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THE FIRST BREAK-UP of O'Neill territory appears to have been on, 5th October, 1571, when Queen Elizabeth granted to Sir Thomas Smith and his son a considerable portion extending from North Down and the Ards across the River Lagan as far as Lough Neagh and as far north as Antrim. Smith covenanted to colonise these lands on the basis of one plowland to each person serving as a foot soldier or two plowlands to each person finding a horse soldier. One plowland was roughly the equivalent of 120 acres of arable land and the crown rent was 20 shillings per plowland. Smith, however, found himself unable to carry out the covenant and the grant expired seven years later, unfulfilled.1

By an indenture dated 6th November, 1605, James Hamilton, a newly arrived undertaker from Scotland, acquired 51 townlands within the area known as Sliocht Neills from Con O'Neill; the fist included many of those townlands which together comprised the parish of Drumbo. Con was allowed to retain a weekly market and yearly fair at Castlereagh (he lived there), court baron and court of pye powder, free warren and chase at a rent of £33.15s Irish yearly. In return he had to find two horsemen and four footmen for 40 days each year at a general hosting into Ulster by the Lord Lieutenant.2

The following year, O'Neill sold to Sir Hugh Montgomery, later first Viscount Montgomery of the Ards, a number of other townlands in the parish which together became known as the Manor of Drumbracklyn. The consideration for this sale was £317 and included the rights to timber over much of Sliocht Neill land.

Reading through the grants of land during the early Plantation period, one can be forgiven a certain degree of confusion over the seemingly endless recital of townland names, many appearing in more than one grant. This, of course, was due to the absence of accurate maps and it must have been exceedingly difficult to draw the boundary between one townland and the next, let alone between one man's property and the next, unless there was a natural boundary such as a river or a range of hills. It will be remembered that as far back as the early Celtic period, the Monastery of Drumbo possessed certain lands in its vicinity; when the Monastery ceased to exist, probably in the twelfth century, these lands probably passed into the possession of the See of Down. They were listed among the Bishop's Temporalities and a Taxation of 1616 includes twelve townlands of Drumbo with a value of 40 shillings; the total value of the Temporalities at this time was £25.3 However, with so much re-distribution of land over the previous half century, the Church, and in particular the Bishop of Down, Robert Echlin, became concerned about the validity of its title to its possessions. Thus, in 1619, we find an inquisition established `to enquire whether the land antiently called or knowne by the names of the 12 Towns of Drumboe, the 4 Towns of Blaris and the four townlands of Lambegg and the 4 townlands of Mackerawe* were parcel of the possessions of the B'prick of Down; where situate - the several names the said lands were antiently called - their true names and to set them out and to certify the same to the High Court of Chancery"

* Maghera, near Newcastle. Co. Down.

The inquisition reported in January, 1620 `that the 12 townlands of Drumboe were not, neither had been in the possession of the Bishop of Down within the time of the memory of man but that the said 12 townlands of Drumboe are spirituall lands and were situate and lying in the Barony of Castlereagh in the Co. of Down and that the names of four townlands of the said twelve were the townlands of Drumboe, Tollaghard, Lissinod and Leverage and the rest of the names they know not, nor the moms, limits or bounds of any of the said twelve'. 5

After the twelfth century, which marked the end of the early period of intense spiritual activity in the Irish Church, there was a gradual decline in its fervour in succeeding centuries. The Church was impoverished and the Dioceses of Down and Connor had been united in 1441 in an effort to create a viable unit in the northeast of the country. Ulster was very emphatically inter Hibernicos and subject to raiding campaigns from the English in the Pale; Down Cathedral was laid waste in 1538 in a raid led by the Lord Deputy, Lord Leonard Grey. In order to create some order out of the chaos and to cater for the spiritual needs of the newly arrived colonists from Scotland and England, James I granted a charter re-organising the Chapters of the Cathedral of Down, Connor and Dromore. This charter is dated 20th July, 1609 and established a Dean and Chapter for the Cathedral in each of the three dioceses; each of the dignities carried with it the incumbency of a number of parishes, thereby making the dignity financially lucrative but at the same time encouraging the practices of pluralism and absenteeism.

The Archdeaconry counted among its benefices, the rectories and vicarages of Kilclief, Kilbegg, Rosglas, Drumbo and Drumbeg together with the Chapel of St. Malachie (Hillsborough). The Archdeacon enjoyed the tithes from these livings, the value being £8 quoted in Bishop Echlin's visitation of 1622.6 The first Archdeacon under the new charter was John Blakeborne and as part of the benefices of his office, he was also Rector of Drumbo. This arrangement continued until the death of Archdeacon Mant in 1834 and so, for just over 200 years, the cure of souls in each parish was in the care of a curate, as it was manifestly impossible for the Rector to minister to such a widely scattered flock; in any case, he was non-resident and probably visited each parish once a year, if even as often.

