This is an introduction to the graveyard by Keith Beattie, the curator of Ballymoney Museum and person responsible for the Ballymoney Ancestry website.
Ballymoney, County Antrim, is a place that many travelers inadvertently overlook. Driving along the bypass, tourists could be forgiven for seeing no further than the pleasant bungalows which mark the edge of this expanding market town.
However, with a simple detour into Ballymoney, visitors will discover a town full of remarkable history. There are the majestic Assembly Rooms, now bank offices, built c.1760 by the Earl of Antrim to hold his grand balls during the Antrim Hunt. Or the old Town Hall, now the Masonic Hall, built in 1775 and most notably marked with a plaque to commemorate the clock tower from which two rebels of the United Irish Rebellion were hanged. A glance down Charlotte Street will reveal two rows of Georgian terrace houses that still retain much of their period character. In Townhead Street the busy Town Hall is the venue of Ballymoney Museum, the perfect place to begin your tour of the town. And, of course, there are the meeting houses, chapels and churches that testify to the faith and devotion of the congregations of Ballymoney in recent centuries.
Perhaps the most beautiful and historic place in Ballymoney is the Old Church Graveyard, opposite St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland, at the top of Church Street. This graveyard is in the heart of the town and a busy road skirts the perimeter stone wall. Yet, within a few steps of the gate, visitors are instantly aware of the peace and tranquility of this ecclesiastical site. It is dominated by the ruins of the ancient parish church and benches are available for anyone who wishes to sit in contemplation. For those who wish to explore, there is plenty to fascinate the eager historian.
A place of worship
The landscape surrounding Ballymoney is rich with the evidence of centuries of human settlement in this area. Stone Age people populated the fertile land on the banks of the nearby River Bann, while early Christian raths and Norman mottes are scattered thoughout the ancient townlands.
The earliest mention of a church at Ballymoney is found in the records of the taxation of Pope Nicholas in 1306. In 1414, the church was dedicated to St. Mary and later this was changed to St. Patrick. The Ulster Visitation Book of 1622 stated that there was a ruined church in the parish. At this point in history, the population of the area was expanding fast with Scottish settlers establishing the new town which became the Ballymoney of today. In 1637, Sir Randall MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim, paid for the construction of the much needed church, and the red brick tower that can be seen today in the Old Church Graveyard is all that remains of this building. Within its ageing walls is a slab that reads “THIS CHVRCH VAS BYLDED TO THE GLORYE OF GOD 1637.”
Tragically, early in 1642, soon after being completed, the church was burned by rebel armies along with much of the town during the Irish Rebellion. The church was rebuilt and survived as the parish church of Ballymoney until 1782.
Nevertheless, confusion surrounds some aspects of the church’s history before 1637. According to the Ordnance Survey Memoirs for the Parish of Ballymoney, written in 1835:
“The graveyard contains no stone older than 1700. There is a very old one, however, in the wall… all the letters have been obliterated by the weather and storms. The graveyard was established a few years before the foundation of the church and has been used ever since by the Scotch settlers of the district. Previous to 1637 no ecclesiastical building of any kind stood at the site or near it.”
These statements are perplexing – the oldest headstone in the churchyard is, indeed, set into a wall, but it is a wall that was built a decade after the Memoirs were written. The headstone in question very clearly reads “Camac 1610”. It strongly suggests a burial ground, and it may be argued a church, much longer than “a few years” before 1637.
Despite being a parish church, i.e. the Anglican Church or Church of Ireland, the majority of the early congregation were Presbyterian settlers from Scotland. They successfully secured the appointment of a Scottish Presbyterian clergyman, Reverend James Ker, described at the time as ‘not young in years’ but with a great reputation for ‘honesty and zeal’ though of ‘little learning and no great judgement’. Ker was a controversial figure who refused to condemn the execution of Charles I in 1649 and who we can assume supported Oliver Cromwell’s regime.
Despite his Presbyterian allegiance, Reverend Ker received a portion of the tithe, payable by all tenant farmers to the Church of Ireland clergyman responsible for the parish. In 1656, he is recorded as receiving an allowance from the Cromwellian Government of £120 per year. A few years later in 1661, after the monarchy was restored and King Charles II was crowned, Ker refused to conform to the strict new laws which enforced the Church of Ireland and the English Book of Common Prayer. In consequence, he was ejected and left for Scotland where he died shortly afterwards.2
The Church of Ireland clergyman who followed was Reverend James Watson and he was succeeded by John Dunbar (1673), Alexander Moore (1687), William Armar (1691), Philip Matthews (1694), Henry Reynell (1740) and Arthur Mahon (1752). Few of these clergymen would have actually led the worship at the church, as they were most likely absentees with a curate to adopt the duties required by a congregation. These included Reverend M. Cole (1693), James Bashon (1694), William Fletcher (1746), Laurence Grace (1768) and Lindsay Hall (1777).
The road to an unholy row
For several decades, this was the only church in the town. Then, in 1690, the first Presbyterian meeting house was built and many of the families left to join the new congregation. St. Patrick’s soon recovered and quickly began to prosper. In 1782, a new parish church was constructed nearby. The old church was vacated and passed into ruins, much as we see it today, although burials continued in the surrounding graveyard. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs record that in 1835 the tower still had “a steeple with a castellated top and a slated, conical roof resembling a spire”. Nothing remains of this spire.
