Williams' pardoning of the Jacobite soldiers turned out to be a huge lack of foresight on his part as it encouraged the Jacobite leaders to continue fighting and they went on to win a major victory during the 1691 Siege of Limerick. When the smoke and dust of the Battle of the Boyne cleared, the defeated Jacobites had retreated to the walled city of Limerick and took up defensive positions. Some of their senior commanders, in particular Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, wanted to surrender to the Williamites while they could still get good terms, but they were overruled by Irish officers such as Patrick Sarsfield, who wanted to fight on. They held fast between the months of August to September and the Williamites, after many attempts to take the city by storm, were driven off by the defenders, and forced to retire back into their winter quarters.
However, defeats the following year at the Battle of Aughrim and the second siege of Limerick left the Williamites victorious. After these defeats, Ireland fell into an almost trance like state of submission and acceptance of fate. Not until 1740 would the country rouse itself and shake off the cloak of subservience once again. Between the years 1740 and 1745 we start to see the first signs of the re-awakening of the Irish nation from the doldrums into which it had fallen after the Surrender of Limerick. A new Jacobite leader had emerged and laid claim to the English throne and his agents were active through Ireland, with secret societies for enrolling recruits springing up everywhere. South Armagh, whose mountains and woods were alive with scattered bands of supporters, was well suited for such activities.
In 1740 a rumor swept across the countryside of the troubled area in South Armagh known as the "Fews." The area, once held as the bastion of the ruling O'Neil dynasty, the Lords of the Fews, was under increasing pressure from the English crown who desired full control and from the rapidly increasing influx of English and Scottish settlers. The rumor, whispered in shebeens, farmsteads and cottages, soon spread like wildfire throughout the entire countryside. Word had come that the Catholic pretender to the English, Scottish and ultimately, the Irish thrones had assembled a large Jacobite army and was planning another rebellion against the English crown forces. Charles Edward Stewart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) was widely supported by many highland clans, both Catholic and Protestant and had a large following in Ireland, particularly in South Armagh. Charles hoped for a warm welcome from these supporters and for his plans to begin an insurgency throughout the British Isles. He raised his father's flag at Glenfinnan and gathered a force large enough to begin marching on the city of Edinburgh. If his rebellion was successful it would have far-reaching, positive repercussions for the downtrodden people that occupied South Armagh.
In the foothills of the extinct volcanic mountain, Slieve Gullion, two men took a keen interest in the rumors that circulated. Both men, staunch supporters of the Jacobites and the opportunity the revolution presented, began planning a series of meetings to discuss ways of supporting the Jacobite cause. Poet Seamus Mor MacMurphy and his closest friend, schoolteacher and noted poet, Peadar O'Doirnin, had, contrary to the laws prohibiting it, established a school of Gaelic poetry and held regular secret sessions at Dunreavy Wood and Mullaghbane. O'Doirnin had established a school at Kilcurry, again in contravention of the laws prohibiting any form of teaching among the Catholic population. During the period 1740 to 1745, the two men were active agents of the Jacobite cause and it's leader, Charles Edward Stuart.
Seamus Mor MacMurphy was born around 1720 at Carnally, in the parish of Creggan, not far from my hometown Crossmaglen, County Armagh. The first mention of the MacMurphy name is found in the annals for the year 1172 AD. Towards the end of the 13th century, the MacMurphys seem to have been ousted from Co. Tyrone by the growing power of the O'Neills. Moving to Armagh, they established a supremacy in the Fews, which was inhabited by Garvey, Hanratty and O'Callaghan clans. The O'Neills, in turn, as they grew numerous in Co. Tyrone, spread out into Co. Armagh with each generation seeking to plant its younger sons in new territories. At the end of the 15th century, we find a Hugh O'Neill (son of Owen of Tyrone) reigning in the Fews. Evidently the MacMurphys had again become tributary. During this period they were called 'Beirnigh na Coilleadh Craobhaighe' from the fact that their centre was in Dunreavy Wood. In the pardon granted to Turlogh MacHenry O'Neill in 1602. the names of about 170 free clansmen of the Fews are mentioned, of whom 35 were MacMurphys.
