Wednesday 24 February 2021

The Story of the Ghost of John Greg

And how it gave a Belfast church its pulpit

JOHN GREG, who lived at Ballysillan in 1783, was a great land-grabber in his day. Any tenantry residing around Belfast had their lands taken from them — virtually over their heads.

So pernicious was he in this respect that agrarian trouble became very prevalent and was somewhat difficult to curb by the authorities. It is said that his spirit was unable to rest when he died in 1784.

Some friends appealed to Rev. William Bristow, M.A., vicar and sovereign of Belfast., 1772-1808, to see if he could help in any way. For some unknown reason Mr. Bristow was unable to stay the ghost of John. After many attempts, which ended in failure, he called to his assistance Rev. Hugh O'Donnell, first parish priest of Belfast.

To make a long story short, the efforts of the Rev. Hugh were said at the time to have been successful, though we are not told how, and the spirit of John was at peace.

Mr. Bristow was so grateful for this act of kindness that, when the first chapel was opened in Chapel Lane on May 30, 1784, he presented a pulpit to it. The chapel was opened in great style. The Belfast Volunteer Company, under Captain Waddell Cunningham, attended the ceremony in full dress.

As Rev. Hugh O'Donnell passed through their ranks to celebrate the first Mass, the Protestant Volunteer Company presented arms. The scene was marked for its enthusiasm and perfect good feeling. The congregation returned their most grateful thanks “to the Inhabitants at large for their generously enabling them to erect a handsome edifice for the celebration of divine worship."

It is worthy of note that Rev. Hugh O'Donnell was the first parish priest in Belfast to perform his duties publicly. The distinguished Volunteer Company endeavoured in every way to promote a feeling of freedom in religious matters. One of their resolutions was that "as Christians and as Protestants they rejoiced in the relaxation of the penal laws against their Catholic fellow subjects.”

The Volunteers agitated for "Reform in the Representation of the People." The committee dealing with the matter was composed of the Hon. Colonel Rowley (chairman), the Rt. Hon. John O'Neill, Capt. Black, Colonel Sharman, Capt. Bryson, Mr. Thompson, and Lieut. Moore.

They unanimously resolved on June 9, 1783, "that at an era so honourable to the spirit, wisdom and loyalty of Ireland, more equal representation of the people in Parliament deserves the deliberate attention of every Irishman, as that alone which can perpetuate to future ages the inestimable possession of a free constitution." This was probably passed as an expression of indignation in connection with the Carrickfergus election.

Waddell Cunningham,
First President of
Belfast Chamber of Commerce
CUNNINGHAM was elected member of Parliament for that town by a large majority, but a petition was presented by Joseph Hewitt (the defeated candidate), in which he said the voters were "drunk." Hewitt later became M.P. for Belfast through the efforts of Lord Donegall. Elections of candidates were usually connived at by means of bribery and corruption, irrespective as to the wishes of the people.

WADDELL Cunningham was a distinguished personality at the time. He was first president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1783, and opened Cunningham's Bank in 1786 (according to Benn). At a meeting of the citizens of Belfast the following resolution was passed, "That the most sincere thanks of this assembly be given to Waddell Cunningham for his patriotic and unremitting exertions in favour of his country's rights."

Dr. A. G. Malcolm thus described him, "full of honours both as a public and private man." Cunningham died December 15, 1797, and was interred in Knockbreda Churchyard, where many of Belfast's distinguished rest.

Rev. Hugh O'Donnell was educated by his father — a man of culture. He died at the age of 75 years, and was buried in Glenarm, Co. Antrim, after ministering to his congregation for 44 years.

The epitaph on his tombstone reads –
    "Closed is the hand that often gave relief
     And cold the Heart that beat to each mans grief"

Would that we could all have our lives thus described!

W. C.


This article appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, 6 August 1937.

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