HISTORY OF OMEATH
The human record in Ireland is short. In France, cave paintings have been found which are 35,000 years old, while Spain has even older evidence of human activity. At that time the ice cap over Ireland was up to a kilometer deep, covering Slieve Foye. The Ice Age ended about 12,000 years ago, the ice melted and sea levels rose gradually over several centuries. Archaeologists are still arguing about whether the first humans came to Ireland in a boat or walked. They were Stone Age hunter-gatherers who collected a great deal of their food on sea-shore or river bank, and they first settled near the mouth of the River Bann almost 10,000 years ago.
People have been living in Omeath for a very long time. In 2014 archaeologists preparing for the bridge at Narrowwater found what they described as a late Mesolithic habitation site dating to about 6000BC near the Round Tower. They dug up a series of stone tools – cutters and scrapers – of a type indicating that this was more of a camp than a village.
On Cornamucklagh mountain near McStay’s Wood, other archaeologists found scorched stones and quantities of deer bones, evidence of a fulacht fia – a place for community cooking of venison after a hunt – which is typical of the Bronze Age (1800BC to 500BC). While the young men hunted deer, the rest of the community boiled water in a stone-lined trench by dropping in red-hot stones. Boiling the meat helped to keep it longer.
The Louth Archaeological Surveys recognised nearly 30 sites of prehistoric interest in Omeath. Most of them are ringforts typically called lios (Lislea), rath, dun or caiseal, and they could be any age from 1000 to 4000 or more years old. The term ‘fort’ is not accurate since these were not military structures, but designed to protect single farmsteads or small groups of houses. Typically they were just circular earth banks which originally had fences or hedges on top, designed to keep cattle herds in and wolves or rustlers out. One of the most visible with trees on the protective bank is on McKeown’s land in Drumullagh.
Farming was established in Ireland by around 4500BC, which is the start of the New Stone Age or or Neolithic period. The Neolithic people cleared the forests with their stone axes to plant corn, as we can see from the ancient crop ridges at Doolargy, but just like today Ireland was really dominated by cattle farming. These cattle farmers were the people who cleared the Céide Fields, who built Newgrange and Carnawaddy and Clermont Cairn.
The earliest inhabitants known from the historical annals, the records written up centuries later by monks, were known as Aigneacha, while Carlingford Lough was called Cuan Aigneacha, or Loch Lir. For research on the annals we are grateful to An tAthar Lorcán Ua Muireadhaigh (Fr Laurence Murray), who ran the Irish College in Omeath in the 1920s. Cooley was part of the kingdom of Ulster, of the people known as the Clann Rudhraidhe, and in the early centuries of the Christian era they came under relentless pressure from invaders from the south and west: these are the was reflected in the story of the Táin Bó Cúailgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley). Around the year 332 these invaders broke through the protective embankment at Dorsey in South Armagh and captured the Ulster capital at Emhain Macha, led by brothers known as the Three Collas. One of the tribes of the Clann Colla was the Ui Méith, descendants of Muiredhach the Fat. They established territories in north Monaghan which they called Ui Méith Tire; near Keady in Armagh which they called Ui Méith Macha; and eventually, probably in the 900s, along the coast of Cooley which they called Ui Méith Mara.
The Vikings arrived in Ireland in the year 795 when they attacked a monastery on Lambay Island, off Skerries. There are hundreds of drawings of Vikings and thousands of descriptions, and on one thing they are absolutely consistent – there is no mention whatsoever of them hving horns on their helmets. That idea goes back no further than the 1870s when horned helmets appeared in the staging of some Wagner operas in Germany. The Vikings weren’t particularly anti-Christian and their own religious ideas were pretty tolerant, but they weren’t stupid either. They had worked out that as monasteries were generally the most substantial buildings of stone in a country with no towns or castles, they were often used for storage of portable wealth in the form of precious metals – as a sort of bank. Their main target in the area was Killeavy, the big monastery at Slieve Gullion which they raided a number of times, notably in the year 835.
