It was a splendid dawn. The sun coming over Aghameen threw long bars of gold down the "largy", (1) touching-up the ridges of South Armagh with ruddy gold tinges. 1 was looking down towards the Cully Water, hoping to get my eyes on a few cattle, without the trouble of going down and climbing back up again.
Across the river, the hinterlands of Slieve Mor and Slieve Brack were still in slumberland, not a sound to be heard, not a stir, Slieve Brack, with its young trees of different shades of green, looking promising; Slieve Mor, with no trees as yet, but with its purple heather, its golden gorse and its frowning Crag Dubh looking just as beautiful, or even more beautiful, than its neighbour; in between them the little townland of Quilly, with its lovely Glendesba slanting from the river up to the blue sky above the Market Stone, where the mountain road going out to the priest's house (2) in Mullaghbane passes between the hip of the two mountains.
Quilly of the McCanns, the Hollywoods, the Murphys and the Lappins of old, displayed its mixture of holly, golden gorse and red rowan trees, looking best of all. It must be the most beautiful townland in South Armagh, wild and unspoiled, where no stranger would come unnoticed. It wasn't just by chance that the United Irishmen of the district chose the Market-Stone as their secret meeting-Place, nor was it by chance that blacksmith Lappin chose the frowning Crag Dubh as the site for his secret forge, when he chose to make his pikes and bayonets for the '98 rebellion.
Having satisfied myself that the cattle were alright, I turned and walked towards the "Triumph Traveller", lifting a graip on the way, and placing it behind the driver's seat. I made my way over Carty's Brae to the New Line. It was the first Saturday of September 1971, the day before the, All-Ireland Hurling Final - Tipperary v Kilkenny - and I was going to Creggan Graveyard.
Genesis of the Project
We had started restoration work on the graveyard in the summer of 1969. Before then, some meetings were held in the little Parish Hall there, presided over by the Rev. Maurice Noel, then Rector of Creggan. Johnny Reel of Drumill, then a pensioner and living at Creggan, was the driving-force behind the scheme and only for Johnny it is doubtful if Creggan would ever have been restored. It was an enormous task but Johnny said: "If it beats us, sure what the hell odds. We can't leave it any worse than it is. No matter how little we do to it will be an improvement". The Rev. Noel furnished us with a list of the townland names of the Church of Ireland Parish of Creggan and men were appointed to collect them, the money collected to be used to buy material needed, the work to be done voluntarily on Saturdays. When the townlands were collected, the money was given to the Rev. Noel, who was appointed treasurer, and very able and efficient one he turned out to be. There was never a Saturday that he didn't make the journey from Jonesboro, where he then resided, to Creggan, and kept the bills paid up to date.
In 1969, we got the scrub and trees removed, except for two large trees over three feet in diameter - one an ash in the O'Callaghan enclosure and the other a sycamore in the Hamilton enclosure. We cut all the branches off the main stems and then decided to leave them because they were so large. We would spend many Saturdays at them and also disturb many graves. It was decided to leave the stumps, cut off any shoots as they appeared, leaving the stumps to decay and maybe, in time, they would break off with a tractor-pull. This turned out to be a good idea. The two stumps broke off about twelve inches below ground-level but that was after a period of eighteen years. In 1969, we also got concrete paths laid, the rug of wild grass burned off with weed-killer and the surface roughly levelled. This was done by Owen Keenan, with a small tractor and tiller. When we got the heights loosened with the tiller and mattocks, we tied a sheet of light curved steel with wire to the tiller's "spags" and trailed the loose clay into the hollows. When the days shortened, we let it sit over the winter. Also in 1969, we unearthed an important historical grave-stone - that of Fr. Terence Quinn, P.P. of Creggan Parish in the poet, Art MacCooey's, time. It had been lost for twenty years or more. Some people said it had been taken away to make a covering-slab for a drain, which was untrue. Decaying grass, year after year, formed a sod on it. When we loosened this sod along one side and turned it over in one piece, the inscription could be read on the sod but it was raised lettering, its the inscription on the stone was surface-chiseled.
Another clergyman, as well as the Rev. Noel, was now also paying us the occasional visit and giving us every encouragement, telling us that Creggan Graveyard was the most historic graveyard in Ulster and praising us for the job we were doing. He was Monsignor Tomas O' Fiaich, President of Maynooth College, a local man with a great interest in Irish history, but especially local history. We looked forward to his visits. It was a pleasure to have a crack with him. Many Saturdays, he stayed with us for three or four hours and took his "mug of tay" the same as the rest of us.
In the late spring of 1970, a fresh crop of weeds and light scrub germinated and grew vigorously all over the graveyard. The weeds were mostly nettles and. the scrub was mostly young briars. We decided not to make it ready for sowing-out that year, to keep out of the graveyard for a few months until the weeds had grown to full height, then cut them down with scythes and again burn the stubble with weed-killer. It was in this year, 1970, that Monsignor Tomas O'Fiaich, known locally as "Fr. Tom", and Kevin McMahon, a local teacher who had also a great interest in local history, copied down all the tombstone-inscriptions in the graveyard. Kevin was teaching in Crossmaglen Intermediate School at the time, so he had to work in the graveyard in his spare time and Fr. Tom had to come from Maynooth to join him. Starting at the south side of the church, along the river-wall, they indicated the rows of graves by the letters A, B, C, etc., until they ran out of letters, and then continued along the wall AI, B 1, Cl, etc., until they reached the south-west corner, where the south boundary-wall joins the river-wall at the Ball enclosure. As the rows came across the graveyard from the river-wall towards the road, they were numbered as follows: Row A, 1, 2, 3, etc.; Row B, 1, 2, 3 etc. ; Row C, 1, 2, 3, etc. It was no small task and they must have spent many weary hours there. perished with the cold, cleaning stones, making out the inscription and coping them. Later, they published the inscriptions in "Seanchas Ardmhacha".