Peadar O'Doirnín was a poet, hedgemaster, an accomplished harpist, a noted scribe and a well known songwriter. He was born around 1700 but the exact place of his birth is not known. He spent most of his life in Forkhill, south Armagh and was closely associated with north Louth. He married a local woman called Rose Toner, and he taught in Forkhill, where he died in 1769. He was a poet in the romantic style like the later English poets Byron, Keats and Shelley. Many of his poems and songs have survived, having been memorized, saved and handed down through the generations.
According to the old annals, the Mac Murchadha clan were the original Kings of the Fews, until the Clandeboye O'Neills invaded in the 13th and 14th centuries, displacing their clan. Originally known as the 'An Beirnigh,' they were descended from an individual named Biern, a son of Fearghal, an ard ri (high king) who died in 718 AD. Biern was a brother of Nial Frasach, another king who died in 765 AD. As Nial Frasach was an ancestor of the O'Neills this means that the O'Neills and MacMurphys were of the same stock. His father's name is unknow but we do know that his mother's name was Aine and it is widely believed that one of his grandfathers had been killed at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691. Seamus Mor had four sisters, one of whom, Aillidh, was married to a Mr. Duffy, a nephew of the poet Niall MacMurphy (the younger) and to whom Seamus Mor was closely related. No brother of Seamus Mor is mentioned in any of the annals.
He was described as a tall, handsome man, and used to introduce himself to his victims as 'mise Seamus Mhurchaidh is deise 'bhfuil in Eirinn' (meet Seamus Mac Murphy, the handsomest man in Ireland.) Besides being a noted poet, he had a reputation as a great drinker and a charming companion of many women. He was also a fearless leader of a band of 'rapparees' (guerilla fighters) who had sworn allegiance to the Jacobite cause and regularly patrolled the Dundalk-Newry road, the Carlingford-Newry road, and sometimes traveled into Cooley and Co. Down. In the cold winters It was believed that he used to hide in the Great Wood of Dunreavy and lodged at MacArdle's of Ballsmill, Nugent's of Carnally and MacDonnell's of Drumbally.
Under the Jacobite general Richard Talbot, 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, each locality had to raise a regiment to support the Jacobite cause. Most did so, but as the resources to arm and pay them all were scarce many of them were disbanded. It was from these regiments that most of the 'rapparee' bands were organised. They armed themselves with whatever they could find or take from crown forces and Protestant civilians, including muskets, long knives (skiens) and half-pikes. The rapparees took their name from the gaelic word 'rapaire' which was a pike about 6 feet long, cut down and adapted from the standard military pike which was up to 16 feet long, making it easy to carry, and easier to conceal when not in use. These bands of 'rapparees' caused the occupying English forces a great deal of trouble, attacking vulnerable garrisons, robbing tax-collectors, mail coaches and supply columns, then melting away when faced with large detachments of English troops.
Despite their time consuming activities, MacMurphy and O'Doirnin, close friends for life, found time to pursue more enjoyable diversions and both drank large amounts of alcohol and courted women regularly. Their favorite meeting place was a shebeen (unlicensed ale house) on the eastern side of the Flagstaff mountain, owned by a man named Patsy MacDacker, better known and remembered as 'Paddy from the mountain.' McDacker had been a carpenter by trade but found that illegal distilling of whisky brought him far more money and he liked money. The shebeen was a convenient meeting place for the two 'rapparee' leaders as it was difficult to access; it commanded a clear view of the surrounding counties; and, at the same time, was close to all the main roads, near to the town of Newry, to the Mourne mountains , to the town of Dundalk, to the Cooley peninsula and to the barony of the Fews. The chief attraction, however, which brought MacMurphy so frequently to McDackers was the sheebeen-owner's dark-haired, white-throated daughter, Molly.
By all accounts MacMurphy and Molly had a tempestuous affair, loving and fighting in equal measure. The root cause of their arguments was MacMurphys' rumored dalliances with other women. Whether he actually did cheat on Molly is not known for sure, but It is said that he had relationships with Kate MacDonnell from Drumbally and Peggy Nugent from Carnally. Molly had another suitor named Arty Fearon, one of MacMurphy's trusted lieutenants, whose greatest desire was to marry Molly and it is thought that he fuelled and fanned the flames of Molly's jealousy about the rumors of MacMurphy's indiscretions. Whatever the reason, the famous words of Shakespeare, "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" applies and Molly McDacker laid her plans for a terrible revenge. As events unfolded, it became clear that although Molly's lust for vengeance was the instigation of what later transpired, MacMurphy had a far more serious, life threatening issue looming on the horizon.
