Tuesday 28 December 2010

Ancient Churches in Down and Connor.


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From "Belfast News-Letter," 23rd July, 1886.

How stuck modern archaeologists and other lovers of bygone history owe to those writers who, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, left behind them authentic records of the events that were passing in their own times could hardly be overestimated. This is especially the case with regard to ecclesiastical buildings, the stories connected with which read in many cases like the pages of romance. Our Scottish neighbours can boast of a long fine traditional and historic details connecting national and sectarian annals in almost uninterrupted sequence. And in remote ages England had collected together the scattered material of ecclesiastical history, all of which has been carefully preserved.

When Thomas Moore was writing his work on Ireland he had much difficulty in obtaining all the information he sought for in reference to sacred fanes and other buildings. Since his day an immense extent of light has been thrown on the subject by the genius and research of archaeologists.

Some years ago the learned Dr. Reeves, now Bishop or Down and Connor, published, in a handsome quarto, the most valuable collection of antiquarian lore that had ever appeared on the subject of diocesan history, and which as a book of reference seems to have been written for all time. And still more recently, the Rev. James O'Laverty, parish priest of Holywood, issued three volumes on the Church history of Down and Connor, which abound in information relating to the Reformed as well as the Roman Catholic Church. Thee labour and research which were brought into play in collecting material for these respective works must have been far beyond ordinary conception.

Respecting the priority of ages of ecclesiastical buildings, much difference of opinion may be found in the writings of men of high position in the literary world. When the church of Carrickfergus was being rebuilt is 1581, Lord Deputy Gray gave an order to the Mayor and Corporation of the town, which order was addressed to the provincial authority, desiring that gentleman to give the Corporation of Knockfergus whatever timber they required from "ye woods of Belfast." At that time the now capital of Ulster was a small fishing village that stood outside the English pale, and the order was, therefore, refused.

The parish of Shankill is frequently referred to in Dr. Reeves' history, and also in that of the Rev. J. O'Laverty. It's name signified old church, but at the tine of the erection in Carrickfergus not a vestige of the building remained.

Very soon after Sir Arthur Chichester was presented with the castle of Belfast and the lands that comprised the estate. It would appear that among the first of his acts as a landlord was that of providing a place of worship for the people. In October, 1615, the municipal authorities of the town issued a proclamation to the effect that on each Sabbath Day the burgesses and free commoners should assemble in their Town Hall, dressed in their official robes, and march in procession to the residence of the Sovereign, James Burr, and escort him to church. Penalties ranging from one to five shillings, according to the rank of the offenders, were recoverable for non-attendance at public worship. The church alluded to is supposed to have stood on the site now occupied by St. George's, High Street, and which in 1645 was pulled down and replaced by the erection of the building named the Corporation Church.


Sir Fulke Conway, like Sir Arthur Chichester, enjoyed the patronage of Queen Elizabeth and her immediate successor. He too was sent to Ireland as commander of troops ordered there to aid in quelling the rebellion, and after partial peace had been made with several native chiefs, the gallant knight laid aside his weapons of war. and betook himself to the duties of landlordism. In addition to the Crown lands granted him, he became owner of the rectorial tithes of several parishes on the estate, and at once set about repairing such of the old churches as had been injured during the rebellion. He also erected new houses of worship.

The early history of Killultagh -- Church of the Wood -- has been lost in the mists of time, and that of Ballinderry is only partially known. In the middle of the sixteenth century, however, that old place of worship was put in thorough repair by Earl Conway, and to the present day there remain portions of the sacred walls that once re-echoed the sublime oratory of Jeremy Taylor.

Lisnagarvagh and Blayruss were separate parishes in the reign of James the First. Tradition has it that when Sir Fulke Conway took up his residence in the stronghold previously owned by the O'Neill known as captain of Killultagh there stood in the immediate vicinity a chapel in which the chief had mass celebrated when the fit of religious fervour came on, but as neither he himself nor his retainers paid much attention to such things sacred the house was left in decay. The new lord of the manor had the roof and walls partially repaired, but in 1623 the whole was taken down and the original of the present cathedral erected in its stead. The old warrior died the following year, and his brother Edward had arrived in Lisnagarvagh some months before the church was consecrated. That ceremonial was performed by Bishop Robert Echlin, the Rev. Alexander Forbeson, rector of Blaris, assisting.

