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The Fews, South Armagh (Féa, woods): A place name and a potted history of a legendary Area

I have an interest in The Fews of South Armagh for family and professional reasons.  My paternal grandfather, one of seven brothers, came from Newtownhamilton, and fought for the IRA during the War of Independence.  After partition, he came to Dublin and set up a successful business.  When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, security normalisation in South Armagh was a challenging part of my brief in Anglo-Irish Division.

“Fiod is one of the words meaning ‘wood’ and is Anglicized as fee or fi,” writes Flanagan (p.88). In the case of the Fews in South Armagh (and Waterford), it is the Irish plural féa with the English plural ‘s’ added. 

As Joyce notes, Ireland was covered in woods so there are a host of words in Irish to describe them.  He gives fiod as fidh, or in Old Irish fid.  So covered in woods was Ireland that he records that one of the Bardic names for Ireland was Inis-na-bhfiodhaid or woody island (vol I, p 491).  Feenish in Co Clare is another way of saying woody island.  Fiodhach means a wooded place, hence Feagh, Feeagh, Feenagh.

Fee can have white (bán), big (mór), small (beg) and high (ard) added to it: Feebane, Feemore, Feebeg, Fethard and Feeard.

The Fews of South Armagh was historically a dangerous place whose locals fought to preserve their independence from invaders and interlopers.  None were more famous than Redmond O’Hanlon, a 17th century Gaelic Chieftain and, perforce, an Irish outlaw who, in a manner of speaking, helped preserve order, admittedly at a price.  The protection money he received he paid back out to his supporters and informants. He was a rapparee or tóraidhe, an irregular; ironically tóraidhe mutated into Tory as a name for the British conservative party. O’Hanlon was of noble Gaelic stock whose family was displaced of land and status by the Elizabeth and Cromwellian conquests.  He was betrayed and assassinated in 1681 but his name lives on in legend.

The North is naturally cut off from the rest of Ireland by the Erne river system, a band of steep ovoid drumlins (left behind by melting glaciers after the ice age) and the Mourne Mountains. There is a gap in the mountains that allows passage into Ulster from the south.  For that reason, South Armagh has featured as the focal point of wars and power struggles from mythic to modern times (see blog on Slieve Gullion). 

Faughart marks the southern end of the Gap of the North.  St Brigid was born here in 451, daughter of Dubhtach, a king of Leinster (we don’t know what he was doing there at the time of her birth). St Brigid is one of Ireland’s three patron saints, along with St Patrick and St Columcille. The shrine to her at Faughart is a popular attraction for pilgrims and tourists.

In Louth to the south, the land is flat and fertile, in contrast to South Amargh whose terrain was buckled by a volcano (now the famous Ring of Gullion).  Louth represented the northern reach of the Anglo-Norman Pale around Dublin. So the Fews of South Armagh were at the heart of a ferocious and prolonged struggle for control between the native Gaels, led by the O’Neills of the Fews, and the Anglo-Norman and later Elizabethan invaders. 

Mountjoy, Elizabeth I’s most successful soldier in Ireland, built Moyry Castle to hold the Gap of the North. As Toby Harnden points out in his book Bandit Country, The IRA and South Armagh, the castles built to control the area were the forerunners of the British Army Observation Towers erected during the Troubles.  

South Armagh became infamous as the redoubt of the local Provisional IRA, a ferocious and bloody conflict between local paramilitaries and the security forces. It was the scene too of sectarian atrocities.  There are both Protestant and Catholic McKees in Newtownhamilton.  James McKee (70) and Ronald McKee (40) were killed by a republican attack on Tullyvalen Orange Hall, along with two other civilians.

For the security forces, the fifteen Observation (surveillance) Towers and concrete sangers dotted around South Armagh were critical as far as the British Army and Northern Ireland police were concerned.  They would not or could not patrol without them. Troops moved and were resupplied by helicopter between them to avoid roadside ambushes.

For locals the Towers, and the constant helicopter traffic, were a serious imposition giving rise to all kinds of concerns about lack of privacy, noise, constant surveillance, possible health effects, and the fear that going about their daily lives meant they were at risk of being mistaken for paramilitaries.  I recall Séamus Mallon, SDLP Deputy Leader, MP and a modern day local chieftain (the peaceful variety), from nearby Markethill, saying that the Towers were the bane of his existence as a politician.

When I was a traveller in Anglo-Irish Division during the Troubles, there was always a sense of alertness as you entered the Gap of North, under the gaze of the Observation Tower on Camlough Mountain.  There was equally a sense of relief when you passed through it heading south.  Rosemary Nelson and I used to talk about this.  A human rights lawyer from Lurgan, Co. Armagh, Rosemary represented the Garvaghy Road residents during the Drumcree standoff.  Times were tense: contentious parades surged as new flashpoints in the conflict in the wake of the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires. Rosemary felt the relief acutely, either heading to Dublin or across the border for a holiday in Donegal.

The bitterest of all standoffs was between the Orange Order and the Garvaghy Residents of Portadown. I was the Government’s point-man on this and got to know Rosemary.  In 1994, the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time, Ray Burke, dispatched me north to meet the Residents the day after they were beaten off the Garvaghy Road to allow the Orange parade to pass. As I approached the Gap of the North, I could see trails of black smoke from burning tires spiral skyward across the north. The north had erupted into riots the previous evening. A burned-out bus lay athwart the Newry by-pass. When I reached the massive steel gates that separated the Garvaghy Road from Portadown centre, the RUC officers open the gates with barely a nod. They knew I was coming. As the tires crunched over broken glass, my first thought was that getting a puncture leaving Portadown was probably not a good idea wearing a suite and tie and driving a southern registered car. I was glad I had left my DFA ID on the desk.

The Orange Order itself was founded in County Armagh at the end of the 18th century where the balance between Catholic and Protestant populations ramped up sectarian tensions and inter-communal violence. After the Good Friday Agreement in 1995, the line was held on the Garvaghy Road by the security forces and over time the tensions around the parades issues were managed into de-escalation. Rosemary paid the price for her high profile role as a human rights defender and was assassinated by car bomb outside her home in 1999.  

After the Good Friday Agreement achieving security normalisation was part of my brief in DFA’s Anglo-Irish Division.  Progress on security normalisation in South Armagh was very challenging but the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and Prime Minister Blair kept working at it with the determination that marked all their effects to bring peace to Northern Ireland. 

That the Observation Towers were eventually demolished along with all the security architecture at the border crossing was an emphatic demonstration that peace in Northern Ireland, and indeed in the legendary Fews of South Armagh, was here to stay.  Today, it is hard to spot the border, save for a keen eye on the colour of the road markings.  The determination to preserve this gain, so essential to the Northern Ireland peace process, has been a driving force in the Government’s efforts to manage the challenge of Brexit to the progress we have made.

Eamonn

Ottawa, 7 March 2021

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