The soulful keen of the úilleann pipes echoed across the fields and hills of south Armagh. The tricolour and provincial flags fluttered in the breeze against the backdrop of a clear blue sky and Slieve Gullion in the distance. The large crowd was silent as the piper played a beautiful rendition of the last post in remembrance of the twenty-four local IRA volunteers whose names adorn the wall of the Memorial Garden at Tí Chulainn, in Mullaghbawn.
Sunday was the annual Volunteers Day when those Óglaigh who gave their lives in south Armagh are remembered by family, friends, and comrades. This year the local republicans decided to erect a memorial stone for Martin McGuinness who opened the garden in October 2010. Martin’s wife Bernie, Emmett, Fiachra, Grainne and Fionnuala, and their grandchildren were in attendance.
Martin loved south Armagh. He knew many of those on the Roll of Honour, including Mickey McVerry, the first Volunteer to be killed from the area and the two Brendan’s. He was especially proud to have been asked to open the memorial Garden. He told me about it afterward, and over the years he and I have been there many times. It is a credit to those who erected it and the laochra it commemorates in this quiet most beautiful of places. It is set in one of the most beautiful spots on the island.
The new stone dedicated to Martin is of local granite, from a farm at Camlough. It is inscribed, “A true friend and comrade of the Republican Movement in South Armagh.”
The inscription also includes words from the poem Úrchill an Chreagáin, by the 18th century local poet Art MacCumhaigh. Art spent most of his life as a labourer and a gardener around Crossmaglen. He was known as Art na gCeoltai – Art of the songs. Of the 25 or so of his poems that still survive the most famous is Úrchill an Chreagáin. It is an aisling poem. He was a poet of the dispossessed and Úrchill an Chreagáin is often described as an anthem for south east Ulster and a lamentation for the fall of the O’Neill’s of the Fews. He was one of the last of the Ulster poets in the Irish language tradition.
The inscription reads: “A fhialfhir charthannaigh, Ná caitear thusa I néaltaí bróin. Ach éirigh Go tapaidh Is aistrigh liom siar sa ród”.
“My kind young man do not sleep in sorrow. But rise swiftly and come along the road with me.”
Martin McGuinness, was also a poet. He would love the words of Art MacCumhaigh. I always associate Úrchill an Chreagáin with Raymond McCreesh. I can still hear Donal Duffy piping Raymond home to his Armagh Hills from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh in 1981 after 61 days on hunger strike. Raymond and his 23 comrades on the memorial wall were freedom fighters who gave their lives for the cause of Ireland. Their courage is proof of the indomitable spirit of the republicans of south Armagh.
And the words of Art MacCumhaigh are proof, if it was ever needed why they and everyone else who played any part in the struggle were not defeated.
It also highlights the arrogance of the British and their propagandists who during the years of conflict labelled this proud community as a “terrorist community” – this beautiful area as “bandit country” - and the freedom struggle as a criminal enterprise.
This is the land where Cú Chulainn played hurling, where Na Fianna and the Red Branch Knights sported and played. It is the place the Vikings failed to conquer, where the Gaelic clanns of the Oriel resisted the Norman invaders, where the Mac Murphy’s fought against King William, where the United Irish Society, the Ribbon Societies and the Fenians flourished.
The British Army didn’t stand a chance of defeating the spirit – centuries old – of a people with the character, culture, history and sense of freedom, that is as old as the hills of south Armagh. No more than the British government could hope to defeat the hunger strikers and criminalise the freedom struggle in 1981.
It is worth recalling that the first republicans of our generation to be elected were all prisoners - Bobby Sands MP, Ciaran Doherty TD and Paddy Agnew TD. Paddy topped the poll in Louth in the general election of June 1981. In the intervening 37 years he never visited the place he was elected to – until last week. We hosted Paddy and his wife Catherine. He was warmly received and acknowledged by the Ceann Comhairle, the Clerk of the Dáil, and the rest of us.
Paddy, who was arrested on a boat in Carlingford Lough, was welcomed to Leinster House by a former Admiral of the Irish Republican navy Martin Ferris, who was also arrested on a boat.
Paddy’s visit was a timely reminder of how far we have all come. But we have more to do. The DUP have tied themselves to the English Tories and Brexit. They continue to deny citizens rights enjoyed elsewhere on these islands. We can be confident that that will all be sorted. It is a question of when not if. The DUP position is not sustainable. However, it is for them to come to terms with that.
In the meantime, we will continue to demand that the rights of the people living in this part of the island are protected and upheld now and in any post-Brexit arrangement, and to push for a referendum on Irish unity. The Taoiseach’s recent claim that such a referendum is not desirable at this time is not acceptable. Almost 100 years after partition when does he think it would be acceptable? Leo Varadkar has a duty to uphold the Good Friday Agreement. He cannot cherry-pick it.
Sunday’s event was good for everyone in attendance, especially the families of our patriot dead and their families and former comrades. It is only right that we commemorate and celebrate their sacrifice.
It is important also to uphold and acknowledge the right of those who the IRA fought against to be commemorated and celebrated by their families and friends and former comrades. They were doing their duty as they saw it.
Thankfully, it is all history now. It’s time to heal old wound, to reach out to the other, to extend the hand of friendship to opponents and old enemies.
That presents many challenges. Of course it does. Art MacCumhaigh two hundred years ago pointed the way forward, “do not sleep in sorrow. But rise swiftly and come along the road with me to the land of honey where the foreigner has no hold.”