Many thanks once again to the ‘Creggan Historical Society', its curator Mr. Michael McShane and local historian Mr. Kevin McMahon, for their vast knowledge, brilliant minds and tireless efforts toward ensuring that the history of South Armagh be kept alive and kicking for future generations to marvel at. A special thank you to the brilliant scholar and historian, Cardinal Tomas O’Fiach for his amazing re-counting of the fascinating story “The O’Neils of the Fews.”
Ireland in the 17th century was a wasteland, still reeling from the effects of the Penal Laws, introduced in the mid 1600s by English king, James 1st and brutishly enforced by the puritan Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army. The land and her people had been burned, beaten and broken. Cromwell had invaded Ireland in 1649 and conducted a methodical ‘scorched earth’ form of warfare with the sole intent of eradicating Catholicism in one generation. Everything was habitually burned, land, homes, crops and food stores.
At that time in history, the O’Neill clan were the ruling dynasty in the area known as the ‘Fews,’ a barony in County Armagh, having moved there in approximately 1490. The ‘Fews’ meaning ‘the woods,’ included Crossmaglen and Creggan. Henry O’Neill built a church at Creggan, (the name ‘Creggan’ translates as ‘rocky waterfall.’) Later, the O’Neill’s erected a castle at Glassdrummond, about two miles from Creggan, on a promontory overlooking the local lake. In 1655 Henry O’Neill had his lands confiscated and a Cromwellian settler named Thomas Ball was granted O’Neill’s lands including the castle, as a reward for his services.
Catholics, who made up 80% of the population, owned less than one third of the land. They were prohibited from ‘willing’ their property to the eldest son as they had done for generations. Instead, it had to be divided among all male heirs thus reducing each heir’s portion to small, unproductive plots. Reduced to little more than beggars, trampled and buried in the mud beneath the invaders harsh heel, somehow they managed to endure, despite not being allowed to vote, hold office, practice their religion and cruelest of all, not educate their children. The only official education available to the poor was through the “Charter School.”
In 1733 the Irish Parliament established “Charter Schools” as a means of rescuing children from poverty and freeing them from the evils of “Catholicism,” which was seen as a dangerous religion. Parents were told that if they enrolled their children, they would be fed, clothed, provided with shelter, free education and instruction in the Protestant religion. Most parents’ saw this as a form of bribery and only during particularly harsh times did they agree to this practice. When things improved, they would remove their children from the schools. To ensure that their true history and religious beliefs were kept alive they sent their children to a local ‘Hedgemaster.’
On September 13, 1737, a new “Charter School” opened in the parish of Creggan, a small rural hamlet nestled quietly on the banks of the Creggan River a mile or so outside the town of Crossmaglen, County Armagh. In 1745 an individual named George Jackson arrived in Creggan to take a position as schoolmaster and teach at the newly opened school. Jacksons’ forebears arrived in Ireland as members of Cromwell’s’ Army and were granted lands in County Carlow, for their services. After selling their holdings in County Carlow the Jackson family moved north and settled in County Armagh.
The story leaps forward to 1863 when a local landlord, a descendant of the Ball family, Sir Thomas Ball, built a market house on the square in Crossmaglen. In 1865 Ball adorned his creation by erecting a fake clock on top of the structure. Made from Irish Oak and with hands and numerals painted on the face, it caused much laughter and derision around the area for many years. In 1903, Sir Thomas Jackson, a descendant of George Jackson, replaced the fake clock with a new one, reputedly made of gold and silver and which prompted a local scribe, believed to be Peadar McGeeney, to pen his now famous poem, "The Clock of Crossmaglen.” There is also speculation that one or two other local men, either Michael Watters or Denis Nugent, wrote versions of the same poem. In any event, I am sure that you will agree, it is a wonderful piece of satire and attests to the fertile minds, not to mention the sharp wit and cleverness of the men from Crossmaglen!
The Clock of Crossmaglen.
We talk of great physicians and Dr. William's Pills,
and Mother Regal Syrup as a remedy for ills.
But long live Sir Thomas Jackson - great laurels for to win
he gave speech unto a dummy clock in the town of Crossmaglen.
