A Church at Clough

Harry Hume:-

About a mile west of the village of Clough stands the present church or “meeting house” of one of the oldest Presbyterian congregations in Ireland. The origins of this congregation go back to the early days of the Scottish Plantation when the first Presbyterians came and settled in the lands of the Parish of Dunaghy, surrounding Clough or Oldstone castle. This territory was reputed to have been owned originally by the McQuillans but was said to have come into the possession of the McDonnells after the battle of Orra in 1559.

For the settlers of the seventeenth century this area must have been historically interesting. Dunaghy had been a camping place of the High Kings of Ireland, the name itself being the modern form of “Dun-Eochaidh” mentioned in the “Annals of the Four Masters” and referred to by Doctor O’Donovan in the twenty-ninth verse of the “Circuit of Muircheartach”. The following are the lines in which the Poet mentions Dun-Eachdach or Dunaghy:

“We were a night at Dun-Eachdach,

With the white-handed warlike band.

We carried the King of Uladh with us In the great circuit we made of all Ireland.”1

The Parish also had an interesting ecclesiastical history. With town-land names like Eglish, (meaning a church), Glebe and the nearby Grange of Dundermot it is not surprising to find an account of a monastery at Drumakeely. It was said to have been situated

“On the bank of the Clough river beside a ford which it is was used by travellers going between Carrickfergus, Shane’s Castle, and Dunluce Castle.”2

On John Crawford’s farm at Drumakeely, near to what is referred to locally as the “holy well”, is a hewn-out stone vessel which no doubt was once used for religious purposes. Not far from this place, at Springmount Bog, a wooden book with leaves indented and waxed was found. It contained the Psalms written in old Latin and was acquired by the National Museum in 1914. The wood from which it was made was thought to be yew and the book could be dated as far back as the Medieval Period. (See illustration).3

Another find in the district was described in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the Parish in 1833 by Lieut. C. Greatoun.

“It may be interesting, however, to mention that some years ago when some men were engaged in razing the fort on Carnbeg they found an urn with a small statue and a cross; the cross was about five inches long, tapering to a point with a ball on top and a small ring through it and very thickly carved; it appeared to be of copper silvered over”.4

This may well be the same cross referred to by O’Laverty in his “History of Down and Connor” in which he tells of a cross being found at Carnbeg and being sold later in Ballymena.

The Parish of Dunaghy can claim a written record of an early Christian church dating back to the time of Pope Nicholas IV in 1306. In the taxation returns to Rome in that year the church at “Dunachii” was valued at £8.10.8 and about three centuries later the Terrier or Ledger book of Down and Conor, 1615, states

“Ecclesia de Donncathe one quarter glebe. Proxees 20/-.”

Refections 20/-, Synodals 2/-. The Ulster Visitation Book of 1622 however describes “Ecclesia de Downaghee” as a ruin.

In 1631 the Earl of Antrim embarked upon the repairing of ruined churches in his land to accommodate his new Protestant tenants.

“In all likelihood what is now the old parish church of Dunaghy was one of those repaired by Lord Antrim, who, let us remember, was a Roman Catholic. But Lord Antrim was motivated more by economic than religious motives in the policy of securing the settlement of his lands with Scottish settlers at the beginning of the seventeenth century and in any event his character must have also possessed the fine quality of religious tolerance — a trait uncommonly rare at that time.”5

The Presbyterian settlers witnessed the events of the 1641 rebellion and the consequent surrender of their stronghold and place of refuge, Clough castle, by Walter Kennedy and the subsequent massacre at the Ravel river of the women and children en route to Scotland. In more peaceful times (on 14th February 1656), Clough congregation petitioned the first presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which had been set up in Carrickfergus, to provide a minister. Some early references are made to a ‘Mr. Peebles’ having been a Preacher in Clough but there is no account of him ever having been installed as minister.

After the call of 1656, the Rev. Andrew Rowan of Greenhead, in the Parish of Govan, in Ayrshire came to Gough, as the first minister and was inducted in the Parish church.

