South Armagh was on my agenda for years, but because of political difficulties I waited for a good reason to visit this well-kept beauty secret.
The first Tommy Makem International Festival of Song was held from 3 to 10 June 2000 in the heart of the Ring of Gullion, a geological formation of hills and mountains circling Slieve Gullion.
Tí Chulainn Cultural Activity Centre at Mullach Bán was the base for our midweek visit. My only visual memory of south Armagh was of news footage of whirring military helicopters hovering over folded hills and lush greenery. Mullach Bán sits at the shallow end of the valley, thick with trees on undulating land swept by glaciers. Valleys are my favourite view in nature–so cosy, so tranquil, so protected by the shoulders of mountains above.
A million-year process of volcanic eruption followed by glaciers formed Slieve Gullion, which lies on the historical boundary between Ulster and Leinster.
In the sixties, I saw Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers several times in Milwaukee and Chicago. And for the first time I heard ‘The Rapparee’, ‘The Cobbler’, ‘Four Green Fields’, ‘The Holy Ground’, ‘The Bard of Armagh’, and many others. They were witty, charming, energetic and contagious. I couldn’t get enough! Performing on Wednesday with his three sons, the Makem Brothers–with Slieve Gullion in the background–convinced me that waiting for a special reason to visit south Armagh was indeed inspirational.
Each day of the festival provided a morning workshop and an afternoon guided bus tour, followed by evening entertainment. John Campbell, Len Graham, David Hammond, Peter Makem, Tommy Makem and Tommy Sands conducted the workshops on various aspects of melody, lyrics, culture, singing, rhythm and rhyme. Tours included Armagh town, Navan Fort, Slieve Gullion, Newry, the Mournes, Roche Castle and St Bridget’s Well at Faughart Hill.
The absence of mobile phones, endemic to Dublin citizenry, was a rare treat, evocative of a not-too-distant past when constant technological communication did not dominate and pollute invisible sound waves with waffle, blather and useless discourse.
During the first morning workshop, David Hammond’s lecture on Armagh poets was interrupted by the ear-splitting sound of overhead transport which I anticipated would deliver some tardy but wealthy participant–such as one sees at Leopardstown racetrack. Not quite. It was three enormous army helicopters in reconnaissance manoeuvres, disturbing the peace of Slieve Gullion on a June morning. The helicopters are still there–as are the huge grey steel fortresses of military occupation which blight the landscape. Their incongruity in this spectacularly beautiful part of Ireland cannot be overstated.
Wholly ignorant of the culture and history of south Armagh, I came away with at least a thimbleful of knowledge and a huge thirst for more. Of course the area has Ireland’s usual amenities of golf, fishing, cycling and horse-riding.
In the eighteenth century this triangle of land containing the Ring of Gullion was known as the District of Songs. All major Ulster poets hailed from south Armagh and worked over a period of sixty years within an eight-mile radius–an unequalled Irish record.
Jaded tourist spots south of the border could learn from the fresh approach to attracting tourists. In Armagh people chat, smile, make easy eye contact and seem genuinely pleased at your presence. Mary Kate and I went into O’Hanlon’s Pub, Mullach Bán, late one afternoon, where three locals, the owner and a child were the only occupants. We were welcomed without suspicion or indifference, much like Dublin pubs were thirty years ago.
At the single petrol pump outside a Spar shop, I stepped out of my car to ‘fill ¢er up’ when the manageress came out to insist on serving me. As I noticed she was dressed for some occasion, the nearby church bells chimed for a funeral and the village was strewn with cars. I thanked her for her assistance–in the task I had perfected in Dublin where petrol pump attendants are as scarce as number 3 buses– and she told me that ‘a young man’ (he was 54) from the village had died from asbestos poisoning, leaving a wife and three children.
Although the towns and villages still ring a litany of past violence–Forkill, Jonesborough, Bessbrook, Newry and Camlough town (home of hunger striker Raymond McCreesh)–it is now a new era for the sumptuously beautiful part of our island. Birthplace of the high kings of the O’Neills, who are buried at Creggan Graveyard, it was never planted because one of the O’Neills fought alongside the English, who concluded that the area was sufficiently loyal. It feels very like home to me and my nearby drumlin Monaghan roots.