In 1701 a regiment of English foot-soldiers had their headquarters at the Black Bank Barracks which was sited 4 miles north of the town of Newtownhamilton, aproximately half way between the towns of Dundalk and Armagh on the main thoroughfare. After a violent year, culminating with a series of killings which included the English Captain Groves and ten of his men, the new barracks was planned and built by Sir William Robinson in around 1695. It's primary purpose was to guard and make safe the 20 miles of what was then referred to as the 'Black road.' In 1710 an individual new to the area named John Johnston, was sworn in as Constable of the Fews and by the time he finished his years of tenure, South Armagh, and in particular, the outlaw poet MacMurphy, would forever remember and curse his name. Johnston, known locally as 'The King of the Fews', was born in Scotland in 1684, the son of John Johnston and Sarah Graham. He had a deep hatred of Catholics especially those who supported the Jacobite cause, which he believed was treasonous and from the outset he pursued them with a vengeance. He was carefully chosen for the task at hand because of his ruthless streak and the fact that he spoke Gaelic fluently and therefore could properly interrogate the locals.
Johnston wasted no time and began his campaign by ordering his Sergeant Wilde and six men, out into the countryside with instructions to destroy the houses, burn the posessions and whip the locals who supported the 'popish pretender.' In Dundalk he had two men beheaded, put their heads on pikes and displayed them on the gates of the jail as a warning to the populace. His fee for that barborous act was 20 pounds, a huge sum of money at the time and headcutting became a lucrative business for Johnston who pursued it with relish. Johnston was hostile to the Catholics and their religion but he had no love for Englishmen either. When Lord John Kerr's Regiment of Dragoons set up their garrrison at the Black Bank Barracks in 1724, Johnston wrote to Dublin Castle: "Thank the Lord at last I have Scottish soldiers instead of those damned english swine, to guard the Fews." Johnston, though a member of the established Protestant Church, was partial to the presbyterians because of their Scots origins and he encouraged the local landlords to take presbyterian settlers from Down and Antrim onto their estates around Creggan in 1734-5. He evicted the Catholic tenants to make room for the newcomers which resulted in a bitter, bloody feud between the native Irish and the planters, and not long after a new presbyterian meeting house was built, it was burned down.
Johnston soon turned his attention to MacMurphy and his followers and his relentless pursuit of them became an obsession. He targeted Peadar O'Doirnin's school at Kilcurry, razed it to the ground, burned every book and drove O'Doirnin into the hills where he joined up with MacMurphy's men. Johnston described O'Doirnin as "a person ill-disposed to the King, a favourite of the Pretender, who stirs up the people to rebel by his treasonable compositions," a reference to O'Doirnin's poetry. This wanton act of destruction propelled MacMurphy and O'Doirnin into action and in 1744, they organized a meeting on the top of Slieve Gullion and invited all the Catholic clergy, the prominent and more wealthy Catholics, and particularly the poets. It appears that soon after the meeting ended the fuse was lit and an air of open rebellion ensued. When news of the meeting reached Johnston he became incensed and re-doubled his efforts to bring MacMurphy and his 'rapparees' to justice, dead or alive. Bounties were set on their heads and of anyone who ran with them and anyone offering aid and shelter.
But MacMurphy, along with his many other attributes was also a clever strategist and Johnston could never find a way to apprehend him. Johnston's ruthless raze and burn policy only angered the local people more and strengthened their resolve. Shortly after the meeting on Slieve Gullion large numbers of young men joined the 'rapparee' bands, the houses of the gentry were attached and plundered. Dunleavey, Killeavy and Fathom swarmed with 'rapparees' and those in charge of law and order were taken by surprise. In danger of his life, and terrified at the threat of an uprising that he hadn't enough forces to quell, Johnston invited O'Doirnin and MacMurphy to a meeting. Fearing treachery, they refused to go and Johnston, under a safe-conduct from O'Doirnin, had to risk himself by going into the 'rapparee' camp. It is related that one group attacked him and was preparing to hang him from an oak tree when O'Doirnin intervened and saved his life. A temporary, uneasy truce was put in place and it was agreed that the two sides would not interfere with each other. O'Doirnin composed a hypocritical poem titled " Sean Johnston," in praise of Johnston which he used to ensure himself safe passage.
