Markethill and its surrounding district rest quietly in the heart of rural County Armagh. Within a six-kilometre radius of the town of Markethill there is a cluster of small towns and villages, connected by narrow winding roads, nestling into the beauty of the Orchard County landscape. A traveller unfamiliar with the area would be quite likely to stumble upon any of these rural communities by happy accident. What attracts so many to the area is that unspoilt beauty of the countryside in delicate harmony with the small village communities dotted throughout the locality. Many families of this area can trace their roots in this land through many generations, lending the district a friendly community atmosphere.

At the heart of this network of rural communities is the town of Markethill. Though many are content to pass by the town en route to the ecclesiastical City of Armagh, to pass by is to miss an important part of the history of this area. Whereas the history of the City of Armagh is obvious even to the most casual of visitors the history of Markethill and district is truly to be found in the curiosity shop of history. Time spent in searching the tapestry of local rural history is not an activity to everyone's taste but those who take time to explore find they are not disappointed.

Long before man gave definition to this area in the form of baronies, parishes and townlands this entire area was covered by dense forest interspersed with rolling hills and crystal lakes. At that time there was no formal settlement or even permanent community but the number of raths, crannogs and cashels in the area indicate some form of primitive community. Of the details of their daily lives we know little but archaeology allows us to gauge something of their means of existence. At that time families moved mostly in small clans clearing the forest to build temporary shelters. The implements uncovered at these settlements indicate they were hunters rather than farmers, killing animals for food and using the skins for clothing. Crannogs could provide a more permanent settlement allowing small areas of land to be cultivated and animals to be penned within the community.

In the accompanying audio recording, Ken Neil describes evidence from the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age Period (7500BC to 4000BC approximately ) when the land was first settled and the Neolithic or New Stone Age Period (4000BC to 2500BC). More information on archeaological evidence from early times can be found in the PLACES section in the EARLY SITES topic.

Photo of Ken Neil in 2003.

Use the audio controller to listen to this talk, given in 2003.

The largest settlement in this pre-Christian Ireland was the great mound of Emain Macha, now Navan Fort. Situated just to the west of the modern City of Armagh, it was once the stronghold of the Kings of Ulster. Being only seven miles distant, settlement in this area would have been bound up with the fortunes of the settlement at Emain Macha.

Circa AD44,4 a Christian by the name of Patrick returned to the island of Ireland where he had once been held as a slave. He established the base for his missionary endeavour at Ard Macha because of its proximity to the pagan settlement of Emain Macha. The coming of Christianity had a significant impact on the island as a whole but certainly had a profound and sustained effect in this district. Armagh rapidly established itself as the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland and attracted pilgrims from all over the island. In these times, pilgrims may first have visited the Holy Well once known as St Patrick's Well (now known locally as Dean Swift's Well) in present-day Gosford Demesne.

Details of the monastic wealth of the settlement at Armagh reached the ears of the land-starved Vikings of Scandinavia who found the attraction irresistible. In AD828 Armagh was plundered and burned as it was on various other occasions throughout succeeding centuries (AD840, AD852 andAD 921). The woods of this district were used as a launching pad for these attacks and food from the forests was used to sustain the bands of Norse attackers.

In AD1014 Brian Boru, leader of the Irish, opposed the Norse invaders and at the Battle of Clontarf, near Dublin, succeeded in defeating and driving them from the Kingdom of Ulster. Boru was killed in the engagement and his body returned to Armagh for burial in the grounds of the present Church of Ireland Cathedral.

The following years saw Viking raids replaced by Norman efforts to conquer but the area around Armagh was not penetrated by the Norman soldiers of fortune. It is likely the people of this area thought little of the struggle for power, so far removed was it from their daily struggle for existence. Significant amounts of forest were cleared to make way for permanent settlements and the cultivation of crops and livestock. Harsh winters and years of famine acted as a natural population control. In 1175 Henry II of England signed the Treaty of Windsor with Rory O'Connor, legitimising English involvement in Irish affairs. The Treaty made Henry II Lord of Ireland; a title passed through the monarchical succession.

Despite this, it was in the twelfth century that the area around the hill of Mullabrack took on a definite existence. On the rath at the top of the 'hill of the speckled summit', near to the modern Church of Ireland, there came to settle a group of Culdees, successors of the missionary zeal of Patrick. From their hilltop settlement they worked among the forest dwellers and in providing welcome aid they became a prominent and permanent settlement.

The fourteenth century witnessed the Scots' attempt to rule Ireland but, like the Normans before them, the Scots failed to penetrate into the heart of rural Ireland. The fourteenth century proved to be a catalogue of catastrophe beginning with the Great Famine of 1317, the heavy snows of 1318 and the great cattle plagues of 1322 and 1324. Permanent settlements had been cultivating crops for some years but the 1320s and 1330s brought heavy rains to decimate these efforts. The 1340s admitted no respite as 1348, and succeeding years, witnessed the devastation of the Black Death. With their livestock depleted and crops destroyed the settlers of this area were reduced to mixing butter and blood to fortify their diet.

The conclusion of the English Wars of the Roses and subsequent Tudor accession led to a renewing of English interest in Ireland. A reassertion of English power throughout the island of Ireland was desirable to prevent Ireland being used as a backdoor from which to launch an invasion of England. In 1541 Henry VIII was declared King of Ireland by an act of the Irish Parliament but the title carried little weight and English authority remained confined to the area around Dublin known as 'The Pale'.

The Reformation had little effect in the district surrounding Mullabrack as the Culdees were granted an exemption from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Likewise early Tudor attempts at plantation proved unsuccessful for several reasons. Firstly, in many instances the discontent of the native Irish and their ability to organise under the banners of Gaelic lords was significantly underestimated. Secondly, the tracts of land granted to loyal English lords were too large to be efficiently cultivated and the planters quickly returned to England.

Nevertheless, the English Crown persisted in its attempts to govern the island of Ireland and the native settlers gradually became embroiled in a defence of their holdings. The inhabitants of this area were like others in Ireland members of family septs owing their allegiance to larger clans. The Gaelic chieftain had jurisdiction over the clan and expected those under his care to join his fighting force.

Bronze-age pots in Armagh County Museum. Bronze-age pots in Armagh County Museum.