and 19th centuries; and to Frank Aiken’s 4th Northern Division of the IRA in 1919-1922, which on one occasion mobilised over 200 men to take over Newtownhamilton village and attack the local police barracks. The same IRA surnames appeared on British security force lists in the 1990s as on government files in the 1920s.

And the most recent version were as formidable as any of their predecessors. A British Army colonel talked with grudging admiration to Harnden about their careful planning and studying of army operating patterns, secure firing positions and well thought out escape routes. A member of the RUC’s specialist anti-terrorist squad in the area said they “stood up and fought and skirmished back in the same way the British Army did. And they’re very hard to overtake when they are doing that.” The double bombing in August 1979 which killed 16 soldiers from the Parachute Regiment (and two others) at Narrow Water Castle outside Warrenpoint in south Down – the heaviest casualties suffered by the army’s elite regiment in a single attack since the Second World War – was planned by south Armagh IRA man, Tom ‘Slab’ Murphy, now a jailed tax avoider, but then a ruthless and brilliant military tactician who would later become its chief of staff.

By the mid-1990s the IRA in south Armagh had effectively fought the British Army to a standstill. The latter’s helicopters were forced to fly in formations of three to avoid attacks by IRA sniper units using machine guns and large calibre American and Russian sniping rifles. Harnden concludes: “As the August 1994 ceasefire approached, the contrast between the campaign being waged on all fronts in south Armagh and the IRA’s waning efforts elsewhere in Northern Ireland could hardly have been more acute.”

It was little wonder then that the fiercest opposition to the IRA’s ceasefire was in the area. And it was no coincidence that the massive bomb attack in Canary Wharf in London’s docklands, which in February 1996 ended that first ceasefire, was planned, engineered and delivered from south Armagh – like so many such attacks on the British ‘mainland’ in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

However this is not a one-dimensional place. Bernard Boyle, the local accountant who chairs the Forkhill Development Association, believes that there are “quite a few nationalist unionists” even in his locality. “If you had a border poll in the morning you’d find that quite a few of these people are comfortable with their UK status. They wouldn’t vote unionist, but if you drill down into what they believe, you realise they’re quite happy to be British”. Because of poverty and lack of employment local people had got used to depending on the British benefits system which – despite the fact that social benefits in recent years have been higher in the South – they felt might not be there in an all-Ireland state.

Boyle, clearly a man of moderate views, says it is “impossible to overstate the difference between Forkhill now and in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.” The British army presence in this tiny village was overwhelming. They chose an area between two housing estates to build their barracks and, despite only being able to move out in heavily armed patrols, had complete control over the village, including sending radio signals which blanked out television transmission and switching off street lights. A brave attempt to open a fish and chip shop in the 1980s was doomed because of constant army harassment of its customers. “If you didn’t have an errand in Forkhill you didn’t come here after dark because you were guaranteed to be stopped by the army no matter what road you came in, everybody told to get out of the car, everybody’s details taken, the stuff taken out of the boot, and people told bluntly to put it back themselves.”

Unsurprisingly, there was unanimity in the group that Britain leaving the EU – the Brexit vote had happened a fortnight earlier – was an unmitigated disaster and would have a particularly catastrophic impact on a village that was only a few hundred yards from a border which was now due to become Europe’s external frontier. Bernard Boyle pointed out that after many decades of no investment in Forkhill and its hinterland, EU money had come in during the past 20 years in the form of Single Farm Payments and capital grants for farmers, money to improve roads and IT connectivity, and funding for community development. The small business park created by the development association had brought 32 new jobs to a place which until then only had a tiny number of jobs in pubs and shops. 40% of the funding for the business park had come from the part-EU funded International Fund for Ireland.

South Armagh is a strange place for this Northern-born Protestant and Dublin resident, albeit one who was active in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the 1960s and is a proud Irish citizen. The fierceness of the republicanism expressed by people like the local historians I spoke to is unsettling. I believe I speak for the great majority of Irish people in that when I see a gunman in a balaclava carrying a high velocity rifle, what I feel is dread and fear, and certainly not admiration (our idea of an admirable Irish soldier is an Irish Army peacekeeper on the way to service with the UN). Yet in three hours of conversation, the violent campaign of the Provisional IRA against the British army, the RUC and the Protestant community – the Kingsmills massacre being the worst example in south Armagh – was not mentioned once. In this community the IRA were viewed by many people as heroes, not to be criticised in front of an outsider.

The Borderlands: Essays on the History of the Ulster-Leinster Border, Raymond Gillespie & Harold O’Sullivan (eds.)

Many thanks to Bernard Boyle and Raymond McCumiskey for gathering local people to meet me and letting me use the Forkhill Women’s Centre to wash and change after my night’s camping.

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2 Responses to Among the poetic and pugnacious people of South Armagh

  1. Agnes Cogan says:

    Another thoughtful and inspiring piece, Andy. I so agree with you about the outstanding beauty of this turbulent part of the country. I feel like getting up and going in search of Ternoc’s altar.
    Keep up with the good work,

  2. Aeveen Kerrisk says:

    Really enjoyed reading your reflections on your experiences in South Armagh, a reminder of the complex richness of an area I have come to love and which yields so much to explore from poetry to politics….mythology and mystery. But it does require willingness to go beyond the cliché, leave the beaten track and penetrate the inner landscape, as you did Andy.

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