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REMEMBERING ART MacCOOEY

by
Tony Kieran

Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1992 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society



Tony KieranArt Mac Cubtaigh was horn, according to Dr. Woods as quoted by O'Kearney, about the year 1715, twenty-five years after the battle of the Boyne. in the townland of Baile an Achaidh, anglicised Ballinaghy, parish of Creggan, in the south of Co. Armagh. Ballinaghy is near Glassdrummond, about three miles east of Crossmaglen and eight miles from Dundalk.

The townland is now more generally known as Mounthill. so called from a Protestant clergyman, Rev. Hugh Hill, who lived there, and who was rector of Creggan 1728 -1773, that is practically during the whole of MacCooey's lifetime.

MacCooey's immediate ancestors were small farmers. Part of the house which was his paternal home is still standing beside a small stream called the Sruthan Dubh or 'Black Streamlet'.

Tradition is silent as to how Art got his education. According. to a government return of 1743 there were then two 'popish' schools in Creggan parish. Of course Art was beyond school-going. age at this time. But he mentions in his poem to a Rev. Mr Downey that he was acquainted with the latter in his youth at Castleroche, and Art Bennet explains that they were school-fellows together. Hedge-schools, despite the penal laws, were carried on in quiet places, and some of these were classical. There is no reason to think that Irish reading and writing formed part of the curriculum of these schools. There was no printed Irish matter generally available them to read, so that the reading and writing taught was usually English, and in the classical schools Latin.

Art could read and write Irish cannot be doubted, though none of his autograph MSS., as far as is known, now exist. It is probable that he did not write much, his temperament perhaps could not accommodate itself to the slow, patient work of writing and copying MSS.

It is locally believed that he knew English, as some repartees of his in that language are orally preserved, and there is a tradition in the MacCooey family that he attempted to carry on a school in his own house for a time, probably indeed a short time.

The population of Creggan parish in MacCooey's day was about one-fourth Protestant and three-fourths Catholic. as appears by an entry in the Record Office, Dublin dated 1766.

PARISH OF CREGGAN

Protestant Families............. 259
Papist Families................... 718
Total.................................. 977

But a better way to regard the population is as consisting of three pails of Irish-speaking natives and one part of English-speaking 'planters' or foreigners. These 259 families had, we may be sure, some schools, endowed or otherwise, and it was probably at one of these Art met young Downey.

Art spent the greater part of his life as a gardener. The system of gavelkind, by which a father divided his farm or property equally among his sons, was the hereditary one in Ireland, and in obedience to this old custom Art's father, according to family tradition divided his farm of 22 acres equally between his two sons, Art and Turlough. What became of Art's portion, or how he managed to get rid of it, is now unknown. It is very probable that when he was a young man he showed no taste for farming, but devoted his time to attending various schools, visiting poets, learning and singing Irish songs, reading Irish romances, attending gatherings, and finally attempting Irish poetic composition himself.

Soon he became known as "Art na gceoltai" - (Art of the Songs), a title that is still traditionally preserved to him. The Irish people rightly believed that ability to compose poetry was a gift, not something to be acquired, and MacCooey was no exception to the rule.

Nicholas O'Kearney states that MacCooey was family to the O'Neills of Toprass. Toprass is about four and a half miles from Glassdrummond and the O'Neills of Toprass may have been a branch of those of Glassdrummond, and may have lived on long after the family became extinct in Glassdrummond, and so may have laid full claim to MacCooey in O'Kearney's day.

But Art MacCooey and his works as a poet can never be dissociated from the O'Neills of Glassdrummond. Six of his poems are devoted exclusively to the O'Neills of Glassdrummond, while references to them or to Glassdrummond occur in a couple of others. These six poems are his longest and best, occupying in quantity twenty-five out of sixty-one pages. If it were true that MacCooey was a family or court poet to any branch of the O'Neills it surely was to the O'Neills of Glassdrummond, not those of Toprass. Glassdrummond was a historic place, founded in the end of the twelfth century by Brian O'Neill of the Battle of Down. That conflict with De Courcey's mail-clad Normans of 1171, and its disastrous results to the northern Ui Neill, taught the latter what a new danger menaced them, and Glassdrummond was founded, as an outpost against this new enemy, on the southern-most borders of the O'Neill country. Its site was admirably chosen. It stood on a rock that dropped down precipitously to a small crescent-shaped lake that lay behind it to the west and north, while to the east and northeast the impenetrable and primeval Dunreimhe Wood stretched across country almost to Newry. Even at the present day the rock is almost unapproachable on that side owing to the rugged, rocky, bosky nature of the surface, though the wood was cleared away in MacCooey's day. Careful excavation might yet lay bare the foundations, and show the plan and extent of the structure. Standing on the rock one can clearly see Dundalk Bay about eight miles off. When the castle stood, the warder on its walls could note every ship that entered and sailed out from the bay, and watch the movements of any large body of troops around Dundalk. Thus admirably was it adapted as a sentinel, its gaze ever directed southward on the Pale, while its couriers and spies scoured the country right up to the gates of Dundalk and Ardee and the borders of Meath, and brought back timely warning of approaching danger, which in turn was transmitted to Armagh, or even further north, while in the case of invasion from the south it met the first shock of the attack.

Castle Roche, a few miles to the south, did exactly a similar duty for the Pale. But just as Derry walls are preserved while Limerick's walls have disappeared, so Castle Roche stands a magnificent ruin, taken care of by the Board of Works, while Glassdrummond Castle lives only in tradition and song.

