The sands of time are fast running out for the way of life that still exists for the people living in the fenland of north Armagh. If the powers that be in the Craigavon Commission have their way the Montiaghs as we know them today will see drastic changes within the next two decades. Sandwiched between the New City and the shores of Lough Neagh their ancient culture will slowly disappear.
In former times this area was part of Clann-Breasail under the chieftainship of the McCann family. The name Rowrie Mc Patrick Mc Kan is written across Clann-Breasail in the Map of the Escheated Counties. This chieftain died in the mountains of south Armagh in 1627 and was succeeded by his son Toole. William Brownlow, the son of John Brownlow, in 1610 was granted 1000 acres in Clann-Breasail to farm the Manor of Ballynamoney and besides this grant a vast stretch (as it was then called) of unprofitable land was granted gratuitously. The names of these unprofitable town lands were Ballynery, Derrymacash, Derryadd, Ardmore, Derrycor, Derrytagh, North and South, Derrytrasna, Derryloiste and Derryinver, and consisted of bog covered with a vast forest of oak and ash. These woodlands were removed by a company of three tanners - Thomas Anderson of Lurgan, Joseph Waring of Derriaghy and Thomas Waring of Belfast who took a lease of seven townlands in the Montiaghs from William Brownlow, paying £63 rent annually.
According to records in the Brownlow Rentals in the second half of the 17th century, townlands in the Montiaghs were leased to the following families: McCann, Fallon, McKeen in Derrymacash; McAlindens, Derryadd and Ardmore; McKeown in Ballynery and Derrytrasna, and Magennis in Derryinver.
Situated in this area is Trowagh (Bay Shore). In his book, "Parish of Seagoe -- Place names Explained" Rev. Dean Mooney, B.D., gives Traigh Dhubhacb (Trowagh: Gloomy or Tragic Shore, Traigh, a shore or strand) This is interesting for in the Annals of the Four Masters it is recorded that "in 1121 Cumaighe, son of Deoradh O Flinn, Lord of Derlas, a territory East of the River Bann, was drowned in Loch Neagh. After that the people of Na Eachdach (Iveagh) had obtained the island Raicpenn for him. Bishop Revies identifies Raicpenn as "this island is now called Rathlin and is situated in the South East extremity of Lough Neagh opposite the Parish of Montiaghs."
In Friar O Mellan's Narrative of the War of 1641, Traigh Dhubhach, is mentioned:
June 4, 1646: Sir Phelim sent six boats to Bunavally, the boats were drawn ashore, and soldiers placed between that and the garrison. The boats were then brought to Trowagh Bay, a fort was raised there and soldiers stationed in it, with some fishermen who caught plenty of fish. The catches were thus prevented from leaving Bulnavally and they were in great want of provisions.
January 27, 1647: Sir Phelim sent out seven boats and a bark in which were two field pieces and a strong crew, upon Lough Neagh. The two enemy forts in Claneboy were destroyed and the great haggart belonging to Major Connolly, the person who informed against Connor Maguire, Lord Enniskillen, who was put to death in 1644, 20th February. They killed both men; and cattle, and brought away whatever they pleased in the boats. They were pursued by land and water. Sir Phelim's people were raising a fort on Trowagh, Clannbrassel, when the enemy surprised them and killed a number of them among the rest was Robert Atkinson a Lieutenant. Upwards of 20 were taken some drowned. Two boats escaped but the bark and five boats were taken.
After the wars and during the penal times the Irish tenants in the Montiaghs were replaced by English settlers. These family names are retained in the district today. Stevenson, Emerson in Ardmore; Abraham and Cordner in Derryadd; Webb and Castles in Derrymacash; Wilson in Derryinver, Dynes in Derrytagh and Robb and Irwin in Ballinery. Some of these leases show that fishing was a principal occupation.
In the Ordnance Survey Memoirs compiled in the 1830s the woodlands of the area had completely disappeared except for a few trees around the Glebe House and some young firs around Mr. Ffordes of Raughlin. Tenants of Charles Brownlow had farms from 5-20 acres and the average rents were from 24 to 28 shillings per acre. Bog for pasture was 10 shillings and bog for cutting 30 shillings.
Average depth of the Bog was 20 feet with an estimated 86 million cubic yards available for removable. Of the three river ferries at that time the Bann Foot ferry was the most important. Cost of crossing to a foot passenger was three halfpence and for a horse and cart, fourpence.
Sociologists at present are engaged in collecting every trace of the past but this is nothing new. As long ago as 1840 when navvies were digging the line for the Ulster Railway one of the Surveyors - William Lutton of Breagh, Portadown was collecting words and phrases peculiar to the Montiaghs. This collection contains numerous expressions not now in use. Some have even passed from recollection, words like:
With the disappearance of the traditional cottage, evidence may be gained about living conditions in names given to various parts of the house. Dr Desmond McCourt has made an extensive study of the Weaver's Houses around South-West Lough Neagh. This paper was published in Volume 8 of Ulster Folklife. One of the most outstanding houses in the district is the cruck-truss cottage at Kinnego belonging to Andrew Murray.
Every generation leaves its mark, in August, 1905, J. McAleese published a long poem in the "Lurgan Mail" in praise of his own townland, Ardmore. Here are two verses of this poem:
My Native Place Ardmore
All you who love the country scene
I'll advise you what to do,
Take a trip on the Lough Neagh Queen
The health it will renew;
With balmy breeze upon the deck
When passing by our shore
Quiet easy then, you can view the gem
That smiles on sweet Ardmore.
The scenery around Killarney
May be picturesque and fine
The grandeur of Killala Bay
Imposing and sublime
But what are these compared on to -
The old bog holes galore
Where eels and pike do sport at will
In the grand place - Ardmore.
No sooner had this appeared in print when a reply came from a man named Hugh McCorry in the townland of Annaghmore West. This reply sparked off a series of poems which were to appear in the Lurgan Mail for over the next seven years. McCorry's reply ran like this:
Who is this big Montiagh man
That sings about Ardmore
And says its beauty far excels
Killarney's lovely shore
Killala Bay, or Bonnie Doon
In nature's smiles annoyed
When side by side this fair spot
Their beauty seems to fade.
Another famous character was the Poet Haughian - "Hacken" who wrote many fine verses and ballads, one of which is sung by Teresa Clifford of TV fame called the Bonnie Green Tie. Here is a verse describing "Hacken's" many encounters with the law:
As I was coming down the town
I acted like a fool
I cursed the brutal government
And shouted out Home Rule
And cat-faced Sergeant Mooney
He thought to run my in
And I just touched him a Montiagh touch
Just right below the chin.
Now that television is installed in practically every home, and with the younger generation buying up the latest pop records that are being churned out by some bearded wonder who is here to day and gone tomorrow, members of our Society could do more to help to record dialect and traditions, and by photo grouping houses, out offices, gate posts before they are sorrowfully committed to memory.