St. Patrick and St. Brigid Ballycastle RC 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.

By 1825 the Catholics of Ballycastle thought that their town and surrounding area was large enough to become a parish in its own right, separate from the Parish of Armoy, of which it had been part for many years.  They decided to approach Dr Crolly, Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor, when next he came to Ballycastle, presumably for Confirmation. 

The McGildowneys were a very famous family in Ballycastle, although Edmund McGildowney was the only who was a Catholic.  He invited the Bishop and some of the important Catholics of Ballycastle to his house for lunch.  His house is now part of the Marine Hotel at the foot of the Quay Road.  The rest of the McGildowney’s resided at Clare Park House, to the North of the town. 

The historian, Monsignor James O'Laverty, reports the event as follows: “Dr Crolly was waited on in Mr Edmund McGildowney’s house at the Quay, Ballycastle, by some of the Catholic inhabitants of Ramoan, in order to solicit him to appoint a separate parish priest.  The Bishop requested them to walk with him through the Warren (now Ballycastle Golf Links), and they debated the question.  They undertook to pay at least £40 for the support of a parish priest and the Bishop undertook to provide them with one in a few days.
Father McCann (Parish Priest of Armoy) surrendered the parish of Ramoan, and Dr Crolly, about the 1st August 1825, appointed a friar named McCarrill, who had officiated for some time in Kilcoo, Co. Down.  Fr McCarrill does not appear to have suited the new parish and he left in a few months”.

Fr McCarrill's successor was Rev Hugh McCartan and it was he who erected a chapel in Glenshesk.  The landlord of Glenshesk had been Mr Cuppage and when the parish priest went asking for a piece of ground on which to build a church, Mrs Cuppage, the landlord’s widow, gave an acre of ground in the townland of Corvally for the project, planted trees and landscaped the area.  A slab inserted on the gable of the subsequent church bears the following inscription:

Glenshesk Chapel
Erected A.D. 1827
The site was the generous gift of
Mrs Cuppage.

This chapel pre-dates the Catholic Emancipation Act by two years.

Father McCartan’s successor in 1828 was Fr John McMullan, who died on 2nd January 1830 aged 32 years.  He was buried in front of the altar of the little chapel at "Fairhill", which had been built by Father Roger Murray, when Ballycastle had still been part of the Parish of Armoy.

Father Charles Hendron was appointed parish priest in 1830.  He died ten years later on 10th March 1840 and, like his predecessor, was buried at the chapel at "Fairhill Street".  Father George Dempsey was parish priest from 1840 until 1848, when Father James McGlennon succeeded him and remained parish priest until his death in 1862.

New School


In 1853 Father James McGlennon built a school beside the chapel at Fairhill.  The application to the Commissioners for Grant Aid gives the details of the building:
“The house is new with one schoolroom 30 feet by 20 feet.  Six desks each 14 feet in length, entirely new:  a master’s desk with a locker for books etc., a few forms and blackboards.  Archibald McKinley, (a native of Carey parish) aged 33 years is the teacher.  The average attendance is 85: about one half is males.  The school hours are from 10 o’clock till 3 pm.
The whole of Saturday each week is set apart for Religious Instruction.  There is also a Sunday school.  The books used will be those of the National Board.  Visitors will be admitted at all times during school hours.  The school is under the management of the Revd. James McGlennon , P.P. Ballycastle”.





New Site


By 1870 the chapel at the Fairhill was too small for the congregation. The parish priest. Father Patrick McAlister, who had succeeded Father McGlennon in 1862, began looking for a decent-sized site for a new church at what is now called Moyle Road. 

He obtained from Mrs Boyd, the widow of Hugh Boyd, the deceased landlord of Ballycastle, five acres of ground on a very fine site on what was then known as Clare Road.  Father McAlister sent a letter of thanks to the editor of “The Northern Whig”:


"SIR - I desire through the medium of your journal to acknowledge, with feelings of sincere gratitude, on behalf of the Catholic people of this parish, the receipt of £50 from Mrs Amy Boyd towards the building Fund for the new Church of SS. Patrick and Brigid, Ballycastle.  This liberal contribution is the more highly appreciated as it is a spontaneous offering of the generous donor.  The very excellent site (a plot of five acres of ground), on which the new church is to be built, is also the gift of Mrs Boyd.  The liberal sentiments expressed in the appended letter, which accompanied the donation, do honour to Mrs Boyd and to her worthy and benevolent son-in-law, and will, no doubt, be read with much pleasure by the tenents of the Ballycastle estate. -I remain, sir, your obedient servant, P. McAlister.

Ballycastle, May 10, 1869"

The site obtained from Mrs Boyd was an elevated piece of table-land, immediately adjoining, but rising above, the streeets of the town of Ballycastle.  The church that was built on the site was designed by Rev Jeremiah McAuley, who was curate at the time in the parish of Cushendall, not far from Ballycastle.  Rev McAuley was a qualified architect.

The foundation stone was blessed and laid on June 7th 1870, by Father McAuley, by permission of Dr Dorrian, Bishop of the local Diocese of Down and Connor, who was unable to be present because of his attendance at the First Vatican Council in Rome.

The church was solemnly dedicated to St Patrick and St Brigid on Sunday, 9th August 1874, by Dr Dorrian.  The style was Gothic of the twelth century.

Rev Patrick McAlister was later, in 1886, appointed by the Holy See as Bishop of Down and Connor, in succession to Dr Dorrian, who had died on 3rd November 1885.  Bishop McAlister was consecrated Bishop in St Patrick's Church, Belfast, on Sunday, 28th March 1886. 

Bishop McAlister died in 1895 and on 28th March 1895 was buried in the graveyard attached to St Patrick'd and St Brigid's Church, the church he had built some 20 years before.  

A substantial renovation and extension was carried out under the guidance of V Rev Noel Watson (Parish Priest 1988-2003).  The extension included the creation of North and South transcepts as well as the development of a crypt.  The new development created the classical cruciform shape, catering for almost 1000 parishioners.

Following the renovations, the church was re-dedicated and blessed by Dr Patrick Walsh, Bishop of Down and Connor, on Sunday 31st October 1993.  Unfortunately Fr Watson was unable to be present as he had suffered a serious heart attack a short time before the re-opening.

Fr Watson died on the 14th January 2004, shortly after his retirement on 13th August 2003.  But the renovated church, in addition to the many other aspects of his ministry, will remain a great tribute to his energy and devotion to the people of Ramoan during his 15 years as Parish Priest.  

St. Patrick and St. Brigid Ballycastle RC Church