A sense of place

There are 137 families called Murphy in the BT35 postcode phonebook. Here in South Armagh we have no connection to  the great tribes of Ó Murchú in Munster or MacMurchú in Wexford. We are the MacMurchaidh: in the Oriel dialect of Irish that is pronounced MacMurphy, as indeed it was spelt in English locally until around the time of the Famine


There is a broad valley in South Armagh, running a couple of miles north-south from Slieve Gullion to the Gap of the North, a bit more east-west from Jonesborough to Forkill. It is divided by a series of low north-south ridges with pockets of bog between, ringed by hills that we liked to call mountains. We rhymed off their names for the music that is in them:  Gullion and Camlough/Ballymacdermot  to the north, Shanroe and Croslieve to the west, Tiffcrum and Daikilmore to the south-west, Faughil and Feede and the mighty ridge of Black Mountain to the east. Due south are the two low, gently rounded hills that  flank the Gap of the North. The higher of the two, Slievenabolea, is known locally as The Hip for reasons that are obvious from the north-east. An incident up there early on in the Troubles gave rise to a lot of quite clever quips about shooting from the Hip.

There is just one tiny gap in the ring, to the south-east where there is a glimpse of the blue of Dundalk Bay. To me as a child, what I could see inside the ring had to be Ireland. Outside the ring was a place called the Seaside where we went sometimes, lots of children packed into a Ford 100E, and another place called England where we had cousins and where other people’s daddies went to work at the building and the roads.

My academic career began in the summer of 1954 when I trotted along behind my big sisters to Dromintee Primary School. It was a fine granite building with a plaque on the front that said it was built in 1905: fifty years later it still had no electricity or running water and there were deep lime-filled dry toilets in the yard which absolutely terrified us. Original fixtures and fittings were all still in place: long oak benches and desks with inkwells and a large map of Ireland on the wall with no border on it. When I was older I got slapped for writing ‘Laois’ where it said Queen’s County.

It was a bit over a mile to the school and we tended to meet the same people along the road. There was Stephen Corney, often riding a bike and leading a big shire horse on a rope. Jemmy Ned owned the odd triangular field on the hill with the fairy thorn that everyone was afraid of. Johnny Buck, retired schoolmaster, strode rather than walked, brandishing a shiny blackthorn. Owney Thomas was a bit of a comedian: “Hurry up, they’re giving out apple tarts the size of cartwheels up at the school.” Paddy Nicholas kept the rambling shop by the chapel where we bought penny chews. There on his bike coming from Mass was Dinny Oiney, who collected the money on Sundays with a little box on a long pole – such power.

I was quite a few years older when I made the startling discovery that we knew all these people by their nicknames. It happened at Mass when the parish priest was doing the Reading of the Dues (we thought he was reading the Jews). This was a litany of the money paid quarterly to the parish by each household. The priest read out the proper names but we could hear an elderly parishioner at his shoulder whispering the nicknames so he could figure out who had paid how much.

The problem was that so many people had the same surname. I suddenly realised that all those men we met on the road every day shared something with each other, and with me. We were all called Murphy. According to the phone book there are 137 families called Murphy in the BT35 postcode which is fairly contiguous with South Armagh, but this does not begin to account for the ubiquity of the surname. There are back roads around Mullaghbawn and Silverbridge where two, three or in one case four houses in a row are occupied by Murphys. As they say, you could hardly throw a stone over a ditch without hitting one of them.

Later on I got to know  about other Murphys on other roads: the Paddy Aysthers, the Parramores, the Nellies, the John the Boys, the Mickey Sarahs, the other Nellies and our relations the Whoppers over in Silberbridge

Slieve Gullion

Those so-called nicknames were really patronymics, tracing the descendants of a single ancestor or relative. Stephen Corney was my father’s uncle so I am also a Corney Murphy. The original Cornelius, my great-great-grandfather. Corney the First was born in 1806 and died in 1896, and we can credit him with taking the family into the livestock export business, herding goats for sale in the tenement slums of England and Scotland. Somewhere on the long road home, some of our ancestors bought things in one place and sold them in another: we had moved into pahveeing.