When the weeds were at their height, we cut them, gathered them off, re-sprayed, did more levelling, got three lorry loads of clay, spread it on the bare patches and left it to settle over the winter.
In 1971, very few weeds germinated and no briars, so it was decided to start work on the boundary-wall, leave the graveyard, and take a Saturday or two off work on the wall in mid-summer and again cut and spray the weeds. By doing this, we would get rid of the weeds completely and we could sow out the graveyard in 1972.
On the second Saturday of April, we started work on the O'Callaghan enclosure but, in mid-May, word went round that Eigse Oirialla, a committee which had been formed some years before to commemorate the poets of South Ulster, intended to commemorate a local poet, Art MacCooey, who was buried in the graveyard. This committee had already commemorated two poets - MacCurartha and O'Doirnin - and had published their poems. When Fr. Tom called with us, we made inquiries, as we knew he was a member of Eigse Oirialla and taken part in the previous commemoration. "Yes", he said. "The rumours are true and the MacCooey commemoration will be held in April 1973".
Art MacCooey was known throughout Creggan Parish as "the O'Neill poet", as he wrote and sang the praises of the O'Neills, the local Irish Chieftains, who were disposessed of their lands at the time of the Cromwellian Confiscations, and who were also buried in the graveyard. With the O'Neills and Art being buried in the graveyard, it meant that some of the commemoration celebrations would be held there. This meant that the graveyard would have to be sown-out that year, 1971, to have a full year's growth of grass before the celebrations. It also meant that we had to change our plans. We would have to leave the wall and concentrate on getting the ground of the graveyard ready and sown-out that year, if we could. It meant, too, that we would have to store the stone needed for the repair of the wall on the pathways an also leave the soil clear of obstacles, which meant a lot of extra heavy work. Before going to work on the graveyard, we would have to finish the repairs to the O'Callaghan enclosure, as the coping-stones of the piers and walls were too heavy to be moved to the pathway and back again, being cut from limestone and weighing over five-hundred-weight. This took a lot of time, as the walls in most parts had crumbled to ground-level, as had the two piers. When we had it completed, we moved the surplus stone to the nearest point on the pathway.
On the second Saturday of July, we started work on sowing-out of the graveyard. We would rather have left it for another year but we couldn't. Time was against us. Having cut this year's growth of weeds, we started with spade and mattock, Owen with tractor and tiller. The work on the soil was slow and tedious, with so many burials over the centuries. The top clay was lost, mixed with stones and till. Stones stood on end, a good many of them jutting over the ground's surface, and some of them very large. These had to be cleaned around with picks and shovels and brought to the surface with crowbars, then broken and moved to the pathways, or barrowed to-the stock-pile, which we had made south of the O'Callaghan enclosure, in the nearby garden.
By early August, it became clear that by working on Saturdays and the odd evening we would not have it ready for seed that year. It would have to be sown early in September to give the seed time to germinate before the frost set in. There was nothing for it but to leave off our own work for some time and work on the graveyard full-time. On the last week of August, early on Monday morning, three or four of us set to work determined to have it sown-out in early September.
Our two clergymen still came to visit us, the Rev. Noel every Saturday to see if we needed anything and to pay the weekly bill, Fr. Tom any day, to see how we were getting on and to give us encouragement. Johnny Reel and he had some great crack, as Johnny had been a pupil of his father, who had taught in Cregganduff School.
The O' Neill Vault Discovered
On Wednesday of that week, around 3 o'clock, Michael Hearty and myself were "hoking" round a large stone on the road-side of the Eastwood Vault, when we noticed the tractor-man, Owen Keenan, on his knees, looking down at the tilled earth. We thought he was examining the soil, or maybe another large stone on which he had caught the tiller. Johnny Reel wasn't in the graveyard at the time. He must have had gone up home for something or other. When Owen saw us look in his direction, he waved to us to come up to him. What he was looking at was not the soil or a big stone. He was looking down into an open grave - the long lost O'Neill Vault - closed up in 1820 by the Rev. Atkinson, the then Rector of Creggan.
We all three looked and a silence ensued for a short time, until the realisation of the discovery sank in. Excitement was now high, tension almost tangible. Keyed up, we moved down into the vault but it was hard to see in it. It was a bright sunny day outside and inside in the darkness we were three blind men. It took a long time for our eyes to get used to the change but eventually we could see the huge mass of human remains, the large interior of the enclosure, the stone masonry and the perfect arched roof.
It appeared that after the closing and sealing of the entrance - which originally came up by steps to the floor of the pre-Reformation church but in 1820 came up to the pathway around the present church - burials were made in the vault "on the quiet". An opening was made through the arched roof and the coffin moved through and lowered down to floor-level by two men, who would have gone into the vault before the coffin was pushed through. After the burial, a light flag-stone was placed over the opening and on top of it were places sods of grass to harmonise with the rest of the graveyard surface. When wanted again, all that had to be done was to clean the light coat of clay from the flag-stone and then move it with a pick or other convenient implement. When Owen was working in this area, the tractor-wheel went over the hidden flag-stone and cracked it. When he moved off again, it dropped down and a young lad named Pat McKeown, who had been standing nearby, drew his attention to the opening.
We decided to keep our discovery a secret for the time being. If we let it he known, there would be lots of visitors coming to look around and we would lose much valuable time with them, as we were working very much against the clock. We would let Fr. Tom know through his brother's family. Dr. Pat would probably be in touch with him at the week-end. After placing the stone over the opening, we set to work, as if nothing had happened. That evening, I had occasion to go to Cross' to Jack Cumiskey's for a pick shaft, so I called at Dr. Fee's home and told Mrs. Fee, who was at home at the time. of our find and she said she would see that Fr. Tom would be informed.
