The archaeology and early history of Leckpatrick and Dunnalong

Our knowledge of the past dwindles with each preceding century and to say anything substantial about the early history of this area is a difficult task indeed. The parishes of Leckpatrick and Dunnalong are not particularly rich in prehistoric remains. Two reasons account for this. Firstly, the low-lying area along the River Foyle would have been covered in dense forest in earlier times. Secondly, this area has been intensively farmed in the last three hundred years and, consequently, many monuments have been lost. However, there are enough monuments in the countryside to indicate to us that people were living in the Leckpatrick and Dunnalong area several thousand years before the birth of Christ. Farmers living along the Foyle have picked up pieces of flint from their freshly ploughed fields, which date back to the Mesolithic period in Ireland (c.7-5000 B.C.). The earliest peoples in Ireland were hunter-gatherers, but from about 5000 B.C. we see the arrival of the first farmers.

These people buried their dead in tombs which have been termed megalithic because they were constructed with large stones. One of the best known megalithic tombs in this area is the ‘Rocking Stone’, a collapsed portal tomb or dolmen which is situated in a field close to the main road between Artigarvan and Dunnamanagh. At the top of Windy Hill are the remains of a wedge tomb, so named because of its wedge shape. A small simple grave or cist, dating from the Irish Bronze Age (c.2200-500 B.C.) was discovered in Sandville in 1953. The cist was found to contain the skeletal remains of a human being and a small food vessel. Analysis of the bones showed that they probably belonged to a young man just over five feet tall. It has been suggested that the style of the bowl is derived from a Scottish source. If this hypothesis is correct it is an indication that close links between Scotland and this part of Ulster are of some antiquity.

Standing stones were also a once common feature of our landscape. However, many have since been removed. The Reverend John Rutherford drew attention to one particular standing stone in Lisdivin which was known locally as the ‘Gowk Stone’ after the gowk or cuckoo which traditionally sent forth its first call in spring from it. In the boundary fence between the townlands of Lisdivin and Sandville is a pair of standing stones, probably indicative of phallic worship. It is believed that livestock were driven between these stones in order to ensure their continued fertility. Stone circles, which also date from this period, are found in large numbers in the Sperrins. At Knocknahorna, in Glenmornan, is a stone circle measuring 50 feet in diameter.

At Ballybeeny, Broadfield and Ballinabuoy there are souterrains – artificial underground chambers lined and roofed with stone. In a short article in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology Professor V. P. H. Moore gave an account of a visit to the souterrains in Ballybeeny:

They are set into a fairly steep slope, and are about 150 yards apart. The easterly one is at present inaccessible; into the western it is possible to penetrate, though it is partly filled with earth. One side is roughly cut in the rock, the other is built up of rough boulders; for it is constructed in the boulder-clay along the slope, and so did not need to be built on both sides. The outer part consists of a passage less than two feet wide and at present about 2½ ft high with two right-angled turns, at the second of which there projects a shoulder of rock. At 8 ft from the mouth there is a lintel-slab, leading to the chamber, which is considerably higher than the passage; its original height was about 7 ft. It is roofed with slabs set without order. In shape it is roughly oval, about 11 ft long and 4 ft broad at the widest part. Two passages run off to the right, towards the ground surface; they are now nearly filled with earth, and probably were niches and did not communicate with further chambers.

What particularly intrigued Professor Moore about this souterrain was its extremely rough construction, though he did acknowledge that its position meant that it was probably better drained than many others of its type. Souterrains were principally used as places of refuge during times of unrest. It is recorded that the Vikings sailed up the Foyle on a number of occasions on their marauding journeys. It has been suggested that Dunnalong may originally have been a Viking settlement since the ‘long’ is reminiscent of the Norse longphort, a term used to describe a Viking encampment. Certainly Dunnalong was the site of an important river crossing from a very early period.

