Creggan Poetry Trail
Lorraine O'Hare visits Creggan Graveyard
Nestled in the shadow of the Slieve Gullion mountains in South Armagh is a little piece of heaven.
South Armagh over the years has become infamous with Republicanism, army occupation and border hopping, yet the little village of Creggan, just outside Crossmaglen, remains a story in its own right.
The late Cardinal Tomas O’Fiach loved Creggan and was a great ambassador, promoting the area to the history hungry. His lasting quote is etched on the minds of those who share a love for Creggan churchyard and poetry trails. He said: ‘When you stand in Creggan graveyard you’re standing in one of the most places in south-east Ulster and perhaps the whole of County Armagh.'
The current Anglican church dates back to 1731 but there is evidence to suggest an earlier Catholic church preceded it. But what makes this graveyard a hit with the historians is the gravestones and crypts. This is the burial place of three 18th century Irish poets: Art MacCooey, Pádraig Mac Aliondain and Séamus Mór MacMurphy.
But better still is the burial place of the clan O’Neill. The O’Neills of Tyrone invaded South Armagh during the middle of the 15th century. The burial place was re-discovered in 1971 during a clean up of the cemetery for the proposed bi-centennial celebrations of Art MacCooey.
It is reputed the O’Neills arrived in Creggan in 1447 and the burial place currently contains approximately 70 skulls. Local historian Michael McShane said it was this discovery that fuelled his interest in history. A great believer in preserving local history and passing it on to generations, Mr McShane said: ‘This place was a wilderness in the 1960s and a group of men, led by another historian Jem Murphy, got together to restore it to some shape of its former glory.
A digger wheel caught the stone of the crypt, pulled it back and revealed the contents. This was a very exciting time and I remember it struck a cord with me and from then my interest in this area grew.
Through extensive reading Mr McShane appears to be somewhat of an authority on historical goings on in the area and also has a few theories of his own. Art MacCooey was a great supporter and friend of the O’Neills and he would often compose some of his poetry while sitting in the crypt with the bodies of his friends. As Mr McShane explains:
‘Art was a great man for the drink and I think the crypt is where he went to sober up. During one episode he had a dream and it was this dream that provided the influence for one of his most famous poems: Urchill an Chreagáin.’
There is another stone building in the churchyard and there are some theories on what exactly it is. It could be the burial house of the Eastwood family or a watch-house to guard against grave robbers. Mr McShane believes that it might actually be an early Christian church.
Regardless of the weather, a walk around Creggan graveyard is very peaceful and interesting.
There is also a wooded walk down by the river in the picturesque glen to the walled garden of the former rectory. Although the church itself caters for seven Anglican families in the area, the churchyard is the last resting place of several generations of people from the Creggan parish regardless of culture, creed or class.
Art MacCooey loved his native Creggan and so do the locals who take great pride in this little piece of charming history.
‘Should I die in some far-off country, in out wanderings east and west, in the fragrant clay of Creggan let my weary heart have rest.’
From Urchill an Chreagáin by Art MacCooey.