Straid as a place of worship

Address by local historian Seán Beattie at the launch of the St Columba’s Straid Conservation Group, December 2015

A new committee is about to restore the fabric of the old church at Straid. It is great to see a voluntary group being set up because so much of the protection of our heritage comes down to volunteers, people who give their time generously to make our country a better place to live in. This is a very historic site as it was a place of worship over 1500 years ago and has associations with Colmcille. So Straid church is important as it is a direct physical link with our ecclesiastical heritage. In 1394 Bishop Colton made a Visitation to Clonmany and mentions David O’Morrison as erenagh, or lay head, land holder , Keeper of the Columban relic the Miosach and collector of the Biashop’s dues. The Donegal Inquisition of 1609 reveals how 6 quarters of church land were divided.

Before I speak about the church I want to mention the work of the Bernician Studies group from England which has been surveying monastic sites in Inishowen over the last 4 years and have shown great interest in Clonmany. Their work has been named the Lands of Eoghan project. This magnetic survey will add new information to our knowledge of the archaeology of the environs of the church itself and help to raise its profile in the community. Rosemarie is involved.

Now fast forward to the 1700s- a period of great church building by the Board of First Fruits of the Protestant church. Before the Plantation, churches were the preserve of great Irish families but with the Flight of the Earls and the Plantation, this patronage ended and many churches fell into disrepair. A new phase of church building was driven by landlords who came in with the Plantation and so we have landlord patronised churches in Culdaff, Malin, Carn and Moville, to give Inishowen as an example. By a stroke of good fortune, there was also a new Protestant bishop who was a man of great wealth and also a patron of the arts and architecture. His best known projects are at Downhill and Ballyscullion but he also built 2 churches and a glebe house on this side of the Foyle. At the same time, there was a rector in Clonmany with a very famous name and pedigree, Rev William Chichester, one of a long line of churchmen in that family and who is buried in the graveyard. It was through the initiative of both Earl Bishop Harvey and Rev Chichester that Straid church was built.

A third man makes an appearance in this story- Master Builder, Architect and Designer, Michael Shanahan. The Earl Bishop brought him from Cork and he was engaged in the Downhill project and Straid for a period of 12 years in the 1770s. His chimney pieces were one of his classical features and we can see his trademark here at Straid also. Some of his drawings made in Venice have survived dated 1770 and 1772 and can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but owned by the British Architectural Archive in Portland Place in London. The Sir John Soane Museum in Holborn also has some of his work. Soane was a rival with Shanahan for the contract to build Downhill but Soane lost – hence the connection with the museum. So today as we officially launch this project, we can salute these 3 men – Chichester, Harvey and Shanahan – and say this is no mean monument we are dealing with. I would see Shanahan as in the same mould as our own Liam McCormick.
The personal associations of this church link it to some of the great personalities of our Inishowen heritage. In the folklore of Clonmany, few stories can equal that of Domhnall Gorm and Peadar McLaughlin but everyone here is familiar with that. Both are buried in the old church. Mary O’Neill is a pivotal and revered figure in the story of Shane’s Castle, the preservation of the O’Neill line and she is buried in the graveyard. Rev Arthur Chichester was a great letter writer and we learn of the visit of Lord Cavan before Dunree was constructed. From his correspondence, it is clear that Chichester was a great preacher. Rev. Kennedy of Carn had a family which brought distinction in medicine, the law, railway construction and administration and they were regular visitors here. We also have the Carys of Tiernaleague as regulars. Buried in the graveyard is the infamous Col McNeill, the Waterloo priest who was jailed during the Tithe War, the poet Denis O Donnell, priests like Fr. McFaul, Fr. Daniel Doherty, Rev Mungo Thompson and Francis Little, Clonmany postmaster. It is also worth recalling that many of the earliest Protestant ministers were Irish speakers and contributed to Clonmany being named by John O’Donovan as having the best Irish in the country. As we meet in Glen House, we must mention the Dohertys who lived here working as tithe proctors in a very unsettled society and the last member of the family, James Walker Doherty is also buried here. Despite their unpopularity we can thank them for maintaining the church until 1925 and perhaps preventing its demolition. We have to thank Charlie McGlinchey and Master Kavanagh for preserving the folklore.
I think the McGlinchey Association has played a great role in keeping the heritage of the church alive, and Catherine McWilliams has done magnificent research which is published in their journal. I recall being here in 2000 when Fionn Morgan O’Neill was due to give a talk in the very church grounds but it was postponed due to rain and she delivered a lecture on the church and the Chichesters in the hall. I was fortunate that she also supplied an article to DONEGAL ANNUAL the following year giving her impressions on the heritage and history of the church. As she reveals in that article, members of the O’Neill family, which includes former Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, have been regular visitors to the church.

We live in an age of ecumenism, of cross-border alliances and peace-making and this church stands as a model for all of these things. As Wolfe Tone wished for, it unites Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. Sir Christopher Wren, the builder of St. Paul’s, said that his church was his lasting memorial and for the parish of Clonmany, this church will also stand as a monument not only to its ancient monastic fathers but the thousands of Christians that have worshipped here. So I wish the committee every success with this great project.

See Rev William Reeves, Metropolitan Visitation of the Diocese of Derry AD MCCCXCVII,
Dublin, 1850. Also Catherine McWilliams and Conall Byrne in It’s Us They’re Talking About, 2000.