August went out and September came in and, as yet we were not satisfied with our seed-bed. Only yesterday, Friday, did it show any sign of coming like sowing. Maybe today, Saturday, I though to myself, as I make my way to Creggan, it would be ready.
The weather looked good, "a great harvest morn", as the old people used to say. thank God", only now there was hardly any grain harvest, all hay, and Tipperary this year had "Cork bate and the hay saved". When I arrived in the graveyard, I set to work on the Jackson enclosure and when I had it ready for seed I went to the Hamilton enclosure. It was much more difficult, with little or no soil in places. I spent up to two hours in it and it would only do in a sort of way. It was all mattock work. A spade was useless, it was so bare of clay.
Grassing Part 1
I had worked for three hours now. Help would soon be coming and today, as it was Saturday, there would be a few extra hands. The thought struck me as to what seed would be suitable for sowing in this soil. It was very much on the poor side. We might wont it in the evening and, it being Saturday, seed stores would close at 1 o'clock. We had talked it over on one occasion before at tea-time - Johnny Reel, Michael Hearty, Owen Keenan and myself - but hadn't come to any decision. Canon Mclvor, P.P. of Faughart, who I knew personally, had restored and sown-out many graveyards in Co. Louth with great success, so I decided I would seek his advice. I called to the Parochial House at Kilcurry and was lucky to find his Reverence at home. I told him my trouble and he told me that he didn't know anything about seed or the name of it, that it was John Cox, seed merchant, Dundalk, who supplied it to him at a very reduced rate and, if I would call at Faughart with a man named Ferguson, he would give me the name of the seed. "That's the man who did all the sowing-out for us", he said. Over a welcome cup of tea our conversation turned to Creggan and I told him of the discovery of the O'Neill vault, he was very interested and rising from his chair he went to the bookcase. Taking a book to the table he turned over about fifty pages and handed it to me. "Read that", he said. I read the paragraph he indicated. It was an application from an O'Neill with a Spanish address to the Court of Spain seeking noble recognition for the family. In it he stated that the family originally came from Glassdrummond, Creggan, Ireland. The application was, I think, dated September 1818, but since it is now twenty years ago, I can't be sure. It made very moving reading on that Saturday morning after the discovery of their burial place in Creggan, Ireland.
Following Fr. Mclvor's directions I went to Faughart. I had no difficulty in finding Mr. Ferguson's house. The man himself was at a cup of tea when I arrived. I told him my trouble and that Fr. McIvor had sent me to him. He answered at once: "Glasnevin Perennial, or another name for it is Vigour. It is suitable for graveyards and doesn't grow too tall. The trouble is, it doesn't always be in stock, as there isn't a big demand for it, and Saturday isn't a good day to go to Coxs, as the old man does not be there every Saturday. You might be lucky and you might not but, if you wait a few minutes, I have to go into Dundalk. I will be with you and I will go with you into Coxs. You'll take a mug of tay with me". His wife had already placed a mug and saucer on the table. I thanked them and told them that I had already en tea with Fr. Mclvor but it useless protesting. I just had to take tay with them. When we arrived at the seed store, luck was again on my side. The seed was in stock and the senior assistant, whom he had talked about, was also there. During our conversation, I told him it was Creggan Graveyard we were sowing-out and that Fr. Mclvor had sent me, as he, the priest, had got a lot of seed here. "I hope he didn't tell you the price I charged for it",he said. "No" I replied. "He didn't mention a price but he said it was at a very reduced rate", I answered. "It was nothing", he replied. "The firm donated all the graveyard seed Fr. McIvor used. I hope you're not expecting the same terms". "Oh, I'm not", I replied, "I'm very glad to get it for payment". "But you'll do the best you can for him", said Mr.Ferguson. "There's no grant on the work they are doing from any source and the labour is all voluntary". I will", he replied. "I'll give the one hundred pounds of seed and four hundred-eight of fertiliser at the price it cost the firm. I can't do any more". I thanked him and he told me he had attended a funeral in Creggan Graveyard in 1910, 61 years before. "It was a Mr. Bell from Philispstown was being buried", he said. We let down the back seat of the "Triumph Traveller" and loaded the fertiliser and seed. I bade goodbye to Mr. Ferguson at Castletown Corner. He had some shopping to do. "Don't you wait", he said. "I'll get the Newry bus to the New Inn. I can walk the rest of the way". I thanked him for the trouble he had taken and headed out the Ballsmill Road.
This road was called the "Bother Mor" by the old folk around Ballsmill and Dunreary, this was simply because it was one of the five great roads that left Tara, the ancient capital of Ireland. Also known as the Great North Road, it forked or branched at what is now know as Castletown about a mile north of Dundalk. The right fork went through the Gap of the North, on to Downpatrick. The left fork on which I was now travelling, went through Ballynaclera, now Ballsmill, past the modem Silverbridge through the townland of Dorsey where it was known as Bealach Mor Na Feadha (3), on through the village of Johnson's Bridge, over Armaghbreague to Armagh City or Naven Fort. I travelled on by Castletown of the landlords, Eastwood and Murphy; over the "Coffin Bridge" by Falmore Hall, built by the Eastwoods, later the residence of the landlord, Bigger, and now of the Windham family; on by the remains of Markey's Pub, a favourite meeting-place of the 18th. century poets; taking a left in Ballynaclera, now Ballsmill, where only a few years before the last descendant of the Johnston of the Fews had died; then past the site of 0Neill's Castle and Glassdrummond Chapel to the top of Drumbally Brae, looking down now on Creggan, the trees showing their first tinges of Autumn gold, the thistledown moving slowly along the hedgerows, not a cloud in the blue sky to cast a shadow in the far-off rim of the horizon melting into a steel-blue haze over the hills of Lisdoonan and Ballytrain. It was splendid weather and it was good to be alive and have the health and strength to face a challenge.