The second owner of the estate in Warwickshire, as well as that in Down and Antrim, was in the same year raised to the peerage as Baron Conway of Ragley. This nobleman died in 1630. His son Edward, Viscount Killultagh, made many improvements in the Church, and about 1641 got a law passed, which was known as "Conway's Act," for the uniting of the parishes of Lisnagarvagh and Blaris.

Most schoolboys who have read about the rebellion of 1641 are aware that the Irish army in its retreat from Lisnagarvagh set fire to that town. Nearly all the thatched houses were burned, but except some damage to the roof the church had a fortunate escape, and was speedily repaired.

Another change of proprietorship took place in the Conway estate in 1655, and when the third viscount arrived at the capital of the property, then called Lisburn, he found the town garrisoned by Cromwell's troops, and on Sundays those soldiers occupied so many seats in the church, that only a few of the parishioners could be accommodated. The Rev. Alexander Wike, an Independent minister, had just settled in the town, and many of the Episcopal families attended his ministry.

Dr. Jeremy Taylor.

Lord Conway, finding that the great majority of the tenants on his estate were opposed to the Protectorate, induced the celebrated polemic Dr. Taylor to come over from England as a missionary to those Loyalists. His Lordship had a handsome cottage built and furnished at Portmara, near the borders of Lough Neagh, and a house in Lisburn, also furnished, for the future prelate, on whom he settled a handsome income. It was chiefly through Viscount Conway's influence at Court that Jeremy Taylor was elevated to the Episcopal Bench of Down and Connor. Very soon after the Restoration Charles the Second raised Lisburn Church to the dignity of cathedral of the diocese as a mark of respect to the people for their loyalty towards himself and his father.

A second fire took place in Lisburn in April, 1707, and did immense damage. Numbers of people were left homeless, but except the wooden tower that stood at the west end of the church that sacred building escaped serious injury. During that fire the splendid set of musical bells presented to the parishioners by the Countess Conway were melted into masses of metal.

Francis Seymour, the second member of the house of Somerset that inherited the Conway estates, and who resided in Lisburn several months of each year, had the church repaired and extended considerably. A stone tower was erected and a huge bell placed there. This gentleman had been raised to the peerage as Baron Seymour Conway of Ragley and Viscount Killultagh of Antrim. He repaired the churches of Lambeg and Derriaghy, and it was stated by Bishop Edward Smythe "that Lord Seymour Conway liberably supplemented the incomes of the smaller benefices on his estate."

The Cathedral Bells.

The baron died at his residence in Lisburn in February, 1732, and was succeeded by his eldest son, who became earl, and ultimately Marquis of Hertford. Like his predecessor, this nobleman was always ready to contribute towards the support of the churches connected with the different parishes on his estate. In 1752 he had the fused metal of Lady Conway's set of bells, and which had been preserved from the time of the great fire, sent to an eminent founder in Dublin, and, with a large increase of silver, the whole was recast, and when finished turned out one of the richest and soundest toned bells in the kingdom. In the course of the casting the words "Francis, Earl of Hertford!" were inscribed on the outside.

The old tower of the Lisburn Cathedral was taken down in 1804, and the second Marquis engaged the eminent architect, John M'Blain, to build the present spire Four pinnacles were raised on the basement, and as a work of art, viewed from foundation to the weathercock that swings on the topmost stone, the steeple is a great triumph of design and workmanship.

From 1796 to 1876 there were only two changes of rectors in the cathedrals of this diocese. The Rev. Dr. Cupples during his forty years of ministerial duty, effected many improvements in the sittings and galleries of the church, and it was in his day that the splendid organ, the gift of the third Marquis of Hertford, was set up in the eastern gallery.

Dean Stannus became rector in January, 1836, and he held office for forty years.

In the early months of 1847 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners had the steeple perfectly pointed with cement, the pinnacles, which had been blown down in a storm, were rebuilt and finished lower than before, and the vane and a ball regilt. The front entrance, which had been through the basement of the tower, was built up, a new door made in the side, and stone steps erected as an approach to the galleries. This added much to the sitting accommodation, and at the same time the pulpit and reading-desk were detached and remodelled, a new chancel was built, and the exceedingly handsome eastern window of satined glass, which gives its picturesque beauty to that end of the cathedral, was placed there. The cost, raised by private subscription, was said to have been considerably above £200.

