The town of Crossmaglen stands mainly on the townland of the same name and partly on the townlands of Rathkeelan and Monog. It lies about 8 miles northwest of Dundalk and 14 southwest of Newry. It is set in the southwest corner of County Armagh with the land boundary with the Republic of Ireland lying less than two miles away in both a southerly (County Louth) and westerly (County Monaghan) direction. The origin of the name 'Crossmaglen' is uncertain. It has been interpreted as Cros-magh-gleana, "The cross of the shading plain" (1), and Cros Mhic Lionnáin "McGlynn's crossroads" (2). According to LP Murray, -
"The village of Crossmaglen is of modern growth....In the local folklore it was merely famed for a well-known ale-house or shebeen - kept by a man named Lennon. It will be noted that the 1766 Census gives Owen Lennon among the ---- inhabitants - and his house (or shebeen), which was probably at the crossroads, was the origin of the variant Cros Mhig Lionnáin. If the village is really named after a family, we would be inclined...to select the McCleans or MacClanes. There are no Flynns, and but one Lennon, in the Fews in 1602; but the MacClanes were numerous in all the Census lists...."(3).
Lewis' Topographical Dictionary of Ireland 1837 has this to say about Crossmaglen -
Crossmaglen; a village in that part of Creggan which is in the barony of Upper Fews, County of Armagh and province of Ulster, 8 miles (NW) from Dundalk, on the road to Newtownhamilton; containing 545 inhabitants. It comprises about 100 houses, of which several are large and well built, and has a penny post to Dundalk: the surrounding scenery is strikingly diversified. In the vicinity is a small lake, called Lough Maglen, or Magheralin, and there are numerous others in the surrounding district. The slate quarries here were formerly worked to some extent, but they are now in a declining state. A market for provisions is held on Friday; and there are fairs in the last Friday in every month for black cattle, horses, sheep and pigs. A constabulary police station has been established in the village; and a spacious and handsome R.C. chapel has been recently erected, which is the parochial chapel of a very extensive district, called Lower Creggan. A dispensary was built by subscription in 1830.
The above picture shows the Square some time in the 1930s when times were particularly hard for the people in the area. At the time there were Devlin relatives living there - The Keenans, who owned a shop and Public House to the right of the Market House (the large building on the left), and the Durkans, who lived in the second house visible to the right, close to the exit to the Dundalk Road. Julia Pearce (nee Durkan), a second cousin, wrote an unpublished book about her adventures and about the inhabitants of the Square in the early 1930s before her family moved to Blackrock. I only found out about this in 2002 and was priviliged to get to read it and a second one which detailed her life, and loves, and many of the characters of the town and surrounding countryside, in Blackrock and Moybane up to the point where she married her late husband, Ron (an RAF man stationed in Cross during WW2, manning the radar installation at Urcher Hill), in 1945.
The Square was pretty much the same as in the picture during my time there right up to the 1950s. The vast expanse of open ground was ideal for the monthly fair, of which more later.
The 'pictures' (movies) in Cross were in the Market House at the bottom of the square. They were shown in a large room at the top of two flights of dark stairs. There were two prices as I recall - the ninepennies and the one and sixpennies. The ninepennies were at the front and so close to the screen that you got neck strain from looking up at it. The first time I went I suppose I must have been about 7 or 8. It was a war picture and I was mesmerised and frightened by the huge size of the people and machines on the screen and I remember ducking under the seat when a tank climbing over an obstacle loomed menacingly large and noisily above us and I was sure it would collapse on top of us. Going to the pictures was an occasional treat and I remember being bitterly disappointed when, having promised to take us to see "The Wizard of Oz" my father couldn't make it. It was not until I got a television after I got married in the early 1960s that I got to see the film for the first time.
Walking into Cross one winter's day I saw some boys throwing snow balls at a tree. They were aiming at a hole where a branch had rotted away. The tree was about 10 ft from the road and the hole was about 8in wide and 12 ft off the ground. When I scoffed at their efforts they challenged me and, so as not to be called a 'cowardy custard', I had a go. The snowball went straight into the hole without touching the sides. Challenged to do it again I refused, knowing a fluke when I saw it, and I sauntered away secure in my superior skills.
The monthly fair day in Cross in the 1940s was a colourful event. The large square was packed with market stalls selling everything from clothes and footwear to household goods. There was a cattle and horse fair at the same time and the place was full of farmers and dealers haggling over prices. Negotiations were accompanied by a great deal of humming and hawing and hand slapping. Deals were struck by spitting on the hands before shaking on it. The pubs did a roaring trade. Occasionally there were performers - an escapologist would invite people to strap him up in a straight jacket and bind him in chains, a strong man would allow men to break rocks on his chest with a sledge hammer - a dodgy enough enterprise if the hammer wielder had a few too many in the pub, a bare chested character would lie on a bed of nails and invite people to stand on his chest.
Just off the top of the square, on the Culloville Road was the police barracks. It had always been a prominent feature of the town. The police were tolerated but not liked, seen as an unwelcome intrusion of the Unionist government and a symbol of hated partition which had cut off the area from its natural hinterland in Monaghan and Louth. There was a constant cat and mouse game with the police and customs officials who were trying to prevent or reduce the endemic smuggling that went on all along the border. There was a constant low level of smuggling going on in which I as well as everyone else engaged. Cigarettes and tobacco were cheaper in the south and I was often sent to buy these in a small shop just over the border a couple of miles away. Most people shopped in Dundalk. Sometimes the balance of advantage was in the north and as a teenager I sometimes helped a friend, John Cowan, to smuggle butter to Castleblaney for sale. My father told a story about a local character, James McQuillan, who in the 1920s was fined 10 shillings for insulting the police when he announced their approach at the top of his voice "They're coming, they're coming - the black bastards are coming." After the fine he would shout "They're coming, they're coming....but I can't say who." Apart from the smuggling the population was generally law abiding and I can not recall much crime in the area apart from the occasional bicycle theft. I remember my father holding a grudge for years against a man, whom he suspected of stealing a bicycle lamp while he was in Flint's public house. He never said anything to him about it and when, years later, the man came to live close to us in Creggan, the families became friends and we would play cards (mostly Twenty Five) several nights a week.