South Armagh: a Tory stronghold

Words are funny things, they can change meaning in strange ways over the centuries. ‘Tory’ is originally an Irish word and one that is closely associated with South Armagh. It comes from ‘tóraigh’, to pursue – a person who is  ‘tóraighthe’ was, we might say, on the run. It was first used to describe the groups who kept up a rearguard fight at the end of the Cromwellian wars and in the following decades to those same gentlemen when they took to hold-up work on the highways. They were always recognised as very political highwaymen and there were an awful lot of them, particularly in South Armagh. After the Williamite settlement in 1689-91,  our local tories were strong supporters of the Stuart cause. In the 18th century the political faction in London which still hankered after return of the Stuart kings and which evolved into the Conservative Party, were accused by their political enemies, known as the Whigs (later Liberals) of consorting with Irish tories and Scotch cattle raiders. Eventually the Whigs just called them Tories as a term of abuse.

These roving bands of displaced, landless swordsmen were known by different names at different times. After the defeat in Kinsale in 1601 and the Plantation of Ulster in 1609 they were called woodkerne – the kern was the Irish infantry footsoldier and all the Kearneys owe their name to him. Then from 1640 to about 1700 they were tories, and in the Penal Days they were generally called rapparees from the short pike or rapaire that they carried, although the term tory tended to stick in South Armagh long after it had been replaced by rapparee elsewhere.

In the late 1990s a journalist called Toby Harnden wrote a book called ‘Bandit Country’. He took his title from a speech by Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees, who so referred to South Armagh in the mid-1970s. But that wasn’t the first mention, not by a long shot.

Dean Jonathan Swift made very similar comments in the 1740s. He was a constant visitor to Gosford Castle outside Markethill, which is where he wrote ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and he wrote of his fear of the tories he might meet as he made his way from Dundalk through Silverbridge and Dorsey and on by Ballymoyer to Markethill. And that was with the protection of the most feared tory-hunter of them all, John Johnston – Johnston of the Fews – who claimed to have beheaded over a hundred bandits. Well, he didn’t do his own beheading, he left that job to a turncoat called Owen Keenan from Tullyvallen. In Dorsey, not far from the big house that Johnston called Roxborough after the village his people came from in Scotland, there is a bog called the Tory Hole. Maybe we should dredge it for skulls.


Fifty years ago there was a skipping rhyme used in this area which went:

Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews

Save us from Johnston, king of the Fews”

(The Fews is the barony that runs from the Fane River to the Tully Water, the river that flows through Silverbridge)

But the prize for first mention has to go to our very own St Oliver Plunkett who referred to ‘a country much infested with banditti’. It recurs a number of times in both Italian and Latin in letters he wrote to the Vatican in the 1670s explaining why he didn’t actually live in Armagh even though he was the Archbishop (and took a long time to visit it), but in Termonfeckin.


So we shouldn’t get too uptight about references to bandit country, because the fact is that we have always had more than our fair share of bandits. The very first stagecoach that ever ran from Belfast to Dublin got held up at Flurrybridge.

The best remembered tory must be Redmond O’Hanlon: more at the two links below.


See also the page on Seamas Mor Mac Murchaidh