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16 October 2014
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Forkhill - Peadar O'Doirnin

The place-name 'Forkhill'

ML 1030

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This article is reproduced from an email sent to us by Rory S. Kieran

Unfortunately the place-name 'Forkhill' along with hundreds more has suffered greatly from the desire of some people to curtail such names almost to the point where the original name or part thereof has become redundant through disuse. In many instances the name resultant from such curtailment bears little or no relationship to the original name or to its meaning.

The correct Irish name of Forkhill is "FOIRCEAL na CLEIRE". Clearly the present-day English version derives from the FIRST PART ONLY of the original Irish. This is most unfortunate from two aspects. Firstly, the "FOIRCEAL" portion of the Irish name has always been the subject of debate as to its meaning, Secondly, the "na CLEIRE" portion has disappeared entirely but it is, historically, the more important portion of the two parts. "na CLEIRE" means.... "of the PRIESTS" or "of the CLERGY" and is a direct reference to the crucial historic fact that the FRANCISCAN PRIESTS founded a LOCUS REFUGII in this immediate area during PENAL TIMES.

The "FOIRCEAL" part of the placename is widely held to signify "COLD WOOD", but this is by no means the only posssible meaning. Another translation which has found some favour, admittedly nowhere near to the general acceptance of "COLD WOOD" is..... "SUB CELL" which would indeed serve to differentiate between the foundation near FORKHILL and the MOTHER HOUSE in DUNDALK, some six miles distant. Since the foundation of any locus refugii is, initially deemed by its founders to be of a temporary nature, lasting only until danger has passed, it may well be that the name given to this particular foundation was indeed "SUB CELL". Our best guess however is that the placename in its entirety ought to be translated into english as "THE COLD WOOD OF THE PRIESTS".

Having elaborated on the ecclesiastical origin of the place name of FORKHILL, it is now apt to define, geographically, the site of the Franciscan friary from which that placename derives. On the road from DUNGOOLEY CROSS to FORKHILL, a journey of approximately one mile, one passes on the left hand side Donnellys' Road which leads to Carrive and on the same side the Bog Road which loops around Forkhill village at some distance, to emerge at "Jacksons' Plantin".

Having passed these two landmarks one comes immediately to Stanleys' Hill, a fairly steep gradient which is in two distinct parts. A comparitively level stretch of roadway separates these two parts. On the left hand side of this level stretch of road and adjacent to it lies the land of Bernard O'Hanlon R.I.P. of Dungooley. Just inside the gate to that field and slightly to one's left is the site of the Franciscan Friary. This land is situated in the townland of SHEAN.

It is only a few hundred yards distant from the centre of FORKHILL village. The site was pointed out to me more than half a century ago by a local man who was then very old. Many years later I read an article in "Co. Louth Archaeological and Historical Journal" which supported, exactly, that which the old man had told to me. Other placenames in the immediate area bear adequate testimony to the existence in penal times, of this religious foundation.

BAILE na mBRATHAR, (the townland of the Brothers) lies between the mouth of Donnellys'Road and Dungooley Cross. URNEY, the ruins of a Church together with its graveyard is only a few hundred yards distant from the Franciscan Friary in the townland of Dungooley. The word "URNEY" means PRAYER but the late CANON McKEEVER of FAUGHART parish, a highly respected historian pointed out that, latterly the word could be taken to mean, not only prayer but the place in which such devotion was carried out. Urney is a most peaceful place and well worth a visit by any person who has even the slightest interest in the past.

There are "mass rocks" in very many parts of Ireland but one in the immediate area of the Franciscan Friary at Shean is worthy of note because of its size. It is a huge whin-covered tumulus and it lies in the field on the FORKHILL side of the mouth of Donnellys' road. Many years ago there was a popular belief that this rock and URNEY had, at some time in the past been connected with the Friary via underground passages. This may have been a confusion between passages or walkways and much more common "souterrains".

At one time Urney bore the name of the Patron Saint of Ireland, St Patrick. In fact, popular opinion ascribes the building of the original church on the site to the Saint himself but I think that it is much more likely that St. Patrick was, to use the phrase so common at this time "flat out" converting and ministering to his rapidly increasing flock.

It is impossible to write about the history of a particular area without regard to its connections with other adjacent areas and indeed areas which may well be at some considerable remove. My comments re. FORKHILL (above), and ,of course SHEAN, and placenames mentioned therein have connctions with people, places, and eras long gone as well as the obvious connection with the IRISH language. A little insight to such connections is afforded to the reader by a glance at the works of ART BENNETT.

ART was a renowned scribe and historian. He also wrote quite a considerable amount of poetry but his prowess in this field has been debated. I am certainly not about to judge him in this matter. Nobody ever questioned his status in the first two fields. He lived in BALLYKEEL, a townland some three Irish miles from FORKHILL village. His works are written most often in the Irish language but there are some English writings. It mst be borne in mind that Irish was the first and in the majority of cases the only language of the population during Art's lifetime (1793--1879).

The reason why I mention him here is that in one of his poems written in Irish "IMBRUAGADH NA gCEARRBHACH" ( THE ROUT OF THE CARDPLAYERS) he mentions many local placenames, including "Baile na mBrathar" and "Foirceal na Cleire" (sic). There is no further need to debate the original form of the Irish name FORKHILL.

It is a most salutory lesson to those of us who are, at the present time, given to bemoaning our lot in this vale of tears to read just a small amount about Art's life and times including those woeful famine years.

