Ballycastle's Great Franciscan Link.
By H. C .Lawlor, M.A., M.R.I.A.
It is barely necessary to say here that Saint Francis of Assissi was born in the year 1182. It was not until he was 21 that he became devoted to religious and charitable pursuits, which he followed with extraordinary activity. In 1210 he founded, with the sanction of Pope Innocent III, the Franciscan order, followed in 1212 by the female order under Saint Clare, known as the 2nd Order of Poor Clares, and in 1220 the third order known as Tertiaries. The latter was in the main an order of lay teachers and preachers, though in most of the houses of the 3rd order were one or more ordained clerical members. Saint Francis died in 1226, at the early age of 44, but not before he had seen his religious orders spread over much of Europe and into England. The first Franciscan house founded in Ireland was at Youghal, shortly after, or possibly before, the death of Saint Francis, followed by others at Cork, Down, Dublin, Drogheda, Dundalk and Carrickfergus. These were houses of the first order, however; the third Order in time became partly independent of the headquarters in Rome.
Hence it comes that of the houses of the third order we often can trace little or no history. Bun-na-mairghie finds no mention in either the Vatican registers or the records of the Head House of the Franciscans at Rome. It has suffered like many other monuments of antiquity at the hands of what I may describe as charlatan Historians who, when they did not know, or were too lazy to find out facts, invented them. Perhaps the worst offender in this respect was the late Mr. Bigger, who contributed a long description of Bun-na-mairghie to the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol. IV. In this he indicates that the date of the foundation was the year 1202, eighteen years before the third order was founded. Then he attributes the foundation to William de Burgho, Earl of Ulster, whose birth only occurred in 1305. It was Mr. Bigger, also, who was responsible for the unfounded statement that Layde Church was a Franciscan foundation.
A MS. list of Franciscan houses in Ireland quoted by O'Laverty, a document written about 1625 by a member of the order, gives the date of the foundation as 1500 and states the founder to have been Roderick MacUillin. That there was such a person is evident from the entry in the Annals of Ulster, an 1513. The architecture of the oldest part of the ruin is in keeping with this date. A close comparison of the details of the carvings and the designs of the arches with those at Creevelea (1508) all tend to confirm the correctness of this statement. O’Laverty (vol. pp468, et seq.) gives all that is known of the short history of the Friary. Founded as stated above in 1500 it continued after the dissolution until burned in 1584. After this date the church, but not the domestic buildings, appear to have been restored and partially rebuilt. The former large east window was replaced by the present Gothic window with transome. Smaller Gothic pointed arched doorways were inserted in the larger semi-circular arched doorways. The recent excavation and lowering the floor to its original level showed that while the debris in the domestic buildings had remained undisturbed since the fire, no charred remains of the roof remained in the nave - which goes to prove that the nave had been cleared of the fire debris, while no such clearing had taken place in the dormitory over the domestic buildings. We have little precise evidence as to the date at which the restoration took place, but it seems likely that it occurred about the same time that the first Earl of Antrim erected the family vault, that is, 1621. O'Laverty quotes a letter written by the Rev. Patrick Hegarty, Superior of the Mission to the Scottish Isles, dated 3lst October, 1639, in which he records a Confirmation Service held in Bun-na-mairghie by Dr Bonaventure Megennis, Bishop of Down and Connor, when no less than 700 highlanders were confirmed. From this it seems that the church was in repair and regular use at that date. Shortly after the 1st Earl of Antrim received his patent (1606), he built a new castle at Mairghhieton, now known as Ballycastle, and this became the residence of himself and his wife, the Countess Alice O’Neill. Taking all these circumstances into account , the probability seems to be that it was during this time that the church of the Friary was restored as a parish church, the domestic buildings being left as they stood. Culfeightrin old church was remote from and inconvenient to the new town which sprung up around the Earl’s new residence, and what is more probable than that the old church of Culfeightrin was at the time vacated and the chapel of the Friary restored to serve as the parish church? Tradition, which of course, is not evidence, is strong to the effect that the east window of Bun-na-mairghie was the gift of the Countess Alice. She continued to live at Ballycastle after the Earl’s death in 1636. During the troublous times following 1641, the Countess fled from Ballycastle, which was garrisoned by Scottish troops. The final desertion of Bun-na-mairghie as an active church probably dates from this period. When or under what circumstances the west gable of the church was destroyed is not known.