For the first half-century or so the Vikings only came this far north on spring and summer raids, and at St Patrick’s Day the monks at Kllleavy posted sentries on a hill overlooking the lough to watch out for sails. If they spotted a fleet of raiding ships they ran up a warning flag on a high flagpole which could be seen from Slieve Gullion, giving the monks time to take their valuables and hide them on the mountain. The hill is still known as Flagstaff.
In the year 841 the Norsemen wiped out a small monastery at Narrowwater. According to a Franciscan monk called Eamon MacCana, writing in the 1640s, they killed about 300 monks, but this has got to be a massive exaggeration. It was probably a small colony of hermit monks, less than a dozen, who may have operated a hostel and ferry for the many pilgrims heading for St Patricks’ grave in Downpatrick, via Burren and Hilltown.
The round tower on the lough bank at Ferry Wood is nothing to do with monks or Vikings: for a start it has a solar panel. It is one of two built by the Newry Navigation Company in 1888 as a kind of lighthouse to help ships bound for Newry line up for the dredged channel into the Narrowwater strait. North of the Ferry Wood, a little red shed stands at the end of the Luby (lúb = a curve or bend). Most of the Luby is man-made, a clever device by Newry Navigation to trap silt in the little bay.
Some time around the year 850 Danish Vikings established a year-round base, a longphort or fortified harbour, probably on the little island where Narrowwater Keep now stands; they already had one at Annagassin. Their leader was called Gorm and according to Fr Murray his daughter Iseult or Isolde was the heroine of one of the great romance tales of Medieval Europe. In a roundabout way, Isolde is responsible for the Vikings getting horns. In the 1860s German composer Richard Wagner wrote the opera Tristan and Isolde and for some performances Vikings on stage wore horned helmets.
There were both Norwegian Vikings and Danish Vikings in the lough at different times and they had a habit of fighting with each other as much as with the Irish. In 928 a major raiding party returning from Slieve Gullion via the pass of Annaverna was defeated on the mountainside by Muirchertach MacNeill, the tanaiste of the high king, with great slaughter. The annals record: “The foreigners of Linnduachaill (Annagassin) and Cuan Aigneach left Ireland.” This was probably the point at which the Ui Méith people came here to establish Ui Méith Mara.
The Normans arrived in Ireland in 1170 and within a few short years they had established themselves in Carlingford and on the coastal belt from Grange to Riverstown. For the next four hundred years all of Cooley was a sort of frontier area, a buffer zone between the Norman-English forces from the Pale on one hand and the Gaelic chieftains of Ulster on the other. The dominant local power were the O’Hanlons of Orior, a petty kingdom based on Tandragee, who generally controlled everything that was not dominated by the Norman-English garrisons of Carlingford or Newry.
The O’Hanlons managed to stay out of the great 16th century upheavals and held onto power and their land through the Nine Years War by switching sides regularly, never quite falling out with Hugh O’Neill or the English. There was one major engagement in Omeath, on 13th November 1600. A 3000-strong English army under Sir Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, had pushed through the Gap of the North to supply the garrison in Newry, but as they set out for Carlingford the scouts told them O’Neill was moving an army through Fathom. Fearing ambush, they marched down what is now the Warrenpoint road and crossed Narrowwater by pontoon bridge, camping on Cornamucklagh Hill. The next day, O’Neill was waiting for them in Ballyonan where they had to cross a ford on the Two Mile River.
The English army liked to march at least 20 pikemen across, with ranks close behind each other. On the narrow road by the sea they could only march 6-7 across so they were strung out over a mile with wagons and cannon at the back, which is what the Irish side wanted. Pikemen were in the middle, a hundred at a time, with musketeers and halberdiers on their flanks and about 600 cavalry ranging back and forth. O’Neill’s men were in the woods above the road all the way from Greer’s Quay to the ford on the Two-Mile River where they had dug trenches and built stone barricades across the road. English reports said the Irish waited “at a little plaine like a semi-circle whereof the sea made the diameter and a thick wood the circumference, where a river ran out of the wood with a ford of good advantage to the enemy.” They waited until the English vanguard reached the river and allowed some to cross “when from all parts they poured upon us great volleys of shot.” The English charged the Irish trenches and there was a bit of pike-pushing but soon the Irish just pulled back into the woods where they ran along firing repeatedly into the English column. Then O’Neill’s cavalry which had been hiding somewhere in Ballinteskin fell upon the rearguard, killing many. As usual, they had no intention of fighting to the death: when the English cavalry turned towards them the signal came and they all disappeared into the woods. Mountjoy’s secretary was dead as were a number of senior officers including one named O’Hanlon. The whole thing lasted about two hours.
