Sunday, January 26, 2014

Urker and Sir Thomas

TJ, aka Sir Thomas Jackson, was about seven years old in 1848. He and his brother and sister had all been born on a middling-sized farm in Co. Leitrim, but in the aftermath of the famine, their father had somehow lost the lease to this land. Along with his parents, his older brother and younger sister, he had then moved to his grandmother’s farm in South Armagh. The house was known as Urker Lodge. Perched atop a hill in the parish of Creggan, it had already been home to the Jacksons for at least half a century. It was later owned by their descendants for at least a hundred and twenty years more.

Later in his life, TJ would live in much grander houses, but unlike them, Urker Lodge had no indoor plumbing, and no electricity or gas. It wouldn’t get those amenities until the mid-20th Century. This never troubled him when he came to visit from Hong Kong or London. Urker was his real home, the home of his heart, and would always remain so. The views of the surrounding farmlands were lush and stunning, but when TJ spoke of Urker, it wasn’t only the charms of the landscape that held him, it was the memories of the open-hearted kindness of his childhood friends, family and neighbours.

In an earlier post, I tried to get a feel for the size of the residence and outbuildings.

In writing about his childhood for a book that I am working on, I often find myself grasping at straws. There is so little known about this stage of his life. I can imagine him walking dare-devil style atop the stone wall that bounded the gardens, or tagging along with his older brother as they kicked at the autumn leaves down the lane to Liscalgot on their way to the grounds of Creggan Church where they both went to school for a while. Sometimes, I imagine myself eavesdropping on the kitchen table craic, and then later in the evening listening to the bed-times stories read to him by his mother.

One day, as I was washing dishes and playing with such scenes in my mind, a question arose that I still cannot answer. Is there really a massive stone at Urker which is so huge that only a giant could have thrown it there? I do know that if such a stone existed, that TJ would have clambered atop it. He also would have known about the giant who tossed it there. Finn McCool aka Fionn Mac Cumhaill was a legendary hero of the common man, a giant who could outrun, outride, out-throw, and outfight anyone.

Fin M’Coul: The Giant of Knockmany Hill. Tomie DePaola. 1981
More than thirty years ago, I frequently read DePaola’s version to my own children when they were growing up, not knowing that the tales of Fin M'Coul were also connected to tales of Urker, a townland that would hook my curiosity in the decades to come. In one of the many versions handed down in the Irish oral tradition, Finn McCool threw two stones down from the Slievegullion mountains. One of these stones landed at Urker, while the other one landed on the north-western border of Urker, in the nearby townland of Carran. The story itself may have had its roots in the echos of language. The Irish word Urcur translates as: the town of the throw or cast.

 In Country Cracks, T.G.F. Paterson collected many of the same stories that TJ would have grown up with. In his introduction, Paterson described their magic: I have heard them round a blazing peat fire and in the listening have forgotten time and the world outside. The men and women who told him these tales in the late 1920s were as young as seventy and as old as ninety-three. They were members of TJ's generation, and TJ would have been well aware of many if not all of their stories:

Finn was playin’ on the mountain when he threw them. An’ the little stone at the side of the big one is a part that broke off in he’s han’ when he wus throwin’ the other. He was so annoyed he threw the wee bit after it, an’ that’s no word of a lie, for indeed it did happen. Shure the comrades of it are on the mountain above. He tuk it to be a hoult ‘tween his finger an’ thumb an’ that wus the way he sent it.

In 1838, John Donaldson, a relation of TJ’s, included two speculations concerning the etymology of Urker in his book: Account of the Barony of Upper Fews. He mentioned that these stones were several tons in weight, and had been placed on their ends. Donaldson would have seen these actual stones himself, which makes me curious. Are they are still there? Are there any pictures?

If there are, I am hoping that some kind reader will send them my way. It is a small thing, and perhaps unimportant, but is part of me trying to get inside the mind of a seven year old boy who lived there more than a century and a half ago.

For readers of this blog who are more interested in etymology, Donaldson also conjectured that the name of Urker was connected with an old burial custom which pre-dated Christian traditions. Back then, it was common to carry a stone to be thrown into a cairn or heap in memory of a deceased person.

In the 1992 Journal of the Creggan Local History Society, Hugh Macauley adds that there was a church between Crossmaglen and Creggan at Killyloughran and the throw or cast probably referred to the funeral practice of mourners casting a stone to form a cairn on or near the grave. It is also possible that mourners built cairns at Urker because it was on this hill where they could readily see Creggan graveyard, a graveyard that had long preceded the earliest known maps and the first appearance of the townland name Orcher aka Urker.

By the mid-1800s, these cairns were in such abundance at Urker that the Ball family and others used them to build dry ditches and/or walls. Clearly, cultural sensitivity was in short supply when it came to the actions of such landlords. There is evidence in TJ’s later life that he not only absorbed the tales of giants who had walked the land of Urker, but also had absorbed the impact of the injustice of cultural insensitivity.

A version of the Finn McCool saga was included in WB Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, published in 1888. In that version, Finn outwits an opponent by following his wife’s direction, and hiding in a baby carriage. It is his wife who is all-wise and all-powerful, not him. He is merely noted for being physically strong. This state of affairs would have been no surprise to the young TJ. After all, it was his mother who was reputed to be the brains in their family. Would her tongue have been in her cheek when she told him this tale of Finn McCool? I can only guess.

NOTE: One more thing I should mention for readers of this blog who are not Irish. When the word ditch is used in Irish legends, letters, or leases, it refers to a wall. It does not mean anything like a long hole in the earth. It took me a decade to learn this.

1 comment:

  1. All the best in your research, Sharon, and I hope you have lots of "aha" moments! Sounds fascinating.