Protestants in Clonmany

Protestants are rare in the Parish of Clonmany, indeed, when I first moved there, a complete blow-in in 2009, I reckoned I could be the only one. However, marriage to a native of the Parish helped take some of the oddness out of me. I’ve been welcomed and found many friends; I feel accepted. However, I’ve heard it said that it was once a matter of pride in some quarters that ‘there wasn’t a Protestant in the entire place’, so it was very pleasing to me to be asked to play a part in the project to conserve St Columba’s Church at Straid; a ‘token’ member of the Church of Ireland, among a group of people from Clonmany, who recognised the importance of the Church and its site in the Christian History of the Parish. Other contributors to this series of articles have explained that importance. It is my task to try to show how the Protestant population so alienated itself from the rest of the people, that their extinction in the Parish became a matter of pride.

The Church of Ireland was established around 1537 but probably had no clergy in the Parish until about a hundred years later, with the appointment of John Sterne. As Rector, he would have had control of the revenues from the Church lands which had been taken over by the Church of Ireland in 1614. No doubt this seizure generated anger; the Rector was rich and the Parish Priest had been thrust from his living. Later in the century, the contrast between the livings of the two sorts of priest would became acute when Peadar McLaughin became PP in 1670 and his brother, Domhnall Gorm McLaughlin, also native to Clonmany, was instituted as Rector a year later and built himself a large house, ‘Dresden’, beside the church at Straid, while his brother lived in a ‘cabin’. The Penal Laws of the next century compounded this difference and, by the time the brothers died, both in 1711, restrictions on Catholics and, especially, that everyone, whatever church they attended, had to pay ‘tithes’ to support the Church of Ireland created huge divisions, but in one way the two brothers were not divided; both were buried in the graveyard at the church at Straid; indeed all burials, Catholic and Protestant, in the Parish took place there until about 1880.

There were many conflicts between Catholic and Protestant in the Parish. Most Protestants were landlords and, accordingly disliked; one, Col. Daniel McNeill, was killed by his tenants, though mainly because of his taking advantage of young women. However, more dislike was created by contrasting lifestyles. Stories abound of parties held at Dresden or the other ‘Big Houses’ in the Parish, Glen House and Binnion House, when the Youngs of Culdaff, the Carys of Redcastle, and others, would roll up in their carriages, dressed in their finery and be welcomed into a house blazing with light and a fire in every room. Most Catholics lived in dark houses of one or two rooms.

Hence, there would have been satisfaction, locally, when in 1925, James Walker Doherty of Glen House, the last parishioner, died and services were discontinued, and even more when, in 1927, the church was abandoned and its roof removed.

However, time goes on and attitudes change. We recognise now that there is more that brings us together than there is to divide us. The effort to conserve the Church at Straid reflects this. In all probability, the site was Christian for longer than it was Catholic or Protestant and more of the bones of the people of Clonmany lie around it than anywhere else in the Parish, united as we hope we may be united in our efforts to preserve this church, as a reminder of our shared history, and as a symbol of a peaceful future to be shared by all who visit it.