Many of our readers were familiar with the deplorable state of desolation into which the Friary had descended before the recent repairs were undertaken. Some four years ago the Archaeological Section of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society decided to inaugurate an attempt to have these repairs and preservation carried out. The first difficulty that appeared to stand in the way was that the interior of the nave had been appropriated by many families as a burial place, and that the owners of the graves would be likely to raise a tumult if the graves were touched. The Rural District Council was sympathetic, and on its request, the Ministry of Home Affairs held an enquiry preparatory to closing the nave to further interments. At this enquiry only one family appeared to claim their right of future interments, all others interested having waived their claims in face of the good object in view.
Then the Archaeological Section proceeded to raise the necessary funds £500 being the amount aimed at for a complete job; of this sum £260 has up to the present been received.
At the request of the Section, the actual work was undertaken by the Ministry of Finance, who kindly gave the benefit of their experienced staff, to whom the credit of the excellent repair work at Dunluce Castle is due.
The work commenced early in July of this year. After making a careful plan of the position of each grave, the floor, which had silted up as much as five feet above the original level, was lowered, any human remains disturbed being carefully re-buried at a lower level. Recumbent stones were re-laid in their proper places at the lower level, while upright stones were placed against the wall nearest to where they had been. While the lowering of the floor and resodding it with clean sods has immensely improved the appearance and tended to add height to the Walls and dignity to the whole fabric, it has to be recorded that the excavation was disappointing as regards 'finds.' It was hoped that the missing tracery of the East window, or at least some of it, or the missing stones of the Macnaughten tomb would be found, but in this we were disappointed.
A couple of quern stones and a few fragments of late mediaeval pottery were about all that turned up of antiquarian interest, either in the nave or the domestic buildings.
The plan of the Friary is an incomplete specimen of that usually adopted in Franciscan houses; it is T shaped, the nave being the main stem, the domestic buildings the left or north arm, and the transcept, the right or south arm of the T. Franciscan houses usually had a chancel separated from the nave by a rather narrow pair of chancel arches surmounted by a square tower but here nothing of the sort existed. On the ground floor, near the east end, a small door leads through the north side wall into a passage, across which lies the sacristy, still in good order; at the west end of this passage is a door leading to the cloisters in the north angle of the "T". In the same block, north of the sacristy and opening into the cloisters is the chapter house and day room combined. Above the sacristy and chapter house is the dormitory. In the completed friary the refectory, kitchen and store houses would have occupied the north side of the cloisters, running parallel with the nave, and probably temporary wooden buildings of this kind existed. All must have perished in the fire of 1584 and no traces of them now remain. At no time were any of the buildings roofed with other than thatch. Two remarkable features may be noted. In the north gable of the stone altar under the east window is a square opening or recess, where doubtless were kept the holy vessels or possibly sacred relics. There is nothing to indicate whether the altar belonged to the original church or only to the restored church; no trace of the table stone of the altar was found. At the south end of the dormitory the clearance of the debris exposed a structure which was possibly a lavabo or wash basin, evidently supplied with water from the eaves of the roof of the church, while at the opposite end was the latrine.
To complete the work to the original scheme some £90 more will be required; this is less than was originally estimated, and it is hoped the money will be forthcoming.
The Glensman Vol 1 no 3 December 31
To the Editor of The Glensman. Dear Sir,
I read with much astonishment that portion of the article written by Mr. H. C. Lawlor, M.A., M.R.I.A., on the above subject in which he classed the late Mr. Francis Joseph Bigger, M.A., M.R.T.A., as a charlatan historian and, indeed, to use that writer's own words, "perhaps the worst offender in this respect."
I consider that this was a most ungracious and unkind charge to make against one who has passed away and who did so much to foster antiquarian and archaeological research in Northern Ireland. Mr. Lawlor states that Mr. Bigger "contributed a long description of Bun-na-mairghie to the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol. IV.," and he might have been gracious enough to state that Mr. Bigger had published a supplement volume to that Journal. I may say this supplement was written 33 years ago and contains a map of the site, also plans, drawings and photographs of the Friary made by Mr. William J. Fennell, Architect, of Belfast, and I am not aware that the valuable information which the book contains had, prior to that time, been so fully given, and, doubtless, it has been freely utilised in the renovation of the Friary.
