Ructions and revolutions: 1,500 year history of Tyrone church revealed

Donaghendry parish church today (image via Google Maps)
Donaghendry parish church today (image via Google Maps)

The tumultuous history of a church which is thought to owe its origins to St Patrick has been brought to life thanks to years of research by a trio of local historians.

After trawling through record offices in Dublin, Armagh and Belfast, and an intensive hunt through the parish’s own ancient paperwork, they have produced a volume entitled ‘In St Patrick’s Footsteps’.

The Donaghendry Heritage Group committee (left to right)  Jackie Slater, Elizabeth Abernethy Hazel Moffett, James Glendinning and Val Moffett

The Donaghendry Heritage Group committee (left to right) Jackie Slater, Elizabeth Abernethy Hazel Moffett, James Glendinning and Val Moffett

James Glendinning, a 71-year-old retired teacher from Stewartstown, worked on it along with Valentine ‘Val’ Moffett, and his wife Hazel.

“The story is St Patrick set up seven churches in the east Tyrone area, including Donaghendry,” he said.

“Whether he personally did or one of his followers did is open to debate. But it was set up in his time. It’s about 1,500 years old.”

In the late 16th and early 17th century, the church had fallen into disrepair because of the Nine Years War, as Hugh O’Neill, ruler of old Ulster, led a failed rebellion against forces led by Baron Mountjoy – culminating in the Flight of the Earls, and paving the way for the plantation.

The book itself

The book itself

“This was the middle of O’Neill territory,” said Mr Glendinning.

“The place was in terrible turmoil. There was no central control. Mountjoy’s policy was to destroy all the crops as part of a strategy to win the war. The church probably fell to bits.

“When [O’Neill] left, Lord Castlestewart came in as the ‘under taker’, to plant the land with Scottish and English settlers.”

The church, or what was left of it, was moved to a new location about a mile away in Stewartstown itself in 1622 – the site where it stands today.

However, there was more strife in store for the congregation. Records the researchers found in Dublin reveal a reference to the parish relating to the 1641 Irish rebellion.

“The records reference Donaghendry. They say the clergyman Mr Dunbar, minister of Donaghendry, his wife and five or six young children, and elderly mother and father, were stripped and robbed of whatever ‘wearing clothes’ they had, and were whipped.

“What became of them, no-one knows. Presumably they were dead from exposure - nobody heard tell of them again.”

The church was rebuilt again - on order of William III - in 1690, and then again after a fire in 1870s.

In a safe in the church, the researchers found parish records going back to the 1700s, much of it difficult to read because of the age and the handwriting – but all of it helping to illuminate some bygone aspects of Ireland.

“If you’re going through 200 years of notes, and taking notes from those, it takes a fair bit of time,” said Mr Glendinning, with an air of understatement.

“We worked at it for seven years.”

Among the things they rifled through were old marriage records (some signed with Xs because the spouses were illiterate), an arrest warrant for assault from 1763 (because the church – at the time a big part of the local authority – was in charge of appointing a constable for the area), and even an “very long-winded letter”, dated 1778, from a Jim Anketell to the News Letter, “thanking people for appointing him as curate”.

They compared church records from 1824 and government records from 1860, and noticed that “everybody seemed to have moved”.

“There was no stability in where people were living, because they just rented land and didn’t have to stay in any particular spot. It’s amazing the lack of stability, how people were living.”

This changed around the turn of the century - a change that shows up in the church records - as land reform allowed farmers to purchase their own holdings, instead of paying landlords in perpetutity.

“At the beginning of the 1900s, the people living in big houses all decided to leave to go to Dublin or London because they were no longer getting rent from the land.”

The church is a Church of Ireland one. Despite having spent so much time on the project, Mr Glendinning himself is not actually a member of the church.

“I’m Presbyterian – I’m an interloper!” he joked.

“But history is history. It’s all part of the history of the area.”