Murphy is acknowledged as the most common surname in Ireland, but the name in English is a conflation of several totally separate names in Irish. Here in South Armagh we have no connection to  the great tribes of Ó Murchú in Munster or MacMurchú in Wexford. We are the MacMurchaidh: due to the vagaries of the Oriel dialect of Irish that is pronounced MacMurphy, as indeed it was spelt in English locally until around the time of the Famine.

When I went to secondary school in Newry a well-intentioned Christian Brother told me my name in Irish was Ó Murchú. No, said my father, we are MacMurphys and the banshee cries for us, sure didn’t I hear her myself.

We originated in south Tyrone, on the fertile north bank of the river Blackwater. The clan was known as Muintir Birn (sometimes spelt Muinntir Beirn) , which gave the name to the tiny Plantation hamlet of Minterburn between Caledon and Dungannon. Less formally, they were called Na Beirnigh. According to the 13th-century document ‘Ceart Uí Néill’, na Beirnigh along with the McCauls and Devlins were ‘fiorceithearnaigh’, core troops of the O’Neill fighting force. Loyalty had a limited shelf life, it seems: a century later the MacMurchaidh had been driven out of Tyrone by the same O’Neills and taken refuge in the hills and bogs of South Armagh. They settled in the Fews, the south-western quarter of South Armagh bounded by the Fane River to the west and the Cully Water to the east.

” South Armagh was in the hands of the more powerful O Rogan (O Ruadhagáin) rulers of Uí Eachach.  In south Armagh the MacMurphy (MacMurchadha) chiefs of Muinntear Birn in Tir Eoghain had temporarily usurped the O Rogans’ kingship of Vi Eachach as early as 1172.” (Annals of Four Masters, in Simms Katherine). Around 1173 two MacMurphy chiefs of southern Armagh met their deaths, one at the hands of Magennis of the Co. Down rn Armagh met their deaths, one at the hands of Magennis of the Co. Down area, the other in a treacherous assault by MacMahon (Co. Monaghan).

Fr Lorcan Ó Muirí, parish priest of Creggan, wrote in “A South Armagh Outlaw” in 1940:

“The MacMurphys were the earliest chiefs of the Fews of whom we have mention. As a clan, they were more commonly known as the Beirnigh from an ancestor named Beirn, who was son to Fearghal, monarch of Ireland (d. A.D. 718), and brother to another monarch, Niall Frasach (d. a.d. 765). As Niall Frasach was ancestor to the O Neills, the MacMurphys and O Neills were of the same stock. An Beirneach was therefore the Armagh Gaelic equivalent for Mr. Murphy just as An Dalach signified Mr. O Donnell, An tUltach Mr. Donleavy, etc. This explains also why the original territory of the MacMurphys in Co. Tyrone was called Muinntir Beirnn. The first reference in the Annals that we could find to the name MacMurphy in Muinntir-Beirn was at the year 1172 : ‘Maolmuire MacMurphy, chief of Muinntir Beirn, was killed by Hugh MacGennis and by the Clan Aodha from Iveagh.’ Towards the end of the 13th century, the MacMurphys seem to have been ousted from Co. Tyrone by the growing power of the O Neills. Moving to Armagh, they established a supremacy in the Fews, then chiefly inhabited by Garveys, Hanrattys and O Callaghans.”

But there was no escaping O’Neill power: soon a branch of the Tyrone clan were again overlords of the MacMurchaidh. They became known as O’Neills of the Fews, the area between the Fane River and the Cully Water, and in the early 1400s they built a small castle on a rocky promontory by Glasdrumman Lake. Fews is an English rendering of feadha, meaning a forest or wooded area.

