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Updated 05/10/2013


The Bard of Armagh

The Bard of Armagh is an Irish ballad. It is thought to be Patrick Donnelly. The Williamite ‘settlement’ following the defeat of the Irish at the Boyne saw extremely harsh laws introduced to suppress the Catholic faith and the priests and bishops who helped maintain and propagate it.

The subordinate Protestant Dublin parliament in 1697 passed the Popery Act with the aim of expelling all Catholic bishops and higher clergy. Priests who agreed to swear allegiance to the Crown and abjured the right to go about their priestly duties, to be secular rather than religious, and who registered with the authorities, who could then monitor their activities, were permitted to stay. A small number agreed to these conditions rather than leave their flock without spiritual guidance. The penalty for non-compliance was execution or transportation and those who would not accept these conditions had to go into hiding. It was this period that saw ‘mass-rocks’ flourishing. 

By the turn of the century, Dr Patrick Donnelly, who ministered in South Armagh, was one of only two Catholic bishops said to be operating in Ireland. He of course had to operate in disguise. His normal disguise was that of a wandering minstrel. He assumed the title of Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh. The illustrious title lives on in several forms, notably in song, which has itself seen many incarnations. 

Patrick Donnelly was born in Desertcreaght, Cookstown, County Tyrone in 1650. Some part of his education was at the hands of the Jesuits at their hedge-school in Drogheda. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Oliver Plunkett at Dundalk in 1673. Recognising his considerable academic ability the Archbishop sent him to Paris for further study. Again on his return the Archbishop appointed him (c. 1679) as Bishop of Dromore. He acted as parish priest too to Lislea and is said to have resided at Doctor’s Quarters (named after him). When not resident there as an ordinary peasant he travelled on foot (as a minstrel) in the Counties of Louth, Armagh, Down Tyrone and Derry, guiding, exhorting and advising his outlaw priests and his unfortunate people. 

Bishop Donnelly’s hut of refuge
(shown above) was said to be located on the site of the house of the last native Irish speaker in the area, Sally Humphrey (who died c. 1918). Interviewed by Fr Laurence Murray (local historian, folklorist and archivist) Sally became indignant at the ‘mere doggerel’ of the words of that song (Bard of Armagh) that he recited to her. She had a clear recollection of an Ulster Gaelic folksong of that theme being sung to her in her youth, with the same haunting air that, in comparison, she regarded the modern ballad in English a poor, unworthy and senseless imitation. 

Despite his mastery of disguise Bishop Donnelly did not forever escape detection. On 15 September 1706 he was arrested in Father John MacParlan’s house in Lathbirget by Walter Dawson. It was well into the following year before he was released for lack of evidence against him. He immediately resumed his sacred mission. He consecrated Edmund Byrne as Archbishop of Dublin and elevated another priest to the Bishopric of Killala. 

He remained in Doctor’s Quarters until his death in 1716 at the age of 66. The great devotion in which he was held was illustrated in the funeral cortege afforded to him by his loving people. Having to act secretly by night for fear of the authorities, still they carried his coffin from parish to parish across the hills of Armagh and Tyrone and laid him to rest eventually in his native parish and in his own family grave at Desertcreaght. 

Along with Saint Oliver Plunkett, Dr Patrick Donnelly, the Bard of Armagh was one of the most revered Bishops of all Penal Days.

The song itself, like many heroic, rebel outlaw ballads, dates from the mid 19th century.


Oh list' to the lay of a poor Irish harper,
And scorn not the strings in his old withered hands,
But remember those fingers, they once could move sharper,
To raise up the strains of his dear native land.

It was long before the shamrock, dear Isle's lovely emblem,
Was crushed in its beauty by the Saxon's lion paw,
And all the pretty colleens around me would gather,
Called me their bold Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh.

How I love to muse on the days of my boyhood,
Though four score and three years have fled by since then.
Still it gives sweet reflection, as every young joys should,
For the merry-hearted boys make the best of old men.

At a fair or a wake I would twist my shillelagh,
And trip through a dance with my brogues tied with straw.
There all the pretty maidens around me would gather,
Called me their bold Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh.

In truth I have wandered this wide world over,
Yet Ireland's my home and a dwelling for me.
And, oh, let the turf that my old bones shall cover
Be cut from the land that is trod by the free.

And when Sergeant Death in his cold arms doth embrace me,
And lulls me to sleep with old 'Erin-go-Bragh',
By the side of my Kathleen, my dear pride, oh, place me,
Then forget Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh.