Calmor's Rock

Hugh A Murphy shares his gruesome discoveries about the Lislea landmark

Calmor’s Rock is situated opposite Topny Mountain, at the north entrance to the western valley of the Ring of Gullion. I was born just a short distance down the road and my friends and I spent many hours around the rock as children.

With its high secluding hedge and adjoining copse of trees it provided numerous nooks and crannies which were ideal for many different children’s games, especially tig and hide-and-seek.

In addition to this, there was a small cave at the top of the rock which was always a source of temptation. The climb up the face was not only arduous but also quite dangerous,  as the only grips you had were the tufts of grass sticking out from the ledges.

The climb, however, was always worth it. When you reached the cave you felt on top of the world. Although not very big, it was surprisingly larger than it appeared from the road below. There was sufficient room for two people to move back into it out of sight.

Further progress was prevented by two large stones, the points of which were sunk down into the cave floor. They had all the appearance of having fallen down at some period in the past blocking off what would appear to have been a much bigger cave.

To us, who had been taught absolutely nothing at school about our own environment, or our history, this, like many other landmarks in the Ring of Gullion, was just an ordinary place, a rock around which we could play our childhood games. It was many years before I learned the truth about the rock.

In the early 1960’s I was engaged in a thesis, which was part of a post-graduate course at Queen’s University. I was doing my research in the Stack, the reference section of Queen’s University library. The 'Stack' was a very appropriate name for this area, since that is exactly what it was, a voluminous pile of books stacked up in layers from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. A narrow iron staircase led up from one level to the next. On each level there were facilities for reading and taking notes.

The Stack was a place where time stood still. Hours would fly by virtually unnoticed. On all sides you were surrounded by books, as far as you could see, many of them very old. This gave the whole place an ambience of both learning and antiquity.

The biggest problem always was to stick to the subject in hand. Each book you pulled out, although perhaps not relevant to your topic, would have something in it which would catch your eye and force you to sit down and read it. As regards the thesis that I was supposed to be researching, many an evening was wasted in this way.

On one such occasion I pulled out a book dealing with historic events in the seventeenth century and opened it at random. My eye was immediately caught by a story which both surprised and fascinated me.

Before me was an account of a notorious raparee of the latter half of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century. It said he was born in the town land of Dorsey, which was only a few miles up the road from where I was born, and that he headed a band of bloodthirsty villains who spread terror in both planters and natives alike.

Before anyone was allowed into his band he had to supply proof that he had killed at least one man. The account went on to say that his name was Cathal Mór Ó Carrachóir and that he had many hideouts in South Armagh but that the one he frequented most was in a small town land called Lislea, beside a rock which still bore his name!

This was the first time that I had ever seen Lislea mentioned in a book, especially an important historical reference book in a place of high learning. Until then I had always imagined that history had passed Lislea by. The reference to 'the rock which still bore his name' began to race through my mind - Cathal Mór? - Cal Mór - Calmor’s Rock!

My amazement was indeed great. The simple rock around which I had played as a child! It was now completely transformed in my mind. Although Cathal Mór may not have had the historical pedigree that one would have wished, at least he had a history, and a place worthy of mention in the annals of the past.

To someone who had succeeded in being educated, down all the pathways of supposed high learning, with a complete ignorance of his own history this was very significant indeed. This was my road to Damascus.

From here on,  this rock would stand as a symbol to me. The cave in its forehead was like a door leading into another world, a world of which I had been completely ignorant. I was destined to be drawn through this door and into this world, a world of legends, romance, poetry, song, a world of history, mythology and larger-than-life figures, of heroic deeds, brigands, saints, and timeless scholars, --- the colourful polyglot that forms the unique cultural landscape of the Ring of Gullion.

The life story of Cathal Mór was quite indicative of his era. He was a first generation descendant of the landed gentry whose father had lost all his possessions in the Cromwellian confiscations. This quite clearly embittered Cathal to such an extent that he turned his family’s long military tradition into a campaign of havoc and vengeance, wrecking both indiscriminately.

He followed the lifestyle which he felt was due to him from birth, always dressing in the finest clothes, topped off with a long flowing wig, a dandy in fact.

Although raparee-hunting was quite a major business at the time, the head of each raparee fetching five pounds, a considerable amount of money then, Cathal Mór avoided all attempts at capture. He was more than a match for these relatively amateurish pursuers.

