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A Tribute to James (Jem) Murphy

Local Historian

Reproduced, with the Society's permission, from the 1994/95 Journal of The Creggan Local History Society

Jem Murphy (1919 - 1995)Saturday September 30th 1995 will be remembered as one of the saddest days in the memory of the Creggan Local History Society. The sudden death of Mr. Jem Murphy cause widespread sorrow among his family an relatives, the entire community of South Armagh and beyond, and, not least the members of the Creggan Local History Society in which Jem was held in very high esteem.

His association with the society goes back to December 1986, when he attended the monthly meeting and expressed a desire to write an article for the second 'Creggan Journal' published in 1987.

The opening paragraph of his article 'Carnally House' sums up the gift with which he was blessed whenever he put pen to paper......... "Lonely, neglected and roofless stands the big house, its bare walls rise stately against the winter sky. The winds lament through the fine old Georgian doorway, through the great holes in the walls where the windows once looked out, over a pleasant lawn, to the main road from Crossmaglen to Newry. Empty and desolate except for the strange sound the wind makes as it pauses, and buffets a few dry leaves into a corner. For them there is no escape and, as they whirl around the grass grown floor, they become mutilated and, finally, the winter rains will beat them into the earth to nourish this green carpet.'

My earliest recollection of Jem Murphy was back in the spring of 1973. He was showing a group of people around Creggan graveyard and I was bold enough to tag along with them. He had just finished showing the group down the rediscovered O'Neill vault when he realised I did not see down the vault. He proceeded to usher me down the make-shift ladder into the dark underground crypt. 'Don't worry lad', he said, 'I have a torch here', and he shone it on the human remains whom he told me was the O'Neills of the Fews. This was my first lesson in local history, and the rest of the tour around the graveyard was an education in itself.

Jem's knowledge of local history, and particularly the history of Creggan parish knew no bounds, and it was through this knowledge that he, and a few of his friends got together in 1969 with the view of transforming Creggan graveyard from the wilderness that it was, and put it back on the historical map.

The task in which they were about to undertake was phenomenal, but nothing was going to deter them from the vision they had conceived at the time.

An article penned by Jem and titled The Restoration of Creggan Churchyard published in 'Creggan Journal' No. 6, 1992 gives a week by week account of their labours, labours that were great encouraged by the Rector of Creggan Church, Rev. Maurice Noel and by the frequent visits of Monsignor Tomds 6 Fiaich, President of Maynooth College.

Today, when visiting Creggan graveyard you cannot help but notice the beauty and the tranquillity of the place, one wonders is this part of Jem's vision.

His contribution to the local community, and to society as a whole was beyond reproach, there were very few people of his own generation in the area and possibly the generation before him whom he didn't know, he could give you an accurate history on most families. In 1980, he was the main source of information for the publication of the history of the Silverbridge G.A.A. Club for the official opening of Kilmurray Park, having contributed five articles to the publication.

By 1988, along with Kevin McMahon, Jem compiled the Guide to Creggan Church and Graveyard. The launch of the 'Guide' would take place in Creggan Parish Church during an ecumenical service on Saturday 17th September at 2.30 p.m. Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich and Canon David Clarke Rector of Creggan conducted the service. This was the first ecumenical service organised by the Creggan Local History Society and is now an annual event.

His other contributions to the Creggan Journal were 'Memories' published in 1990, and 'The Cardinal in Creggan' published in 1991.

He was in the process of writing two further articles prior to his untimely death, articles which I am sure, would enhance any publication. His writings on Fr. Lamb and a history of Glassdrummond Chapel would no doubt be of immense interest to the local community. His death has left a void which may never be filled.

Shortly before his own death, Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich said of Jem Murphy: "I regard Jem as the greatest living authority on the history of Creggan and I consider him to be one of Ireland's leading local historians."

Jem was the perfect encyclopaedia of the history and traditions of South Armagh, and especially the Parish of Creggan. As Jem is laid to rest in his beloved Creggan along side his more famous kinsman Seamus Mor MacMurphy poet and outlaw, I can only quote from his lament.

"Desires I'd name to my heart most dear
By Creggan's Church I'll sleep Death's silent - sleep
And through my dreams the singing river hear
And feel from earth the raindrops softly seep."

Go raibh solas na bhFlaitheas go deo air (That the light of Heaven may shine on him forever)

Michael McShane
20th October 1995

Other Tribute to Jem Murphy

Articles by Jem Murphy in Creggan Journal

No. 2: Carnally House
No. 4: Memories
No. 5: The Cardinal and Creggan
No. 6:The Restoration of Creggan Graveyard