When I arrived at the graveyard, work was in full-swing. About five extra men were there plus the three faithful members, who had been there every day for the last two weeks. Pat Callaghan and Barney Murphy had the Garvey and Ligget surrounds ready for sowing and were now almost finished with the O'Callaghan enclosure, while the other three, under young Joseph Donaldson, had the Johnston, Rowland and Donaldson surrounds ready. This left all the surrounds and enclosures in the graveyard ready. The l o'clock tea-time came and, of course, I was questioned as to where I went. Johnny Reel said he was told that I was there all night and that, when help wasn't coming, I had gone off in despair to get drunk. Before we finished our tea, the Rev. Noel arrived and inquired about the weekly bills. I gave him the bill for the seed and fertiliser and he paid me right away. I hadn't long to wait for my money. That was him. He was very punctual and precise, a pleasure to work with. It was then that it dawned on them that I had gone for seed and that it was in the car. I had to tell them the whole story of Fr. Mclvor, Ferguson, Coxs, the name of the seed and the price. Jokingly, Johnny said it was mean of me to go off by myself. If he had been with me, we could have had a drink on it and not come home with "the curse of the town" on our work. We resumed work, Owen with the tractor, Johnny and Michael gathering stones after him. The other six of us went to the part of the graveyard north of the path that leads from the entrance gate to the church. It had been tom up some time before with the tiller but it was very difficult to work on, as the ground was cluttered with a lot of grave-surrounds, so we decided to do it by hand, while the tractor worked in the main part of the graveyard. At the 5 o'clock tea, it was decided to leave off sowing until Monday. The weather looked as if it would hold good for that length at least, and, leaving the soil lying over Sunday would help bring more "nature" into it. All help present agreed to come back then. If the day was fine, we would be finished in good time.
Thoughts and Reflections
When the rest of men had gone home around 7 o'clock, I stayed behind to tidy up a rough area around Fr. Terence Quinn's gravestone, south-east, of the church. The evening was beautiful - a perfect day coming to a close, to make way for a perfect night. The white moon coming over Drumbally threw all kinds of shadows on the giant beech trees, from whose leaves there was not even the sound of a rustle; the river singing below; around me lie "barrows" (4) of centuries of the buried kith-and-kin of the large Parish of Creggan.
Creggan pulls the centuries together and lets you see them in the nudity of their corelation. It is local history laid bare before you. It gives food for thought and at no time of the day do whispers of the past become more vibrant than at the twilight hour Creggan of the princes; Creggan of the Irish chieftains; Creggan of the Cromwellian landlords., Creggan of the Gael; Creggan of the Gall; Creggan of the poets: Creggan of the outlaw; Creggan of the priest-hunter; Creggan of '98; Creggan of the Famine; Creggan of the Land League; Creggan of the clergy - Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic; Creggan of the countless thousands of ordinary people.
I was in a trance, thinking and dreaming. It was almost sixteen hours since I had left home at dawn. I gathered up the tools into one heap. They couldn't be left lying around over Sunday. I took a yard-brush and walked over to the pathway which leads from the gateway to the church door, intending to brush some clay off it. I heard the graveyard gate open and close. Johnny Reel, I thought to myself, coming back to chase me home. He had done so once before. I was wondering what he would say to me. I stood leaning on the brush-shaft facing the gate-way, at a little out-shot of the church, listening to the footsteps approaching. They were not Johnny's. The figure of a man came through the palm-tree's shadow out on to the moonlit pathway. "Well, James. How are you?". It was Fr. Tom. I recognised at once the voice that was soon to become world-famous. "I'm very well, thanks, Father", I replied. "Do you know we discovered the O'Neill Vault?" I asked. "Oh, yes", he replied. "I heard but I couldn't get here any sooner. I called at your home, thinking you'd be there and was told you hadn't arrived home, so I presumed you'd be here. You don't give in too easily. You surely mean to take Creggan back to its former glory". "We have a long, long, way to go Father", I replied. "Well, you are going well in that direction", he replied. We moved round to the south side of the church in the direction of the vault. I took a crowbar from a pile of tools, as we passed them, and, between us, we moved the heavy McMahon stone from the opening. We climbed down through it. A moon-beam piercing through the opening lit up the old built-up entrance. He took a small battery-lamp from his pocket and shone it round the walls and arched roof of the enclosure. Neither of us spoke. He turned and looked at the moonlit scaled entrance; the jambs and lintels, which were the work of some man five hundred years ago; the limestone quoins on either side, perfectly chiselled and equally perfectly set; the doorway that Art MacCooey staggered through on that October night two hundred years before. Whispers must be coming to him, I thought, as he surveyed the built-up doorway, and who better could they come to? If any man on earth could put flesh on the bones that lay around us. it would he him. He looked at it for two or three minutes and then said: "It's amazing. This casts new light on MacCooey's poetry and the discovery couldn't come at a better time. Did you find anything of historical interest?" he inquired. "We didn't look for anything, Father", I replied. "We hadn't got the time to spare. As well, we didn't want sight-seers until the grass was well a-beard". "I understand", he replied. We came up into the moonlit night and shunted the heavy McMahon stone back over the opening, with the aid of the crowbar. "No better name to stand guard". he said, as we turned and walked over the grave of Seamus MacMurphy to the path. I told him that we intended sowing-out on Monday and it would be two weeks before we would set foot in the graveyard again. 'I'll be here tomorrow three weeks, shortly after 2 o'clock and we'll see if we can find anything of interest, such as pieces of coffins. It's long after time you were home". "I have to clean the pathway, Father.", I said. "People will be coming to church tomorrow morning". "While you are at that, I'll carry the other tools down to the car for you", he said. Thanking him, I went back to the brush. A few minutes cleaned the pathway to the gateway. By then, he had the other tools placed on top of the fertiliser and seed in the back of the car. I opened the gate, came back to the car placed the brush on the other tools and sat in the driver's seat. "Good night, Father", I said. "Good night, James", he replied. "I'll see you tomorrow three-weeks with the help of God and don't stop, I'll close the gate behind you". I knew he would "go far", as they say in South Armagh, but I also knew that he would never lose the common touch. "Don't stop, I'll close the gate". The scholar but still the humble man!
