The hidden South Armagh


It is the house-style of this newspaper to refer to the North. Always upper case to show that region is question is the six counties of Northern Ireland and not the geographic north of the island. It is shorthand and a quick way of letting the reader know where he is. Over the years that uppercase "n" has come to haunt people. It has an abstract quality which alludes to so much more: shootings, bombings, sectarianism, darkness. Similarly, other areas have achieved a notoriety which elevates them to upper case. Republicans refer to West Belfast, meaning the nationalist end of town, while the maps refer to west Belfast. British soldiers speak of "the Ardoyne", elevating plain, simple Ardoyne to the same level as Vietnam's DMZ through the use of the definite article.

Undoubtedly one of the areas which has become most associated with the upper-case is South Armagh, a place, depending on whose version you accept, of virtuous freedom fighters struggling to save Ireland's soul from the Brits or a place full of cattle-smuggling gunmen who'd shoot you for the price of a pint. Both versions are rotten to the core. Propaganda and counter-propaganda have created a place called South Armagh which is 100 per cent upper case.

There is another south Armagh, a place which happens to be the southern part of Co. Armagh and which shares an ancient border with Louth and Monaghan. It is the hidden Ulster, a region of poets and folk songs, a region where Irish was spoken by native speakers well into the middle of this century. Ti Chulainn is a cultural activities centre that is rooted in south Armagh. Located in the village of Mullaghban, it stands in the shadow of Slieve Gullion, one shining link in the beautiful Ring of Gullion. The scenery is the stuff of picture postcards: rugged slopes, green fields, sweeping plains to the south. Were it not for the British army watch towers which pimple the mountains like khaki-coloured warts and the helicopters which duck and dive across the sky it would undoubtedly be as famous and as frequented as the Ring of Kerry. The area is dotted with burial cairns and chambers which attest to over 6,000 years of habitation. A wrong turn took this writer to the ruins of a church which was sacked by Vikings in 923. Some of the adjoining graves have fresh flowers on them. It was a small moment of relevation - 1,000 years of death and prayers in one hushed site.

Ti Chulainn is the Irish for "the House of Culann". Culann was armourer to Conchubhar Mac Neasa, once High King of Ulster. It was the slaying of Culann's guard dog which earned the raw youth Setanta his new name, Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Culann. The house of the pagan armourer has now been rebuilt, but war is the last thing on anyone's mind.

The idea for a centre was originally mooted in 1990. An ad-hoc committee was set up which drew people in from throughout south Armagh. Eight years of meetings - sometimes one a month, sometimes three - ensured that the project was never lost sight of. The voluntary commitment given was "exceptional" says the centre's director, Sean O Coinn. It has been a journey which began and continues because of local pride, stamina and capability. The economic depression in the area and the cultural marginalisation were challenged; regeneration was to be powered by tapping into local rituals. The village of Mullaghban was chosen as the new centre's site because of its "great cultural wealth", says O Coinn. The village boasted a residential college which taught Irish throughout the 1960s and 1970s, long before they became fashionable. Traditional music, song and dance, folklore and local history were, and remain part of the everyday fabric of life. It was from these threads that a new cloth was spun.

After four years of fighting their case, the committee succeeded in persuading the local council to give a grant to employ a development officer (O Coinn) in 1994. He began to look for funding to build a centre and, within two years, had achieved that objective - though not without confronting bureaucracy at its worst. It took two more years to get planning permission into place. The actual building has taken only a year. Eight years of mostly unpaid work won £1.67 million from the EU Interreg fund, the International Fund for Ireland, the Northern Ireland Tourism Board, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Foundation for Sports and Arts and Newry and Mourne District Council. The voluntary effort given will never be financially repaid.

Repayment, however, promises to be of a richer kind. O Coinn is, quite understandably, looking forward to the future Ti Chulainn offers. "It is a building unlike any other that we are aware of in Ireland. It is not a cultural centre; it is not a heritage centre; it is a cultural activities centre. The emphasis is on activities. There will be activities which will allow people to become involved and take part. That is very important. It is not something which just interprets," he says.

The centre will emphasise and develop the area's natural cultural resources. Events in the centre will be similar to those activities which have taken place in the area for years butwithout proper facilities. For example, this year marks the Slieve Gullion Traditional Singing Weekend's 17th birthday. Over the years more than 400 singers from Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, America and Brittany have taken part in this celebration of the voice. The accommodation has been basic, as O Coinn wryly admits: "Until now they have been accommodated on people's floors; in all the bed and breakfasts that are available; in residential accommodation in Dundalk and Newry and sometimes as far away as Drogheda." The singing weekend as well as the proceedings of the annual Slieve Gullion Winter School were held in the local primary school; in the local football club, in the local Forresters club and in the community centre, far from perfect venues, but ones which were graciously offered.

The new centre is, says O Coinn, "ideal". It boasts hotel standard accommodation for up to 45 people, a bar, restaurant; audio-visual and permanent exhibitions which explain the cultural heritage of the Ring of Gullion; workshop and conference facilities; a cultural archive and a multi-purpose performance area and auditorium. In many ways the building formalises the creative bustle which pulsed energetically in the region unnoticed. "This area, Louth and Monaghan, is one big region; one big community. The Border has never been that important in terms of people mixing with one another. The actual crossing back and forward to events is an on-going thing. The security thing - people going out at night - is not an issue here and has never been an issue here. I am aware that it is an issue for people not from the area. But people here think nothing of travelling from Mullaghban to Dundalk," says O Coinn.

O Coinn highlights the Singing Weekend as one constant and important source of artistic regeneration throughout the Northern conflict. People "came once and never had a problem coming back," he says. "A lot of the fear created about this area is due to the media. It is a perception that people have. But those people who have never been exposed to the media image, or who have made one attempt to come, have never had a problem and come here regularly."

Poetry has never been far from the surface. Mullaghban and Forkhill were known as "Ceantar na nAmhran" during the 17th and 18th centuries. South Armagh in general can lay claim to the likes of Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Gunna, Art Mac Cumhaigh, Peadar O Doirnin and Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta, to name but four. Mac Cuarta saw and lamented Ginkel's victory at Aughrim; Mac Cumhaigh wrote the aisling poem Uir-Chill an Chreagain. It is still read, still recited, still sung, 200 years later.

The poets may have died but their memory lives on. "People still know of them, not through the education system, but through folk memory. I suppose that that memory is one of the reasons that there is still that interest in literature and the language," says O Coinn. O Coinn's aim is that the centre will become a "hive of activity". Ti Chulainn has a strong educational and arts remit. Schools in both the state and Catholic-maintained sector are catered for. He sums up the centre's role neatly: "We have a cultural responsibility to bring the living culture of this area to the younger generation." As well as that, he is at pains to emphasise that the cultural heritage in south Armagh belongs to all. "We have a strong cross-community committee within the organisation. We want to make this point and to bring this message to people not involved in cultural traditions - this belongs to everybody," he says.