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History of the Parish of Banagher, Derry Diocese
...War, Confiscation, Oppression.


About 1610, after the Flight of the Earls, the English government confiscated the lands of the local lords and set up and Inquisition to provide an accurate statement of the extent and organisation of churchlands. In the then county of Coleraine amonst the witnesses called were Feardorcha, Giolla Dubh Og and James O Mullan, and, second on the list, John O Henry, all from banagher parish. A survey of his new diocese conducted by the first established Church of Ireland bishop Montgomery says of John O Henie that he was rector, vicar and erenagh of Banagher and “knows Latin, Scots and Irish and studied at Glasgow” (Scots in this context is the English of lowland Scotland as distinct from “English” English, which has a different history). He was therefore a man of some education.

The Reformation had come to west Ulster and by grant of the king the established church came into possession of the churchlands ending the centuries-old system of the erenagh. The Catholic clergy of Derry (to be without a bishop for over a century after the martyrdom of Raymond O Gallagher in 1601), adapted to the new situation. In 1631 we find that Niall O Devenny was ministering in Banagher, a tenant on the Fishmongers lands, perhaps in the Ballaghaneden-Terrydreen area. On these lands there was a Mass house, just as there were two on the Skinners lands. These priests were protected by the officials of the London Companies and especially by the sheriff of the county, Richard Kirby, who allowed law cases by priests to obtain their income for religious services provided (much to the chagrin of Sir Thomas Phillips and established church bishop John Bramhall). The income of the clergy in north Derry at the time was as follows:

For every married couple 2/ =

For every single person 6d

F rom every plough 20 sheaves

Every churn one churning of butter

Every marriage 1/ =

Sick call 1/ =

Funeral (from better off) one large animal
(from poor) cloak or similar possession

Offerings at Christmas & Easter 2d, 3d, 4d, 6d or 1/ =

This picture is presented by Sir Thomas Phillips, a hostile witness determined to present things in the worst possible light for the London companies to the king in London. It is probably the system of tithing that applied before the Plantation still in force and brought up to date in an economy where money was replacing barter.

The seventeenth century was very violent in Ireland, from the ending of the Nine Years War in 1603 through the 1641 Rising and Cromwell to Cogadh an Dá Rí (the War of the Two Kings, otherwise the Williamite Wars). The policy of toleration of Catholics by the London companies ended and was replaced by repression culminating in the Penal Laws of the eighteenth century. For forty-two years (1628-70) the diocese was governed by a vicar apostolic, Terence O Kelly, who appointed Niall O Devenny to Banagher before 1631 and who drew up statutes to govern the diocese in 1665 (which ruled, amongst other things, that priests were not to frequent taverns, were to live in a definite place where they would be available to their parishioners, were to pray for King Charles II at Mass, and were asked to say a Mass within twenty days to ensure O Kelly’s happy death). Terence O Kelly fell foul of St Oliver Plunkett who removed him from office in 1670 (which provoked the famous response “The Italian, the Roman primate has unhorsed me”) and he died a few months later in the summer of 1671.

St Oliver was martyred in July 1681, and one week after his death Charles Bingham wrote to Lord Massareene demanding that the same fate be visited on a list of clergy of Derry for being “members of Oliver Plunkett’s last plot against the King and Parliament”. There were fifteen names on his list, including “Donaghy Oge McCloskye of Beanchar and Jas. Cahan of Cumber”. No action was taken against Donchadh Og (young Denis in translation) for when the government ordered the parish clergy be registered I 1704 the priest registered in Banagher was Donaghy MacClosky, resident at Tamlaghtard (i.e. from Banagher to Magilligan) ordained in 1670 by St Oliver Plunkett in Co. Louth. Those who went surety for him were Edward bacon of Aghanloo, gentleman, and John Buchanan of Banagher, yeoman. Also resident in Banagher were Edmond MacClosky, parish priest of Boveva and Glendermot, living at Magheramore, and John O Cahan of Cumber living at “ballydonaghan”. One of the sureties of Henry Crilly of the combined parishes of Tamlaghtocrilly, Kilrea and Desertoghill was Archibald Boyle of Banagher, gent.

The registration of priests in 1704 was enacted at the beginning of the Penal Laws. This system of laws was the most comprehensive possible to ensure that Catholicism would die out. The so-called “Glorious Revolution” resulting from the defeat of James II was insecure and saw enemies everywhere. William of Orange was personally quite tolerant but his Dublin parliament and government was determined to see to it that Irish Catholic sympathy for the Stuarts could not lead to rebellion. Catholic bishops had the name of James II and later of James III on their briefs of appointment from Rome. Accordingly all bishops were banished from the country in 1697 and any coming into the country were to be imprisoned for twelve months and then transported. If they were to return they would be guilty of treason. Without bishops it was hoped the Church would simply die out for lack of priests. The registration of priests was a further step.