The succession of Archdeacons of Down, nominally Rectors of Drumbo need not be listed here; for those who are interested they can be found in Leslie and Swanzy's Succession Lists for the Diocese. The names of the curates are more difficult to trace and it has proved impossible to list a continuous succession, if indeed there was such an unbroken line. The visitation of 1622, quoted above, lists Wm. Firbus (Forbesse, Forbes), Master of Arts, as curate of Drumbo and Drumbeg; Drumbo church was in ruins whilst Drumbeg was In repair'. It is of interest to note that, out of 112 churches in the Dioceses of Down, all but ten were in ruins.7 This is a measure of the low ebb to which the Church had sunk and many of the fine churches which were built in our countryside during the next two centuries are a testimony to the faith of our forefathers.

No records have survived to tell us how long Firbus remained as curate of Drumbo and Drumbeg; the next name which can be traced is that of Henry Livingstone, taken from an inquisition into the state of parishes in County Down during the Cromwellian period in 1657, of which a typescript is preserved in the RCB Library. 8 Henry Livingstone was a Presbyterian preacher, a nephew of John Livingstone, one of the small band of Presbyterian preachers who had come over from Scotland earlier in the century. The Government and the Established Church showed little tolerance towards these early Presbyterian preachers (or, indeed, to anyone not conforming to the Established Church) and the only way they could practice their calling was to become ordained in the Established Church. Certain Bishops acquiesced in this practice, omitting those portions of the Ordination Service which were objectionable to the Presbyterians. Thus can be seen the confusion which existed, particularly in the rural areas of Counties Antrim and Down, where the Scottish influence was strongest.

The intolerance which existed between denominations is well illustrated by an incident in which Henry Livingstone was involved; whilst Presbyterianism flourished in rural areas, no Presbyterian minister officiated in garrison towns, of which Belfast was one, during the Commonwealth period. The Anglican church in Belfast was served by Essex Digby whilst other denominations were cared for by William Dix who was probably a baptist. Mr. Dix sent a complaint to the Lord Deputy, Henry Cromwell, who reported on 22nd September, 1657, that he had received a petition 'by which it appears that while divers sober and peaceable people were in the public Meeting Place in Belfast to hear Mr. Dix and to seek the Lord, Mr. Henry Livingstone, preacher at Drumbo, came with a tumultuous assemblage and with reviling pulled Mr. Dix out of the pulpit affirming that they were authorised by the Presbytery to do so, and would do the like again, an evil dangerous example disturbing the public peace and authority of the Government'.9

After the Restoration, however, the position of the Presbyterian ministers became very uncertain and parliament took an even stronger line. Jeremy Taylor, who became Bishop of Down in 1661 and who is remembered in the Church of Ireland as an outstanding Divine, was a man of strict principle and connected the irregularities of his predecessors. On his first visitation he dismissed 36 preachers, declaring their churches vacant and appointed curates in their place. Livingstone was among those ejected and indeed, was excommunicated a decade later by Taylor's successor, Roger Boyle. 10

By the end of the century, particularly after the accession of William of Orange, much greater tolerance was afforded to non-conforming denominations. The turbulence of the seventeenth century gave way to a more peaceful eighteenth and generally life became altogether more settled. The Lagan Valley, centred on Lisburn, was fast becoming the centre of the growing linen industry, directed mainly by Huguenots who had settled in the district; local merchants and those who prospered in industry were purchasing large estates; linen mills and bleach greens were being established along the bards of the river.

Records of visitations are extant for 1733,1735, 1737 and 1738 in which Thomas Finlay is listed as Curate of Drumbo and Drumbeg.11 Carmody, in his history of Lisburn Cathedral, quotes the same person as Curate of Lisburn in 1727. In 1742 and 1744, William Vesey Hamilton is listed as Curate and the same name occurs as late as 1757-58. The last visitation, of which a record can be traced, prior to the building of the present church, took place in August, 1781.12 This lists William Lindsay as Curate and indeed it was during his curacy that proposals were made to build a new church. The increasing population and industrialisation of the Lagan Valley necessitated the separation of Drumbo and Drumbeg parishes from the union, to which clear evidence points, had existed for almost two centuries.

At this point it is necessary to go back in time to the Plantation period: it will be remembered that this part of the Barony of Upper Clannaboy was possessed by Con O'Neill who was forced to sell his lands to a number of English and Scottish planters, of whom the two principal ones were Sir Hugh Montgomery later Viscount Montgomery of the Ards and Sir James Hamilton later Viscount Clannaboy and a cousin of James I. Half of the townland of Ballylesson was among the lands ceded to Hamilton and remained in his family's possession until the third generation. Viscount Clannaboy died in 1643 at the age of 84 and the title passed to his son James, who was raised to an Earldom three years later as the Earl of Clanbrassil. Unfortunately, he took sides against the Parliamentary forces during the Cromwellian wars and was heavily fined in defeat, which forced on him a much reduced standard of living. In fact, he died in 1659 and the title passed to his son Henry who became the second Earl of Clanbrassil (His portrait hangs in the Clanbrassil Hotel near Holywood).

