Of The Fews
This article is reproduced from an email sent
to us by Rory S. Kieran
John Johnston of the Fews, a noted Tory hunter, by
his actions gave origin to the couplet
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews save us from Johnston
King of the Fews.
This prayer was on the lips of the people of South Armagh,
and much further afield and not without valid reason.
John Johnston was sworn in as constable of the Fews
in 1710. At that time the area known as the Fews was
a seemingly lawless place into which travellers ventured
at their peril. Johnston's task was suppressing tories
and robbers between Dundalk and Armagh. There are 20
miles of mountain road and no security for travellers
but what Johnston affords them. There is no doubt but
that Johnston was most diligent in carrying out his
In 1716 he was paid £20 for killing two men and
displaying their heads on pikes on the gates of Dundalk
jail. That was huge money at that time. It would appear
that like many more since that time money was the driving
force and justice came a bad second to money.
Despite his diligence and his voracious appetite for
his work, the fews was still cited as "bandit Country"
in 1750. I bet you thought that this title was dreamed
up a few years ago! Here is a little snapshot of the
predicament of a would-be travelerr in those times.
"When love of gain stimulated any man to so desperate
a venture, he first made his will, and piously commended
his soul to God. Then, having collected his friends
around him, he proceeded under their protection, on
horseback, through Armaghbrague and Blackbank... lest
the merciless tories be upon him. In this state of trepidation,
he proceeded, until he arrived at the residence of Johnston
of the Fews, who was the terror of robbers and the safeguard
of travellers." The "desperate venture"
was a journey through the Fews.
If I had known all these facts I wouldn't have gone
to Armagh last night! There are many acres of articles
written about John Johnston of Annadale (Roxborough
Scotland) and his various and many forays into the counties
adjacent to Co. Armagh and throughout this County itself.
Tales of how he had a "heading stone" where
his victims were executed and the services of at least
one full time professional decapitator.
Many local people would say to this day, that so great
was Johnston's hatred of "tories" and catholics
in general that he stipulated that he be buried face
down in Creggan Church-yard so that the natives might
kiss his ****. I don't think this likely as I can recall
at least one "native" whom he pursued, and
he had certainly did not have head-hunting in mind.
His last will and testament bear testimony to the fact
that he had, what presently would be referred to as
an affair. That's enough of That kind of talk!
It is not difficult to see how an outlaw would fall
foul of John Johnston, but a Poet of the standing of
Peadar O'Doirnin. "Never" I hear you cry!
It did happen to both a highway-man and a poet.