The supplement was dedicated to his venerable and esteemed friend, the late Rev. George Hill, and, in the foreword, he pays tribute to the sources of his information; the works of the last-named, the late Bishop Reeves and the late Rev. James O'Laverty - "three works by three Ecclesiastics of different shades of thought and belief of whom any Diocese might well feel proud" - and in volume 4 of the Ulster Archaeological Journal (2nd series), page 193, there is a review of this supplement written by that eminent historian, the late Rev. James F. MeKenna, M.R.I.A., in which he states:
"'Bun-na-mairghie' is not only the latest, but one of the best, attempts as yet made to rescue the monastic history of Ulster from oblivion."
Those who knew and admired the late Mr. Bigger, both as a man and as a writer of distinction, feel keenly that an unwarranted charge has been made against him, and particularly so in an article where subscriptions were being sought to complete the work of restoration. Our University deemed him worthy of the honorary degree which it conferred upon him, that of Master of Arts.
28th November, 1931.
The Glensman Vol 1 No 4 January 1932
To the Editor of The Glensman.
Sir, - I appreciate Mr. Allen's tribute to his friend, the late Mr F J Bigger, but I regret I cannot withdraw the remark in my article on Bun-na-mairgie Friary, on Mr. Bigger as a writer of "History." In the supplement of the U.J.A., Vol. IV., to which I referred, on p. 13, the writer says: "It is stated that it (the Friary) was founded as early as A.D, 1202 by William de Burgo" …….. "about the year 1202 William de Burgo granted the village of Ardimur…….. "at this period William de Burgo was Earl of Ulster. . . ." So much for Mr. Bigger as historian ; the fact is that William de Burgo, Earl of Ulster, was murdered at Belfast in 1333 at the age of about 23, so that his birth could not have taken place earlier than 1310. Furthermore, the Earldom of Ulster was not revived in favour of Walter de Burgo until 1264, when the King granted it to Walter in exchange for certain territory in Munster which he wanted for his son, Prince Edward (Ed. I.). The Earldom did not pass from the de Lacy to the de Burgo family by marriage. Then the idea of William de Burgho being the ancestor of the MacQullins (that is, MacWilliams) is absurd, because on his death he left only a daughter, a baby in arms, who eventually married Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Again, on p. 15 I read that in 1639, when Bishop Magennis held the confirmation in the Friary Church, "he sojourned with his relative Randal, 1st Earl of Antrim." The Earl had died three years previously. Is it necessary to point out any more?
Mr. Allen refers to the eloquent dedication of the supplement in which Mr. Bigger writes:
"I freely acknowledge the sources of my information," coupled with the names of Reeves, Hill and O'Laverty. To throw the onus of all the errors arising from his ignorance of history thus on to these accurate and learned authors is to my mind almost a libel.
Can Mr. Allen excuse Mr. Bigger for writing the little history of Layde Church pasted up on the notice-board at the gate, stating that it also was a Franciscan house? Or the mutilation of history in his attempt to connect Shane O'Neill's name with Jordan's Castle, Ardglass?
The late Mr. Fennell's share in the supplement is the saving grace of the whole; like all his work it is accurate and clear; any trifling differences between his plans and those recently made by the architects of the Ministry of Finance are some that could only have been ascertained by the excavations recently made.
Yours faithfully, H. C. LAWLOR.
The Glensman Vol 1 no 5 February 32
To the Editor of The Glensman. Dear Sir,
I am sorry to trouble you with another letter, but I feel that Mr Lawlor in his reply to mine is anxious to blacken even more the memory of one much beloved by hosts of friends in Ulster. Not satisfied with the charges he made against the late Mr. Bigger in his letter which appeared in your November number, he trots out another in the January number. Is this creditable to him?
I would be curious to know what the three gentlemen, whose names appear signed to the appeal for funds in the November issue for the restoration of the Friary, think of his besmirching the name of a gentleman who has passed to his rest.
