The Creaghts of Ulster

Illustrated Dublin Journal
Volume 1, Number 35, May 3, 1862

FROM a very interesting paper read before the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, in the year 1855, we are enabled to glean a few notes relative to the “Creaghts” of Ulster, which will be interesting to many.

As the author of the paper to which we are indebted for the materials of our notes, remarks, at the commencement of the seventeenth century Ulster presented as marked a difference from the rest of Ireland as it has done in later times; but instead of being, as now, the most English part of Ireland, it was the most Irish.

It was only in the reign of James I., upon the conclusion of the war carried on by Queen Elizabeth's forces, under Lord Mountjoy, against the Earl of Tyrone, that the country was opened up for a general plantation, and that it became colonized by the ancestors of the present settlers.

A glance at the map will show that this province is three parts surrounded by sea, and that the remaining boundery, or land frontier, of Ulster, which may be roughly defined by a line drawn from Dundalk to Ballyshannon, on the Bay of Donegal, gives the shortest traverse from sea to sea.

The western half of this line is occupied by the waters of Lough Erne, which form a complete defence from Ballyshannon to Belturbet, a distance of nearly fifty miles; while the chain of the Fews mountains, rising in front of Dundalk, along the outmost part of the Pale, covered a considerable portion of the other, or eastern half.

The interval in the centre was protected by the counties Monaghan and Cavan, a district of low, wooded hills, interlaced with a perfect net-work of bogs and lakes, through which there was but one road—that by Carrickmacross, in the barony of Farney, which thence came to be called the “Gap of the North.”

In the days of Queen Elizabeth Ulster was termed, by an Act of Parliament passed for extinguishing the name of O'Nial, “the most perilous place in all the isle.”

For their greater security the O'Nials, with much shrewdness and policy, instead of attempting to strengthen their country with castles, forbade any to be built. And, carrying out this plan of rendering their country untenable to an invader, for want of cover and supplies; they discouraged agriculture, and kept their people to a wandering, pastoral life.

Their dwellings are described as having been made of wattles, or boughs of trees, covered with long turves or sods of grass, which they could easily remove and put up as they wandered from place to place in search of pasture, following their vast herds of cattle, with their wives and children, and removing still to fresh lands as they had departed the former.

They lived, according to “Spenser's State of Ireland,” chiefly on the milk of their cows. The aggregate of families that in one body followed a herd, was called a “creaght.”

In other parts of Ireland there was much of strictly pastoral life, in many respects similar, which was called “Boolying,” in which the owners of cattle and their families passed much of the year in the wilds and mountains with their cows, but, unlike the nomadic population of Ulster, they seem to have had fixed habitations to return to.

The evils flowing from this unfixed wandering life of the “Creaghts,” must be very evident. It induced, of course, a natural indisposition to submit to positive regulations. The difficulties, however, of abolishing this mode of life were great. The freedom of the woods and wilds has charms which even those who have left civilization to taste of, find it difficult to abandon, and are known often to have preferred to all the luxury of settled life.

At the termination of the scenes which, in the course of the seventeenth century, formed an eraseless spot of blood and venom on the history of Ireland, the commissioners for the government of Ireland, upon serious consideration, “perceiving the inconveniency of permitting the Irish to live in Creaghts, after a loose and disorderly manner,” issued orders for the “fixing such persons upon lands proportionable to their respective stock, and enjoining them to betake themselves to tillage and husbandry.” In case of refusal their cattle and stock was seized, and sold “for the best advantage of the Commonwealth.”

Traces of the “Creaghts” are to be found down to the middle of the last century; not, perhaps, that the practice or mode of life continued to prevail to so late a period, but the term was still known, and in use to describe the little huts and cabins, in which many of the Irish still continued to dwell.

Thus Story, the historian of the Williamite war, speaking of the “wild Irish,” some of whom he first saw at Newry, on his march to the Boyne, says: “Some call them ‘Creaghts,’ from the little huts they live in, which they build so conveniently with hurdles and long turf, that they can remove them in summer towards the mountains, and bring them down to the valleys in winter.”