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16 October 2014
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History from Headstones

As part of a series of special features on how community history of a can be read from gravestones, Marie McStay visits the Creggan graveyard near Crossmaglen.

Creggan Church & Graveyard, Co.Armagh

In December 2004, Marie McStay visited the Creggan graveyard near Crossmaglen. With her were; William Rouston of the Ulster Historical Foundation and 3 members of the Creggan Historical Society - Michael McShane, who also gives tours of the area, Mary Cumiskey, Chairperson and Kevin McMahon.

Earliest headstones date to 1685

Earliest headstones date to 1685


The Creggan graveyard is of particular interest to William Roulston.

"It is an extensive graveyard filled with notable characters of importance to the history of quite a large surrounding area. The historic associations with this place have made it well known throughout Ireland and far further afield." he says.

There has been a church on this site since Mediaeval times. The earliest headstone is dated 1685 but it is a certainty that people were being buried here centuries before that.

The Parish of Creggan [Chreagain] was once one of the largest in Northern Ireland, which today adds further to its historic importance. It now straddles the border.

Audio Clip 1: William Roulston - introduction to Creggan



Michael McShane tells how he has given many tours of this graveyard to visitors from as far away as Australia, New Zealand and New York. Many come to try to trace their roots.

"We have Princes, poets, priests, parsons and paupers buried here."

Around that time there was an exciting discovery that fuelled a lot of interest. The O'Neill family vault, which had been 'lost' for well over a hundred years was accidentally re-discovered. "The O'Neills came to this area in the 15th century although the graveyard goes back much further than that" says Michael. "When they arrived here in 1447 the first thing they did was to establish a burial place for their dead.

They took over the little church that was here and from it built their vault. They used it for the next two centuries. During the 1820s however the local minister, Reverend Atkinson, had the entrance to the vault sealed up and in the years to follow it became covered over and lost."

Audio Clip 2: Michael McShane - Losing the O'Neill vault



In the 1970s a group of local volunteers undertook a major clean-up of the graveyard and during that time a large stone was dislodged by a tractor wheel running over it. This left a large gaping hole in the ground.

"At first the people doing the work didn't realise what they'd found..." says Michael. "It was only after they'd studied the thing that they discovered that there was a cavity beneath them with about 70 skulls inside it." This was how the O'Neill vault was re-discovered.

Taking a closer look at the vault today, you will see a standing stone which bears the inscription "1480 O'Neill 1820".

On the way down into the vault, another stone has a hand inscribed on it. The hand was the symbol of the O'Neills. The red hand of Ulster.

O'Neill Stone, Creggan Graveyard

O'Neill stone

Audio Clip 3: Michael McShane - Finding the O'Neill vault


Among the many notable names on headstones here is that of the poet Art McCooey. As Michael explains, McCooey was rather fond of a 'tipple' and on numerous occasions, "when he'd had a few extra", as Michael puts it, he was known to spend the night sleeping in the O'Neill vault!

It was on such a night that he had a dream in the vault which, as the story goes, led to him writing the famous poem Urchill an Chreagain, often referred to afterwards as the National Anthem of South Ulster. In his dream, it is said, he was approached by a fairy maiden who asked him to go away with her to a far off land.

Audio Clip 4: Michael McShane - Art McCooey and 'Urchill an Chreagain'






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