O’Neill’s defeat after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 had direct consequences for Omeath; the Plantation of Ulster from 1610 onwards brought many people looking for refuge and a bit of land. In fact, the influx had already begun: There is a local tradition that a lot of people came from North Monaghan when they were driven out by early attempts at English plantation in the 1580s. Our own great historian, the late Des O’Neill, told me that the Monaghan men landed here demanding sanctuary because they were from Ui Meith Tire, they were people of the same tribe – or at least they had been nearly a thousand years before. There was worse to come; from for most of the 17th century Ireland was engulfed in constant warfare that brought famine and death to many. There was a break in warfare from 1660 until the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, but it was in this period of relative peace and even a degree of religious toleration in 1660 that brought a great surge of displaced people from Tyrone, Monaghan and Armagh – not least the O’Hanlons who lost all their lands in Orior at the hands of the Cromwellian regime. This is when the new townlands were carved out of the mountain side where the wolves still roamed. Even today, there are more Monaghan, Armagh and Tyrone surnames in the mountain townlands from Corrakit to Cornamucklagh than along the shore.
We don’t know if there was any kind of village settlement on the shore at this time. No village is mentioned in a 1612 Plantation document on the Bagenal estate in Omeath, and a map from 1601 seems to show heavy woods along the shoreline stretching back from the Ryland River. Local tradition also says an early settlement was on the hill of Ardaghy which later became known as An tIffrin Íoctar or Wee Hell. Matthew Wren’s map of 1766 shows a settlement named Omeath, but the Taylor & Skinner coachroad map of 1777 does not. It does, however, note “Prospect House” at six miles from Newry.
The Bagenal family, leaders of Elizabeth’s army in Ireland, had done well out of the Reformation, seizing all the land belonging to the Cistercian abbey in Newry. They and their descendants, the Baylys and Pagets who became Earls of Anglesey, were landlords of all of Omeath for 250 years. During all this time they were absentee landlords; the land was actually rented out by middlemen who took an extra slice of profit on the rent and usually a large one. In the late 17th century William Bickerdick held Ballyonan for £11 a year; Hugh Hanlon held Lislea, Balinteskin, Tullagh, Bavan and Ardaghy at under £40; by 1714 Francis Hall of Narrowwater was middleman for Cornamucklagh townland. By the 1750s a new set of middlemen were gouging the tenants: Brabazon, Dromgoole, Murray, Saunderson, Ross, Townley and Clarke.
In 1770 the Bayly land agent John Hutchison wrote from his house in Millgrange at Greenore to his landlord in England asking for permission to pay thirty pounds to the Louth Grand Jury “for a road from Ravensdale to Omeath, from near where your Honour was viewing the march between you and Colonel Fortescue, to be finished this summer through the mountains down to Souter’s.” This was the road from Jenkinstown through the Long Woman’s Grave; Souter’s was an in Omeath where Howe’s Pub is now; Fortescues were the landlords in Ravensdale. Around 1784 the Baylys gave permission for the first section of the New Line, from Davys to Cornamucklagh Cross, but the road stopped there until the Famine. In 1846-47 the road was continued up to the bridge that was being built across the deep ravine at Tullagh, but the stretch up to the Long Woman’s Grave was not completed until the 1870s.
The Baylys changed their name to Paget in the late 1700s. Henry William Paget put in a good performance as a cavalry officer at Waterloo and was rewarded with the title Earl of Anglesey. After his death in 1854 his Irish estates, which were in debt, were put up for sale. They were mostly bought up a townland at a time by the middlemen.