Dean Stannus frequently alluded to the valuable assistance which, respecting design and finish of that eastern window, he had received from the late Mr. George Stephenson, a gentleman possessed of rare taste and judgement in the fine arts. It was afterwards a source of regret to the dean that when the chancel was being extended he did not go a little farther in the good work, and form a loft for the organ on one side the communion rails, and a range of seats for the choristers on the other. There is always something detractive from the effect of church music when it comes over the backs of the congregation.

The great bell of the cathedral set up in 1762 received some injury half a century afterwards, but which did not materially affect its tone. On the second Sunday of February, 1861, the breach made in the instrument sixty years before suddenly gave way, and all sound ceased. Richard, fourth Marquis of Hertford, immediately afterwards sent an order to the founder, Thomas Hodges, of Dublin, for a new bell of still greater dimensions, and more beautiful tone. The work was finished in January, 1862, and the grand tower of the cathedral once again resounded with the musical call to Divine worship.

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By JOHN F. MULLIGAN, Solicitor, Belfast.

From "Belfast News-Letter," November 9, 1886.

The name Dromore was derived from two Irish words signifying "The great ridge," or "The great back of a hill." Dromore was, either from an antiquarian or an ecclesiastical point of view, one of the most interesting towns in Ireland. The See of Dromore was founded about the year 500 by Saint Colman, who established a monastery or abbey there, and presided over it in the joint capacity of bishop and abbot. This abbey had acquired extensive possessions early in the tenth century, and was frequently plundered by the Danes. They read that "this town (Dromore) was in the fourteenth century the place of exile of two corrupt English judges -- viz., Sir John Holt and Sir Robert Bechnap -- who, for delivering their opinion that King Richard II. was above the laws, were found guilty of high treason and condemned to die; but, at the intercession of the clergy and some temporal lords, their sentences were changed to banishment to the village of Dromore, in Ireland, and they were confined not to go out of the town above the space of two miles on pain of death."

On 14th March, 1688, a skirmish generally known as the "Rout," or "Break," took place near this town, between a party of Protestants and some of the adherents of James the Second, and it was there that the first Protestant blood was shed in that memorable year.

Mr. Mulligan refers to the various places and objects of interest to be seen in the course of a ramble through Dromore, and gives interesting particulars regarding the Bishop's Palace, the Parish Church, which is also the Cathedral of the Diocese of Dromore; Jeremy Taylor, Bishop Percy, "Hafiz " (the nom de plume of the late Mr. Thomas Stott), the Lagan, the Presbyterian churches of Dromore, the schools, the Rev. James Porter (author of "Billy Bluff"), who was at one time a school teacher in Dromore; the old castle, the Unitarian Church, the Rev. Alexander Colvill, M.D.; the old Cross, the Stocks, the Mount, Thomas Romney Robinson and William Cunningham, the boy-poets of Dromore; the Methodist Church, St. Colman's Roman Catholic Church, and the "Break of Dromore."

The remains of Bishops Jenny Taylor, George Rust, Essex Digby, Capel Wiseman (who was grand-uncle of the late Cardinal Wiseman), and Thomas Percy were interred within the cathedral, as were also the remains of Mrs. Percy, the "Nancy" of Dr. Percy's charming ballad, "O, Nancy, wilt thou go with me?"

The Lagan,

upon whose banks the town of Dromore is built, rises on the northern slope of Slieve Croob, and flowing past Dromara, Dromore, Moira, and Lisburn, falls into the sea at Belfast. The name Lagan was an Irish word signifying "a hollow or hollow district between hills or mountains." In early Irish authorities the river was called "Cassan Linne," but in the life of Saint Colman it was designated "The Locha." The mouth of the river, where it fell into the sea, is called Vinderius by Ptolemy, the geographer.

Belfast Lough was anciently called Loch Laogh, and Dr. Reeves had said that the name Locha seemed to be derived from a common origin with Loch Laogh. This loch was afterwards called Lough Bannchor, then the Bay of Knockfergus, and finally Belfast Lough.

In an old map of the lough and adjoining country, drawn in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the river Lagan is called F. Leganda, and to the portion of the map representing the river are appended these words: "Alonge this river by ye space of twenty-six miles groweth much woodes as well as okes for tymber as hother woodde, wich maie be brought in the bale of Cragfargus with bote or by dragge."

