Art Mac Cumhaigh


Monsignor Dr Reamonn O Muiri

 Cardinal Tomás Ó  Fiaich, son of the parish of Creggan, loved his native place and was extremely proud of all its historical associations especially the saints and poets of its surroundings.  Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta, Peadar Ó Doirnín and Art Mac Cumhaigh were among the great 18th century Oriel poets who sang its praises.  The Cardinal described Mac Cumhaigh as ‘the patriotic Ulsterman still looking back to the past and to the days of the Ó Néill régime’. The poet’s name to this day is associated with Creggan graveyard with its little church and Ó Néill vault.  Mac Cumhaigh immortalized it in his vision poem Úrchill an Chreagáin (‘Creggan Graveyard’). The Irish scholar Énrí Ó Muirgheasa described the poem as ‘The National Anthem of South Ulster’ and in our day any South Armagh person will get emotional when listening to Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin sing it majestically and plaintively.

      Art Mac Cumhaigh’s heart was in Creggan, Glasdromain and the Fews. He expressed his wish in his poetry that he would be buried in Creggan. And after all it was from Creggan that he wished to elope with his visionary beautiful lady, as he says in Úrchill an Creagáin. It is probable that the poet was born in Creggan parish around the year 1738 and was brought up on a small farm of a few acres. However, there are strong traditions of Mac Cumhaigh’s associations with Cill Comhairle (Kilkerley) and it would seem that he also lived for a period there.

      One could say that South Armagh down to the beginning of the seventeenth century was owned by two families, the O’Neills of the Fews in the South-West, with their headquarters at Glassdrummond and the O’Hanlons in the South-East with their castle at Tandragee.  The Plantation, the Rising of 1641, the dispersal of members of these noble families who joined the French and later the Spanish armies, resulted in the loss of their lands.  Mac Cumhaigh in several of his poems lamented the great exodus of the O’Neills of the Fews to Spain:

            ‘Chuaidh an iomad de Ghaelaibh, faraor, as Éirinn,

            Chun na Spáinne ag ardú a gcéime,

           Toirleach mac Aodh Buí, croí na féile,

           Feilimidh Óg, is Eoghan ’na dhiaidh sin’. 

 (‘Alas so many of the Gaels went to Spain and attained distinction there, Toirleach son of Aodh Buí, the heart of hospitality, Feilimidh Óg and then Eoghan’.)

It was a proud day for Creggan parish when Conchita O’Neill of Seville, Spain, descendant of the O’Neills of the Fews, unveiled the memorial over the O’Neill vault in Creggan graveyard on 29 April 1973. It reads:  1480  Ó Néill   1820.

      Art Mac Cumhaigh worked as a labourer. He lived near the Protestant minister and worked for him when he grew up and indeed he was married in the Protestant church.  He and Peadar Ó Doirnin, while praising the O’Neill and O’Hanlon members of the Franciscan order, were far from complimentary to the  secular priests and indeed Mac Cumhaigh’s dispute with the parish priest of Creggan, Fr Toireach Ó Coinne, led to the poet’s expulsion from the parish.  Fr Ó Coinne had a reputation of being fond of money.   His sister Máire kept house for him. The story goes that when Mac Cumhaigh once called to the house she kept him in the chimney corner, because she had important visitors, and gave him a drink of buttermilk. He composed a satire on her and referred to her as ‘Máire Chaoch’ (‘Blind Mary’) because her eyes were disfigured.  However, he came back to Creggaa after a year and asked forgiveness. The dispute had led to his marrying in the Protestant church in Creggan. Fr Labhrás Táth of the parish of Kilkerley  enticed him back from his exile in Binn Éadair and Fr Ó Luain (Fr Lamb) of Cullyhanna said later that Art and Máire Lamb were married again in the Catholic Church.

      Séamus Mac Giolla Choille in a poem informs us that Art Mac Cumhaigh died on 5 January 1773. Although there are theories of a later date, 1773 is probably correct.   Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich edited Mac Cumhaigh’s poems, twenty-five of them, for Éigse Oirialla in 1973. Some of them reveal political history, the sufferings caused by the imposition of the penal laws and the social life of the people of the district but he will be forever remembered for his patriotic poem Úirchill an Chreagain  The Aislingí or ‘Vision Poems’ were a particular genre of his time but, unlike the Munster poets, whose beautiful lady in the vision heralds the return of the Stuarts, Mac Cumhaigh’s hope lay in the return of the O’Neills. 

Monsignor Reamonn O Muiri, a native of neighbouring Lower Creggan Parish, retired Parist Priest of Cookstown, edits Seanchas Ard Mhacha, Journal of Cumann Seanchas Ard Mhacha (Armagh Diocesan Historical Society.  He is a distinguished historian, author, poet and human rights campaigner.