Much of the land was held on rundale, a bit like mountain commonage. Groups of families – a dozen, or as many as 30 in Glenmore – did a deal with the middleman and collected the rent for him, then planted their crops together in small strips of land as can be seen in Ardaghy. Disputes over these strips were what gave Ardaghy its nickname of An tIffrin Ioctar or Wee Hell.
People lived in little housing clusters, each known as a baile, like Ardaghy or even better, the row of ruined cottages at the Roshes in Lislea. This cooperative farming with open fields and very little fencing or ditches could only work because there were no grazing animals about during the growing season. At the start of May all the cattle were driven up into the mountain to the booleys. Most of the men stayed down below with the crops or went out for the herring fishing or headed to England or Scotland for farm work. Older men and women and all of the boys and girls carried rafters up to the booley huts and reroofed them with scraws, topsods of heather roots. The local word for the booley hut was mari: it is still used when the hut ruins are used as shelter by sheep. There were no windows; door openings all face south. They brought churns with them to make butter; spinning wheels for the wool they would shear from the sheep; and sleáns to cut turf. Everything was carried on their backs; ponies were few and far between, and donkeys were almost unknown in Ireland before the Famine.
Each day the young people drove the cattle towards the ridge or summit, and let them drift slowly back to the enclosures at the huts for the evening milking. The booleys were always close to a water source for churning butter for sale in Newry or Dundalk.
The biggest single booleying area was Tullagh glen. The map Andrew MgGuinness drew for me shows where the mari’s were. ( Red line = townland boundary = river) Booleying gradually died away during the 19th century for many reasons. One was that from about 1840 most children had access to systematic schooling for the first time.
In 1731, when Catholic education was technically illegal under the Penal Laws, it was reported that there were two mass-houses, two priests, three schools and two private “Popish” chapels in the parish of Carlingford. In 1760 people in Omeath petitioned the landlord Nicholas Bayly for funding for a school in the church, to support a teacher called Michael Malone. In 1805 a new land agent agreed to continue paying three guineas a year to Thomas Hollywood, the teacher. Thirty years later the agent was complaining that Hollywood had a habit of disappearing out of the school during the herring fishing season. In 1825 a government report found Hollywood was teaching 48 children, 20 of them Protestants.
When the National Schools system was set up, a separate Protestant school was established in Drumullagh in 1843, beside the CoI church built in 1837-38. In 1841 the parish priest Fr Kearney had applied to set up a Catholic national school on a site provided by the landlord, who had now become the Earl of Anglesey. The schoolhouse was in place in 1846 when a guidebook to Carlingford Lough was published. It mentions that a Mr Walker Greer was building a new house at Ballinteskin. The quay which got his name had been build a couple of years before, partly financed by the Anglesey estate to promote herring fishing.
In 1862 the principal was Michael O’Meara, who had 109 boys on the roll. He also ran a school of navigation in the lough. O’Meara told the children and their parents that Irish was “the language of hunger and want”. In 1883 a grant of £134 was made for a second school in Ardaghy, just a mile away, with 209 pupils on the books. Teachers were a husband and wife team, Philip and Elizabeth Connell. Now I have a question for all the people of Omeath. Can you find anwhere else in rural Ireland where there are two national schools so close together?
There was a massive epidemic of cholera across Europe in 1832 which killed more than 50 people in Carlingford and Omeath. One of the control measures adopted by newly appointed health boards was the whitewashing of houses and sheds through public employment schemes. The annual Blessing of the Graves is all that is left of the ancient celebration of the patron saint’s Sunday, known as the Pattern.