The O'Neills of the Fews had their court poets, but after the Flight of the Earls few if any chiefs in Ulster could support either court or poet.

Following the upheavals of the 17th century the O'Neill lands of the Fews were confiscated. The proud O'Neills of Glassdrummond were reduced to the position of large farmers. Some of the family were transplanted to Co. Mayo while Glassdrummond and surrounding country was given to a man named Murphy - anyone but all O'Neill and Murphy obliged his masters by pulling down the five-century-old castle. It is highly improbable therefore, that Art MacCooey was retained as a family bard by the young Art O'Neill of Glassdrummond. Nevertheless, at Art O'Neills house ... court ... now in Crossmaglen he was warmly welcomed and his stay prolonged by the young spirited 'chief' who enjoyed MacCooey's singing, conversation and adulation.

MacCooey had that weakness common to so many poets in all ages, he was fond of the bottle. While poor and foolish he was popular with the common people. One reason for this was, being one of themselves, he voiced the feeling of the time, the sufferings, hatreds, laments and hopes. His melodious verse were sung with heart-moving feelings and indeed for the next six generations, for National hope was not dead in MacCooey's day, nor had the people become reconciled to the English domination as final and inevitable.

One must recall during MacCooey's time Co. Armagh was in a rather disturbed state, and there ruled there a character called John Johnston, better known as 'Johnston of the Fews', whose avocation was that of 'Tory Hunter'. Johnston had an instinctive fear and dislike of the Irish poets, and he tormented and harassed Peadar O'Doirnin during many years. Yet there is no tradition that MacCooey. who lived much nearer to him than O'Doirnin, ever came into conflict with him, or suffered at his hands, which would argue great caution on the part of MacCooey, combined with a due sense of fear.

Tradition says that MacCooey worked with several priests around Crossmaglen and Creggan, and Bennett tells us that he was for a time gardener with Rector Hill in Mounthill. A person with such an establishment as Rector Hill must have needed a permanent gardener, but Art does not seem to have been permanent anywhere. He lived, it is said, for a time in the townland of Corneonagh. for a time at the 'White Stables', a residence near Crossmaglen, and for a time near Forkhill, and his poem to Nancy Dullaghan shows that his rambles extended to Tallanstown, near Ardee. He also spent a period, against his will, at Howth. This was due to the well-documented quarrel with Rev. Terence Quinn P.P. of Creggan and the satirical poem "Maire Chaoch" (one-eyed Mary), written about Fr. Quinn's sister.

MacCooey was banished out of Creggan, spent all unhappy exile in Howth as a gardener, returned to Creggan and wrote "Cuilfhionn Ni Chuinne" (Quinn's Fair-haired Daughter) in praise of Mary Quinn, which seemed to have reconciled him with the P.P. In the last verse he confesses his offence. attributes it to drink, expresses unreserved regret and humbly implores Miss Quinn to pardon him and make friends with him. To Father Quinn's credit be it said it appears he did not interfere with MacCooey afterwards. Such briefly is the story of MacCooey's quarrel with Dr. Quinn and his sister, and few quarrels have been handed down so vividly. Indeed, next to Uir-Chill an Chreagainn Cuilfhionn Ni Chuinne was MacCooey's most popular song.

But the quarrel had other resultant and deplorable effects. MacCooey married a girl called Ni Arbhasaich, anglicised Harwasee. and sometimes Harvey and Harbinson. She belonged To Tir, about two miles from Crossmaglen on the way to Castleblaynev. The marriage must have occurred during the dispute with Dr. Quinn, for MacCooey got married in the Protestant Church. Tradition is silent as to whether or not he ever afterwards went through the rite in the Catholic Church. He, at one stage. expressed his intention of adopting the protestant faith. But that MacCooey's change of religion was neither real nor permanent appears from several considerations. One is that he did blot lose caste with the Catholics of the district, as he would assuredly have done had he become a real. Turncoats were held ill contempt, but MacCooey's flame is esteemed locally down even to the present day, and his friends are proud to claim him. Whatever his allegiance to his religion may have been, his intense devotion to the cause of the old Gaelic race and nationality was unswerving.

Towards the end of his days MacCooey's drinking habits grew on him, and tradition attributes his death, sad to say, to the effects of his over indulgence. Where he died is a matter of dispute. Some say he died at Tir where his wife's people lived, but others say he died at Tatebane near Ballsmill. between Glassdrummond and Dundalk-. O'Kearney states that MacCooey died on the 5th of January 1773 at the age of 58. O'Reilly, in his Irish Writers. says MacCooey was living in 1774. Felimy MacGeeney, an ex-teacher of Glassdrummond National School, heard that Art died in 1,792, and Art was a brother of his maternal grandfather. He was waked at the 'White Stables' near Crossmaglen.. Some too think that he died there. The 'White Stables' at Urker Hill, about one mile from Crossmaglen, was a roadside inn about a hundred years ago. It may have been the same in MacCooey's time. MacCooey was buried in Creggan. He was a tall spare mall. He left no family. If there were ever any children they did not survive him. A local rhyme says:

"Art McCooey is dead and gone,
Alas for Forkhill, he has left no son."

After his death his MSS, it is said. became the property of a man called Tom Lamb at Mounthill, but Tom's daughter Betty. opened a small shop at Glassdrummond chapel, and paper being scarce, she tore them up for parcelling goods.

Art MacCooey was buried in his beloved Creggan graveyard, close to the vault of the sons and daughters of the illustrious house of O'Neill. and of which he wrote:

"0, Noble Creggan, leprosy and woe on thee
'tis under thy mantle sleep the accomplished Princes"