What exactly is the Gap of the North and why does it matter?
There has always been some confusion about its exact location. Older people use the term to refer to the deep glen on the Ballynamadda Road from Dromintee, just south of the junction with the Tievecrom Road, but its proper name is Gleann Dubh. The historical term refers to the road between Faughart Shrine and Kilnasaggart Bridge. It has always been one of the most strategic assets in Ireland for the well-known reason that geography determines history. Here’s why.
In southern England human remains have been found which are 135,000 years old and much older remains have been found elsewhere in Europe. We have nothing like that – the earliest signs of human presence here date just to 9,500 years ago. The reason is that before that the ice was a kilometer deep here. From 100,000 years ago until about 12,000 years ago Ireland was covered by a series of recurring glaciers which moved back and forth across the country grinding everything down to the bedrock and picking up billions of tonnes of rock and gravel and carrying it off to dump elsewhere in the next thaw. Then the ice slowly pulled back northwards but stopped on an east-west line roughly level with us. And then it thawed relatively quickly and dumped out all that rock and gravel in regular heaps. Those heaps are the drumlins, the little rounded or elongated hills – “like eggs in a basket” -that you can see around Cullyhanna or Poyntzpass.
The drumlins stretch across the country from Bangor all the way to Mayo. Even today it is difficult to build roads in Drumlin country, as you can see along the A1 from Newry to Loughbrickland. At least we can now cut through them – in past centuries they were too steep to go over and often too boggy in the dips to go around, particularly in the winter months. Through the last 9000 years the drumlins have been a barrier to communications between Ulster and the rest of the country.
There are only two major breaks in the Drumlin belt – around the lakes of Fermanagh and the mountains of South Armagh. They provided the two major roads north, across the ford on the Erne at Ballyshannon and through the Gap of the North.
In ancient times there were five roads leading from different parts of Ireland to the royal seat at Tara. Our road which started on the North Antrim coast was known as An Sli Miodhluachra. In the Middle Ages the pass was referred to by the Norman English as ‘Imermallane’ which may be an Irish word but the usual Irish term was ‘Bearna Uladh’. It was also known as ‘Bealach an Mhaighre’ (road of the salmon) which may be a shortening of some reference to the Three Mile Water. From that we derive Moyra which is spelt Moyry in many documents.
The Normans arrived in Ireland in 1169 and took the country by storm with vastly superior weaponry and general military skills. The first force had just 200 mounted knights but they were the tanks of their day. More importantly they had 1000 archers who were the machine-gunners – a good archer could have three arrows in the air at the same time. They swept throug the Gap with great slaughter and took the north – but they never had the forces to hold it. Apart from outposts at Carrickfergus, Downpatrick/Lecale, Newry and Carlingford, Ulster remained firmly in Irish hands for another 350 years – until O’Neill pulled out of the pass and headed to defeat at Kinsale.
The old road starts at Dowdalls Hill in Dundalk. There is a little road beside Nicholas Arthur’s shop called Doylesfort Road which leads out through the townlands of Annies and Whitemill and swings right at Faughart Shrine. It then goes into the Gap itself (which was heavily wooded until Mountjoy cut the trees down in 1601) and on to the Three Mile Water, the stream at Kilnasaggart Bridge which was probably wide and boggy and would have been crossed on a kesh (ceis), a causeway made of logs and branches. It followed the line of the Kilnasaggart Road to Baile an Chláir and on down to the Four Mile Water (the Flurry). In Carrickarnon beyond the turn for Edentubber the original road is still there to the left, but where it comes down to the border would have been quite a large bog then, and Elizabethan records refer to a ‘broken causie’ or causeway there, which must have been quite long and was probably more substantial than a kesh. The road is still there all the way to Newtown Cloghogue. From there, according to local belief it may have originally gone over the Bernish to Newry.
The main ambush points against armies invading from the south were at the narrowest point of the Pass between Slievenabolea to the left (where there is a rockface called Éadan an Airm or hillbrow of the army, where O’Neill’s men may have mustered) and Claret Rock to the right; at the crossing of the Three Mile Water; and on the ‘broken causie’ at Carrickarnon.
Such was the reputation of the Gap that in 1690 King William’s army stayed three days in Newry while patrols scouted up around the area. One patrol was ambushed by the Jacobites in Carrickarnon with substantial losses, but King James’s army made no attempt to block the Pass.
The map below was drawn by the renowned Dundalk historian H.G. Tempest in 1958, partly to settle disputes about where the Gap is.
He explained it like this:
If one stands at the road junction facing St. Brigid’s Stream (A), the “unapproved” road in front of one rises a little, passes on the right the road to Faughart church and graveyard, and continues northward, dropping down into the hollow isolating Faughart Hill, then rising again between Claret Rock on the east and high ground on the west (B) until it comes to the point almost on the modern “Border” from which it descends rapidly past the shell of Moyry Castle and passes under the railway embankment near Kilnasaggart (C) where runs a stream referred to in the seventeenth century as “the 3 mile water.”
The same road continues northward from that point, rising and winding until, at Jonesboro’ (D), it joins the straight coach road, which falls steeply down to the Half-way House, having crossed the Flurry River, known of old as “the 4 mile water.”
In 1600 this route continued from Flurrybridge until it reached the top of the Newry hill. It is indicated on contemporary maps but not with sufficient definitiveness to make us sure of its exact course. The old maps show two “causies” over boggy or marshy ground. We can assume that it kept as far as possible to the small rises. It is tempting to suppose that it followed the old road more or less parallel to and to the west of the modern county road. A few hundred yards south of the Carrickarnon Frontier Post this suggested road diverges (at E on map) and continues northwards until it reaches the Newry-Dromintee road at Cloghoge (F), Quite close to that point a road continues past Heath Hall and over Ballymacdermott mountain. The old maps rather suggest this route.
If this is so, this road for a mile or two south of point F, must have been considerably straightened since those days. On the map accompanying this article the two ” causies ” are conjecturally marked (6 and 7).
The route from B to D described above was the most difficult part of the old Moyry Pass (or Pace as it was then called) which, at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, was the most difficult and dangerous way from Dundalk to Newry and, as such, figures in the attempts by Lord Mountjoy, Queen Elizabeth’s last viceroy, to subdue Hugh O’Neill, ” Earl of Tyrone,” his most skilful and resourceful adversary.
His full article is attached here: TheMoyryPass