There is a famous song in Irish about the Omeath Pattern which was held at the mouth of the Essmore on the first or second Sunday in August. “Patrún Óméith” was composed Nelly O’Hanlon of Cornamucklagh for the first Omeath Feis in 1902. Lorcán Ua Muireadhaigh considered it to be the last piece of native Irish poetry from the Oriel region. A highlight of later feiseanna was the rendering of the song by our most famous singer, Bríghid Ní Chaslaigh or “Bríghid na hAmhrán
The patterns were suppressed by the Catholic church because of excessive drinking, singing and dancing and general lewd behaviour, and suppression was often done with the help of government trooops because they were also occasions of political protest. The military were called out to deal with major trouble in 1832 and 1833 during the campaign against tithes, taxes which everyone had to pay for the upkeep of the Protestant churches. The military and police clashed with large groups of Ribbonmen in Cornamucklagh in 1832 and there was more trouble when marquees at the Essmore Pattern site were searched for weapons. Much the same happened the following year when the military stopped a contingent of Ribbonmen probably from Killeen and Killeavy coming down Ferry Hill to the Pattern. Their leader, Thomas Taggart, was arrested for riotous assembly and jailed for six months in Armagh. This appears to have been the last major pattern in Omeath.
The first attempt at a census was in 1664 when a tax was imposed on every hearth – or really every chimney – in the country. The Hearth Tax Roll for Omeath lists 35 households but cabins which just let the smoke filter through a hole in the thatch were probably excluded. A religious census of 1776 reported 290 households. When plans were being made for national schools, an 1841 education report found 2000-2500 people in 500 families and around 300 children available to attend a new school.
Today, after some decades of growth we have around 400 families. The Famine changed everything. The potato blight first appeared in mid-August 1845, and a month later it could be confirmed in almost every county. In January 1846 the head of Carlingford Coastguard reported that the greater part of potatoes from the previous year stored in field pits were rotten, although considerable shipments were still leaving Warrenpoint for England. By April 1846 it was estimated that the growing crop was down by 50% across the Cooley Peninsula and unemployment among the labouring population could be as high as 80%. |As early as October 1845 Thomas Fortescue, the Ravensdale landlord who was Chairman of Dundalk Poor-Law Board of Guardians ordered 20 tons of oatmeal to feed people
There is a tradition that no one died of hunger in Omeath, but we need to be very careful of that. The origin of the tradition seems to be from the folklore collect at Ardaghy school in the 1930s. Some things are true but not very important. First of all, there is no doubt that the population of the 10 townlands dropped sharply from the 1841 census to the next census in 1851: by no less than 35%. There was massive distress and large numbers of local people were employed on relief schemes like the New Line, Greer’s Quay and the mountain walls at Cornamucklagh and Ballyoonan.
Secondly, it may seem odd but in a famine hunger is not usually the immediate cause of death. Once your immune system is compromised by malnutrition, any infection can do for you. Eighty per cent of all deaths in the Famine were due to three diseases: typhus, relapsing fever and dysentery. The first two are transmitted by fleas. When people were faced with starvation one of the first things they did was to pawn all but one outfit of clothing. Already poor hygiene declined as evicted people crowded into houses of relatives or lived in “scalps”, rough shelters behind a ditch.
In Edentubber there is an odd structure up on the mountain behind Dan Phillips’s house. This is the “fever hospital”, a crude shelter where fever victims were isolated and looked after by volunteers. There was no treatment but a clean bed and regular food gave you a chance and more than half survived. The volunteers died in large numbers.
Fish helped the survival rate. A government report from 1836 reckoned 232 Omeath people were engaged in fishing: other reports said Omeath people travelled as much as 100 miles to sell their fish, so the total employment was much larger. There were at least 25 full-decked fishing smacks operating in the lough as well as a couple of hundred small craft. Some of those were probably currachs, the poor man’s boat, like the one Neville McCann made a few years back, maybe the first currach made on the lough in a century and a half.
Herring fishing was massive until the 1870s, and according to tradition the young girls of Omeath carried the herring over the mountain to market in Dundalk, each with a couple of stone of herring wrapped in seaweed in a creel on her back. The Cadgers’ Pad from Tullagh Bridge to Annaverna is marked on the Griffiths Valuation map from 1857. Just over the ridge they stopped for a rest at a large flat stone where they sometimes played cards – until the day when someone dealt the ace of spaces and the devil appeared to them out of the mist of the mountain.
