The other churches in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong

The previous chapter dealt exclusively with the Church of Ireland in Leckpatrick and Dunnalong. This chapter looks at the other denomination in the locality. Space does not permit a detailed examination of each of them, and only an outline is given of the churches with particular emphasis on their early development and any important events in their history.

Donagheady Presbyterian Churches

In the 1650s, during the Commonwealth, the parish of Donagheady was served by John Hamilton, a Scot, who lived in the rectory and collected the tithes of the parish as his income. However, at the Restoration of 1660 Hamilton refused to conform to the Established Church and was removed from his position. He remained in the area to serve the needs of those Protestants who followed the practices of Presbyterianism. For a number of years after 1660 Presbyterians were severely persecuted by the authorities and Hamilton lived as a virtual outlaw for the next decade preaching in secret to small groups of followers. Rutherford relates a tradition that Presbyterians used to meet in a secluded spot surrounded by trees at the Wood near Magheramason. In 1667, nineteen Presbyterians from Donagheady were excommunicated by the Anglican bishop of Derry. They were: William Birney, John Aiken, Robert Allison, John Armstrong, Elizabeth Clarke, Duncan Hearne, Robert Cowan, John Key, John Douglesse, Robert Gibson, John Leslie, James Lockerby, William Lynn, Thomas Pollock, Neale McCormicke, Sarah Neireith, Margaret Sprule, John Willson, and Robert Stevenson.

By 1670, however, the restrictions were more relaxed, and in 1672 the Presbyterians of Donagheady were allowed to build their first church in the townland of Altrest. The congregation was placed under the care of the Laggan Presbytery and it would seem from the surviving minute book that Hamilton and his flock were not always on the best of terms. The problem concerned Hamilton’s salary which was not as high as the presbytery had wanted. Hamilton himself threatened to leave the parish on account of his poverty although the situation would appear to have been resolved when the congregation paid Hamilton what was owed to him. It also promised to pay the rent of his house, which was in Moyagh, and additionally agreed to grant him an acre of meadow and two acres of corn with grass for a horse and some cattle. For a time Hamilton also ministered at Strabane which supplemented his income. The problem of ministerial poverty in Donagheady seems rather strange since at that time the area covered by Hamilton included the present congregations of Leckpatrick, Donemana and Magheramason. It is perhaps an indication that the Presbyterian percentage of the population was not large and that the bulk of them were to arrive later.

Hamilton continued to minister at Donagheady until his death which took place in Derry in 1689 during the siege. His role in ministering to the defenders is recorded in the poem Londerias which includes the line: ‘And Master Hamilton showed it from his books’. His will was made on 1 June 1689 and in it he made it known that his wish was that his children, John and Lilias, would be taken to Scotland and taught in the schools of either Glasgow or Hamilton. This was to be taken care of by his brother, James, and his father-in-law, Captain John Cunningham. Sadly, however, his children were also to die in 1689. According to Rutherford, a small gravestone, now lost, in the north-west corner of Grange graveyard bore the name of the Rev. John Hamilton. Whether he was actually buried in Grange is an open question since the gravestone may have been to his memory only and not necessarily marking where he was laid to rest.

His successor, after a fairly long intervening period, was Thomas Winsley who was ordained on 16 January 1699. After the service in the church, business was concluded in the tavern in Drumgauty, not far from Grange graveyard. This tavern was presumably built sometime in the latter part of the 17th century. In a collector’s account of 1690, Hugh Hamilton of Drumgauty is listed as owing arrears of excise and ale and wine licensing. According to Rutherford, the tavern was still in existence in the early nineteenth century and was known as Molly Kelly’s. In April 1718, during Mr Winsley’s ministry, there was a dispute in Donagheady over the seating arrangements in the church. The Strabane Presbytery, which had the oversight of the congregation at that time, arranged for the local landlord, William Hamilton of Dunnamanagh, to assist in resolving the disagreement.

The congregation of Donagheady experienced a serious rupture in 1736-41 which culminated in the congregation splitting into two separate divisions. In 1736, the Rev. Thomas Winsley, minister of Donagheady Presbyterian Church for the previous thirty-seven years, died. The basis of the ensuing dispute was the inability of the congregation to come to any agreement over the choice of their next minister. However, underlying this was the rivalry that existed between the Earl of Abercorn and his distant relative, William Hamilton of Dunnamanagh. Between them they owned nearly all of the parish of Donagheady, and with the congregation more or less divided along geographical lines, it is difficult to imagine that the enmity between these two men did not have an indirect bearing on the dispute.