It was against this backdrop that Molly McDacker finally set her plan of revenge in motion. Her first move was to ply O'Doirnin with plenty of free alcohol and then persuade him to compose a derogatory poem about Johnston. Even though O'Doirnin and Johnston were at peace at this time, he composed the poem to please her, and evidently was in one of his most vicious moods as he wrote it. Molly traveled on foot to Roxborough to show the poem to Johnston and after reading it a furious Johnston threatened her saying:
"Was it to insult me that you came here? You'll suffer for this—and so will the man who wrote it."
"It is because I want revenge myself that I brought you the poem," answered Molly. "It was MacMurphy who composed it, and there's not a child in the ten townlands of Omeath nor in the eight towns of Killeavy that's not singing it to-day."
"I see," said Johnston. "He has injured you too, and you want me to help you to revenge? I'd do it willingly—make no doubt about it that if he ever gets into my bands, he'll have plenty of material in hell to write a new song about the Headcutter's vengeance. But how to catch him—why the whole countryside guards him and brings him news."
"I'll help you," said the girl. " and no one knows better how to do it. My father will help if he gets a reward—he'd sell his own mother for blood money. Isn't there a price on MacMurphy's head ? "
"Fifty pounds—dead or alive," said Johnston.
"Can I have that in writing, under your own hand ? "
"You'll get that certainly—when I hear how you are going to manage."
"I have my plan ready," said the girl. " Next Sunday is the Patron of Killeavy— you know what that means. MacMurphy is to spend Saturday night in our house on the Flagstaff, and take me to the Patron on Sunday. If you do your work properly, he'll never see the Patron—but your men must be early afoot. If you send them at daybreak to the Flagstaff, we'll see to the rest. When he's helplessly drunk, I'll call in your soldiers, and you can take it that his powder will be well-soaked.”
And so the plot was hatched and when Mollie returned home she told her father of the scheme. At first he said that she was mad, but his greed got the better of him when he was shown Johnston's written promise of reward.
On that fateful Sunday morning in August, the feared outlaw lay sleeping on a settle bed in McDacker's, oblivious to the danger surrounding him. Inside the shebeen stood his betrayers, the greedy Patsy McDacker, gloating over the prospect of blood money, his daughter Molly happy for the moment in her treacherous revenge on her unfaithful lover, Arty Fearon, eager to betray his leader for the sake of a jealous woman's unstable attachment and hidden outside the door, Johnston's soldiers waiting for the signal that would deliver a hated foe into their hands. Seamus Mor MacMurphy, poet, outlaw and the "handsomest man in Ireland" was doomed.
When he woke up he discovered that he was shackled and surrounded by soldiers. Looking around the room he saw Arty Fearon and said "I had trusted you. Arty, that if you had discovered me in the commission of a hundred murders, you would have kept my secret as faithfully as I would your own. Yet now I see your breast marked with my blood." Turning to Patsy McDacker he said "It irritates me Patsy to think that you had the fingers for my knave," a reference to the fact that both men were keen card players, and McDacker was well known as a cheat. True to form, he had won the last trick from the outlaw, but, he was not destined to spend one penny of his ill gotten gains. MacMurphy didn't speak to Molly ever again and then turning, he was led out and taken to Dundalk jail.
At his trial in Dundalk the jury refused to find him guilty and he was taken to Armagh for re-trial. He was put on trial before the Armagh Sessions on St. Patrick's Day, on a charge that he had stolen a sheep or, some say, a horse, from a man named Brian Roddy of Castletown Cross. It is possible that he did commit the theft, but everyone knew well that this charge was merely an excuse and that the poem he supposedly wrote about Johnston, was the real crime. Arty Fearon and Patsy McDacker were the chief witnesses, but evidently there were others. Peadar O'Doirnin sent word that he had written the poem, and offered to give himself up, but to no avail. According to tradition Seamus Mor MacMurphy was sentenced on Monday and hanged on Tuesday.