“Little is known of Rowan as a Presbyterian, but when the short period of Episcopalian tolerance came to an end with the passing of the Act of Conformity in 1661, he was one of eight ministers who conformed to Episcopacy out of a total of seventy-two. In so doing he incurred the disrespect and severe condemnation of Presbyterians but paved the way to prosperity and acceptance for himself and his family. He became the friend of the Earl and Countess of Antrim; he was also to become a man of great wealth, a pluralist, a money lender and a large farmer. He was the ancestor of the Rowans of Mount Davys, of Aghoghill and the Rowan-Hamiltons of Killyleagh castle and with his eldest son was attainted in 1689 for his adherence to William Prince of Orange. Rowan has left behind a most interesting ‘common place book’ which gives much information about himself and his family during his life as Episcopalian rector of Clough.”5

Rowan held the incumbency of Dunaghy for an uninterrupted period of fifty six years. He lived in a house on the West side of the street in Clough village. It is said that he was robbed when he was a very old man. One of his successors. Rev. Wm. Mayne, wrote in 1833

“the inhabitants of Clough pointed out to me a window in the upper storey through which the banditti who robbed him entered. He was heard to say afterwards that no two horses in the Parish could have carried his money, from which I am led to conjecture that the horses must have been ponies and his money brass.”7

As a result of the conformity of Rowan the Presbyterians of Clough were faced with two alternatives. They could follow Rowan and become Episcopalian or they could move out on their own and establish a Presbyterian congregation. There were no doubt adherents to each of these alternatives but it is to the adherents of the latter that the Presbyterians of Clough today owe their origins.

In 1673 Mr. Peter Orr was ordained a minister of the Route Presbytery and one of his preaching stations was at Clough. He served those who refused to follow Rowan but fled to Scotland during the Williamite wars 1689-90. He was one of the first ministers to return to Ireland and was back for the General Synod meeting in September 1691 when he reported that he had written to the other ministers who had fled to Scotland to tell them to return to their charges in Ireland.

Shortly after this time the present meeting house was erected in the townland of Carnbeg. Its situation is interesting in that it is about a mile from the village of Clough, no doubt because of the Penal laws of that time, one of which stated that no Presbyterian meeting-house was to be permitted within a mile of any town. Today the only link the Presbyterians have with their former meeting-house on the hill in the town-land of Glebe is that of the burial ground. It is still the only place of sepulture in the Parish. The tombstones in the churchyard record the names of many famous families including Boyds, Benns, Cupples and Emersons.

The Rev. Wm. Mayne writing about the Parish in 1833 states

“Judging by the tombstones, the vanity of mortals is nowhere in Ireland greater than in the churchyard at Dunaghy.” 8

For seventy-five years Clough was said to be the only Presbyterian church on the Antrim Plateau between Ballymoney and Ballymena. Mr. Orr during his ministry was involved in the drawing of the boundaries of the Clough congregation and this led to disputes with the neighbouring congregations, especially Kilraughts; this matter was settled eventually by the General Synod. After his death in 1706, Mr. Orr was succeeded by Rev. Alexander Orr, most likely a son. He died suddenly in 1713 after only three and a half years as minister. As so often can happen in the history of a Presbyterian congregation, a dispute arose regarding the appointment of the successor. Two probationers Mr. Cochrane and Mr. Moore contended for the vacancy but on the advice of General Synod neither man was appointed to the post. Clough’s fourth minister was to be Rev. Thomas Cobham, a licentiate of Belfast Presbytery and he was ordained in Clough on 12 March 1718.

An important issue during Mr. Cobham’s ministry was that of subscription. He had not been asked to sign the Westminster Confession of Faith when ordained in Clough and refused to do so when called upon by Synod to sign. He thereby allied himself with the “new light” faction in the church which rejected the need for subscription. Mr. Cobham died in charge of Clough on 3rd February 1732 and was succeeded by Rev. James McCurdy who was also to be a non-subscriber. During his ministry Clough congregation left the Presbytery of the Route and joined the new Presbytery of Ballymena. McCurdy became moderator of the General Synod of Ulster in 1747.

After McCurdy’s death in January 1758 he was succeeded by Rev. Joseph Douglas who became first minister in Clough to subscribe to the Westminster confession. He too became moderator of the General Synod of Ulster. Douglas was described by Professor Killen as a man of commanding presence and S. A. Blair writes

“He became a patriarchial figure in the church of his day. He was active in the public life of the district and held the office of Captain in the local Volunteers. This was a sort of ‘home- guard’ which had been formed when the British army had to be withdrawn for to fight in the American War of Independence.

