The souls of one of Ireland’s oldest churches - Keenaghan Abbey and graveyard in Co Fermanagh - will now Suaimhneas Síoraí'rest in peace.'

Keenaghan has been protected by the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council from a proposed development that would have destroyed its natural environment and desecrated its historic landscape.

As Stephen Heron of the Belleek History Society states, “The recommendation is to refuse planning permission for the reasons listed within the report.” 

One of the many reasons that the planning permission was refused is stated in the first sentence of the Representations section: “there have been a number of objections” made by people.

The issues raised by people's objections in the report “are summarised as; historic site, building and graveyard, crannog ... will be compromised.” 

Other than the abbey and graveyard, a historic building that would have been compromised is Keenaghan Cottage, run by Lisa McWilliams and her family. Keenaghan Cottage is a unique building because it is Ireland’s only five-star thatched cottage. The objections in the report state that Keenaghan Cottage is “an existing and important Tourism Business, Recently Awarded ‘Best Self Catering Accommodation in Northern Ireland’ 2022 by the Tourist Board, due to conservation standards and peaceful setting which appeals to International Tourism.” 

Additional objections from people in the report state that the “Area is rich in natural environment species and resources will be compromised,” and conclude that the “Proposal is inappropriate in a tranquil and peaceful area.” 

The overwhelming response of people’s objections was an influential factor in the refusal for planning permission. The mighty voices of the people of Belleek were heard. Thanks to the consideration of the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, they listened to the fair and reasoned objections regarding the protection of the natural environment and the historic landscape of Keenaghan.

JFK once declared in his famous aphorism that “A rising tide lifts all boats" - two figures who were the first to vocally and actively raise that tide to protect the historic Keenaghan Abbey and graveyard were historian, Stephen Heron of the Belleek History Society, and Lisa McWilliams of Keenaghan Cottage. 

There is truth to the proverbial idea that it takes a village–one such village that is now an inspiration to Ireland is the village of Belleek. Stephen and Lisa raised the tide of their communities' consciousness through spreading awareness of the proposed development and inspired many Irish people to act. 

From the local Belleek community, to all the voices in Ireland, the US, and around the world– thousands of Irish people became a part of the raising of the tide to save Keenaghan. For all those who signed the petition and voiced their objections on the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council portal, their names are now recorded and remembered as being on the right side of history. 

More notable voices that also helped along the way were Park Hood Landscape Architecture. After reading the first article on Keenaghan, the Directors of Park Hood, Stuart Hood and Andrew Bunbury, prepared a comprehensive landscape report that advocated for the protection of Keenaghan.

The second article on Keenaghan further attracted attention from one of Ireland’s leading historians, Turtle Bunbury, who then mentioned in his article Keenaghan's possible lost round tower. Turtle, Stuart, and Mrs. Wendy Hood were all deeply sympathetic to the endeavour to protect Keenaghan.

The third and most recent article on Keenaghan focused on highlighting the shocking decision by the landowner to block public access and lock the gate shut to the abbey and graveyard. This injustice led Sinn Féin councillor Barry McElduff to offer his support “ensuring the protection of this hugely important heritage site.” 

Sinn Féin support continued with several councillors such as John Feely paying their respects to Keenaghan by laying a wreath on Easter Monday to the Fenian martyr, Patrick Slevin, who was buried there after he died fighting for Ireland.

Although the annals of the past were written yesterday, the annals of the present are written today and will be remembered tomorrow. By protecting Keenaghan Abbey and graveyard, the Belleek community has protected–for the time being–a part of its ancient history for generations to come.

JFK’s words that “A rising tide lifts all boats” still echo in Belleek.

The tide was raised, the boats were lifted and now the hope for Keenaghan is that the souls there may rest in peace– knowing that they can freely air their spirits across Keenaghan Lough– sailing peacefully through the eternal waters of Irish history.

*Éamon Ó Caoineachán is a freelance writer and poet. He is originally from Co. Donegal in Ireland, but lives in Houston, Texas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Irish Times, History Ireland, IrishCentral, The Impartial Reporter, Crannóg, and various poetry journals and magazines in the U.S. and Ireland.