Those among you who come to visit south Armagh in general, and the Forkhill district in particular will surely have time for a visit to BALLYKEEL where locals will be able to indicate to you the site of Art's dwelling. Make certain, when you are there, to visit the attractive tripod dolmen in that townland and also ask about "Doctors Quarters" another most historic place only a few hundred yards from Ballykeel. Soon we will mention one of the most famous persons from Forkhill, the renowned poet Peadar O'Doirnin.

Art Bennett was most unfortunate, not only with regard to the harsh physical and economic climate into which he was born and which prevailed throughout his lifetime. He was unfortunate also with regard to the fact that he was born during or after the decline and fall of the great school of S.E. Ulster poets. As I mentioned previously, Art's prowess in the field of poetry has been the subject of much debate. One of the causes for this was, undoubtedly the fact that he was constantly being compared with the acknowledged great poets of a previous generation eg. O'Doirnin, McCooey,McAlinden etc. There is no evidence that Art ever set himself up as an equal or indeed a rival to these all-time greats, but as we all know, people will compare and contrast. All we can say is that Art Bennett surely had a difficult if not an impossible act to follow.

He was however, the last tenuous link in a hitherto unbroken chain of poetry extending from his time right back several centuries through the great bardic traditions. Art makes many references in his writings to Peadar O'Doirnin, who is popularly esteemed as the sweetest of all the S.E. Poets. Before we examine that which is known about this man, let me counsel extreme caution in the matter of grasping wildly at dates etc. and deeming them to be proven historic facts. The reason for such caution arises from the huge amount of unsubstantiated facts which has in the past, and will no doubt in the future be churned out as documented history.

Firstly the place of his birth has never been established beyond doubt. Places as far away as CASHEL in Co. Tipperary and as close to hand as ROSKEAGH in Co. Louth have been mentioned. You may take your choice. Since his birth-place has not been geographically defined, there is no definite proof of the date of his birth. In this matter also we may only use various recorded facts to make deductions. Worry not my friends. I shall now short circuit the entire deduction system for you. Please accept them as best guesses unless otherwise stated.

O'DOIRNIN was born at a location unascertained in or about the year 1684. His parents had considered educating him for the Priesthood but they never did this because of the harsh penal laws which were in force,particularly against the catholic clergy at that time. He did receive a wide education during his perigrinations and came for some time to reside with Arthur Brownlow near Lurgan as a tutor. After a difference of opinion with that household he left the area. He took unto himself a wife and spent his honeymoon around Ballymoyer. Subsequently he moved to FORKHILL where he set up a "hedge school" in opposition to one already established under the tutelage of Maurice Gorman. Such was the popular appeal of the new school that eventually O'Gorman was forced out of business. I bet you thought that "falling rolls" was a present-day phenomenon!

O'DOIRNIN in common with many other poets was, to say the least, very fond of strong drink and weak(willed) women, and not in that particular order. His idea of heaven was a full glass in his hand and a comely girl on his knee. He continued writing his poetry and teaching school for many years. He was a close friend of BIG JEM MURPHY . (more of this relationship anon) Onde day he permitted his scholars to go out to play while he was having a little nap. Eventually the pupils noticed that they had been out longer than normal and they returned to find the master , as they thought, asleep in his chair. The Illustrious PEADAR O'DOIRNIN had died.

Another renowned poet from the area, ART McCOOEY wrote O'Doirnin's gravelay which enables us to pinpoint the date of his death as APRIL 5th 1769.

O'Doirnin was taken from his school in BAILE na MBRATHAR ( translated in one account as FRIARSTOWN) to be buried in URNEY. I have already mentioned these two places, and not by accident. There are many poems attributed to O'Doirnin but, almost unbelievably, some poems which he did write have been attributed to other poets, while some which he most certainly did not write have been attributed to him. He did write some poems which were, to say the least, only suitable for very broad-minded adults. To the very best of my knowledge, none of his works are in English and I have never seen any substantial number of his poems in a collected English translation.

The poem for which he will be forever remembered is entitled " Urchnoc Chein Mhic Cainte". A haunting air was put to this equally haunting love poem by P. O'Dubhda of *Myers' Cross.
O'Doirnin was also connected with JOHNSON OF THE FEWS in a rather dangerous way.

*Mayer's Cross - is marked on modern maps as Hackballs cross. On the main road from castleblaney to dundalk. Peadar o'dubhda , throughout his lifetime refused to use this 'british name' as the place where he was reared preferring instead to use the local name.


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Your Responses

Ronnie Martin - June '08
I have visiting Warrenpoint for over 40years and have been researching my Family history for the past 12 yrs, And recently came accross the Marriage of my Great Grand Parents & and birth Grand Father in Shean. I have since visted the place called I also visted Saint Mary's R.C.C. where the Priest allowed me to see the record books - to which I am truly grateful, I return to Shean whenever I visit Ireland.

Incedently their name was Murphy (Thomas) married to Mary Quin 1864

Sinead- Jan '07
The name of the club is Peadar O Doirnin C.L.G. This was a most interesting and informative article.

Fred Gannon - Nov '06
Interesting article. A part of my family (O'Neill) comes from Forkhill, as I discovered a few months ago. This short reply to mention Kyla Madden 's recent book, "Forkhill protestants and Forkhill Catholics, 1787-1858".

Sean Cunningham - Nov '06
As I lived in Forkhill for 20 years I found the artical very informative and interesting. Are there any photos of the areas mentioned in the article?

Gary Shean - Sep '06
Fascinating story - what can you tell me about Shean?


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