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CREGGAN

by

Hugh Macauley

Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1986 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society

Each summer thousands of Irish people set off for the Continent on package tours in search of the sun and strange places. Often an integral part of the package is a visit to sites of historic interest in the area. Admirable as this may be for an insular people, I sometimes wonder how many of them have spent years living in the shadow of equally historic sites at home in Ireland without ever having learned about them. History, like charity, should begin at home. The Crossmaglen- tourist, I maintain, cannot fully appreciate the history of the Algarve before knowing Anamar, Montmartre before Mounthill, not Monte Cassino before Creggan.

Whether the student of local history is interested in literary history, ecclesiastical or political, the name of Creggan keeps cropping up in his reading for this was the home of a School of Gaelic Poetry which spanned MacCuarta, O Doirnin and Art McCooey: it was also the site of a Franciscan friary frequently mentioned in documents relating to St. Oliver Plunkett; and it was the burial place of the Clan O'Neill of the Fews who lived at Glassdrummond Castle on the edge of Dunreavy Wood a few miles away.

In August, 1971 three men from the district with a keen interest in local history - James Murphy of Carnally, Owen Keenan of Cullyhana, Michael Hearty of Creggan - were continuing the task they had set themselves some time earlier - the cleaning and restoration of headstones and paths in the old graveyard at Creggan. In the course of their labours they literally stumbled upon the vault of the O'Neills which had been closed and from which all markers had been removed by Rector Atkinson early in the 19th century. As McCooey himself was believed to have done amost 200 years earlier, they went down into the vault and looked upon the vast pile of bones and skulls which lay before them. The significance of their find was evident to the three local historians. A link with earlier centuries, long lost, had been re-established.

In his excellent book "History of the Parish of Creggan in the 17th and 18th centuries Fr. Larry Murray has an O'Neill genealogical table which shows Hugh of the Fews as the first Tyrone O'Neill to settle in the S. Armagh area in 1450, a development caused by the burgeoning of the Tyrone clann who had to seek new territories for their sons.

Hugh O'Neill wrested the land from the MacMurphys, the then rulers of the district. Glassdrummond Castle, the seat of the Fews branch, was built by Henry and his son Turlach MacHenry O'Neill in the 16th century and in the troubled history of the castle and its owners we see reflected the turmoil and violence that ravaged all of Ireland in those stormy years. Turlach MacHenry, half-brother to the great Hugh of Tyrone through a common mother, Joan Maguire, reigned in the Fews during the Elizabethan wars. Turlach carried on the family tradition of "Tadhg an da thaobh" finding it at times much more rewarding to side with the Government in Dublin than with his rebellious Dungannon relations. After assisting Mountjoy to subdue his Tyrone cousins, Turlach was knighted in 1604 and "for services rendered" 9000 acres of his territory were exempted for the Plantation of Ulster. Sir Turlach MacHenry O'Neill conveniently avoided the next test of loyalty, the Rising of 1641, by dying in 1640. His successor, however, Sir Henry, had a most difficult time during the Rising, for although he was strongly opposed to it, his son and all his relatives were deeply implicated. According to Carte the rebellion was planned in the house at Loughross owned by Turlach O'Neill, son of Sir Henry of the Fews. The list of those present reads like a "who's who" of 17th century leaders of the Gael in Ulster - Sir Phelim O'Neill, Rory O'More, Lord Maguire, Emer MacMahon and Captain Turlach O'Neill. In spite of the "good affection" in which he was held by Ormond, the Lord Lieutenant, some years earlier, Sir Henry was - adjudged to transplantation in the Cromwellian confiscations and granted 6000 acres (2/3 of his Fews estate) near Bohola in Co. Mayo. These Connaught lands in turn were seized three generations later in the Williamite confiscations and latter still a Red Henry O'Neill left Ireland for Spain to find a family which gained honour and glory for its service to the army of Spain in the 18th century.

By this time, in the Fews, the great O'Neills of Glassdrummond had become but a memory. The Castle was in ruins, its last stones used (in the words of Mac Cuarta) to make a "piece of a road". However, it was now that they were fallen on hard times that, to quote from Cardinal O Fiaich's "Art McCooey and His Times", Clann O'Neill "gained an affectionate place in the folk memory of the 18th century which some of their 16th and 17th century chieftains had done little to merit". And again "it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the O'Neills of Glassdrummond, like many another family of Irish aristocracy produced far nobler figures in the era of their decline and exile than in the days of their powr and glory".

At home there was Father Felim, the Franciscan friar, praised by O'Carolan and McCooey as generous, warm-hearted and kindly; and his brother Turlach who rose to the rank of Lieutenant - Colonel in the Spanish army, and his nephew Feilimidh who at the age of 10 was brought to Spain and followed an adventurous and successful career in the army there, including a spell with Bonny Prince Charlie whom he accompanied after Culloden on the flight to the isles and helped to escape with the aid of Flora MacDonald. McCooey sang the praises of these romantic figures and their exploits at home and abroad.

It was fitting, therefore, that on 29th April, 1973 a Senorita Conchita O'Neill of Seville should unveil a monument over the newly-found tomb of her Fews ancestors and another at the grave of Art McCooey, Bard of the O'Neills of Glassdrummond.