The situation gradually deteriorated, reaching its lowest point in a riot in the church during a Sunday service. Fortunately, William Hamilton of Dunnamanagh used his influence to good effect by ensuring that this event was not investigated by the civil courts. By 1741, with no resolution in sight, the Synod of Ulster sanctioned the separation of the congregation into two different parts. The congregation which continued to meet in the old church became known as First Donagheady, and in July 1741 the Rev William Armstrong was ordained minister. The new congregation was called Second Donagheady, and in August 1741 their first minister, the Rev. Robert Wirling, was installed. The ridiculousness of the situation was compounded by the construction of the Second Donagheady meeting house barely 200 yards from the old church.

The rebellion of 1798 did not impact on the north-west to the same extent that it did in other parts of Ireland. According to Rutherford:

Neither of the Donagheady ministers countenanced the revolutionary movement that culminated in the ill-starred rebellion of 1798. This fact had much to do with keeping the people steady in their loyalty when most other parts of the country were seething with dangerous unrest.

There were, however, a number of incidents in the parish of Donagheady. A man by the name of McFarland, who was alleged to have used treasonable and seditious language one Sunday morning in one of the Donagheady Presbyterian churches, was arrested by the authorities. The previous year his house had been burned down; this house stood on the site now occupied by John O’Neill’s house in Ballyheather.

In the second half of the nineteeth century the congregations of First and Second Donagheady acquired new church buildings. Each structure was built on the same site that the previous church had stood. Changed economic circumstances and a significantly reduced membership forced the two Donagheady congregations to give serious consideration to union in the early 1930s. When the congregation of Donagheady had split in 1741 the Presbyterian churches of Donemana, Leckpatrick and Magheramason did not exist, nor did Bready Reformed Presbyterian Church. Rural depopulation was another major factor in forcing the two congreagtion to consider uniting. Despite some opposition, union was effected on 1 January 1933, with the united congregation using the Second Donagheady church building as their place of worship. The First Donagheady church building was allowed to decay and was later demolished.

Leckpatrick Presbyterian Church

Until 1836 Presbyterians living in the parish of Leckpatrick did not have their own church and attended worship in either Donagheady or Strabane. During the 1670s the Presbyterian congregation at Strabane had great difficulty in raising enough money to pay their minister. In order to remedy the situation it was suggested that ‘half the parish of Leck[patrick], and that part of the parish of Ardstra which lies contiguous to them upon the east side of the river Morn may be stirred up to joyn with them’. In May 1729 a deputation from Donagheady came before the Sub Synod of Londonderry and complained that several members of their congregation were attending worship in Strabane. The boundary between the congregations was then defined as the burn, now known as the Glenmornan River, which begins in Moorlough and crosses the road at Ballymagorry.

At the General Synod of Ulster of 1836 it was reported by the Presbytery of Glendermott that a number of families in the parish of Leckpatrick had requested that they be created a separate congregation. The request was granted and a church building was completed before the end of the year. The Honourable the Irish Society of London assisted by giving a generous donation. According to local, though unsubstantiated, tradition, William Sigerson, who owned the spade mill in Artigarvan adjacent to where the church was built, encouraged his workers and friends to make up the numbers necessary to convince the church authorities that there were enough Presbyterian families in the district to justify the creation of a separate congregation. In 1969, when the church building was being extended and renovated, it was discovered that provision had been made in the original building for galleries.

The first minister of Leckpatrick Presbyterian Church was the Reverend Moses Chambers of Taughboyne parish, Co. Donegal. He married a daughter of Robert McCrea of Farmhill. In 1859 Ulster experienced a great religious revival. In 1861 the session of Leckpatrick Presbyterian Church decided to hold communion services quarterly instead of half yearly because of the dramatic increase in numbers since 1859; the previous year there had been 190 people at communion, the highest attendance then seen.

Magheramason Presbyterian Church

In June 1875 a deputation appeared before the Glendermott Presbytery and requested that a new congregation be established at Magheramason. The petitioners argued that no Presbyterian church existed within four miles of Magheramason, and this after all was in an area almost exclusively Presbyterian. The enthusiasm of the people of this district to have their own Presbyterian church can be gauged by the fact that nearly £900 had already been subscribed for building purposes. Their request was turned down by the presbytery who, instead, recommended that a preaching station be established at Magheramason. Undeterred the deputation decided to appeal the decision of Presbytery and presented their case to the General Assembly a few weeks later. However, the appeal was rejected and the ruling by the presbytery upheld.