The townland of Carnally, north of the border along the A29 road from Dundalk to Armagh, could be called Murphy Ground Zero. This was the centre of the land granted to the MacMurchaidh in return for military service. It was poor compensation for the fertile fields of Minterburn: there are pockets of arable land at the north end, but as in much of South Armagh the soil is thin and acidic and requires constant liming. Most of the townland is made up of stunted drumlins separated by pockets of bog, thorn scrub and whins, with an occasional rocky outcrop. Some of those outcrops are limestone, so the townland is pockmarked by old gravel pits and a great modern quarry at its southern end. In the 14th century Carnally was on the edge of the great forest of Dunreavy which stretched beyond Slieve Gullion towards Omeath.

For the next 200 years the MacMurchaidh, na Beirnigh of Dunreavy Wood, were a sort of Praetorian Guard for the O’Neills of the Fews, first into battle and last out. War was fairly constant, with the McMahons of Farney to the west or the O’Hanlons of Orior to the east, and above all with the English lords of the Pale which lay on their southern boundary. From Glasdrumman they could almost see the great castle of Roche, raised by the Norman Verdon family in the early 13th century. The Verdons had claimed South Armagh under a grant from King John, but were never able to enforce their claim. Their descendants were always on the lookout for a new landgrab.

The O’Neills of the Fews gradually separated from their Tyrone cousins, to the extent that they managed to keep in with both sides in the Nine Years War at the end of the 16th century when Hugh O’Neill battled against the forces of Elizabethan England. They were the original cute hoors: by one count they changed sides nine times. However, they still had to seek a royal pardon in 1602 and submit a list of all their free clansmen and supporters. Out of 270 names listed, there are only 20 O’Neills, but no less than 35 MacMurphys, by far the largest group.

Art McMurchie McOne husbandman
Redmon McMurchie husbandman
Kilty McMurchie husbandman
One buy mor McMurchie husbandman
Phelim duff McMurchie husbandman
Donchie McMurchie McCarberagh husbandman
Patrick McMurchie husbandman
Manus McMurchie yeoman
One beddie McMurchie horseman
Torilagh McMurchie husbandman
Brian McMurchie horseman
Art McMurchie husbandman
Donogh McMurchie husbandman
Donill McMurchie McPatr. yeoman
Donill McMurchie McEdm. yeoman
Donchie McMurphie McOne husbandman
Patr. bane McMurchie yeoman
Patr. McMurchie yeoman
Donchie duff McMurchie yeoman
Patr. McNeale McMany McMurchie husbandman
Many McNele McMurchie yeoman
Phelim McNele McMurchie yeoman
One McMurchie McJames yeoman
Patr. McCormach McMurchie yeoman
Cormack McMurchie yeoman
Donchie oge McDonchie McMurchie husbandman
Donchie duff McMurchie tenant
Patr. Gromy McMurchie tenant
Shane Gromy McMurchie tenant
Coolie McGlassy McMurchie tenant
Edmund McMurchie tenant
Patrick McMurchie tenant
Donill McMurchie tenant

The pardon allowed the O’Neills in South  Armagh to hold onto their land even as other Ulster chieftains lost everything, and presumably the MacMurchaidh stayed in Carnally. However, the Plantation of Ulster was changing everything and cute hoors did not survive the next great upheaval, the Rising of 1641. In the  land settlement of the 1650s, the O’Neills of the Fews got the classic choice – Hell or Connaught – and their land was parcelled out to Cromwellian adventurers. In a survey in 1659 the MacMurphys on the seized O’Neill land numbered just nine; it seems likely that 20 years of warfare had scattered the clan more widely across South Armagh.

The 1666 Hearth Tax Rolls bear this out, with only five MacMurphy households in the barony of Upper Fews and none in Lower Fews. In the Barony of Upper Orior on the other hand, the former O’Hanlon country around Slieve Gullion, there were 33 MacMurphy/McMurphy/Murphy households with tight clusters around Forkill/ Mullaghbawn and across what is now the parish of Dromintee.