Eamon Ó hUallacháin, a local history teacher and historian, guided us through landmarks of castles, wells of water and topography. His sister, an accomplished seannós singer, treated us to a song at each stop. She is taking early retirement from teaching music to write a book on south Armagh’s musical heritage.
Mary Kate felt it incumbent to mention certain views which Eamon had passed over–such as sheep, cows and farmers. Being a schoolteacher, he was used to such comments, and he took it in his stride. Mary Kate didn’t respond to my gentle nudges to desist, so I did, instead.
The Tommy Makem International Festival is working to help restore south Armagh to its rightful place among Irish beauty spots, full of mythology, geological history, ancient burial cairns and stone monuments concentrated within a small and accessible land mass.
Underdeveloped in tourist amenities, Armagh town has no hotels or restaurants, and gourmet Ireland has not arrived here, yet.
Do you remember:
‘Gather up the pots and the old tin cans,
The mash, the corn, the barley and the bran.
Run like the divil from the excise man,
Keep the smoke from rising, Barney’?
We had the distinct honour of visiting a poitín still near Tommy Makem’s home in Keady. The smoke does really rise! Where else would you find it!
Lest you think my opinion of south Armagh is a sentimental exaggeration, I will leave the final comment to the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, who said: ‘There is no area more beautiful than south Armagh. It would be a tragedy if it was not exploited to the full.’
I missed the Millennium, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
As Dublin people know, the city shut itself down for that evening, and the citizens were left to fend for themselves. Between the publicans and the taximen, New Year’s Eve resembled Good Friday. My son Tim and his beautiful wife Sinéad called in to us early in the afternoon and we lit the Millennium candle together to commemorate the day.
There is a reprieve for those of us who missed any sense of a millennium on 31-12-99–owing to the mathematical dilemma as to whether the twenty-first century begins on 1-1-2000 or 1-1-2001.
It has to be better than last year. We stayed home after attempts to find old friends failed in the afternoon, and all our favourite familiar watering holes were closed. Living in Ringsend, I began preparations for the dreaded fireworks display that was planned for midnight.
Since childhood, Mary Kate has had an inconsolable fear of thunder, Christmas crackers, balloons and, of course, fireworks. She was agreeable to my efforts to deaden the noise, and she sat in the kitchen (the display appeared through our sitting room window) doing her letters–or ‘homework’ as she prefers to call it–the radio blasting and cotton wool in her ears. Such was the power of the dynamite explosions that our plan had little or no effect.
My neighbours came out onto the road to chat and exchange greetings, and I nipped out too, briefly, one foot on the doorstep so Mary Kate could see I hadn’t strayed too far. But when I looked back inside, she had abandoned the kitchen and was sitting on the sofa, her right hand over her face, nearly doubled over with body-wrenching sobs.
It wasn’t at all what I had hoped the evening would be, but I found great consolation in the fact that on this significant date, I was in DUBLIN, in my little Ringsend cottage with Mary Kate, having been visited by Tim and Sinéad, and ALIVE.
I may try again next New Year’s Eve, but anything short of a sound-proof bunker won’t save Mary Kate’s suffering.
The written symbols for the twenty-first century have deteriorated to a double-digit number signifying nothing: 00- After all the hype of technocrats concerned with how their machines would cope with the year 2000, it has all boiled down to nothing–literally. I receive correspondence, formal and otherwise, with a date that has nothing but double zeros. If I had been one of the hundreds of thousands of new car buyers, I would be woefully disappointed to have a pair of duck eggs at the front and rear. It didn’t have to be 00–Millennium cars could have borne the Roman numeral MM, but I suppose bureaucratic officialdom could not have withstood such a divergence from mediocrity.
For all of you whose initials equate with the year 2000, may I wish you and yours a very happy Millennium.