The affair dragged on, and in August 1877 the petitioners went ahead and commenced building a church at Magheramason on a site granted by the Duke of Abercorn. The following February, the Presbyterians at Magheramason sent a memorial to the Glendermott Presbytery asking for ministers to preach to them. The Committee of Inquiry set up to look into this request found that many of the signatories to the memorial were not actually Presbyterians and did not intend attending church in Magheramason. The request was consequently turned down.

The case again came before the General Assembly in June 1878 with Victor Love of Foyleside representing the people of Magheramason. The ensuing debate was lively with Love arguing the necessity of having a Presbyterian congregation in that district, and his opponents opposing the idea. One of the strongest detractors from the proposal was the Rev. George Magill of Second Donagheady who believed that the people of that area simply could not afford their own minister. However, in the end the General Assembly agreed to the establishment of a congregation there. The opening service in the new church, the construction of which was almost entirely due to the efforts of the people of that area, took place on 17 November 1878, and the following year the Rev. Thomas Boyd was ordained its first minister.

Bready Reformed Presbyterian Church

The Covenanter or Reformed Presbyterian Church established itself in the area immediately north of Strabane in the middle of the eighteenth century. As with the Secession Church it originated in Scotland and gradually spread to the north of Ireland. Before it was organised on a more formal basis its adherents met in small societies scattered across the countryside. There were a number of societies in the Bready area as well as a group in Strabane, and to begin with the Scottish Reformed Presbytery, formed in 1743, supplied them with travelling ministers. Twenty years later the Irish Reformed Presbytery was established and in May 1765, at an open air service near Mountcastle, William James of Faughanvale was ordained minister of a Covenanter congregation which covered a large area of the Foyle Valley, and which at that stage did not have its own church building.

In June 1771 the earl of Abercorn wrote to his agent, James Hamilton, and told him: ‘I give my consent that the Covenanters may build a meeting house in Tamnabrady’. In 1778 the tenants in Tamnabrady complained that the Covenanters had taken too much ground for their meeting house yard. Abercorn responded by stating that ‘the contents of it [the churchyard] are immaterial to the adjoining tenants, provided the boundaries of it are known’. During a Sabbath service in 1786 the church building collapsed, fortunately without anyone being injured. A new church was quickly erected in its stead. The outreach work of Bready Reformed Presbyterian Church included a mission station at Mulvin near Victoria Bridge. In 1844 Mulvin became a Covenanter congregation in its own right, although it was not until 1872 that it was granted independent status by the Western Presbytery.

In 1840 a split occurred in the Reformed Presbyterian Church when a section of its membership claimed the right to vote in parliamentary elections. The Covenanters had traditionally avoided involvement in all forms of civil government and this included non-participation in elections. Those who wished to vote withdrew from the main body of the church and formed the Eastern Reformed Presbyterian Church, consisting of nine congregations, one of which was at Waterside, Londonderry. A number of Covenanters from Bready joined this church, but finding the journey to Derry inconvenient, resolved to build their own meeting house at Cullion. Although their numbers were small, the church they built was capable of seating 300 and became known as ‘Gormley’s folly’ after William Gormley, one of the most enthusiastic members of the congregation. In 1860 differences arose between the congregation and their minister, the Rev. Samuel Patton, that were serious enough for Patton to refuse to conduct services at Cullion, confining himself to the Waterside church. Soon afterwards the congregation at Cullion ceased to exist and most of its members returned to Bready. The church building was demolished a few years ago.

In 1923, during the ministry of the Reverend Thomas Hanna, a new church was built. The old church was demolished on 10 April 1923 and the new one was opened on 5 February 1924. Sadly Mr Hanna had died, aged only twenty-nine, just a few weeks before the completion of the new church. The size of the congregation of Bready Reformed Presbyterian Church increased substantially in 1990 following the closure of the church in Clarendon Street, Londonderry, and the removal of its members to Bready.