Townland                 Murphy Households

Levallymore                      1

Mullaghbawn                   2

Shanroe                            2

Tuyllymacrieve                2

Shean                               2

Carrickasticken               2

Cloghinnea                    2

Carrickbroad                 2

Dromintee                    2

Edenappa                     2

Faughiletra                   1

Faughilotra                   1

Adavoyle                      1


At least half of these households were listed by the modern version (Murphy). In the townlands around Slieve Gullion it was already one of the commonest surnames. By 1666 there were more than a dozen Murphy households within a mile or so of the place where I grew up.

John                            Murphy                      Aghedmoyle (Adavoyle)

Henry                          Murphy                      Carrickbradagh (Carrickbroad)

Manus                         Murphy                                       “

Donogh                     McMurphy                   Carrickstickin (Carrickasticken)

Carbery                        Murphy                                       “

Patrick                          McMurphy               Cloghginiffe      (Clouginnea)

Shane                           McMurphy                                  “

Donogh                       McMurphy                  Dromintee

Patrick bane              McMurphy                                   “

Christopher               Murphy                      Edencappagh (Edenappa)

Patrick                        Murphy                                         “

Edmond duff             McMurphy                    Foghilitragh  (Faughiletra)

Anthony                      Murphy                     Foghilotrugh   (Faughilotra)


These were the ancestors of all those men we met on the road to school. These were my ancestors.


We made the news again in the 1670s with Fr Edmond (or Eamon) Murphy, a Franciscan clergyman in Killeavy parish, which then included Dromintee.  Murphy was very critical of the rapparees, political highwaymen more known locally as tories, who lived by robbing the English and Scottish settlers who had got the land in the Cromwellian settlement. The most famous tory was Redmond O’Hanlon, known as Count O’Hanlon, whose clan had  been dispossessed after the 1641 rebellion. When Murphy preached a particularly strong sermon in Dromintee chapel, the Count said he would shoot the first man out of the door after Mass the following Sunday – and he was as good as his word. However, it seems Fr Murphy was a bit selective in his condemnation of the tories, supporting a rival of O’Hanlon who was his relation – Cormacke Raver Murphy. He ended up being put out of the curacy by Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh.

The Franciscans didn’t like Plunkett to put it very mildly. One reason was that Plunkett had ruled in 1671 that the Franciscans should not be allowed to collect alms – i.e., money – in the Archdiocese: he gave exclusive rights to the rival Dominican order. The ruling was not very popular in South Armagh, nor was the Archbishop who was from the Pale, spoke no Irish and was a bit short on sympathy for the mighty clan chiefs like O’Hanlon and O’Neill who had lost all their land to Cromwellian landgrabbers. A petition was collected across Tyrone and Armagh against the ruling with a  view to appealing to Rome – hundreds of heads of households signed it according to Tomás Ó Fiaich. Of 160 signatures in the parish of Killeavy (then including Dromintee, Forkill and Mullaghbawn) there were 24 Murphy/MacMurphy signatures across Killeavy parish, two ahead of the O’Hanlons. However, there only five Murphys among the 188 signatories in Creggan Parish, confirming the eastward shift from Creggan/Fews to Killeavy/Orior.


Fr Murphy then got involved in plots to capture Count O’Hanlon for the reward money and did a spell in jail in Dundalk: he may possibly have killed his relative Cormacke Raver Murphy. But he really came to fame in 1681 when he travelled to London to give evidence against Oliver Plunkett in his treason trial, part of the great conspiracy frenzy known as the Popish Plot. (Another prosecution witness was Hugh Duffy from Carrickasticken, also a Franciscan). In 1681 Plunkett was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn Gate, which was roughly on the site of Marble Arch Tube Station.