The introduction of frogs in to County Down was said to have occurred at a place a few miles distant from Dromore, and it was stated that it was from County Down they had spread in such numbers through the rest of the country.

At one time there was a chalybeate spa in Dromore, but it had long since disappeared in consequence of the cutting of a drain. There were eight principal chalybeate spas in County Down. These were at Ardmillan, Killaghee, Gransha, Kirkdonnell, Magheralin, Dromore, Newry, and Turkelly. The waters of these spas differed from each other chiefly in the different degrees of strength of the mineral impregnation. The water of the Dromore spa was more brackish than the rest, curdled more with soap, and imparted some redness to beef boiled in it, having a greater proportion of calcareous nitre. The Dromore spa stood in the town, by the river side, with an exposure to the south, but being covered by an arch and trees the sun had no power over it. Some experiments were made in May, 1743, on the water of the spa; from which it appeared that its taste was strongly ferruginous, and it struck a very deep purple with galls and a light blue with logwood; a light purple with brandy and rectified spirits of wine; all evidences of an impregnating iron, and by the hydrometer it appeared to be nearly of the same specific gravity with the water of the Lagan. Its operation was purgative, and it was often drunk with success in some diseases of the kidneys.

The Cross and Stocks.

There was formerly a very fine sculptures granite cross sytanding in Dromore. The remains of it lay for many years at the south-west corner of the old Market-house, and the base of the cross was used as a stand for the town stocks. Both the stones of the cross and the stocks were removed to another part of the Market Square when the erection of the new Market-house was commenced.

Steps were being taken for the re-erection of the cross was originally erected by St. Colman at the time he founded the abbey in Dromore, and that it stood near the church. The late Mr. Welsh's theory regarding the origin of the Dromore Cross was to the following effect -- When Druidism was the prevailing religion there were throughout the country a great many holy wells or fountains at which religious ceremonies were performed. On the introduction of Christianity the missionaries erected crosses in the neighbourhood of these fountains, so that the early converts might be baptised at the foot of the cross, with the sacred water associated with their former religion, and in this way the ancient inhabitants were more easily persuaded to accept the new doctrines. Mr. Welsh's idea was that the Church Well (as it is now called), which is near the church, was a Druidical well or fountain, and that the Dromore Cross was originally erected near it for the purpose already indicated. Whatever uncertainty there may be as to the time of the original erection of the cross there was no doubt whatever of its having been a conspicuous object in Dromore in the beginning of the reign of James the First, as in the charter of 1609 that King granted a free market every Saturday, and two fairs yearly, to be held near the Church of Dromore, where a great stone cross then stood.

The cross afterwards either fell or was pulled down, and for many years it lay at that corner of the Market Square which was now known as Mr. Edgar's corner.

In 1803 company of the Donegal Militia being quartered in Dromore, a resident of the town proposed that these men should erect the cross in the Market Square, and offered to pay them half a guinea for their trouble. The militiamen accepted the offer, but, having accomplished their task in a very, short time, their employer would only give them five shillings. The men were so indignant at his conduct that they at once pulled the cross down again.

A short time afterwards the town stocks were erected at the south-west corner of the Market-house, upon the stone which formed the base of the cross, and at the corner of the Market-house the remaining stones of the cross lay on the ground beside the stocks from that period until the present year.

It was scarcely necessary to explain that the common stocks were an apparatus of wood or iron much used in former times for the punishment of petty offences. The culprit was placed on a seat with his ankles fastened in holes under a movable board of wood or bar of iron.

The period of the first introduction of the common stocks was uncertain, but in the 2nd statute of Labourers, 25th Edward III. (1350) provision was made for applying the stocks to unruly artificers; and in 1376 the Commons prayed Edward III. that stocks should be established in every village. The Dromore stocks, which were made of iron, were probably as good a specimen of this instrument of punishment as could be found in the United Kingdom. They were probably standing in Dromore previously to their being erected on the basement of the cross; but without doubt they stood on the south-west corner of the Market-house from 1805 till 1886, and, although exposed to all the changes of our variable climate for more than eighty years, they are now as complete as on the day they were first erected.