Grassing - Part 2
Early on Monday morning, with the aid of the graveyard inscriptions, published the year before by Fr. Tom and Kevin McMahon, I checked the gravestones throughout the graveyard. There were four that had to moved to their original places. This wasn't bad after two year's work. I had almost finished, when Michael Hearty, Johnny Reel, Pat Callaghan and Barney Murphy arrived. Michael had a sowing-fiddle with him and he and Johnny prepared for sowing. Pat and Barney gave me a hand with the four gravestones that had to be re-set. Michael and Johnny divided the seed, cut the fiddle down to half the sowing opening, sowing on the length the first half of the seed, then starting on the second sowing at the south or bottom, wall. Johnny carried the seed for Michael and moved the marking-rods for him. I shook the fertiliser, starting at the south wall, following the seed-men. 'Re rest of the help, seven in all, commenced to cover the fertiliser and seed. This they did with graips, by simply tearing the soil with the graip prongs. By the mid-day break, we had the seed and fertiliser scattered and were up to the path that goes across the graveyard with the covering. After tea, we commenced again. Johnny Reel picked out the places which were bare of cover behind the men with graips, while I took clay in a barrow from a small pile we had on the roadside for the purpose and scattered it on the places he had marked. The other eight men worked steadily away with the graips and, when Johnny caught up with them, he joined in with them. He and Pat Callaghan were over 70 years of age, two great men for "their time". When the 5 o'clock teatime came, we were at the pathway that leads from the gate to the church. An hour would finish the work now. When we had the tea taken, five of the men went back over the covered ground with shovels and beat down any loose sods and gathered the odd big stone that lay on the surface. We were finished at 7 o'clock. That was the end of the work for that year. We decided to give the seed every chance. Next spring, when the seed had gerninated, we would go to the repairs on the boundary wall.
On the Sunday appointed, the fourth Sunday of September I971, Michael Hearty and I met Fr. Tom at the O'Neill Vault. There were others there, as well. It's hard to keep a complete secret in South Armagh! The seed had "bearded" well and the whole graveyard looked like one big green carpet. The stones intended for the wall repairs piled on the pathways were a bit of an eye-sore, as also was the Eastwood Vault. It was so covered with ivy that not a stone could be seen. It looked more like an over-grown mound than a house built with stone. The search in the 0Neill Vault revealed nothing worthwhile just a few bits of coffin-ends and one breast-plate inscribed "McMahon 1821". I told Fr. Tom that I intended cleaning out the clay and making the entrance in the arched roof more tidy. He gave me a very generous donation and took the coffin pieces with him.
On the following Saturday, Owen Keenan and I cleaned out the clay and rubbish, using a bucket and rope. When we had this done, we placed the remains back on the clean floor. There were about one hundred skulls. The next Saturday, I shuttered the opening in the arched roof, leaving an opening of two feet square, with three inch by three inch rebate on top to take a reinforced concrete flag, two feet six inches square, which I cast at home. Paddy Colon donated a small steel ladder, which Ned Donnelly extended to the desired length. On the following Saturday, I stripped the shuttering, fitted the ladder, bolted it to the road-side of the opening, set down the flag, secured it with a locking-bar and lock and key and bade goodbye for Creggan for 197 1.
The Eastwood Vault
Early in the spring of 1972, we started work again. The first job was the repair of the Eastwood Vault. It took two Saturdays to clean the scrub and ivy from it. It was a complete wreck. The stones were mostly all loose and those which were not loose were loosened by us following the roots of the ivy. We then gathered the remains and buried them in the floor. When we had them buried, we flagged the floor with flat stones. repaired the walls and roof and left the door, which was originally built-up after a burial, open. The vault is now used as a store for plastic sheeting and grave-making implements. Then it was the turn of the boundary wall. This all needed attention, right round the graveyard, two acres in extent, with the exception of the north wall and a 45 metre length that was an old sod-and-stone ditch, with a hawthorn hedge in many places. The wall was down to ground level and mostly all of it was covered with ivy, which took a lot of work to clean off. We started work at the gable end of the stable beside the gateway and worked towards the O'Callaghan enclosure. We make the first two perches or so ready for the coping, made a coping mould, filled it with concrete, left it to set, while we made ready two more perches. We then took down the coping-mould and reset it on the next length we had ready. Working this way, in the summer of 1972, we moved slowly round the graveyard. At no time did we use machinery, other than a barrow as we wanted to give the grass every chance. It meant heavy work. All concrete and building-mortar had to he mixed on the concrete surface at the gate and, as we went round the graveyard the barrow journeys got longer. By November we were as far as the Johnston enclosure. Heavy frost came on the last Saturday of November. We couldn't work. Everything was locked and, with the days getting shorter, we decided to lay off until the following March.