Shebeen in an outhouseThe next Murphy to hit the headlines was a poet with a bit of a sideline in highway robbery. Séamas Mór MacMurchaidh was from the part of the old Muintir Beirn line which had stayed in Carnally, where he was born about 1720 when the Penal Laws were at their worst. Modesty was not a prominent feature. He called himself ‘An Beirneach’, i.e., the main man of na Beirnigh, and also described himself as ‘an fear is deise in Eirinn’: the handsomest man in Ireland. He was a good friend of the poet Peadar Ó Dóirnín who ran a school of Gaelic poetry or Scoil Filidheachta at his home in  Raskeagh townland, near Kilcurry.

As children we all knew the skipping rhyme: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, save us from Johnston, Lord of the Fews. John Johnston, Constable of the King’s Army in the Barony of Fews, operated from Camly Barracks in Dorsey or the Blackbank Barracks outside Newtownhamilton, hunting down tories and rapparees and other dissidents. He employed a turncoat called Owen Keenan from Tullyvallen to do his beheading.

Johnston regarded poetry schools as hotbeds of sedition and broke up the Raskeagh school, so the two poets took to the woods, running their school in various places such as Mullaghbawn and knocking off a coach or two on the turnpikes to Armagh or Newry. When things got hot they pulled out to the hills around Omeath where Planters were few and poets were plentiful, where Gaelic culture was still strong. They had a favourite hangout near the Flagstaff: the shebeen on Upper Fathom Road run by Patsy McDacker( the building is still there) . An Beirneach had something going with Patsy’s daughter Molly, but she got jealous when she heard he was also dallying with a  lady called Peggy Nugent in Ballsmill. There was a price of £50 on his head and Molly decided to get even by selling him out to Johnston. Seamas Mór was hanged in Armagh some time during the 1750s.

The next headcount took place in the 1820s and 1830s. At the time all landholders had to pay tithes, a tax on farm produce actually levied as a charge per acre, for the upkeep of the Anglican clergy. It didn’t matter if you were Catholic or Hindu, you had to pay to keep the local Church of Ireland minister and his family in the style to which they had become accustomed.  To say there was a lot of resentment about paying tithes would be to put it very mildly indeed. Tithes in the form of agricultural good or cash were collected by tithe proctors who kept a percentage for themselves. One such proctor named Barton was set upon in Faughiletra at the lane known as The Rock in 1836 by a group of masked men wearing bedsheets. They killed him with their spades and dumped his body on a dunghill.

There may have been a Murphy or two wielding the spades: there were 19 of them on the tithe list for Jonesborough civil parish. Killeavy parish had 80, Forkhill had 85 and Creggan had 169. There were no Murphys in Carnally or Legmoylin on the 1827 tithes list, but nearby Tullydonnell townland  had more than 50.

The Griffiths Valuation in the mid-1860s listed all landowners, tenant farmers and heads of household for payment of rates, which the old people called cess. In the four civil parishes covering most of South Armagh they found 515 Murphy households. In the handful of townlands visible from my childhood home – where there had been 13 Murphy families in 1666 – there were now 61 out of a total of 753. Excluding non-residential listings, the Murphys were hovering up around 10% of households in the broad valley of my birth; no one else was even close.

The 1901 census confirms the eastward drift of the Murphy clan. The electoral districts of Forkill, Jonesborough, Killeavy and Camlough had a combined Murphy population of 653. By contrast the Creggan Upper district which contained Carnally and the adjoining townlands where the MacMurchaidh had settled in the Middle Ages had just 103 left, while the adjoining electoral districts of Dorsey, Cullyhanna and Crossmaglen could only muster a further 68 of the name. There were 1716 Murphys in  Co. Armagh. Some had clearly taken advantage of the Flight of the Earls as there were 427 of them back in Co. Tyrone.

