Some of the Antiquities of South-East Armagh

A Bessbrook Heritage Group Summer Event 2009

This tour was one of the Summer Events organised by the Bessbrook Heritage Group. A small group gathered in Camlough aware that the weather forecast had promised heavy showers and thunder and lightning. In the event this proved to be localised and we were blessed with strong sunshine throughout the day. Wonderful weather for viewing ancient monuments and picnicking.

The first stop was at the old church at the south edge of Camlough village (J039267). The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the mid-1830s suggest that St Jude’s Church was built about 1774. This is in keeping with the design which is typical of Church of Ireland buildings of that period. It is a simple rectangular building with a west tower. It could accommodate 168 people in 28 seats. It measures about 14m by 7m and is built of coursed rubble with granite quoins. The three south windows have stone Y-tracery but there is no indication of tracery in the north windows. There was a large east window which contains no remains of tracery and is now partly blocked. There is a north doorway at the base of the three-storey west tower. This arrangement of windows and doorway suggest that the prevailing weather was mainly from the south. The design is similar to some of those produced by Thomas Cooley for Archbishop Robinson in the late-18th century. Similar churches are found all over Ireland. Grander examples include transepts and aisles, many of which were added in the 19th century. Only a few memorials remain in the graveyard. At least two of them are of the blue-grey granodiorite known as Bessbrook Granite. This church was abandoned in 1883 when the Church of Christ the Redeemer was opened in Bessbrook.

A triathlon had been organised in the area on the day, so we did not linger at Camlough but drove quickly to Killevy (J040220) to avoid the expected traffic. St Moninna or Bline founded a nunnery on this site in the 5th century and the Holy Well and rag-tree on the nearby hillside bear her name. According to the annals she died in 517 or 519 and her feast day is 6 July. She is said to have built a wooden church close to Carlingford Lough and to have lived a strict and austere life. The site was raided by Vikings between 795 and 830 and again in 923. The convent was re-established about 1144 as a house of Augustinian canonesses and continued thus until the Dissolution in 1542. There are two ruined churches at Killevy. They are aligned in a row E - W and are linked by later walling. The older west church has a lintelled west doorway which may date from the 10th or 11th century. The rest of the church may be 12th century. There is a small round-headed east window. In the south wall is a low doorway which, until recently, was blocked by a stone basin. The larger east church, which dates from the 15th century, has a large east window with decorated label stops featuring carved masks of a king and queen. A third mask of a bishop may have existed at the apex of the window arch. There are doorways in the north and south walls. The foundation of a small rectangular building just outside the early west doorway is sometimes taken as evidence of the former existence of a Round Tower but there is no proof of this. It is reported that a tower was blown down in about 1768 but there is no evidence that this was of the classic Round Tower design. Leaning against the outside east wall of the older church is a thick trapezoidal granite block. It has a faint relief carving of a ring-headed cross with a short truncated pyramidal base. On the top face of the stone is a small incised cross. The earliest memorials in the graveyard date from the second half of the 18th century.

A short distance south of Killevy Churches, in Clonlum, is a round cairn about 9m diameter and less than 1m high (J046206). Parts of the retaining kerb are still in place. Projecting from the centre is a single-chambered tomb about 1.5m by 1m and 1m deep. The capstone is displaced and broken and would have been about 2m by 1.5m maximum. A standing stone just outside the chamber suggests an antechamber or it may be part of a passage. It is difficult to classify this monument. It may be a small passage tomb but lacks the corbelled roof often found with such structures. It may be a large cist. The standing stone suggests that it may be a portal tomb but it is not a typical example. During excavation in 1934 it was found that the site had been already thoroughly disturbed and there were few finds.

A meandering route brought us to the other side of the valley and Ballymacdermott Court Tomb (J066240). This tomb is set in a trapezoidal cairn 28.3m long by 9m wide at the narrow end. It has a very deep D-shaped court which may have been totally enclosed. It is about 7m wide and 5m deep. Running SSE from the forecourt is a three-chambered gallery about 7m long. The outer segment is just an ante-chamber and the others are burial chambers. There are good divisions between the chambers and parts of the corbelled roof survive. There is possibly a small displaced capstone. The sides of the cairn are revetted by a kerb of stones. Excavation in 1962 revealed some Neolithic pottery and flints. A visit to Ballymacdermott is worth it for the view alone. From the tomb it is easy to appreciate the nature of the Gap of the North which lies between the Cooley Mountains and the South Armagh Mountains. Even today it is an important routeway carrying the railway line and the A1/N1. By this time the fresh air and activity had given us an appetite and we stopped for a picnic lunch at Bernish Viewpoint. The views of Newry and South Down are magnificent. We also noticed traffic tailbacks on the A1 from Cloghogue roundabout. We had originally intended to go the Clontygora directly after lunch but, in view of the traffic situation, we decided to go to Kilnasaggart first and leave Clontygora until the last.

