In December 2004, Marie McStay visited
the Creggan graveyard near Crossmaglen. With her
Rouston of the
Ulster Historical Foundation and 3 members of the
Creggan Historical Society - Michael
of the area,
Mary Cumiskey, Chairperson and Kevin
Earliest headstones date to 1685
The Creggan graveyard
is of particular interest to William Roulston.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
Taking a closer look at the vault today, you
will see a standing stone which bears the inscription "1480
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.
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
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.