I have a recurring dream in which I have invited all the Murphys in South Armagh to join me on Sky Hill in Drumbilla, just below Ballsmill, on a day about 500 or 600 years ago.  To our right we can see Mounthill where the British Army had watchtower  Golf 3.0,  but 500 years ago the O’Neills of the Fews in Glasdrumman Castle always had sentries on that hill. To our left we can see the battlements of the other O’Neill castle at Dungooley. And straight in front of us is Castle Roche, the only  significant castle in Ireland built by a woman. She was called Rohesia de Verdun and she completed the main part of the castle around 1236.  In the dream the Normans are still there on the battlements.  In the early morning light they patrol all the way around the whitewashed walls, stretching and yawning, but they are most vigilant along the north wall. They look up towards Croslieve and Tievecrum and east to Daikilmore and north to Dungooley and west to Mounthill. They feel secure enough behind their high walls with their squadrons of Welsh and Flemish archers and their chain mail and their iron helmets with the strap reaching down to protect their nose and face. And yet, they are at the northern extremity of the Pale and beyond those hills is the fast nothingness of Ulster … they look up to the hills and they wonder if anyone is watching them.

The answer is, yes of course we are. We are watching them, every day. We are watching them every day because we are the MacMurphy and that is our job. We are watching them because we are the shock troops of the O’Neills of the Fews, we are up there in the vanguard along with the gallowglasses, the MacDonnells and the MCabes and the McAllisters. We are watching because that is why the O’Neills provided us with land in Carnally and more recently gave us better land in Legmoylin and Ballynaclosha. We are here with the Quinns and the McShanes and the McArdles and the Garveys and the Hanrattys and all the others because we know the people in Castle Roche will wipe us out and take our land if they get a chance – if we give them a chance.

We also have to watch that the MacMahons stay behind the Fane River, and almost every year we have to help push the O’Hanlons back behind Slieve Gullion if they get too close to the Cully Water

We are watching Dún Gall to see if they move in extra men and horses, especially in the early summer at the start of the campaigning season. If there are extra wagons, if they are stocking up on supplies and equipment, this might be a signal that they are planning a hosting, a gathering of the men of the Pale for a punitive expedition into Ulster. If they neglect their corn harvest in September, we will wonder what they are up to. If they suddenly move their cattle herd up close to the castle walls, we will sound the alarm: if they take the cattle inside, it is game on. If it is a major hosting there may also be activity around Faughart Hill where they muster for attacks through the Gap of the North, but we generally rely on the O’Hanlons to keep an eye on the Gap.

Meantime we just watch and wait. War suits nobody, we are fine with a standoff and so are they. So we watch and eventually they get careless. They are arable farmers: their crops are often more important than their herds. For us, the herd comes first. So on a fine harvest evening when all hands are in the corn fields, we will sweep in from Dungooley on our little ponies and drive off 300-400 head of their cattle, whooping and yelling and whipping them fast towards Carrive and Glendesha and on to Cashel.

But that is just routine cattle-raiding. We are the young bucks of the Muintir Beirn, descendants of the high king, and we have greater ambitions,:we want glory as well as cows We really fancy their warhorses, the big heavy Percherons they breed to carry knights in chain mail and full armour.


This is all just a dream, of course, inspired by reading too much history. But it is a fact that there is a hill over beyond Tullymacrieve called Sliabh na gCapall (the mountain of the horses). Another great representative of our people, Kevin Ned Murphy of Carricknagavna, tells me our people stole great Norman horses and hid them up there in a deep glen. Sometimes our people on their light ponies charged along bog tracks and when the Norman knights tried to follow their heavy horses got stuck. So our people jumped up behind them on the great flanks of the Percheron, stabbed your man in the side of the neck above his armour, threw him off and away with the big horse.

Even people who know little of our history know there was a lot of it, know that we are deeply rooted in this place like the whin bushes. Sometimes, like me, you have to go far away to rediscover your sense of place. My father grew up a quarter mile from my mother: both sets of grandparents did their courting in a radius of less than a mile. At some point when I was 12 or 13 years old I knew I would leave this place I had grown up. Not driven by poverty, not the curse of emigration, more a sense that travelling, going away and seeing at least a bit of the world, was part of my heritage.