It wasn’t until the arrival of John Johnston, or 'Johnston of the Fews' as he was known, that he was put under any great pressure. The term “Fews” comes from the Irish word  “feadha” meaning trees, and refers essentially to the territory covered by the extensive wood of Dunreavey, which at one time stretched from Crossmaglen down to the outskirts of Newry.

Johnston, a lessee landlord, was appointed Constable of the Fews in 1710, with the particular brief of ridding the area of Raparees, or Tories as they were then called.

History has not been kind to Johnston. He comes down almost as a dark shadow hanging over the Fews. Both guilty and innocent were subject equally to his wrath. The poets especially came in for particular attention.

Being the only educated people of the peasant class, whose poetry acted as a mouthpiece for their grievances, they  were constantly under suspicion of sedition and were very often forced to go on the run. This applied especially to Art McCooey, Peadar Ó Doirnín, and the legendary poet-cum-raparee Séamas Mór Mc Murphy.

Indeed, it was while hiding out from Johnston in Creggan graveyard that McCooey wrote his most famous poem, ÚrChill a’ Chreagáin (The Beautiful Churchyard of Creggan), which was destined to become the most popular song of the area for over a hundred and fifty years, almost the National Anthem of South East Ulster.

As the law stood at the time anyone apprehended by a Government agent whom they suspected of being a raparee could be legally beheaded, without any further proof being required. Johnston’s chief lieutenant was a man called Keenan who seems to have taken a particular delight in applying this law rigorously.

As a result he earned for himself the nickname 'Caonán na gCeann', or 'Keenan of the Heads'. It is estimated that he personally beheaded approximately 110 people in the Fews area during Johnston’s reign.

In the year 1714 Cathal Mór appears on Johnston’s list of wanted men, with a reward of twenty pounds on his head. Despite the reward, and despite Johnston’s best efforts over the next three years, he failed to capture Cathal Mór.  Cathal’s activities, if anything, increased during those years until he eventually acquired the status of public enemy number one. In the year 1717 he headed Johnston’s list and the reward on him was raised to one hundred pounds, an enormous figure in those days.

In the end Johnston never managed to capture Cathal Mór. The distinction of that was to go to another man. In the latter half of the year 1717 a certain Captain Mervyn Pratt was specially commissioned as Officer-in-Charge of all the Crown militia in the Fews for the purpose of tracking down the most notorious of the raparees, especially Cathal Mór.

Cathal was finally cornered in a house on the Dundalk to Newtownhamilton road, not far from Ballsmill, after carrying out another robbery. The house was surrounded and he was apprehended, together with three of his henchmen and his nephew, who was only eighteen years of age. He was put on trial in Dundalk on 17th February 1718 and was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.

This sentence was carried out in Dundalk the following day. Cathal Mór made an eloquent, and surprisingly contrite, speech from the gallows, begging forgiveness from all those whom he had injured or in any way wronged and imploring God to forgive him his dark deeds as he entrusted his soul into his keeping.

Three days later his nephew, Patrick Carragher, whose first outing this had been, together with the other three men, met the same fate. As was the tradition of the time,  the four quarters of Cathal Mór’s body were each placed at the scenes of his worst atrocities.

His head was spiked at Dundalk Gaol, being placed higher than the rest, and still sporting his flowing wig, as a clear warning that even the mightiest would fall.

When the authorities later learned of the existence of the hideout most frequented by him in Lislea, Cathal Mór’s head was removed from Dundalk and transferred there where it was placed above the rock which still bears his name, a clear deterrent to others in the area who might be inclined to follow his example.

The Rock

The old road
From Dealga Fort to Eamhain Macha
Floats gracefully bedecked in modern
Splendour, almost concealing
Her promiscuous past
Until a wanton gesture, sensuous
Flash of thigh, betrays her origin.

Here where her nipple shows
With sudden twist of corner
Calmor lay. No tar McAdamed frieze,
No gruaibhin frills conceals his
Austere presence, his roar still audible
In the dried throat of jagged stone

And sturdy ash standing sentinel
To his wrath. The eye welcomes
The sudden slit of his staring cave
Set like a jewel in the rock’s forehead
Breaking the monotony of refinement,

Hung in a raucous frame
Between the past and now,
Reflecting in its darkening rays
His days, his deeds -- and his splendour!