Jem Murphy, Silverbridge, Co. Armagh
In the course of a detailed article, outlining the clearance, renovation and conservation of Creggan Graveyard, prior to the Art MacCooey bi-centenary celebrations in 1973, Jem Murphy describes the discovery of the O'Neill Vault and the first visit of the late Cardinal to the newly-discovered vault:
'Oft in the stilly night
Ere slumber's chains has bound me
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me.'
When the rest of men had gone home around 7 o'clock, I stayed behind to tidy up a rough area around Fr. Terence Quinn's gravestone, south-east, of the church. The evening was beautiful - a perfect day coming to a close, to make way for a perfect night. The white moon coming over Drumbally threw all kinds of shadows on the giant beech trees, from whose leaves there was not even the sound of a rustle; the river singing below; around me lie "barrows" of centuries of the buried kith-and-kin of the large Parish of Creggan.
Creggan pulls the centuries together and lets you see them in the nudity of their corelation. It is local history laid bare before you. It gives food for thought and at no time of the day do whispers of the past become more vibrant than at the twilight hour - Creggan of the princes; Creggan of the Irish chieftains; Creggan of the Cromwellian landlords; Creggan of the Gael; Creggan of the Gall; Creggan of the poets; Creggan of the outlaw; Creggan of the priest-hunter; Creggan of '98; Creggan of the Famine; Creggan of the Land League; Creggan of the clergy - Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic; Creggan of the countless thousands of ordinary people.
I was in a trance, thinking and dreaming. It was almost sixteen hours since I had left home at dawn. I gathered up the tools into one heap. They couldn't be left lying around over Sunday. I took a yard-brush and walked over to the pathway which leads from the gateway to the church door, intending to brush some clay off it. I heard the graveyard gate open and close. Johnny Reel, I thought to myself, coming back to chase me home. He had done so once before. I was wondering what he would say to me. I stood leaning on the brush-shaft facing the gate-way, at a little out-shot of the church, listening to the footsteps approaching. They were not Johnny's. The figure of a man came through the palm-tree's shadow out on to the moonlit pathway. "Well, James. How are you?". It was Fr. Tom. I recognised at once the voice that was soon to become world-famous. "I'm very well, thanks, Father", I replied. "Do you know we discovered the O'Neill Vault?" I asked. "Oh, yes", he replied. "I heard but I couldn't get here any sooner. I called at your home, thinking you'd be there and was told you hadn't arrived home, so I presumed you'd be here. You don't give in too easily. You surely mean to take Creggan back to its former glory". "We have a long, long, way to go Father", I replied. "Well, you are going well in that direction", he replied.
We moved round to the south side of the church in the direction of the vault. I took a crowbar from a pile of tools, as we passed them, and, between us, we moved the heavy McMahon stone from the opening. We climbed down through it. A moon-beam piercing through the opening lit up the old built-up entrance. He took a small battery-lamp from his pocket and shone it round the walls and arched roof of the enclosure. Neither of us spoke. He turned and looked at the moonlit sealed entrance; the jambs and lintels, which were the work of some man five hundred years ago; the limestone quoins on either side, perfectly chiselled and equally perfectly set; the doorway that Art MacCooey staggered through on that October night two hundred years before. Whispers must be coming to him, I thought, as he surveyed the built-up doorway, and who better could they come to? If any man on earth could put flesh on the bones that lay around us, it would be him. He looked at it for two or three minutes and then said: "It's amazing. This casts new light on MacCooey's poetry and the discovery couldn't come at a better time. Did you find anything of historical interest?" he inquired. "We didn't look for anything, Father", I replied. "We hadn't got the time to spare. As well, we didn't want sightseers until the grass was well a-beard". "I understand", he replied. We came up into the moonlit night and shunted the heavy McMahon stone back over the opening, with the aid of the crowbar. "No better name to stand guard". he said, as we turned and walked over the grave of Seamus MacMurphy to the path. I told him that we intended sowing-out on Monday and it would be two weeks before we would set foot in the graveyard again. 'I'll be here tomorrow three weeks, shortly after 2 o'clock and we'll see if we can find anything of interest, such as pieces of coffins. It's long after time you were home". "I have to clean the pathway, Father.", I said. "People will be coming to church tomorrow morning". "While you are at that, I'll carry the other tools down to the car for you", he said. Thanking him, I went back to the brush. A few minutes cleaned the pathway to the gateway. By then, he had the other tools placed on top of the fertiliser and seed in the back of the car. I opened the gate, came back to the car, placed the brush on the other tools and sat in the driver's seat. "Good night, Father", I said. "Good night, James", he replied. "I'll see you tomorrow three-weeks with the help of God and don't stop, I'll close the gate behind you". I knew he would "go far", as they say in South Armagh, but I also knew that he would never lose the common touch. "Don't stop, I'll close the gate". The scholar but still the humble man!