In late July, we cut the grass for the first time and by now, with the re-growth and the Eastwood Vault repaired, the entire graveyard looked well. Our two clergymen didn't forget us either, Rev. Noel every Saturday to the weekly bills or Fr. Tom to give us every encouragement. On the third Saturday of November, our treasurer informed us that the money collected was spent. He said he would prepare a balance sheet and call a meeting in the wee hall. We told him not to go to the trouble, that everyone was more than pleased with his performance, and thanked him for the trouble he had taken, making the long journey from Jonesboro' to Creggan every Saturday for three years. It was decided by a few of us who were working at the walls that we would work on and finish, even if the money had run out. Jack Cumiskey said he would give what cement was needed. The money would be time enough. Michael Cretan also said he would give us sand and concrete-mix on the same terms and Eigse Oirialla, who had several meetings in the winter of that year, 1972- 1973, in Crossmaglen, in preparation for the MacCooey celebrations, granted us £100 towards the restoration work on the graveyard. This figure later proved to be more than enough to pay for the sand and cement needed to finish the job. In fact, a small sum was left over and remained in the bank until a new wall replaced the old thorn fence. So, the good men who gave us sand and cement hadn't long to wait for their money.
In the winter of 1972-73, Eigse Oirialla had several lectures in Crossmaglen and Dundalk, in connection with the celebrations. The lecturers were Michael J. Murphy; Paddy McNamee, Fr. Eamonn Devlin, P.P. Lordship; Fr. Dermot McIvor, P.P. Faughart; and our own Fr. Tom, who lectured on the O'Neill Vault and those who were buried there. He surely put flesh on their bones. See "Seanchas Ard Mhacha", issue 197 1, '72, '73, and '74.
On the first Saturday in March, we commenced work again and , when April Came, Owen Keenan and I worked every day, as we wanted to make sure that the walls would be finished and the graveyard tidied up for the 23rd. of April, the date of the MacCooey celebrations. Around the last week in March, word came form a Mr. Gorman, proprietor of the Shandon Hat Factory, Cork City, that he would very much like if we could see our way to repair the walls of the Johnston enclosure, along with the boundary wall. He stated he would pay us for our time spent on it. Mr. Gorman was a nephew of the last Johnstons of Ballsmill. We decided to do so, as it would greatly add to the finished work on graveyard but it meant taking down most of the walls and re-building them, as they were very much off plumb. The dividing wall between the Johnston and Jackson enclosures had come to ground level. When we had the walls of the Johnston enclosure repaired and the new coping set on, the rusted iron railing around the neighbouring Jackson enclosure looked a complete eye-sore and it was beside the newly erected MacCooey monument and where the graveyard celebrations would take place on the 23rd. Something had to he done to it. Sean McAteer and his men at this time were also working in the graveyard. By now, they had the MacCooey monument, designed by John Behan, a Dublin sculptor, erected and were now working on a stone for the O'Neill Vault. These two monuments were erected by Eigse Oirialla. The work on the Johnston enclosure had taken a week and it was now the first week of April and we had to repair the Hamilton enclosure before we went to the remaining length of the boundary wall, some forty yards or so in length stretching from almost beside the Johnston enclosure to the north wall. It was going to take every hour of every day to be finished for the 23rd. A teacher and his wife volunteered to paint the railings on the Jackson enclosure. It took a lot of weight of our shoulders and we were very thankful to them and Monday the 17th saw us on the last forty yards stretch of the boundary wall, with only one bad breach about ten yards in length to be built before setting the coping-mould and before commencing to "pin". On that day, Rev. Noel and some of his parishioners also set to work on the remaining wall, getting it ready for coping. The coping -mould we had from the previous year would not be long enough to have the remainder of the coping completed by Friday night and we wanted Saturday free for cleaning the pathways and general tidying. I think it was Rev. Noel and some of his men who suggested to just place a light lath on each side of the wall and put on a flat sloping coping with no overhang. With no overhang, it could he stripped shortly after pouring. This we agreed to. It would be best to have the wall complete by Sunday. The laths were got, enough to complete the coping in one run and they were in place ready for pouring late on that Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, we got extra help. Michael Hearty came, also three young lads who mixed the concrete and barrowed it to the men who were shovelling, it into the mould on he wall. Owen and Rev. Noel were packing it solid and David Lowe was floating it behind them. Michael and I commenced "pinning". Around 2 o'clock, Fr. Tom arrived. Somebody took a "snap" of him and Rev. Noel, one with hammer and the other with a trowel in hand. The two men had to see each other, something about the church service on Sunday. I took Rev. Noel's place at the coping and left him free to chat with Fr. Tom. At tea time, we had finished with the coping and all hands went to the "pinning". The three young land who mixed and barrowed the concrete to the coping had trowels with them and they also joined in, and at 6 o'clock, the pinning was complete. Before leaving, Fr. Tom told us that there would be a meeting in Cross' on that night, Wednesday, the purpose of which was to make final arrangements for the celebrations, which were to commence on Friday night in a Dundalk Hotel and continue on Saturday in Crossmaglen and on Sunday in Creggan. He wanted to know if Owen and I couldn't get to the meeting. Would there be any chance of one or two of us coming with him on tomorrow, Thursday, evening to do a trial run of the route the historical tour would take? It was one of the events of Sunday's programme and he wanted to get familiar with the run and the timing was also important. Well, we both agreed to go with him and welcome. We would be here in the graveyard. He could call any time that suited him and we would go along with him. On Thursday morning, we removed the coping-mould and took all the laths away. Then, with two barrows, we commenced to clean all the surplus stones from the pathways. By mid-day, a good few visitors had gathered. They were inquiring mostly about the Vault and, at the 1 o'clock break, we decided to open it and leave it to themselves to go down. We had no time to lose. A lot of tidying had to be done.