But the herring was in decline: the very last of the Omeath cadgers was photographed on the road in Annaverna in 1888. From the end of the Famine in the early 1850s more and more people had been heading to Belfast to look for work. They clustered around Smithfield where there was a little Irish-speaking colony centred on Charlemont Street who became known as the Fadgies. There were 220 Irish speakers in 30 houses. This whole area was demolished in the 1890s and now lies under the Castlecourt shopping centre
Why did Omeath survive as the only Gaeltacht in the eastern half of the country? One reason was that just as it was a place of refuge for people across Ulster in the Plantation, later on it became a refuge for the poets and bards who were trying to hold onto a whole range of Gaelic culture. Seamas Dall MacCuarta was not born here – he came to Omeath and established a school of poetry which then attracted other poets.
After the defeat at Limerick in 1691 it attracted three refugees whose memory stayed alive for three centuries. The name Limna appears on Griffiths Valuation lists and people will know this cottage at the top of Howe’s Hill. It is thought to be a corruption of ‘Luimneach’ (Limerick). There is a story that three French soldiers, possibly brothers, refused to take the free pardon after the Siege of Limerick and went on the run – to Omeath, where one of them married into the O’Hanlons. Nelly Pheadair Duibh Ní Annluain of Cornamucklagh, whose mother was known as Máire Luimneach, was interviewed by Conradh na Gaeilge before her death in 1909. This is her account of the eight generations seperating her from the eldest of the three brothers:
“Toirdhealbhach an chéad duine, Toirdhealbhach an dara duine,Paidí an tríomhadh duine, Feidhlimidh an ceathramhadh duine, Toirdhealbhach an cúigeadh duine, Feidhlimidh an seiseadh duine agus Aodh a dhearbhráthair agus Máire inghean Aodha agus mise inghean Mháire.”
In 1901 the census showed that Irish was spoken by up to a third of the people around the village and up to three-quarters in the mountain townlands. The Gaelic Revival which started around 1890 brought massive interest in the Irish language and the areas where it was spoken. Most of these were remote areas on the Atlantic seaboard, but one was on the east coast halfway between Dublin and Belfast. More importantly, it was little more than an hour by train from either.
A stylish group of prominent people from Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) was photographed outside the Strand hotel in 1905. There at the back wearing a bowler is a prominent young barrister from Dublin, Patrick Pearse. Beside him is the young lady with whom he is walking out, Eibhlín Ní Nicol.
By 1912 the League was well enough organised to lease the building that later became the Park Hotel for the first summer Irish college in the country, Coláiste Bhríghde. In charge was Trinity professor Eoin MacNeill. Numbers grew and they took over the Foresters’ Hall.
However, Fr Laurence Murray who took over the college about 1920 complained that Irish speakers, who were willing to talk to college students, were refusing to teach their own children the language. In 1926 he transferred the college to Rannafast, Co. Donegal.
So Omeath as a community is largely the creation of the Plantation of Ulster and the wars and general upheavals of the 17th century. There was a small fishing settlement on the shore which barely merited a name. Omeath the village as we know it is the creation of two things: the railway which came through in 1876 and the border that was established in 1921. The railway brought a coastguard station and a constabulary barracks and quite a few fashionable and wealthy people who built houses by the sea.
The border brought thousands for Sunday drinking when the new northern regime established in 1921 closed down ungodly drinking dens on the Sabbath. Suddenly ferries were thriving in the village and at Narrowwater, jaunting cars lined up on the shore to take the devout from Newry and Belfast up to Calvary for a decade of the Rosary and back down for a few jars. New pubs were followed by shops and by all sorts of stalls selling all sorts of things in Omeath and in Cornamucklagh.
The railway is gone: it lasted just 76 years. The border has lasted longer but these days Omeath sells more diesel than drink.
Look at these two sources for more history. Andrew McGuinness’s booklet is available as a PDF if you google it. My 20-minute video “The Mountains of Cooley” based on his work is available on Youtube