It takes a while to realise that the South Armagh population has exceeded the agricultural resources of the area for centuries. The bit of land was life and death but it could never feed everyone – there was always another source of income. We had been reared on stories of people – Murphys, many of them – who had left the parish with a bag of rags or a couple of goats and come back with the price of a farm or pub or shop. Paddy Kearney the king of the pahvees, my great grandfather, had crossed the Atlantic more than a dozen times and been in Australia many times. They planted the crops, went off to carry the pahvee pack and got back in time for the harvest with enough money to play the big shot. The idea of travelling far away, of getting on the boat and starting over in some strange city, held no terror for us. Hadn’t our people always done that? Hadn’t we cousins in Manchester and uncles in the Bronx who would always get us a start? But when I was 12 or 13 I also knew with certainty that I would come back. Travelling, surviving, coping in strange places, that was actually a part of our sense of who we were, of our sense of place.

Neaerly 30 years ago when I came home from Stockholm to my father’s wake, I stood in the hallway shaking hands with neighbours while my mother explained how, it seemed, nearly all of them were related to us in one way or another. She was explaining because I had missed so many wakes and funerals over the years. Then she added to my stock of Murphy patronymics: the Sarahs, the Esthers, the Boys of the Mill, the Nellies, the Whoppers and the Parramores. At some point, probably in that graveyard on the Garriba ridge running off Slieve Gullion where the wind would cut you in two even on a good day, the die was cast: I was coming home.

I had lived for decades in the sort of expatriate circles you can find in every European capital: among the media people and diplomats and consultants and translators and international agency workers who could live anywhere and who constantly move on. Many of them are second-generation expats, children of diplomats and internationalists of one kind or another who don’t really come from anywhere. I mixed with them but I was never really part of them, locally married and always with one foot in an overseas Irish community, no matter how small. Some of the Americans literally didn’t know where they were from, offspring of vaguely Eastern European ancestors from countries whose borders had long since moved, and many simply were not all that interested. They all thrive on the anonymity of the big city and the freedom that they find in being rootless. But over the days in our wake house a few hundred people passed through and although I couldn’t name many of them I knew who owned them as we say, I knew them on their people, on physical family resemblances. My brothers and I laughed at all those who could not remember our first names or tell us apart: “Well, young Murphy, how’s she cuttin’?” How can you be rootless when you come from a place like that?

When my son was about ten years old and at school in Copenhagen his class had to do some sort of presentation before the school: sing a song, recite a poem, whatever. My son got on stage and told the story of Cúchulainn and the big dog in fluent and perfect Danish, describing the setting on Slieve Gullion with some skill. I asked him how he knew the story so well: he looked at me with puzzlement and said “You told me it.” It seems I had told him the story when he was small, and later I had carried him up the mountain track to show him Culainn’s fort at the King’s Rock where it all happened. I have absolutely no memory of consciously passing anything on to him: I just wanted to show him where I grew up and probably to entertain a bored child. He is now in his forties, still slightly obsessed by Slieve Gullion whenever he is in Ireland, and he has brought his own young son up that same track.

A sense of place is a thing that grows while you are not looking. I ignored it for a long time while I was busy with other things, but that’s the thing; if if is strong enough, if you are sure enough of your place in the world,  you can ignore it and pick it up again when it suits you. Our sense of place in South Armagh has extraordinarily deep roots – the MacMurphy have been the most numerous clan there for nearly 800 years. If we formed a political party we could sweep the boards in the Slieve Gullion ward and have a serious impact in Newry. We have a great deal to be proud of – we may not have all that much in common with each other but there is at least some superficial evidence that, like Séamas Mór MacMurphy, we are generally not overburdened by modesty or humility. It’s not just a sense of place: South Armagh also teaches survival, teaches you to speak up for yourself, develop your communication skills, even blow your trumpet, to sell yourself and whatever else you can get your hands on to turn a shilling.

There’s just one little thing, a matter of some delicacy in this part of the world. Speak it softly but we’re not really from here at all. We’re from Tyrone.

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