It was recorded that Douglas was so involved in the Volunteers and their duties that he often preached in military dress, not having time to change before the service. Mr. Douglas resigned because of old age and infirmity in 1795.”9

In 1795 another dispute arose in Clough about the Secession Church or Seceders. The Clough People who supported the Seceders broke away and built a new church at Killymurris in 1796. The minister who eventually succeeded the Rev. Joseph Douglas was Rev. John Me Nish. He was ordained in Clough in 1797 and like many of the Presbyterians of the district he was involved in the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798 and because of this had to flee to America as soon as the rebellion was over. Some people prefer to omit his name from the list of ministers of Clough. The O.S. Memoirs of 1833 recall the events of that time ”

“…. the Presbyterians still retain the Scottish dialect and much of the Scottish manners and customs. They were, with very few exceptions, deeply implicated in the rebellion of 1798 and some acts of violence were committed by them in the neighbourhood. For this three men were hanged on the same day, namely one at Clough, one at Cloughmills and one at Dundermot Bridge, two miles from Clough. These examples, with the harassing effects of billeting, free quarters, etc., gave them a surfeit of rebellion and produced a very desirable change in their conduct and politics.”10

It is said that there was hardly a house in the neighbourhood in which someone had not taken the oath and in an account of the battle in Ballymena we are told of the awaited arrival of ’friends from Gough’. These words were hailed so often by a sentinel on the look-out at the townhall, the battle site in Ballymena, that it is said

“they subsequently came into use as by-words in Ballymena and the surrounding districts. We have frequently heard them repeated as friendly salutations even in Belfast.”11

Rev. Robert Acheson, who led the United Irishmen at Glenarm, where he was minister, was a son of the congregation of Clough

In 1801 the Rev. Thomas Kinnear became minister. He was however forced to resign four years later because of his practice of celebrating marriages irregularly. In those days Presbyterians who were married by their own minister were regarded as living in sin and their children were illegitimate in the eyes of the law. Kinnear led a campaign to obtain for Presbyterian ministers the authority to contract marriages, but died in 1830, fifteen years before that came about.

The next minister was to be Rev. John Hall who was ordained on 17th June 1806 and like some of his predecessors he did not sign the Westminster Confession of Faith. His ministry was to last for sixty years and spanned a most eventful period in the history of both church and country. He, along with his people, experienced the hardship of the Potato Famine 1845—46 and the big wind of 6th January 1839, when the roofs were blown off more than half of the congregation’s houses. It is said that John Hall for the sixty years had one ‘long prayer’ which the congregation knew off by heart and fifty-two sermons, one of which he preached on the same Sunday each year. When asked if he couldn’t change the sermons his reply was, “They were good enough for your father so they are good enough for you.”

Three of Mr. Hall’s sons studied for the ministry. A contemporary with them at the Belfast College was a James Glasgow born in the congregation of Clough on 7 May 1805. Rev. John Hall was present at the historic meeting in Belfast on 10th July 1840 when the Secession Synod united with the Synod of Ulster to form the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The first item on the agenda of the new assembly was the inauguration of the missionary enterprise of the church and James Glasgow was one of two ministers appointed to go to India. As a pioneer he gave outstanding service in India from 1840 to 1864. He became a D.D. of Princeton, a fellow of the university of Bombay and an expert on eastern religions as well as being a fluent speaker and translator of the Gujarati language.12

Rev. John Laurence Rentoul succeeded Mr. Hall. His preaching often aroused controversy in Clough but in other places he was a noted public lecturer. Stories are told about him predicting that man would some-day be able to fly through the air. He was also a great advocate of temperance and travelled around with lantern slides illustrating his talks. He resigned from Clough in 1878 and is the only minister interred within the precincts of the church property.

To complete the list of minister up to the present century we have to include Rev. Samuel Edgar Brown minister from 1878-1894 and Rev. Henry Dinsmore who was a renowned evangelist and was minister from 1895 to 1905.

It is unfortunate that, as a result of a fire, records of baptisms, deaths and marriages before 1865 in the congregation have been lost.

1. Hill, Rev. G., The Macdonnells of Antrim, Reprint — Glens of Antrim Historical Society 1976, p. 136.

2. Journal of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 1920. p. 160.

3. Ibid., p. 160

4. Ordnance Survey Memoirs for the Parish of Dunaghy and the Grange of Dundermot in “The

Glynns” Vol. 8 1980, p. 69

5. 125th Anniversary of Dunaghy Parish Church: Address by Hugh A. Boyd on 26th November 1967


6. A History of Clough Presbyterian Congregation by S. A. Blair in the Ballymena Guardian; 25th September 1975.

7. Mayne, Rev. Wm., in Shaw-Mason’s Parochial Survey: Dunaghy Parish, 1816.

8. Ibid.

9. Rev. Joseph Douglas by S. A. Blair in the Ballymena Guardian

10. O.S. Memoirs op. cit

11. “Old Ballymena” published by the Ballymena Guardian 1857.

12. Boyd, R. H., “The Tiger Tamed” published by Pickering and Inglis.



Fig 2- Tablet III —Verso.


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