Priests were to register under pain of banishment, to find two sureties of £50 that they would be of good behaviour and would not leave the county in which they registered. In this way they would be under the government’s eye and could not be replaced. For the system to succeed there should be a concerted campaign by the established church to convert the Catholics, but this did not happen. The reason was two-fold: a lack of religious zeal in those charged with the task, and the unwillingness of those who now had the wealth of the country at their disposal to share it with others as would have inevitably resulted if there had been large-scale conversions to the established church. As a result, while the Penal Laws seemed to be religiously inspired, their aim, in fact, was primarily economic. The Penal Laws failed in their stated aim because of this tension between religion and economics. Once it became clear that Catholics did not have the economic muscle to overthrow the Hanoverian succession and that their sympathy for the Stuarts was misplaced these laws were relaxed. In actual fact the period of the Penal Laws lasted about 75 years, and even at that they were only enforced spasmodically. Most local magistrates were unwilling to stir up trouble un their areas by doing so, and, where priests were concerned, neither Protestant nor Catholic, by and large, had much sympathy for priest hunting and often rescued priests who were captured.

Poverty was the besetting problem with scarcely enough money to provide vestments, missals or chalices. Churches were officially forbidden, although there were discreet Mass houses, sometimes doubling as threshing barns, and there were officially no schools. Education was also a problem for the clergy who were often ordained and then sent abroad so that they could support themselves while they studied theology. Many did not go abroad and were proficient in Latin but not much else. Priests were forbidden to perform mixed marriages under pain of law, again a case of economics masquerading as religion because the primary reason was succession rights to property. It is perhaps worth remembering that, due to the wars of the seventeenth century, most churches were in ruins anyhow, with the result that even the established church had, on occasion, to find alternative locations for their services, often public houses, and that dissenters also were not recognised at law.

The penal system was complete and closely integrated at the level of law, but on the ground matters took on a different aspect. By about 1750 there were two churches in the parish of Banagher, one at Altinure, on three roods of land, built in 1730, a small building (60 x 16) with a thatched roof and no seats, and supposed to hold about 400 persons. It was slated in 1800 and was repaired in 1822 by installing five pillars to support the centre because it was dangerous. It still leaked in 1834. There was also a church at Fincarn erected about 1755, a substantial building meant to be cruciform but wanting one arm (60 x 16 and 35 x 18). It had a small gallery and no seats. It also was originally thatched, and held about 800. Neither would have been possible without the tolerance of the landlord. There was no church on Ballymonie till 1826 when it cost £20 and measured 48 x 21, built of freestone. There were Sunday schools in the churches by 1830 with a scanty supply of books provided by subscription.

Amongst the religious practices of the time were the stations for the “cure of souls and bodies”. These pilgrimages began at Slanagh well (from slánú, meaning redemption, helaling) in Magheramore, thence to two standing crosses, then to a white cairn in a field, then to Creig an iúir (rock of the yew) where “the saint stood when he addressed the serpent”, then to the mount raised in the valley where “the serpent always rested”, then to a great stone on the holm of the lig, then to Lig na Peiste and a rag on the bush where the patient dipped in the well several times (“for the péist to feed on the disorder”) and watched for a red trout to appear. If the trout floated on its back it was an omen of health, if on its belly despair of recovery. The long station went on to Tobar na Súl (eye well), to Tobar na Coise (foot well) and concluded at Boveva well. This custom was, of course, a partly Christianised pagan practice.

The eighteenth century saw the death of the last wolf in the area and the cutting down of Altcatton and of Glenedra woods (1770). There was no change in the unremitting poverty, especially in the slump after the Napoleonic Wars. There was also the terror produced by reprisal in the wake of 1798 and the alienation from a government reluctant to give in to full Catholic Emancipation. Out of this gloom there escaped a young couple, Patrick McCloskey of Killunaght and Elizabeth Hassan of Coolnamonan. It is said that they eloped together, a not uncommon occurrence at the time, married in Ireland and went to New York in 1808. Their son, John, born 10 March 1810, became the second archbishop of New York and in 1875 the first U.S. cardinal.


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PARISH OF BANAGHER, 42 Glenedra Road, Feeny, Dungiven, Co Derry BT47 4TW | Tel: 028 - 7778 1223