Ructions and revolutions: 1,500 years of Tyrone church revealed

The Donaghendry Heritage Group committee -  Jackie Slater, Elizabeth Abernethy Hazel Moffett, James Glendinning and Val Moffett. ar1838-109.
The Donaghendry Heritage Group committee - Jackie Slater, Elizabeth Abernethy Hazel Moffett, James Glendinning and Val Moffett. ar1838-109.

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’.

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.

“This was the middle of O’Neill territory,” added 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.

Copies are available from outlets in Stewartstown and Sheehy’s and Ranfurly House or from Val and Hazel Moffett on 028 87738688.