In the 1840s, with the old church derelict and in ruins, the graveyard itself came under threat. A new road was needed to connect Coleraine and Ballymena. The chosen route for this highway was straight through the churchyard, separating the crumbling church from its newer counterpart and cutting over the graves of many local families. Despite the outrage, the wishes of the townsfolk were over ruled and the proposed road was built. Those graves which rested in the path of the road were lifted, the bodies exhumed and re-intered.
The architect of this unholy act was a young engineer called Sir Charles Lanyon, destined to become famous throughout Ireland for such beautiful buildings as Queen’s University in Belfast. Lanyon was a lay preacher in the Church of Ireland and it appears he used his influence and office to succeed where others would have failed.
Within 30 years, this road had further implications for the fate of the churchyard. In 1869, the Church of Ireland was disestablished and lost much of its influence and property. One consequence of this was that graveyards separated from their place of worship by a ‘carriage highway’ became the responsibility of the Board of Guardians, today’s equivalent of a Local Government Authority or Council. For this reason, Ballymoney Borough Council carefully maintains this graveyard and the tower. It was through the Council’s efforts that the Church Tower was restored with grant aid from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1997.
A tunnel under the town
It has always been assumed that there was an extensive tunnel that ran beneath the town of Ballymoney. It was purported to have served as a sanctuary if the town was attacked; or a passage which lead from a long forgotten castle to the church. Reports claimed that it ran from the Old Church Graveyard through to Main Street, and probably beyond. Local people talked of actually being down the tunnel as children and remarked on the considerable distance it seemed to travel in each direction. Yet such a tunnel had never been recorded on any map or historical archive.
An old report states that in 1845, the sexton was opening a grave near the old church when he fell into an underground chamber ‘bearing the appearance of an old vault covered with a strong arch’. There he found a silver chalice, an earthen pitcher, a curious shaped hammer and a human skull. The human remains were reburied and the other items have since been lost.
The Ordnance Survey Memoirs recorded the following:
“In the town of Ballymoney, and close to the old churchyard, it is said that a castle formerly stood. No information, however, can be gleaned as to the exact period of the destruction. It appears probable, however, that it took place long before the rebellion of 1641. The situation of the building was at the eastern side of the graveyard. One of the vaults is said to be still in existence, but covered over and concealed by graves and bones….”
Perhaps the tunnel was a secret access to this castle or fortified building. There is other intriguing evidence in the “Jorney made by the Earle of Sussex, Lord Deputye [sic]”. In July 1556, as the party traveled to Coleraine the following report is recorded:
“…also this day wee came to a Bishop’s house, which was with a castle and a church joyned together in one, called Ballymonin, ye Bishopp McGenusi’s house beeing Bpp. of Down and Conner [sic]”
If it is assumed that this building was on the site of the current ruined church (although, as discussed earlier, this cannot be confirmed) it may also support the theory of an access tunnel.
Fortunately, confirmation of a tunnel’s existence has been established. In c.1970, road engineers were working adjacent to the churchyard, building a new car park. As they were digging, they encountered a remarkable arched passage, three feet below the surface. The Clerk of Works at the time, Samuel Platt, surveyed the structure of the passage, photographed it and recorded his observations. These details were filed in County Hall, Ballymena, where, frustratingly, they have since been disposed of.
Mr. Platt described the passage, as can be seen in the illustration. It is unclear what function the gate served, if only to hinder pursuit through the tunnel. Due to the years of development and construction in the town, the tunnel had been blocked and filled in, preventing access for any great distance in either direction.
At about the same time, a similar structure was also briefly unearthed in Main Street. Wallace McNaul, then an employee of the Urban District Council, recalls coming across a passage or tunnel with a brick arched ceiling. It was assumed to be a sewer, and therefore not fully excavated, although Mr. McNaul believes it may possibly have been the tunnel. Further excavation throughout the town will probably be the only opportunity to explore this intriguing underground feature. Hopefully when it is next unearthed it will be possible to accurately survey, film and photograph the tunnel.
Burial records 1883-1932
One very valuable historical resource relating to the Old Church Graveyard is a ledger that records all the burials carried out between February 1883 and November 1932. The 1430 burials that took place in the graveyard over this period are listed with details including the individual’s date of death, date of funeral, age, religion, occupation, where they lived, if they were married or single and, in some cases, the cause of death. Thanks to the voluntary efforts of my colleague Robert Thompson, all the information in this ledger has been recorded on computer database.
The book of burials provides us with some interesting statistical details. For example, the religious breakdown of the 1430 burials is as follows:
|Church of Ireland
|Covenanter [or Reformed Presbyterian]
These figures must be considered in context with the fact that many local churches also had their own burial grounds by this period. Previous to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, tenant farmers paid a tithe to the local Church of Ireland clergyman and could chose to be buried in the parish churchyard. The vast proportion of the local population were Presbyterian and they still chose to inter their deceased family in a churchyard associated with the Church of Ireland, even at a time when other burial grounds were available.
The cause of death is also recorded for 552 of the burials. Of these, 248 died of debility [or old age]; 63 of consumption [or tuberculosis]; 14 were diagnosed as dying of cancer; others were diagnosed as dying of diseases of the head, brain, heart, chest, kidney, liver or leg; the records also include deaths by bronchitis, asthma, blood poisoning, brain fever, concussion, congestion of the brain or lungs, diarrhoea, dropsey, suffocation, and whooping cough; a few died of apoplexy [a haemorrhage]; only one of measles; one drowned, another died of indigestion, another of an overdose of laudanum; interestingly, between 1892-1893, there are also three victims of suicide buried in the graveyard. 73 individuals are listed as cause of death ‘unknown’. The ages of the interred range from one day, to two people who lived to 104.