In 1667, Henry married Anne Moore, daughter of the Earl of Drogheda, who was very fond of high society in London and Dublin. She appears to have spent most of her time away from home and incurred considerable debts with which her husband found great difficulty in addition to the debt he had inherited on the estate. Eventually he was forced to sell portions of his vast estates in order to pay his creditors and a contract of sale was drawn up on 5th October, 1772 between the Earl and St.John Webb for the townland of Bredagh, the half town of Ballylesson, the quarter town of Edenderry and an interest in the town of Ballynahatty. The sub tenants named in the lease are Michael Dunne and William Beers. Webb appears to have died about 1732 and ownership of Ballylesson and Edenderry passed to William Beers, who may have been the next generation to the above William Beers. The Webb and Beers families were apparently cousins. This William Beers died in 1756 and the estate passed to his son James, whose sister Mildred had married James Dunlop.13 

A meeting of the Parishoners of Drumbo was held in April, 1788 near the old church in Drumbo Graveyard; this meeting elected new churchwardens for the parish, James Watson Hull of Belvidere and James Beers of Edenderry House, as a preparatory step towards the building of a new church. A further meeting was held the following month at which it was resolved to build a new church and, as it was felt the old site was inconvenient, to take the necessary legal steps to alter the site. The actual choice of site was left to the Earl of Hillsborough, elevated to a Marquisate a year later as the Marquis of Downshire. His choice fell on a site `convenient to the great road leading from Belfast to Lisburn, on put of the farm owned by James Beers'; Beers granted the land, free for ever, for the use of the Parishioners of Drumbo.

A small committee was formed to proceed with ail speed to build a church by subscription, Mr. Hull being appointed treasurer for the money subscribed. The Earl of Hillsborough provided the architect, Charles Lilly, who appears to have been in that nobleman's employment, as he is known to have designed a number of buildings of importance on the Downshire estates; among his best known work was the restoration of Down Cathedral which was taking place at this same time.

The Marquis of Downshire continued to take a great interest in the building of the church and when funds became exhausted early in 1791, Messrs Hull and Beers wrote to him asking for sufficient funds to enable them to complete the task.14 To this letter is appended the list of subscriptions and expenditure to date and thus we have the great fortune in having extant the detailed cost of the church as originally built, £1251.5.0. Unfortunately, there is no record of his reply to this letter but we can assume that the necessary funds were forthcoming as the church was speedily completed and consecrated by the Lord Bishop of Down and Connor, William Dickson, on 24th July, 1791.15 One cannot help wondering if 24th July was chosen deliberately as the Saints Day of one of the early founding saints of the Monastery of Drumbo, Saint Lugbei, whom we met at the beginning of our story.

The Church designed by Charles Lilly bears little resemblance to the Church as it stands today, as it was considerably altered and enlarged in 1863 and again in 1874. It comprised a simple three bay nave with a tower at the west end, fairly typical of the period - they were known as barn churches, - and the tower was surmounted by a copper dome. No references can be found in church records to the removal of this dome but we do know it was definitely there as Lewis refers in 1837 to 'a handsome Grecian edifice with a lofty tower surmounted by a copper dome'. 16

Drumbo Parish now possessed a church for the first time in over 600 years and the new generation of parishioners led by James Beers (Hull had gone to live in England in 1793) were determined to create a church which would survive as a memorial to their foresight. This they succeeded in doing and now, almost 200 years later, the Parishioners of Drumbo have good reason to be proud of the task accomplished by that small band of workers.


1. Chart The break up of the estates of Con O'Neill. PRIA Vol. XLVIII, 1942,Section C p.121.
2. Ibid p.126.
3. RCELibr/26 p5.
4.  Ibid p.9.
5. IbMp.10.
6. PROM DIO/4/23/1/1 p.232/3.
7. Mant W. B.: Memoirs of RT Rev. Richard Mans. Dublin, 1857, p.16.
8. RCB Libr/26 p.40/41.
9. Benn G.: History of the Town of Belfast, London, 1877, p.398.
10. Reid: History of the Presbyterian Church, Vol. II, Belfast 1867, p.318.
11. 11. Swanzy H. B.: Unpublished notes In RCB Library.
12. Ulster Office, Dublin Castle. Vol. 199.
13. PRONI T 2248/2.
14. PRONI D 607/11291/B.
15. Diocesan Registry
16. Lewis S.: Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, London, 1837.

I am indebted to the Rector and Churchwardens of the Parish of Drumbo for permission to make use of records in their possession; also to Miss G. Willis Librarian of the Representative Church Body in Dublin for permission to make use of manuscript material and to the Deputy Keeper of the Records of the Public Office of Northern Ireland, for permission to quote from items listed.