The McCooey Celebrations
Around 4 o'clock Fr. Tom called and he Owen and I headed off, taking note of the time. The idea was to visit most of the local places mentioned in MacCooey's poetry. We fixed the route - Greenkill, Clarbane, Loughross, Culloville, Drumbee, Mobane, Mounthill, Glassdrummond and back to Creggan. We timed it at twenty minutes at each place mentioned. We did more than the Sunday route, as we branched off at Leither hill, Fr. Tom wanted to visit Fr. Lamb's birthplace and also Art MacCooey's, where there was a flag flying. I think it was white and yellow in colour. Someone had marked the spot and the flag was a good idea. It could be seen from the Glassdrummond road. You couldn't take a large number of cars down the "Keady Line". When we arrived back at Creggan, some of the men were working, cleaning the pathways. They had been coined by a teacher and some scholars from St. Joseph's School in Crossmaglen. Owen and I left the car and Fr. Tom moved off. He was going to Cross' to his brother's place. Owen moved into the graveyard, while I went into the stable to the tap to get a drink of water While there, I heard voices raised high in anger and, on coming out the door, saw a woman move quickly out the gateway and make for a car. Turning towards the church, I saw Owen standing on the pathway at the church gable, with a skull in his hands. I went up to him and inquired what had happened and why he was holding a skull in his hands "I took it from that bitch of a woman", he replied. "I wonder if that's the first that went or is there more away?". We went into the Vault but we couldn't honestly say if any more skulls or bones were missing. We inquired from the men cleaning the paths among them the teacher and his pupils, if they noticed any of the remains in the Vault being taken away by visitors, telling them about the woman and the skull. They hadn't seen any but, as the teacher said, the Vault could have been "cleaned" unnoticed to them as they were a good distance away and, anyway, no one would think of such happening There was a large crowd of visitors coming and going throughout the evening, he said To close down the Vault would spoil the celebrations, as it was said locally that it was in the same Vault that Art had composed his famous "Uir Chill an Chreagain", the discovery of which, as Fr. Tom said, couldn't have come at a better time. Owen and agreed we'd fence off the remains first thing in the morning and someone would stay about the entrance on Friday. Saturday and Sunday. There wasn't much work to be don( in the graveyard now that we couldn't spare a man to look after it. On Friday morning we got chain-link and a length of 2" x 2" steel angle-iron from Jack Cumiskey. H( delivered them himself and told us to call into him if we wanted anything else. H( couldn't believe what had happened. He wouldn't take a penny for the material he left with us on that morning. By 1 o'clock we had the paling erected. There weren't many visitors in the morning time but after dinner there were plenty. There weren't many workers in the graveyard on Friday and Saturday. They weren't needed, the work was complete. Material come for the platform and those who were there gave a hand to erect it. We kept a close eye on the Vault, spelling each other every two hours.
The Saint Anne Mystery
On Saturday Peter Hearty. Cregganbane, when passing, called to see us, as he had often done. It was my time at the Vault. He came to me and was cracking about Creggan to visitors. He said the pre-Reformation church was named St. Anne's and that there was a figure of St. Anne cut in the rock down at the river-side. He took half dozen or so people down to show them where it was. One of them, a complete strange came back by the Vault and told me he had seen where it was but that it was very faint and needed to be re-cut. The rest of them, including Peter, went to the road by the other side of the church. Some years after, the incident came back to my memory but Peter Hearty was dead, Lord rest him. I made inquiries from locals, thinking that some of them might have been among the number who went down to the river with him, without success. I inquired from Owen but he told me he wasn't in the graveyard at the time. He had gone home to go on a message to Newtown' and he hadn't come back until 3 o'clock If anyone who reads this article was a member of the party who went down to the river with Peter, would they contact any member of the Creggan local History Society.
Also on Saturday. Micksy Toal, a man who had done trojan work in the graveyard up till then, and since then, gave us a call. Silverbridge G. F. C. were going to do the stewarding on the Sunday and Micksy, being on their executive, wanted, I suppose, to get a mental picture of the space available along the road for parking. There would be a large crowd on Sunday. Around 6 o'clock, we closed the Vault. There were plenty of visitors moving around as the cold spring evening was drawing in, some youngsters inquiring what the wee house in the middle on the graveyard was for. Pat Callaghan told them that it was the "wee people's house" and that if they came back that night at twenty five minutes past twelve they would see them in it, dressed in green, with red caps. They were looking at him with big eyes but I don't think all of them believed him. Owen Keenan, Pat Callaghan, my brother, Barney, and I walked slowly towards the gate, making for home. Michael Hearty had gone home earlier. We would be going to the celebrations tonight. The graveyard looked perfect, grass growing, walls completed, paths brushed clean, the iron work on the Jackson enclosure newly painted. When we got to the gate, we closed it behind us, so as to remind the visitors to do likewise. On the roadway, was Fr. Tom cracking with Owney Burns, James McDermott and Johnny Reel. As we come into the roadway, he spoke. "Well, men, You made it. The graveyard looks splendid. It's a credit to you. I didn't think Creggan could be taken into that shape. You deserve the thanks of the two parishes". Owen spoke. "Don't thank us, Father". Pointed to Johnny Reel, he said. "Thank that man there. He lured us into it. He knew the thick wit of the "Hughie Mórs" and the "Farra Wans" would win through". was a great laugh from all.
"Who but Callaghan?"
Barney spoke looking at Owen. "What about Callaghan. Didn't the fairies say at the burial of one of their clan in Kane Graveyard, "Who but Callaghan". Pat, knowing the story, laughed heartily. Though Owen was joking, there was some truth in the statement. We weren't working long until we reached the point of no return. Had we given up, Creggan Graveyard would be there before everyone's eyes and a constant reminder to us while we lived of our failure but no one was more pleased than Fr. Tom that we did not fail.
Incidentally the story that Barney referred to was an old tale told by Pat Callaghan's grandfather, dating back to the 1870's. The story went that Jem Callaghan was coming home at a late hour. He had been working until after midnight in the kiln in Johnston's corn-mill in Ballsmill, drying oats for milling the next day.