In the burial-ground in connection with the First Presbyterian Church (Dr. Strain's) lie the remains of John Morgan, whom Denis Holland pronounced "the intellectual Titan of the North." Unhappily, no stone marked the resting-place of this talented man in that burial-ground at Dromore which he himself described as the "pine-girt graveyard."

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By Mrs. CRAIK in the "English Illustrated Magazine."

Scarcely a stone's throw from a gloomy graveyard we came out suddenly upon the glittering expanse of Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the three kingdoms, twenty miles long by fifteen broad, looking like an inland sea. Not a ship or boat of any sort dotted its vast smooth surface; its long level shores -- for there is not a mountain near -- added to the sense of silent, smiling, contented desolation.

"See how we Irish throw away our blessings," said my companion, as we stood looking at the lovely sight. "In England such a splendid sheet of water would have been utilised in many ways, and made a centre of both business and pleasure. Factories would have sprung up along its shores, yachts, steamers, fishing boats, would have covered it from end to end. Now, Moore's solitary fisherman, who is supposed to stray on its banks

     " 'At the clear, cold eve's declining'

(probably bent on catching pollan, the only fish attainable here) -- might easily imagine he saw

     " 'The round towers of other days
         In the wave beneath him shining!' "

"But did he?" I was foolish enough to ask, because most fiction has a grain of fact at its core. "Was there ever anything curious seen at the bottom of Lough Neagh?"

"I have dredged it from end to end and found many submarine curiosities, but never a round tower or a king's palace. Even the fossilising power which is said to be in its waters, I believe, lies not in the lake itself, but in one of its tributaries, the Crumlin river, which has probably the same petrifying and preserving qualities that exist in bog. At any rate, the fossil wood which is often found in the lough is extremely beautiful."

"And there is really no record of submerged cities?" said I, still craving after my pleasant fiction, "The waters must cover such an enormous surface, which was dry land once."

"Certainly. It is said that about A.D. 100 the river Bann overflowed, and drowned a prince of Ulster with all his kingdom. Or, if you prefer it, your own Caxton declared that the prince and his people, being 'men of evyle lyvinge,' opened a holy well, which was always kept closed. A woman went to draw water with her child, the child cried, she ran to it, leaving the well uncovered, when up welled the waters, destroying the whole country -- including the woman and child. This is said to have happened A.D. 65. So you can choose between two conflicting dates and traditions, and please yourself, as you mostly can in all histories. But here's an undeniable fact -- the Castle."

Not the original fortress, built by the first O'Neill on the shores of Lough Neagh, with the good right hand yet left to him, but the half-modern, half-mediæval one which was burned to the ground as late as 1816. Its ruins, picturesque and ivy-grown, showed what a fine building it must have been. I was shown "Lord O'Neill's safe" -- a sort of cupboard in the enormously thick wall -- still left standing in what had been an upper room. Also the black stone, once a carved head, fixed in the outer masonry, to which clings a tradition that when it falls the family of O'Neill will end.

Of course they have a banshee -- all real old Irish families have. Not the modern Anglo-Irish, who came over with Edmund Spencer, Oliver Cromwell, or King James, but the true Celts. A friend, whose uncle was present at the burning of Shane's Castle, told me the story of it. Lord O'Neill -- a bachelor -- has a party of gay bachelor friends dining with him. In the midst of their jollifications fire broke out in a different room. Nobody minded it much at first -- nobody does mind evil in Ireland till too late to mend it -- and then they inquired for the fire-engine. It had been carried off that very day a dozen miles to destroy a wasp's nest in a cottage roof! So their was nothing for it but to remove the pictures, furniture, and valuables -- or as much of them as they could -- and let the castle burn. Lord O'Neill and his companions, who must have been pretty sober now, sat on an old box and watched it burn. With the Lough and its waters only a few yards off, they yet could do nothing, unless it was to curse their own folly in letting go the only means of safety -- the fire engine. While they sat helplessly gazing, my friends uncle always declared he saw, and several of the other guests affirmed the same, a female figure, all in white, stand wringing her hands, and then pass and repass from window to window of the burning house, in which they were certain there was no living creature, Of course it was the Banshee of the O'Neills.

After this, no one attempted to rebuild the old castle.

Next week will commence a series of Articles on Local Literary Men.

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 29 December 1916 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week through 1917. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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