Raths or ringforts are circular enclosures, which date from the first millennium A.D. They were constructed by digging a ditch and piling the earth on the inner side to form a bank. The countryside around Dunnalong and Leckpatrick was once dotted with raths. However, many have been destroyed in the last 150 years. The most impressive rath in this area is located at Ballynabwee and is set on a bluff 100 feet above the Burndennet River. A double-banked rath, the diameter measures between 40 and 45 metres. In places the inner bank rises nearly two metres above the central, enclosed area and appears to have been constructed in part with stone revetments, as does the outer bank. The entrance is on the southwestern side and is approximately two and a half metres wide. In 1979 a bronze axe-head was found in the rath which has been dated to around 700 B.C.. It must be regarded as a stray find as the rath is of a much later date. Among the earliest identifiable tribes in this area were the Ui Meic Cairthinn whose territory covered the western part of what is now Co. Londonderry and stretched south to the Mourne and Owenkillew rivers. The archaeologist, Brian Lacy, has identified the ringfort at Ballynabwee, along the Burndennet river, as one of their principal fortifications.

Ringforts built using stones are known as cashels. At the top of Ballylaw is a cashel called the White Fort. Circular in shape, its internal diameter measures approximately 200 feet, while the walls are about three feet high and 27 feet thick and constructed using small stones with no proper facing. There is no ditch and no obvious sign of an entrance. Situated where it is, it must have commanded a large area around it and can be regarded as a site rivalling Ballynabwee rath in importance in earlier times. Crannogs or lake dwellings also date from this period. In the 1880s a crannog was discovered in a bog in Ballaghalare.


The early church in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong

The name Leckpatrick means ‘flat stone of Patrick’ and tradition has it that Ireland’s patron saint, on one of his many travels, founded a church here. Tradition aside, there was definitely a church here at the beginning of the fourteenth century when it appears in an ecclesiastical taxation roll. In 1397 John Colton, archbishop of Armagh and former justiciar of Ireland, made his celebrated tour of the diocese of Derry. Setting out from Termonmagurk on 8 October 1397, the archbishop and his retinue visited the church at Cappagh and then travelled on to the church at Ardstraw where they spent the night at the expense of the local erenaghs (tenants of the church lands). The next day the party proceeded to the church at Urney where they lodged for the night. The following morning the erenaghs of Urney brought seven horses to Colton which were used to transport the baggage and victuals on the next part of the journey.

Colton and his retinue must have presented a strange and colourful sight as they passed through the west Tyrone countryside. However, for some unknown reason news of their arrival did not reach Leckpatrick in time and the erenaghs there were totally unprepared for the archbishop’s visit. Richard Kenmore, a priest and gifted lawyer, was a member of Colton’s train and his eyewitness account of the visit to Leckpatrick has survived:

[We] proceeded to a certain parish vulgarly called Leck Patrick, but in Latin Lapis Patricii, and there the erenaghs and inhabitants of the aforesaid parish and village, because their own horses were then scattered in the fields, and the aforesaid father [Colton] could not conveniently wait until these horses could be caught, promised and found sureties to pay the erenaghs and inhabitants of Urney a certain price agreed upon between them for carrying the victual and baggage of the said lord primate.

It is quite remarkable that the erenaghs of Leckpatrick were so unprepared for the arrival of such an important dignitary, and it is quite possible that they were trying to escape their obligation to provide transport for the archbishop and his party. Certainly the incident would not have endeared the inhabitants of Leckpatrick to Ireland’s most important cleric or, for that matter, to the people of Urney. Following his departure from Leckpatrick, the archbishop travelled on to Derry, possibly crossing the Foyle at Dunnalong where there was a ferry. He did not visit the church at Donagheady.

