Journey: South Armagh stands tall as a beautiful vacationer vacation spot

I remember well. October 1987 and I crossed Armagh and hosted an offspring of the late Robert Kennedy. One of the destinations was Ara Coeli to meet Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich.

His Eminence was an earthy man. He had few questions for the Kennedy family, but many for me. “Where are you from?” “Which Kelly are you?” Are you related to Owenie Kelly? I think my answers disappointed him. Worst of all was (and remains) my loyalty to the Reds and Blacks, not Orchard County.

After 33 years, my newfound feeling of where I come from would have put a crooked smile on the cardinal’s face, along with the welcome snoop from Uisce Beatha – whom I had declined during our encounter.

A few weeks ago I discovered my paternal great-grandfather and three sets of his ancestors were from two neighboring townlands south of Armagh – Shean and Shanroe between what is now Forkhill and Mullaghbane.

My family timeline fades into insignificance when you consider that there have been settlements in the shadow of Slievegullion for 6,000 years, and every rock, tree, street, hedge and stream is as much part of its history as the people who lived here.

While I was at Newry Abbey, a school teacher gave me a book called The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool – Captain of the Fianna. Finn’s enchantment on Slievegullion reads like a story from Greek mythology – but it’s folklore from here, not Olympus.

Soon I was amazed by other legends about Cuchulainn, the children of Lir, and the Cattle Raid of Cooley …

The Ring of Gullion is folklorically saturated. The entire area is characterized by the oral transmission of songs and stories. But would any of this kindle a fire inside of me to spend time in a part of our country that is so rich in offer but so close to home?

Well, the short answer is yes, and the recent phase of semi-lockdown seemed like the perfect time for it. Living with Covid-19 has acclimated us to looking for new activities.

But if I stayed where and what would I do? What is rather annoying is that South Armagh is often confused with the Mournes as a kind of tourism sub-brand. But South Armagh is to the Mournes what the Kingdom of Kerry is to Kildare.

Thanks to the Ring of Gullion’s geo-ambassador, history guide and cultural Tour de Force Una Walsh, the region has had its shoulders and now stands as a travel destination in its own right.

And Una is not alone – there is a legion of new ambassadors for South Armagh whose expertise on a range of topics from myths and legends, traditional crafts, genealogy, poetry, rebellions, landed property, famine, geology, songs, sports, cemeteries, Passages, tombs, betrayals and fortresses.

On the way to Forkhill I stopped in the beautiful forest park of Slievegullion. This is perhaps one of South Armagh’s most underrated attractions, and the natural forest trails are no doubt enhanced by the skills of the local art group Sticky Fingers, who turned a section into a fairy trail.

Writer Tom Kelly chills in South Armagh

On the Slievegullion there is the reward of a mountain lake and a Neolithic passage grave that lies in front of the pyramids. It is more than synonymous with the better known Newgrange, especially during the winter solstice.

But as Keady Songster the late Tommy Makem once said, “South Armagh remains one of the last undiscovered parts of Ireland” and that is where its charm lies.

I leave Slievegullion and go to the old churches of Killeavy and the resting place of St. Moninna, who allegedly founded a monastery there “with nine virgins and a widowed mother with one son”. Even more noteworthy, the son Luger became a bishop.

These ruins are part of the South Armagh Poet Trail, fascinating because the poets were among the most notable in Ireland at the time; Art MacCooey, Seamus Mor McMurphy, and Peadar O’Dornin were the celebrities of their day and were no less likely to spark controversy, be it with alcohol, ladies, rudeness, or even a bit of rebellion.

After a short sketch around Crossmaglen Square, I catch up with Una Walsh and she takes me to the Creggan Graveyard. Here, she says, is the full history of southeast Ulster.

The original church was founded by the O’Neills in 1480 and the replacement and current church was built in 1758. The O’Neill’s crypt is visible.