The Roman Catholic Church in Leckpatrick

The Roman Catholic parish of Leckpatrick is more or less contiguous with the civil parish of Leckpatrick and the Church of Ireland parish of Dunnalong. Its present bounds were established in the early 1890s. Until 1891 the Catholic parishes of Leckpatrick and Donagheady were united. However, following the death in that year of Father Bernard McKenna, the joint charge was discontinued and Leckpatrick became a Catholic parish in its own right. Three years later that part of Donagheady parish adjacent to the Foyle was given over to Leckpatrick. Catholics living in this area were already attending the church at Cloghcor. Remarkably little is known about the organisation and practice of the Catholic church in Leckpatrick in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

According to Bishop Montgomery’s survey of the parishes in the diocese of Derry, carried about out 1609, the vicar in Donagheady parish was Turlough O’Devanny, alternatively Terence O’Devine. The rector of Donagheady was Denis O’Farren, who was then studying at Trinity College, Dublin, which presumably meant that he had conformed. In the parish of Leckpatrick Eneas Mawhinney was rector and Cormac O’Cleary, vicar. Apart from O’Farren it can be reasonably assumed that the other churchmen continued to hold religious services according to the ordinances of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1624 Edmund O’Laverty was provided to the church of Donchnachgaoidhe (Donagheady?). About 1630 the priest in Donagheady parish was Toole O’Buy. In the chapter in this book on the Plantation it has been suggested that the number of Catholics living in the manor of Dunnalong in the seventeenth century was probably quite small.

Like the early Presbyterians, the Catholics of Leckpatrick and Dunnalong were forced to meet secretly in out of the way places. In 1681 Charles Bingham wrote to Lord Bingham stating that a James Devine was priest in Donagheady. On Christmas Eve 1696 five priests in prison in Strabane wrote to the Church of Ireland bishop of Derry. One of these men was Teig O’Linsechan who in 1704 appears as the parish priest of Leckpatrick and was then living in Fyfin. In 1704, Bryan O’Haggerty of Aghafad, then aged 48, was registered at Omagh as a priest in Donagheady. He had received his holy orders on 23 September 1683 at Craigin, Co. Galway, from Thady MacUgho, titular bishop of Clonfert.

For much of the eighteenth century the Penal Laws restricted the way Catholics were allowed to worship. However, these laws were gradually relaxed and in 1793-4 the first Catholic church in Glenmornan was built. A later church was built on a site next to it and this structure has been described by the architectural historian, Alistair Rowan as a ‘five bay hall with Y-tracery, four stage tower with diminutive battlements and pinnacles’. According to tradition Catholic services before this were held in the open air at a particular spot in Glenmornan. This local legend was the subject of a poem entitled, The Church of the Apple Tree, by Dr George Sigerson, probably the most renowned son of the parish of Leckpatrick. In 1797 its parishioners of Glenmornan were described by James Hamilton junior, agent to the marquis of Abercorn, as the ‘most turbulent and ill-disposed of any of your Lordship’s tenantry’.

Although the church at Cloghcor was not built until 1823, Catholics were meeting here for worship from at least the latter part of the eighteenth century. In 1784 the earl of Abercorn was petitioned by the Catholic congregation at Cloghcor who wanted a road built for their convenience with some accommodation for their horses. Abercorn responded by writing to his agent, James Hamilton, informing him that he was to ‘acquaint the popish congregation at Cloghcor that attention shall be given to their accommodation when opportunity offers’. Shortly afterwards, Hamilton, accompanied by two surveyors, met with representatives of the congregation. They laid out a line for a road which Hamilton reckoned would cost about £38. Afterwards he wrote to Abercorn, expressing his satisfaction at the outcome of the meeting: ‘It will really be a very useful road and it will greatly gratify the congregation’. In 1896 the church at Cloghcor was renovated and a pine-panelled roof added. In the summer of 1939 a new Catholic church was completed on the Derry Road in Strabane and called the Church of the Sacred Heart.


Several congregational histories provided most of the information on the Presbyterian churches in the locality. These were: [Rev. F. Hay] Leckpatrick Presbyterian Church, 1836-1974 (1974); [Rev. F. Hay] Leckpatrick Presbyterian Church (1981); Rev. J. Rutherford, Donagheady Presbyterian Churches and Parish (Belfast, 1953); and John Turner, Magheramason Presbyterian Church, 1878-1978 (Omagh, 1978). Primary source material consulted in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland included: Minutes of the Laggan Presbytery, 1672-1700 (MIC/637/6); Minutes of the Strabane Presbytery, 1717-40 (CR/3/26); and Minutes of the Sub Synod of Londonderry, 1706-36 (CR/3/46/2). The printed Records of the General Synod of Ulster, 1691-1820 (Belfast, 1890) were also used. Rutherford’s book also provided much of the information on Bready Reformed Presbyterian Church. An unpublished history written by Robert Buchanan in 1985 was also used for this church. The information on the Roman Catholic Church in Leckpatrick was principally derived from a commemorative booklet produced on the opening of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Strabane in 1939-40, and from E. Daly and K. Devlin, The clergy of the diocese of Derry (Dublin, 1997).

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