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Home History The struggle to get a Catholic Church
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The struggle to get a Catholic Church
Early in the seventeenth century the leader of the MacDonnell clan was Randal. Although he had fought with the O'Neill as a rebel for some years, in 1602 he deserted the lost cause of the O’Neill’s and became reconciled with the Government.  He received the honour of knighthood and became the owner of vast estates stretching from Coleraine to Larne.  Later he was created Viscount Dunluce and ultimately became first Earl of Antrim.

Randal's descendants,the Lords of Antrim, reside at Glenarm Castle right down to the present day. 

Sir Randal, though a Catholic, planted his own lands in County Antrim with Protestants, most of them Presbyterians.  He made the first successful attempt to introduce Lowlanders from Scotland, chiefly from Argyleshire and Wigtownshire.  He brought into the Glens of Antrim Scottish families, whose names are now quite common in the Route area: Boyds, Stewarts, MacNaughtens, Dunlops, Kennedys, Kerrs, Macaulays, Dicks, MacKays, Shaws, Moores and others. 

At the same time he let out large portions of his estate near the East coast to native families.  It is testified that he settled his lands better than any in the North of Ireland.  He soon became known as “a singular promoter and patron of civility”. 

In due time the Scottish settlers cleared the forests, drained the marshy lands, developed good farms, stocked them with cattle, erected their homesteads and turned the area into a prosperous countryside. 

Gradually individual Presbyterians entered the Route area and, as early as 1610, became residents there.  The oldest monument to any of the Scottish settlers in Country Antrim is the gravestone of Kathrin Peebles (died 1615 A.D), in the graveyard of old Derrykeighan Church, the ruins of which are among the oldest in the Route area. 

Naturally the influx of these Scottish/Presbyterian settlers brought about friction with the native, mainly Catholic, locals and during the early 17th century the native chieftains fought to retain their dominance.

The Government, on behalf of the English crown, regarded the native Irish and their chieftains,who resisted the growing influence of the Crown and the usurpation of their land, as "rebels".  Eventually the native Irish were defeated in 1641 by the crown forces.  Some of the main Irish lords or chieftains were forced to leave Ireland and take refuge on the mainland continent of Europe, in what became known as "the flight of the Earls".

After the defeat of 1641 some isolated bands of "rebels" continued to resist English dominance.  In January 1642, one party of these "rebels" was to bring about an episode, which has gone down in the annals of local history in the Route area near Ballintoy, on the North coast of County Antim, just about five miles from the town of Ballycastle. 

This group of "rebels" made an extensive march in the direction of Ballycastle, plundering as they progressed. The fear was so great in Ballintoy that the people of the neighbourhood were hustled into the Protestant Church for safety.  The Rev. William Fullerton, who was Captain in the Carey Yeomanry and Vicar of Derrykeighan, took command. 

The people, men, women and children, who had crowded into the church, were without fire, light or sufficient food.  They were to be besieged for some months. 

A brace of Catholic priests sought permission to bring a wooden churn full of water to relieve the situation and were granted permission.  The priests had put oatmeal in the bottom of the churn before they filled it with water.  When the guards inspected the churn they did not spot the oatmeal and the churn was admitted. 

The people in the church were able to make porridge and thus were able to survive.  Eventually the besiegers decided that these people had God on their side and departed, leaving the people in peace.  One of the priests was called Rev Patrick McGlaim and a descendant of his, also called Pat McGlaim, was employed as a carpenter by Peter Dallat, this writer’s father, in the 1940’s.

In spite of the frictions and struggles that were taking place between the different religious/cultural groupings in the 17th century, there was also much tolerance and christian understanding.  Rev Canon Hugh MacNeille was the Rector of Ramoan Church of Ireland and it is said of him that he hardly ever conducted a service of any description in England or Ireland in which he did not pray for his “dear Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen.”

It was also said that Canon MacNeille was such a famous preacher that large numbers of Catholics flocked to hear him.  Was it incidences of tolerance, such as this and many others in North Antrim, that helped Ballycastle and its surrounding area to retain up to the present day a reputation for tolerance and good neighbourliness?  Or is this just the imagination of the author?

After the military struggles of the early 17th century and particularly after the defeat of the native Irish chieftains in 1641, Ballycastle was almost a deserted town.  In 1699 the tenements of the town occupied merely an area of three acres.  In 1734 the population return for the Parish of Ramoan (Ballycastle) gave the number of householders as 62, of whom 16 were Catholic, 32 Episcopalian and 14 Presbyterian.

Gradually in the 18th century, however, the population grew.  In 1766, the Vicar of Ramoan reported that there were in the parish 354 Protestant families and 86 Papist families.  This growth continued into the 19th century and, according to the Census Return of 1881, there were in the civil parish 1326 Catholics and 2098 belonging to all other denominations.

The 17th, 18th and early years of the 19th centuries were times of government religious persecution of the largely Catholic, native population.  The Penal Laws of the early 17th century inaugurated a long period of harsh times for Catholics. at various times forbidding the celebration of Mass, the obtaining of an education or entrance to university.

These laws also legalized the hunting down of priests, many of whom were forced into exile, imprisoned or executed.  Particularly,in 1697, an Act of Parliament was passed, which ordered the banishment of all priests from Ireland and a prohibition of the celebrating of Mass.   

During these times of persecution some of the Catholics of Ramoan attended the celebration of Mass at the Friary in the Ardagh townland at Glenshesk, one of the famous nine Glens of Antrim.  The Franciscans had  been forced to leave Bunamargy Friary, on the edge of the town of Ballycastle, and moved up to the top of Glenshesk.  It was quite inconvenient for the majority of parishioners from Ballycastle to go to Glenshesk because of the distance. 

Because of the persecution of this period Mass had to be celebrated secretely on what were known as "Mass rocks" in secluded places  Some of the Mass rocks around Ballycastle were KIlcraig, Carnsaggart and Altifernan, near Glenshesk.  

During most of this period Ballycastle was part of the large parish of Armoy and the Catholics of Ballycastle depended on the priests from Armoy, as well as the Franciscans, for Mass.

Eventually as the political situation improved somewhat in the late 18th century, the Catholics of Ballycastle asked the Parish Priest of Armoy, Father Roger Murray, who had been appointed to Armoy in 1780, to provide them with a chapel in Ballycastle.  Father Murray complied with their wish and obtained a site in the area close to the modern day Fairhill Street.

The site had been generously provided by Hugh Boyd, Esq., the landlord of Ballycastle, on the 16th January 1795.  The site was at the low-lying part of Ballycastle where the chapel could not be seen from the higher parts of the town.  However it must be noted that this land was given to Father Murray over 30 years before the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.

Father Murray erected his small church on the donated site.  The street, on which it was erected, formerly called Tanyard Brae, became known as Chapel Lane.  The chapel was later enlarged and rededicated in 1838.      

Later, in the 19th Century, a successor of Fr Murray, Father Patrick McAlister (Parish Priest 1862-1886), determined to erect a new church and to convert the old chapel into schools.  He obtained from Mrs Boyd 5 acres of ground, one of the most beautiful sites for a church that could be found, commanding a delightful view over the beautiful scenery around Ballycastle as well as the distant hills of Cantyre (Mull of Kintyre).  The site was an elevated piece of tableland adjoining, but also rising high above, the streets of the town.

 


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