Ruins of Killeavy ancient churches

Uniquely Creggan, with a Catholic and Protestant heritage, is a resting place for the planters, the Gael, and their descendants. In fact, Una’s ancestor, Seamus Mor MacMurphy, a Rapparee, was buried there after he was hanged by Johnson of the Fews, the High Sheriff of Armagh, who is also buried at Creggan.

Una races through history like a human time machine, speaking of Roches’ Anglo-Norman castle, Moyry, which fortified Mountjoy as a gap in the north for King William and Derrymore, where the last chancellor of an all-Irish parliament is and where it claimed to be, the Union law had been signed. All of this within 10 miles of Newry.

Where to sleep? It used to be a challenging question, but now there are a multitude of options: Canal Court, Newry, Carrickdale, The Cross Hotel, Crossmaglen, Ti Chulainn, Mullaghbawn or the restored 19th century Irish mansion, Killeavy Castle and Spa.

But what I noticed was something completely different; a Facebook advertisement for Blue Bell Lane Glamping, Mullaghbawn.

I wasn’t entirely sure what glamping meant, and my last disastrous camping attempt ended up being sullenly wrapped in the ground cover and sleeping under a tree in Connemara. I’m not Bear Grylls.

But Blue Bell Lane Glamping is the Hilton of glamping. The skill requirements are nothing more than the ability to flip a switch, light a stove, or uncork a bottle of wine.

It is an exquisite collection of pods, shepherds’ huts and self-catering cottages, tastefully decorated and located in the middle of South Armagh at the foot of Slievegullion. Each capsule is in a mini rat.

And do you remember my school book about Finn MacCool? Well, this is where the story takes a local twist: Finn’s encounter is with ‘The Callaigh Bhirra’ or Hag of Beare, and on Halloween it is re-enacted for children on Blue Bell Lane.

The inspiration behind Blue Bell Lane Glamping is the welcoming, humble, but eclectic Padraig Carragher. He and his talented artist Sharon have a strong sense of belonging to South Armagh. You can feel Padraig’s pride in being rooted here. He reminds me that a generation in the thousands of years that shaped this landscape and its people is just a minor slip.

Majestic Slieve Gullion

And this is a man who knows something about sculpture when making things with wood. He tends to seedlings, watches them grow and then, as a wood turner, takes what nature gives up and creates targeted artifacts.

Watching Padraig is Colleen Savage, balladess, South Armagh Tourism Ambassador, and part-time planning consultant. She tells me that over four years he planted 22,000 native trees on site.

There is also a 1.2 km nature trail within Bluebell and Padraig, as a wood turner, offers workshops where he claims that his trainees have a 100 percent success rate.

Colleen owns Oriel Events. She organizes wonderful musical vents both in real time and online. She also runs tours based on the oral traditions of South Armagh. A singer / songwriter from the folk and traditional Irish genre, Colleen represents a new and enthusiastic group of champions for tourism here. You can feel your pride.

Another feature of my visit was the discovery that Carrickmacross lace (which was part of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress) should perhaps be better known as Culloville lace. This gem was provided to me by Rosie Finnegan Bell. Lace making dates back to the 1830s in the area and was in some ways the only way a woman could make a living independently.

Room with a view of Gullion

Culloville was also home to Ireland’s first purpose-built lace making school, and it was a truly ecumenical effort. Today the workshops will be continued and even adapted to online due to Covid.

When Slievegullion pondered my short time in South Armagh as a travel destination, he bewitched her and leaned over the red gate in my shepherd’s hut. I could see Shanroe, the place of my ancestors, and thought, “Ar ais sa bhaile le mo mhunitir.”

I slept soundly that night knowing the Hag of Beare couldn’t dye my hair white like they did Finn MacCool.

On the way home I passed a sparkling Camlough Lake, whose majestic swans held court as in a legend of their own. South Armagh comes into your soul.

Useful contacts for visitors to South Armagh include:
Bluebell Lane Glamping – [email protected]
Walshna Walsh Historian & Tour Guide – [email protected]
Colleen Savage (Oriel Events) – [email protected]
The South Armagh Lace Collective / Lace, Love and Forget-Me-Not – [email protected]

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