Blue Plaque to honour poet’s historical contribution

May 12, 2014

The contribution of one of Ulster’s best-known poets will be formally acknowledged in a ceremony to erect a plaque in his honour at Creggan Church later this week.

The Ulster History Circle will unveil a Blue Plaque commemorating the work of the last Gaelic Poet of South East Ulster, Art McCooey, whose remains are buried in the historical churchyard at Creggan.

The Ulster History Circle is a voluntary organization that erects the testimonial blue plaques to commemorate men and women, born in or associated with the province of Ulster, who have made a significant contribution to its history and development.

Art McCooey – Art na gCeoltai (Art of the Songs) – is perhaps most famous for his poem Úrchill an Chreagáin, the churchyard where he is buried, and often referred to as “the national anthem of south east Ulster”.

He is the best known and last of the five Gaelic Poets from South East Ulster, the others being Pádraig Mac A Loindain 1665 – 1733, Séamus Mór Mac Murphy 1720 – 1750, Séamas dall Mac Cuarta c.1650 – 1733 and Peadar Ó Doirnín 1704 – 1769.

Early life

McCooey was born in the townland of Ballinaghy, now known as Mounthill.  Having squandered his portion of the family property after his father’s death, he spent most of his life as a labourer and a gardener.  He worked for several local clergy around Crossmaglen including Rev. Hugh Hill, Rector of Creggan. Although poor and foolish he was popular with the common people, mainly because he voiced the feeling of the times, the sufferings, hatreds, laments and hopes.  His melodious verses were sung with heart-moving feelings, for national hope was not dead in McCooey’s day, nor had the people become reconciled to the English domination as final and inevitable.  After the flight of the Earls, few if any of the chiefs in Ulster could support either court or poet.

Following his marriage, which, although he was a Catholic, took place in the Protestant church after the dispensation to marry his cousin had been refused, he was exiled to Howth for a time.  He later returned to the district and was reconciled to the church.  This was about the time of his quarrel with Rev. Terence Quinn PP of Creggan and the satirical poem Maire Chaoch (One eyed Mary) written about Fr. Quinn’s sister, apparently because of her lack of hospitality to him.

After his return he wrote Cuilfhionn Ní Chuinne (The fair-haired lass of the Quinns) in praise of Mary Quinn, “a fulsome tribute which is metrically perfect and patently insincere”, wrote Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich, which seems to have patched up their differences.

His poetry is associated with the O’Neills of the Fews, whose castle was at Glassdrummond and his death on 7 January 1773 represented the end of an era, marking the final eclipse of the old Gaelic order following the exile of the O’Neills after 1641.  Some 25 of his poems survive.

The epitaph on his headstone in Creggan churchyard (erected 1973) from the last line of his poem Úrchill an Chreagáin reads: ‘Gurb ag Gaeil chumhra an Chreagáin a leagfar mé i gcré faoi fhód’ – ‘that with the fragrant Gaels of Creggan I will be put in clay under the sod’.

Chris Spurr, Chairman of the Ulster History Circle, said Art McCooey may have been the last of the Gaelic poets from the south east of Ulster, but he is the first person from this part of Co Armagh to achieve an Ulster History Circle plaque to his memory.

“The Ulster History Circle is delighted to celebrate the life and work of Art McCooey, Art na gCeoltai, and the Circle would especially like to thank Newry and Mourne District Council for their support towards this plaque,” he said.

Mary Cumiskey, Chair of the Creggan Local Historical Society, expressed the delight of the society that McCooey is to be honoured in Creggan.

“The Creggan History Society is delighted that the Ulster History Circle has agreed to honour Art McCooey here in his beloved Creggan. This blue plaque is the first in south Armagh and it would be difficult to find a better icon than McCooey of this historic place.  McCooey is the best known and last of the five great Gaelic poets and bards of eigthteenth century South East Ulster and is still revered at home and abroad. This plaque will be a visible celebration of his life and work for many generations to come,” she said.

The ceremony to erect the Blue Plaque will take place this Wednesday 14th May at 2.00pm at Creggan Church, Crossmaglen.