It is only from the beginning of the fourteenth century that we know anything about the early rectors of the parish of Leckpatrick. The earliest known rector was John Maccalyn who died in 1407. In that year Patrick Ouniyregaiaich, a scholar of Derry diocese, was dispensed as the son of a priest and appointed rector of Leckpatrick. However, it seems that he never took up his new position because in 1413 Patrick O’Dubanach was provided to Leckpatrick, which had been vacant since Maccalyn’s death. O’Dubanach had also been dispensed as the son of a priest. In 1446-7 Patrick O’Brayn was rector of Leckpatrick. He was the son of a Cistercian monk and an unmarried woman. In 1447 he was appointed rector of Donaghmore parish in Donegal, but only on condition that he resigned Leckpatrick.

In 1469 Donald O’Braeny was deposed as rector of Leckpatrick. His successor, Phelim Oquarulan, informed the pope that O’Braeny was guilty of immorality and had been excommunicated. Oquarulan was then in his twenty-second year and was himself illegitimate. His appointment to Leckpatrick included a provision that if he were studying at university he was not bound to be ordained for seven years. We know nothing more about the church in the parish of Leckpatrick before the Reformation. While the quality of some of the early clerics may appear low, the situation in Leckpatrick was no different from that in many others parishes in Ireland in this period.

In the neighbouring parish of Donagheady the priests were also a mixed bunch. The earliest known rector in Donagheady was Michael O’Kathan who died in 1412. His successor, John O’Kearualayn, was the son of a priest and a married woman ‘related in the third degree of kindred’. The parish of Donagheady was also served by a number of vicars in the later medieval period, of whom the earliest known was Patrick Macologan who died in 1411. Donald O’Kerualan who was the son of a priest succeeded him. In 1431 it was reported that the vicar, Arthur Machauyl, had served the parish for over a year without being ordained. In 1458 Solomon O’Hegerthaid, the son of an Augustinian canon and an unmarried woman, was appointed vicar of Donagheady. He did not last long and in 1463 William O’Hegehretyd was vicar.

William O’Hegehretyd would appear to have been quite a character. While vicar of Donagheady he accused the abbot of the monastery in Derry of having committed adultery with a married woman, ‘by whom he has had offspring’, and also of using the goods of the monastery for his own purposes. The abbot was subsequently removed from office and O’Hegehretyd appointed as his replacement, while retaining the vicarage of Donagheady. In 1469 Bernard O’Duibhyn petitioned the pope stating that he had made a simonical agreement (in effect, bribery) with William O’Hegehretyd by which the latter was to resign the vicarage in O’Duibhyn’s favour on the payment of a certain sum of money. The bishop of Derry would appear to have been unaware of these underhand financial dealings and duly appointed O’Duibhyn to Donagheady on the resignation of O’Hegehretyd. However, the agreement between O’Hegehretyd and O’Duibhyn subsequently came to light and O’Duibhyn would appear to have been suspended for a time. However, he was forgiven soon afterwards and reinstated in the vicarage of Donagheady.


The Augustinian abbey at Grange

The Tripartite Life of Patrick records the names of seven churches in the vicinity of the river Faughan which were founded by Ireland’s patron saint, one of which, Domhnach Cati, has been identified with Donagheady. The Tripartite Life also mentions a further church, Domhnach Mescan, where St Patrick’s brewer, Cruimthir Mescan, came from. It has not been possible to identify the exact location of this church, but Brian Lacy, in an article on the tribe known as the Ui Meic Cairthinn drew attention to the townland of Gortmessan near Bready and suggested it as a possible site. The old burial ground of Grange in the modern townland of Grangefoyle marks the site of a former monastic foundation of which remarkably little is known. Would it be stretching things a little too far to suggest that this might have been the location of Mescan’s church ?