On the way to Kilnasaggart we took the opportunity to examine Ballinliss National School (J048225). The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the 1830s mention a T-shaped chapel in the townland of Ballinliss. It was built in 1795 and was capable of holding about 400 people. This is probably the building now labelled Ballinliss National School 1853 and the date refers to the time when the National School was established. It is a single-storey building with one large room in the crosspiece of the T and a small single room with a fireplace in the short stem of the T. Beside the school is a long single-storey building which has been recently refurbished as several dwellings. This was the original school which was established in 1832 for 87 pupils. A date stone found during refurbishment suggests that the building may be older than 1832.

Kilnasaggart (J063150), in Edenappa townland, stands close to one of Early Christian Ireland's great routeways, the Slighe Miodhluachra, which ran from Drogheda through the Moyry Pass to Dunseverick in North Antrim. Edward Bruce is said to have slept at 'Kilsagart'. In the 19th century there was a local belief that there was a crock of gold buried at the foot of the stone. It was overturned by treasure seekers about 1835 but was re-erected by the locals some time later. This tall thin granite pillar is reckoned to be the earliest datable Christian monument in Ireland. On the southeast face is a long inscription in Irish which records the dedication of the place by Ternohc, son of Ceran Bic under the patronage of Peter the Apostle. Ternohc's death is recorded in 714 or 716 and the pillar can be reasonably dated to about 700. There are also three crosses on the SE face and ten crosses on the NW face. Excavations in the 1960s revealed an Early Christian cemetery and some small cross-inscribed slabs which may have served as grave-markers. This area is known as ‘The Glen of the Heifer’. The heifer who lived in this glen gave milk in abundance to all who came, always filling the bucket. One day a person tried to milk the cow into a sieve. The angry beast stamped her foot on the ground and then left the valley forever. The small stone which showed the track of the heifer’s foot was still on site about five years ago but is not visible today. In the field between the pillar and the railway-line is a large boulder with a bullaun. This is a about 40cm diameter and 20cm deep. It is not a typical bullaun in that the diameter of the rim is less than the maximum diameter.

Moyry Castle (J057146) stands on the hillside near Kilnasaggart Stone. It is a small rectangular tower three storeys high. It has rounded corners and the walls are about 1.2m thick. There are many gun-loops and the doorway in the north east is protected by a machicolation. There is a fireplace at first floor level. There are no stairs. The tower is set in the corner of a small bawn parts of which still stand up to 2.75m high. The bawn was probably entered at NE & formed a defensive courtyard. The castle was built in 1601 by Lord Mountjoy to help secure Moyry Pass and the Gap of the North. The Gap of the North was an important routeway connecting SE Ulster and NE Leinster. The hills were thickly wooded and much of the lower ground was boggy. The Moyry Pass and the Gap of the North were some of the few places where armies could easily pass through this natural barrier. During the O’Neill wars of the late 16th century the Irish controlled the pass. When Lord Deputy Mountjoy tried to make his way through in May 1600 he was prevented by an attack of 1200 foot and 220 horse soldiers. In 1601, for some unknown reason, Hugh O’Neill and his army abandoned the pass. Mountjoy and his men marched through the undefended Moyry Pass and cleared it of the dense woodland as they did so. By the time we had explored Moyry Castle it was after 4 o’clock and some of our group had family commitments. However four intrepid explorers remained to visit Clontygora Court Tomb (J098194).

This monument was badly damaged in the 18th and19th century but the remains are still impressive. It is known locally as "The King's Ring". The court is not as full as that at Ballymacdermot but it contains some very large stones, some of which are over 2m high. Excavation showed that the cairn was 20m long by 10.5m wide. To the north it broadened to about 15m and splayed out to encompass the forecourt. The gallery was divided into three chambers. The first burial chamber is fairly intact and has some lintels in place. Not all these lintels are in their original positions. Some of the smaller stones in this area may have been inserted fairly recently when the chamber appears to have been used as a stone hut. Some large stones to the rear of the chamber now form part of a field boundary and may be all that remains of the rest of the gallery. There is very little cairn material. It was excavated in 1937. Excavation finds included sherds of decorated and plain ware, worked flint and cremated human bone.