The dungeon where MacMurphy spent his last days on earth was under the courthouse. A flight of nine stone steps led down to the dark, wet cavern. The walls were 7 feet thick and a vaulted roof of thick masonary covered it ensuring there would be no escape. A heavy iron door with several stout bolts was guarded by two armed soldiers who watched day and night. It was in this dark, lonely place that MacMurphy wrote his final poem. The "flat-footed hag" referred to in his poem was the jail-keeper's surly wife who was supposed to attend to the wants of the prisoners, but as she only spoke English, it's probable that MacMurphy received no attention.
In the early 18th century, Gallow's Hill in Armagh, was sited in what is now the Primate's Demesne. On the day of his execution MacMurphy was led in chains in a procession from the Jail down to the scaffold. A large crowd armed with staves and muskets, headed by the sheriff and his company, accompanied the condemned convict to the Gallows-hill. It is said that a force of 'rapparees,' most of them from his family clan the 'An Beirnigh,' had gathered in Armagh that morning with the intention of attempting a rescue, but their leader saw that the large numbers of soldiers would be too strong for them and no attempt at escape took place.
He seems to have made the most of the opportunity offered by the long journey through the streets and the presence of so many of his countrymen. The "An Beirnigh" who were present, and their descendants in the years that have since elapsed, always spoke with pride of the bravery with which he faced the scaffold. He met death without fear, forgiving all who had injured him, but still adamant in his defiance of the foreigner. He admitted that he still could cling to life if he could only exist in another form under the fog and sunshine of his native hills. But be knew well that it was not to be and with quiet resolve faced the end. He did not forget his mother and sisters who he knew would be lonely and silent around their spinning-wheels in Carnally and he thought of his foster parents, Paddy and Rose MacArdle in Ballsmill.
He forgave Patsy McDacker and Arty Fearon and he also forgave his only true love Molly. Her treachery he believed, was just a jealous mistake and he hoped that after his death she would prepare his winding-sheet and renew her love for him. He was hanged on the Tuesday and after the body had hung for three days it was cut down and given to his friends on Friday. He was waked and keened for two nights in his mother's barn in Carnally and was buried on Sunday morning, in the graveyard of Creggan church close to the family vault of his kinsmen the O'Neills. His people the "An Beirnigh" had brought the copy of his last poem home and Peadar O'Doirnin turned it into a song which was sung at the wake.
Patsy McDacker stayed in Armagh to witness the death of his victim and just as the rope was released, the sun suddenly shone out from behind the clouds. The scaffold was directly in line between Paddy and the sun and dazzled by the sudden sunshine, he had to keep one eye closed in order to see the hanging. From that moment he developed a permanent squint and from that day forward it is said that all his descendants could be recognised by their squint. He had to go back to Armagh to collect the blood-money and, to show their contempt for the squint-eyed traitor who could not speak a word of English, the authorities forced him to count fifty pounds in copper coins into a bag, and to take the load away with him. Paddy, in his greed, carried this frightful load on his back from Armagh to the Flagstaff, a distance of over twenty Irish miles. It is told that he journeyed by night and went into hiding by day. Coming down the Flagstaff, within sight of his own shebeen, his back gave way under the weight, and he dropped dead on the side of the road.
Arty Fearon was killed on his way home from Armagh and no one ever knew who did the deed.
Molly had repented her treachery before the trial and was willing to bear witness to the truth of O'Doirnin's story but she was never called to testify. When O'Doirin's song became popular and she was forced to listen to it at every turn, her reason gave way. Molly MacDacker was ostracised by her community and became mentally ill. She drowned herself in Carlingford Lough, and was buried in Narrow-water plantation in the graveyard reserved for suicides and un-baptised infants.
When Peadar O'Doirnin died in Forkill in 1769, his elegy was composed by Art McCooey another of the Gaelic Poets of South Armagh. O'Doirnin is buried in Urney graveyard in north County Louth,
Art McCooey is buried in Creggan graveyard, where the last three Gaelic poets of the area are locked together forever in immortal embrace, beneath the soil of their beloved South Armagh.
Pádraig Mac Aliondain the famous harper and poet who died in 1733 is also buried in Creggan graveyard.