At any rate, during the Later Medieval period a religious institution was established here, though there is no traditional date of foundation. An inquisition held in Dungannon in 1608 noted that the ‘late abbot of Columbkille of Derry was seised of the grange of Bundiened.’ Bundiened is obviously modern Burndennet, the river that flows into the Foyle one mile south of Grange monastic site. By the middle of the thirteenth century the original Columban foundation at Derry, known as the Dub Regles or the Black Church, had adopted the rule of St Augustine. The monastery at Grange was therefore Augustinian. The name Grange itself throws some light on the nature of the abbey, since the word is generally used to describe a monastic farm and comes from the Old French word for barn. The principal preoccupation of the abbey at Grange was probably with supplying grain to the main abbey in Derry. There was also a small chapel on the abbeylands, which would have served as the place of worship for both the monks of the monastery and the local inhabitants.

To-day, there are no remains of this monastery, which would probably have been located within the confines of the present burial ground. Taylor and Skinner’s Maps of the roads of Ireland (1777) and the Post Chaise Companion (1803) mention the ruins of a church at Grange. In 1837 the ruins were described as ‘extensive,’ though they are not marked on the first edition Ordnance Survey map of the area. Undoubtedly, many of the buildings in the immediate vicinity of the graveyard were built using stones taken from the abbey ruins. The remaining stones were probably used to build the wall and arched gateway, which now enclose the old burial ground. The square keystone of the arch is inscribed as follows: ‘This wall and gate | rebuilt by the | owners of ground | within | A.D. 1865’.


The nunnery at Rosnagalliagh

In 879 Ailid McDermott founded a nunnery at Rosnagalliagh. The next mention of the nunnery comes in 1397 in the account of Archbishop Colton’s visit of the diocese Derry. At this time it was decided that in order to support the nunnery at Derry the lands at Ballynagalliagh and Rosnagalliagh should be appropriated. The nunnery at Rosnagalligh was located close to the main road between Magheramason and New Buildings. The Ordnance Survey memoir for the parish of Glendermott, written in the 1830s, contains the following account of the nunnery:

The old ruin of Rosnagalliagh is immediately at the side of the high road and presents nothing more than a part of 2 parallel walls very close to one another and the interior filled up with brambles and holly. These two fragments of walls are 5 feet from the ground. They appear to be composed of stones not large but well fitted. The present ruin is but a trace of a once larger one. It is 15 feet long and 15 wide. This was not the convent itself but only the church, according to the relations of the inhabitants. It was once surrounded by a churchyard of nearly three acres now, however, almost wholly broken up. It is cultivated to within a few yards of the church. Although it contained graves it had neither gravestones or tombs. The locality of each grave was merely marked by the insertion of a small stone or water pebbles. The neighbouring farmer relates that he destroyed an ancient paved road, which entered the eastern part of the churchyard and seemed to come from Warbleshinny glen. The nunnery itself stood between the remains of the church and the bank of the Foyle. No traces of it, however, are anywhere visible.

The memoir goes on to describe a stone near the old church which was believed to have been used as an altar or table during religious ceremonies. Mention is also made of the holy well near the churchyard which was dedicated to St Cogle and which was reputedly the source of many miraculous cures. Other holy wells in this area include one at Peter’s Hill in Tamnabryan and another close to Old Donagheady graveyard. A further holy well was located in the townland of Killycurry on the other side of the Dennett from the old bleach mill. The 1858 Ordnance Survey map of the area marks three antiquities here: ‘Fort Field’; ‘The Font Stone’; and ‘Site of Burial Ground’. This would appear to have been another early ecclesiastical site about which nothing is known.



The best introduction to our prehistoric past is J. P. Mallory and T. E. McNeill, The Archaeology of Ulster (Belfast, 1991). The Monuments and Buildings Record, housed in 5-33 Hill Street, Belfast, has information on all the known archaeological sites in Northern Ireland. The Reverend John Rutherford’s book, Donagheady Presbyterian Churches and Parish (Belfast, 1953) contains a wealth of information which would otherwise have been lost in the mists of time. The information on the early clergy in Leckpatrick is mainly derived from J. Leslie, Derry clergy and parishes (Enniskillen, 1937), but extracts have also been taken from the Calendar of the Papal Letters.

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