Jarlath Burns: son of Creggan

There’s not too much to Creggan.  About fifty houses, a small shop, an old church and a graveyard.  But it’s the last of these that guarantees it its place in the pantheon of Irish cultural history since resting there are some of the finest poets of the later stages of the Bardic period. Not only that, but the O’Neill vault is one of those places you need to visit before you die, though you’d have a better chance nowadays of getting an audience with the Pope than getting down there to view its contents.  A small underground room containing the mortal remains of the nobles of the great O’Neill clan who once ruled south Armagh from their castle in Glassdrumman.  It’s an eerie, cold but fascinating place and five minutes is enough for anyone in there amongst the bones and skulls and darkness. But it was here that one of the most famous poems in the Irish language was written by a half inebriated, destitute clip of a poet whose memory is possibly the literary equivalent of Van Goch; a flawed, slightly mad genius ahead of his era and too good for those who were judging him at the time.  

As children born and reared in the village of Creggan, we lamented the fact that it was never on a map, or on a signpost or known to anyone outside of south Armagh.  But while we had this poem, we had our little place in history.  And we loved Art McCooey.  His headstone in Creggan graveyard was revered even though most of us didn’t really know who he was or what he had done.  Those of us who attended Cullyhanna school very soon became aware of his work however, and his immense contribution to the bardic poetry tradition in Ireland.  Our headmaster was Hugh Macauley, a lover of the Irish language and close friend of Cardinal O Fiaich, he imbued us with an appreciation of language and in particular the Irish saints who helped spread the word of Christianity throughout Europe.  But Uirchill a Chreagain was his favourite and we learnt it off by heart for him.  Our big moment came at the triumphant homecoming for the newly appointed Cardinal Tom and we were to sing the song onstage in Cullyhanna Community Centre as he arrived, but in typical Irish style, a grand entrance which was to occur at 8pm still hadn’t been made by half ten such was the welcome the new Cardinal received in his tour of south Armagh and the primary sevens were sent home, tired, bewildered and a little disappointed.  But knowing the poem and being able to sing it hasn’t been wasted on me as I have regaled many a grouping in the thirty years since that night with my sub standard version of a song which is considered the national anthem of Ulster.  I just wish someone would take it off youtube!

But what is this poem and why is it so significant?

Before the Flight of Earls, Irish noblemen had in their employment, Bards or Filí; men who were highly educated in the art of perfectly constructed poetry and were willing to use their talent to praise and eulogize their master in return for a wage which made them wealthy and respected men themselves.  However, with the onset of the Ulster Plantation and the disappearance of the Irish nobility, the bardic way of life became a victim of the new politics and very soon the poets and their literary works had died out.  Those who remained lamented the repressive nature of the new system and the best of these were Aogán Ó Raghaille, Peadar Ó Doirnín, Pádraig Mac Giolla Fhiondain and Art McCooey.  The last two of these are resting in Creggan and the greatest poem of the era was written there.  

In the poem, McCooey begins by describing a restless night spent in the graveyard of Creggan.  Suddenly, Ireland appears to him in the form of a vision or Aisling and begins to reassure him.   The description of Ireland as a beautiful maiden is a common poetical device of the time and took on such names as Fodla, Banba or Cáit Ní Ullacháin.  McCooey’s maiden doesn’t have a name, but her message and description is the same. Beautiful, with long flowing hair and cheeks as gold as the sun.  Even speaking to her was a tonic or iocshláinte . The maiden offers him the chance to go with her to a place called tír dheas na meala or land of honey where the rod of the oppressor has not yet fallen and where his craft of poetry would still be appreciated and loved.  McCooey is confused and begins to question the maiden, asking her ‘An tú Helen fár tréigeadh slóigh, or perhaps one of the nine women of Parnassus, a place often mentioned by poets as a literary utopia.  

And in the next verse the maiden replies, stating that she does not even reside on this side of the Boyne; her kingdom is not of this earth.  Her education and movements are far from the oppression which Ireland is suffering at the moment from the Plantation of Ulster.  At night time she could be in Tara and in the morning in the middle of Tyrone. Eventually the maiden complains of her harsh subjugation and humiliation at the hands of the English usurpers while the poet desires a return to power of the native O'Neill dynasty and the reinstallation of the young lady to her

rightful place and the restoration to power of the native aristocracy of the Stuarts to the throne of England by means of  foreign help from Spain or France.

The final verse has the poem imploring the maiden that wherever they go together that regardless of where he dies, By the Shannon, the Isle of Man, in Egypt old, that he will be laid under in Cregan, its sweet soil above”. 

I couldn’t have put it any better myself! 

Jarlath Burns scarcely needs introduced…Vice-Principal of St. Paul’s, Bessbrook, he is also a renowned broadcaster and will always be remembered as Captain of Armagh’s famine ending team in Clones, 1999.  His profile as a national figure in the G.A.A. is a matter of pride to Silverbridge GFC and many Co. Armagh Gaels