He was travelling north on the "Boher Mor" (5) and coming near home when he met with a troop of fairies carrying a small coffin. When he met them, they left the coffin down by the roadside and told him they were going to Kane graveyard to bury one of their clan. They begged him to come with them and assist at the burial and he agreed. When they restarted the journey the leader asked "Who'll carry the coffin?" , the rest answered, "Who but Callaghan!", so Jem took the coffin on his shoulders and marched at the front of the cortege. When they arrived at Kane the leader directed them into the ruined church and pointed to the spot for Jem to leave down the coffin. He then inquired "Who'll say the Mass?", to which the rest replied "Who but Callaghan"! The Mass said; the leader asked, "Who'll dig the grave?". "Who but Callaghan" came the answer.
When the burial was over the leader went behind the hedge and returned with white mare, he told Jem to mount and make for home, he would get "coin and livery" (6) at the "Stump" (7) the fairy told him.
He came home, tied the mare to the door porch went in, and went to bed. He got up in the morning and went out to see the mare. - - - "And what had I?" Jem would ask his listeners, "a broomstick with a bunch of feathers at one end of it! ". Some of his listeners. would ask Jem how he said the Mass. "How did I say it", he would answer "only the best way I knew how". Kane old graveyard with its ruined church, cave and spring well was the perfect setting for the fairy lore and when Jem would tell the story there were those who believed him, not all, but a few. That is over a hundred years ago now.
Here is what Harry Tempest in Dundalk had to say of Kane writing in the 1920's. "The graveyard is still in use, many of the graves being used by members of the Presbyterian congregation of Dundalk. The "cave" is a souterrain, its mouth is open under the wall of the graveyard on the right hand side of the entrance gate it evidently runs under the graveyard itself. There have been numerous instances in Ireland of graveyards having been placed over souterrains (H.G.T.). Fr. Larry Murray also writing in the 1920's, wrote......... About twenty years ago a cave was found in the east side of the churchyard, in the middle of which was a beautiful spring well; it is now closed". (L.P.M.). Kane church and graveyard takes its name from Cein in Cnoc Cein Mic Ceinte, who has been identified with Killen Hill which rises to the south of the townland of Kane.
In 1297 the church of Kane and Castletown is mentioned in a ecclesiastical dispute where the Prior of St. Leonards claimed two thirds of the advowson of the churches of Dundalk, old Kane and Castletown (H.G.T,) (Gossiping Guide to County Louth). Old even then in 1297.
Though Jem Callaghan's story is just a tall tale it illustrates something. The people around Ballsmill and Dunreavy, until very recently, looked to the distant past for their heritage and culture, away beyond the coming of the 0Nefils to Glassdrummond and the founding of Creggan parish, to the medieval parish of Kane and Castletown. Kane graveyard was as old when Creggan was founded as Creggan is now.
I remember in the early 1930's my brother Pat and myself had made a grave in Glassdrummond graveyard, when we removed the top sod it was one solid mass of rock. At the burial I happened to pass the remark to Oweny "The King" Callaghan that it was a rough enough place to be buried, he answered, "Well you needn't come here when you die". "Why"? I inquired, "Where else will I go"? He answered "The Murphy's have sixteen graves above in Castletown and I can point out every one of them to you". Thirty years later when Fr. Mclvor was cleaning out the graveyard in Castletown my son Peter and myself were "Pinning" the old church walls there, and we found some of the Murphy graves. There it was again! Oweny's memory went beyond Creggan into the far distant past.
There is much research to be done here, were the townlands on the west side of the Cully Water river in South Armagh, in the medieval parish of Kane in Castletown?, before Creggan was founded. It looks as though they were for the residents of these few townlands, all had graves in Castletown and I remember funerals going there. Was there worship in Kane after the reformation?, did the parish die with the reformation? . Why did Castletown remain for Roman Catholic burials and Kane remain for the people of the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian faith? Did they come to an agreement at or after the reformation? Much work remains to be done here.
Everyone connected with the restoration of Creggan deserves thanks. They are many in number, hundreds I'm sure, from those who did a few hours to some of those who did well over one hundred days there. Some are now dead, God rest them - Owen Keenan, Barney Murphy, Johnny Reel, Peter McKenna and I'm sure many others - Frank Craggier, who collected the townland of Sheriff and who died suddenly before he had time to hand the collected money to the treasurer; it fell to his wife to do so. In one of Frank's poems written some years before his death, when describing the ancient graveyard, he regretted that it was left to go into decay.
What a pity he didn't live to see it restored. We would have had a grand poem from him I'm sure.
... The Art MacCooey celebrations were a great success. Art's poems were published, most of them translated into English, and a history of his life, in both Irish and English, was also published - all written by Fr. Tom. Senorita Conchita O'Neill, of Seville, Spain - a descendant of the O'Neills of the Fews - came to Creggan, the graveyard of her ancestors, to perform the unveiling ceremonies....
Many of those who took part in the Art MacCooey celebrations, in April 1973 are now dead, God rest them: Mrs Noel, the Rev. Noels wife who was organist in Creggan Church at the time; "Poppy" Fearon Paddy McNamee, Dr. Pat Fee; Fr. Eamon Devlin. P.P. of Lordship; Fr. Dermot Mclvor, P.P. of Faughart; and sadly our own Fr. Tom.
It is with a mixture of pride and sorrow that those of us who are left look back on the restoration of Creggan Churchyard. I would like to point out that the Art MacCooey celebrations had nothing to do with the restoration of Creggan Churchyard, we started work- there on the first Saturday of May 1969 and it was not until mid May 1971 that it became known that the Art McCooey celebrations would take place in 1973. If there had not been any celebrations the Churchyard would have been cleaned, restored, and taken to its present condition anyway.