When Johnston died in 1749, in an ironic twist of fate he was buried in the same Creggan graveyard as his arch enemy, Seamus Mor MacMurphy.
Seamus Mor MacMurphy's Last Poem
Were I only a rowanberry on the Fathom's top—or a bright little primrose in the sun's rays; or a blackbird flying through Dunreavy's wood—and around by Carnally where I was reared with such honour.
Since the defeat of Aughrim our people have been in sorrow—Alas that I could never see my company marshalled for the battle—alas that we are not at war, with our men in camps—and Seamas MacMurphy the chief in command.
Alas that I am not on Ardaghy hill, or on the high Fathom peak—drinking from the glasses in my loved one's parlour—I would compose songs in her praise, and would drink her health with pleasure—but, ochone, maiden of the white throat, it was you who left my mind troubled.
As the white-thorn blossoms light up the early summer—as the swaying of tile white swan adds colour to the pools—or as the rays of the bright sun dance through the ocean waves—so the memory of my love makes my mind delirious.
0! Molly, gentle and kind! even if it was you who sent me to death—come to my funeral and prepare my body for burial—If you still wish for our nuptials and desire all my love—return and kiss my lifeless mouth, and my bruised heart will have rest.
Dear sweetheart, you best could wash my burial shroud—not in stagnant pools, nor even in red mountain streams—but with brandy and the crimson wine of France—and then bleach it 'neath the sun's bright rays.
To-morrow, St. Patrick's Day, the Sessions begin—perjury will hold sway with crowds to substantiate the lies—there will be a " strong " jury, with Arty on his oath—and Tuesday will be settled for my last exit from the prison quarters.
I trusted you, Arty, that had you discovered me in the commission of a thousand murders you would keep my secret as if it were your own—yet now I see your breast stained with my blood.
Just a year previous to the day of my capture we were at Killeavy patron—a year, gone to-morrow we were at Dunleer Races; to-day I'm lying in Armagh Gaol like hundreds before me—with my fate to be sealed at the Public Sessions,
In the gloomy cavern of the old dungeon I met a flat-footed hag—with about an inch of a ' bob' in the centre of her bald forehead—she did not understand my dialect, and I would not speak English—but ever lonely for my heart's love the dark girl from the mountain valley.
I'll rise to-morrow with the first break of day ; I'll have to walk through the street, guarded on all sides; guns will be held high over me, without counting smaller arms; and death will await me at the end of the road.
I was not aware that I had got fame from my residence in the King's dungeon—until I found my shirt-neck being smoothed back—my bright fancy hat being let fly with the wind—and the Beirnigh in their crowds, gathered on every side of me.
Give my farewell to Patsy without spite—but I'm sorry that he got the chance to play the fingers on my knave ; give my farewell to Molly who sold me - but I forgive her for the crime of which she accused me.
My heart goes out, to-night to my own loving mother—and to her five spinners who had the sweetest voices in Erin—in that residence where we used to exhibit our accomplishments—under the guidance of a mother who had then no anxiety.
Down in the Bog Lough are four pretty maidens—the four; spinners with the sweetest voices in Erin—singing their rhymes that you could hear on the Hill of Howth—and Ally Murphy full-tired trying to guide them.
Let me not forget Paddy and Rose McArdle—my foster-parents from the days of my childhood—find out if my comrades still hold out in their haunts—for I am now in Armagh without chance of escape.
Come to my funeral on Friday evening—or, if you like, follow it on the road on Sunday morning—stretched in the coffin, my ears will be searching for the voices of Kate MacDonnell and the maidens of the district.
Raise me up, and let me down—and leave me in the barn till my mother mourns me—the keening women will each wear a yard of head-adornment—all but the dark woman who gave me her troth, the unfaithful dark woman.
Raise me high, and lay me low—around to Carnally where I was reared when I had no sense—Peggy Nugent and the maidens of the country will assemble—and Beirnigh from Dunreavy's branchy wood will gather on every side of me. Farewell.
Seamus Mor MacMurphy.
Many thanks to the writings of Rev. Lawrence P. Murray, PP.
Dún Dealgan Press, 1940
© John A. Brennan 2018. All Rights Reserved.