This dummy clock of Crossmaglen above the market hall,
was placed there by a landlord - I think his name was Ball.
The poet and the orator, the learned and the wise
and everyone that came this way this clock did criticize.
The poet in his able work of verses most sublime
he said it was by magic wrought to stop the course of time.
The orator in eloquence and words I cannot name
described it as an emblem great of Irish landlord fame.
But this great clock could not be moved with all their jibes and jeers
it here did stop at 12 o'clock for over forty years.
Sir Thomas came to Crossmaglen, it being his native town,
he ordered that this public fraud at once be taken down.
He grieved to see his native town so darkly wrapped in gloom
with a dummy clock above our hall as silent as a tomb.
He placed a clock in Crossmaglen of neither oak nor dale,
but of solid gold and silver works in case to never fail.
From Carrick', County Monaghan, to Newry, County Down
a range of hills and mountains and plains of fertile land.
And over Monaghan's lofty hills and Slieve Gullion's towering peaks
the bell and hammer of this clock each hour loudly speaks.
And the men from Castleblayney, the traveler in his walk
can tell the hour on every mile from `Blayney to Dundalk.
Lest you may be mistaken of the distance of those lines,
from Carrick' in to Newry is four and twenty miles.
Above our hall 'tis placed secure by workmen tried and true,
and there `twill stand for evermore exposed to public view;
And future ages will combine to praise and bless the men
who planned this clock and placed it in the town of Crossmaglen.
I will not dare attempt the task, or try to tell in rhyme,
the beauties and the charms that deck and grace this work sublime.
But may some gifted poet rise to trace with golden pen
and celebrate in worthy verse the Clock of Crossmaglen.
Your clumsy clocks must follow time, both minute-hand and hour,
but this great work has stopped time's course, and proved its magic power.
Now, sneer not cynic - 'tis the truth - time has not moved since when,
this clock was placed amongst us in the town of Crossmaglen.
Now 'twas our landlords gave this clock, the truth I vouch to you,
then listen not to Parnell's cries nor to his noisy crew.
But, down with rent reductions! We'll prove true and loyal men,
and stand by our dear landlords in the town of Crossmaglen.
It has no wheels, it needs no weights, there is no tick nor stroke,
‘tis not of gold or silver wrought, but good old Irish Oak.
Yet stranger far than Strasbourg chimes, it’s hands at twelve past ten,
full often fill with laughter wild, the Square in Crossmaglen.
And Cross' is in the center of those last four mentioned towns,
which proves this clock is clearly heard twelve Irish miles around.
So now you bards and scholars great who criticize the dumb
I'll ask you all to raise your voice in praises of Sir Tom.
My voice it is too feeble, and my intellect not clear
for to attempt the praises of the great Sir Thomas here.
And it will be recorded in the ages yet to come
how the great Sir Thomas Jackson gave speech unto the dumb.
And now the editor of these simple lines, I mean to tell you here,
he lives beside the crooked bridge, along the river clear.
He is not a man of learning, nor a poet of great fame,
he is but a simple man, McGeeney is his name.
And he hopes another poet who can yield a patten quill,
will shortly take a ramble around good old Urker Hill.
To view the family residence and birth-place of Sir Tom,
and other stately mansions in this valley all along.
For on the celebrated hills a poet cannot fail
to describe the pleasant scenery around sweet Creggan Vale.
As this brings to my memory with mingled grief and pride,
the place they call ‘White Stables’ where Art MacCooey died.
note* Sadly, in 1974 the markethouse was burned down by the British Army. The 2nd. Parachute Regiment are suspected of this act in retaliation for the shooting of several soldiers during gun battles on the Square. In the late sixties the British forces had invaded Crossmaglen and soon after a tri-color, the flag and symbol of Irish freedom was placed on the clock tower. On the 1st September 1989, the bell of the Jackson Clock was restored by local craftsman Peter McAllister and put on display in the Greenroom of the Community Centre in Crossmaglen.(JAB)
Read more here:
Books for Sale:
Don’t Die with Regrets: Ireland and the Lessons my Father Taught Me.
The Journey: A Nomad Reflects.