Mr. Bigger wrote his supplementary volume to the Ulster Journal of Archaeology (2nd series) on this Friary 33 years ago. Why did not Mr. Lawlor attack Mr. Bigger years ago instead of waiting till after his decease? I say that his action is neither manly nor gentlemanly.
I am glad he was gracious enough to pay tribute to Mr. W. J. Fennell, who collaborated with Mr. Bigger. Yours faithfully,
Lisburn, 26th January, 1932.
Historians are of two kinds. The one tries to make his readers realise what their predecessors were like by describing with vivid detail their lives and habits, their actions and surroundings, their ideals and passions, the men whom they followed, the causes for which they lived and died. He aims at broad effects and is often careless and inaccurate about details. We may call him the "Picturesque Historian."
The other looks upon history as a problem to be solved by accumulating and setting forth with meticulous care a multitude of facts, dates, and details; broad generalities he distrusts; vividness he does not aim at; he is pleased if he can show that some event a thousand years old happened on the 22nd of June (say) and not, as some other historian has said, on the 23rd. We may call him the "Dryasdust Historian."
Both these kinds have their usefulness; they art complementary to each other; but unfortunately they often don't like each other's ways.
When I began to read Mr. Lawlor's article on Bun-na-Mairgie I soon said to myself, 'Here's another Dryasdust historian attacking a Picturesque one about some mistake in details.' But as I read on I couldn't help thinking-"This writer doesn't merely want to point out that F. J. Bigger is mistaken; he wants to humiliate his memory; he wants to hold him up to contempt." And now that I have read the article and his answering letter I have to conclude-"This man hates F. J. Bigger so much that he can't bear that he should lie quiet in his grave."
Against such a spirit Mr. Joseph Allen was entirely right in protesting, and it is a great pity that Mr. Lawlor did not take the opportunity given him of apologising for his breach of taste. Instead, his letter in reply is an aggravation of his offence. "So much for Mr. Bigger as a historian," he says, rejoicing that he has "shown up" Bigger and, if possible, disgraced him. And, if he could only realise it, the truth is that the man he has "shown up" is himself. Yours truly,
REPAIR WORK MAY BE HELD UP.
I am informed, writes a special correspondentof The Glensman, that the repair and conservation work being carried out on the ruins of the famous Friary at Bun-na-Mairghie, Ballycastle, may not be completed due to shortage of funds.
The ruins are those of the only pre-Dissolution house of the Franciscan Order of which any considerable part remains in Northern Ireland, and stand at the mouth of the River Mairghie. The Friary was founded in 1500 by one Roderick McUillin, and continued after the Dissolution until burned down in l584
In July last year the Archaeological Society of the Belfast Natural History Society, in conjunction with the Northern Ministry of Finance, set about the work of repair and restoration. The funds are being collected by the Society,and there remains some £50 to be collected before the work can be handed over to the Ancient Monuments Department of the Government.
Mr. H. C. Lawlor, M.A.,M.R.l.A., Hon Secretary, Archaelological Section of the Society, who has superintended the work of repair, informs me that since the work began definite conclusions have been reached on interesting points,
The Antrim Vault, as it now appears, was built in its entirety by Randal, first Marquis of Antrim, subsequent to 1666. When it was built, the church was a ruin. It occupies and covered the site of a much smaller vault erected by his father, the first Earl, in 1624.
The church was restored some time after the fire of 1584, probably by the first Earl, when he built the castle at Mairgietown (Ballycastle). The church was apparently dismantled when the Scottish soldiery occupied Ballycastle in 1642-9.
The water supply of the Friary was obtained by diverting the tail-race of the bill 300 yards south-east of the Friary. This channel brought water to the Friary, and its outflow served as the common sewer. This is interesting as showing that the mill existed prior to 1500.
A Shilling Fund.
The work of repair and preservation of these historic ruins must appeal to all readers of The Glenman. If each of them gave a shilling towards the project, the sum realised would more than complete the work for handing over to the Ancient Monuments Department of the Government. Send us your shilling - more if you can - and make The Glensman Bun-na-Mairghie Fund a success. An acknowledgment of all subscriptions will be made in these columns. Send to "Bun-na-Mairghie Fund"" c/o The Editor, The Glensman, Cushendall.
The Glensman No 6 Vol 2 March, 1932