The focus of Presbyterianism in the Glens from the early years of the Scottish Plantation was Glenarm.(1) That congregation consisted of people from a wide area, but many found it a difficult journey to the meeting-house there. It was particularly difficult for the handful of Presbyterians from Layde and Cushendall, and various attempts were made over the centuries to facilitate them. Eventually in 1843 a meeting-house was built at Mullarts Crossroads and later in 1900 the congregation moved to the town of Cushendall itself.(2)
Previous to these nineteenth century developments, there had been a number of projects to establish Presbyterian witness in the Layde and Cushendall area. These were justified on the grounds that there was a need to consolidate the faith of the few Presbyterians who lived there but also the potential for opportunities to “convert” the much more numerous Roman Catholic population.
Glenarm’s ministers had all come from Scotland and when the Reverend Hugh Crawford returned in February 1688, the congregation again looked to Scotland for a successor. The man they wanted was the Reverend John Darragh and he was particularly attractive to the people of Layde and Cushendall because he had “the Irish tongue”. Nearly everybody in that area spoke Gaelic and the missionary potential he offered was great.(3)
The Presbytery of Antrim was in charge of the call to Mr Darragh and the people of Layde and Cushendall sent John Hamilton to a meeting of the Presbytery in October 1688 to make their case for Mr Darragh. They said they would like him to preach to them “every fourth Sunday”.(4) When finances were discussed, Glenarm offered £24 per year and Layde and Cushendall said they would pay £6.
Politically, times were not good. Ireland had become the battlefield for the war between King William III and King James II and there was much instability and bloodshed. Mr Darragh was aware of the difficulties and, if he ever came to Glenarm, certainly he hastily returned to Scotland when the going got rough. A long vacancy followed and eventually in 1693 the Reverend John Lee, the first Irishman to be minister in Glenarm, was ordained there. The people of Layde and Cushendall seem to have had little interest in him. They kept up the pressure for someone to come to them that could speak Gaelic and about 1707 the Reverend John Stuart took up work among them.
Mr Stuart was a Scotsman with a chequered past. He had been minister of Mochrum in Wigtownshire from 1693-6 and then came to Ireland to be minister at Macosquin near Coleraine. He was installed there on 19th August 1701 but in March 1706 was found guilty of “false swearing, making lies, slander and many offensive imprudencies in his ministry and conversation”.(5) He had to leave Macosquin and he came to Layde and Cushendall.
The only asset he seems to have had when he arrived was the ability to speak Gaelic. Otherwise he appears completely unsuitable to nurture an embryonic congregation or gain the respect of the Catholic population. However he was anxious to prove himself and happy to be given a fresh start. Certainly he was not scared of hardships and he had many to confront. The people were too poor to support him and his plight was dire. More and more he had to depend on money from a fund set up by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to support weak congregations. The fund in turn depended on subscriptions from each of the Presbyteries and when they did not pay, as was often the case, there was virtually nothing for Mr Stuart.
Mr Stuart’s letter in 1715 to the General Synod of Ulster (the central body of the Presbyterian Church at that time) is reported in its Minutes and helps us understand something of his plight. We are told he “…held forth that little or nothing was given to him, even of the small thing allowed to him by the Synod and that it is on it which most of his substance depends. If that is not paid, he fears he will necessitate to live wholly on charity.”(6)
The Presbyteries were not moved by Mr Stuart’s situation and payments to the fund became worse instead of better. This increased Mr Stuart’s poverty and the General Synod’s Minutes of 1717 stated: “Considering the deplorable circumstances of Mr Stuart of The Glens, by reason of his age, infirmity and want of subsistence, for he has not been paid what was appointed to him by the Synod, ordered that particular enquiry be made in the Synod why this money is not paid. He supplicates for the Synod’s advice what he shall do having no encouragement in the place where he now lives. Advised if on further trial, he finds he cannot subsist there (re Layde and Cushendall), he is at liberty to remove to what habitation he sees fit, but the Synod doth not resolve to discontinue the Synodical assistance to him. The Committee of Funds to propose a way how his money be paid to him and report to this Synod”(7).
Mr Stuart did not take the easy way out and leave. It is to his credit that he continued his work even though he was ill and reduced to penury. He died at Cushendall on 22nd March 1719.
Nobody was prepared to succeed him. As the Presbyterian historian, Professor W.D. Killen put it: “For a long time afterwards…Those of our communion who resided there had to travel far when they wished to enjoy Presbyterian ordinances”(5).
This sad little episode in the history of the Glens and of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland highlights for us the difficulties and passions of a bygone age and the strength and courage needed to survive against the odds.
Notes and References
1. See my article ‘Presbyterianism in Glenarm’, The Glynns, volume 9, 1981.
2. See ‘Olden Days in Cushendall and the Glens’ by H.A. Boyd, The Glynns, volume 20, 1992. ‘Cushendall Presbyterian Church’ by Reverend A Robinson, amplified and edited by Dr. Eull Dunlop, The Glynns, volume 28, 2000. ‘Cushendall Presbyterian Church 1949-2001’, edited by Neill Workman, The Glynns, volume 29, 2001.
3. Minutes of Presbytery of Antrim, 1688. Also ‘Christian Unitarian’ volume 5, pp.125-6.
5. Minutes of Presbytery of Coleraine, March 1706.
6. ‘Records of the General Synod of Ulster’, Belfast,1890, volume 1, p. 368.
7. Ibid, p. 447.
8. History of the Congregations of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, W.D.Killen, Belfast and Edinburgh. 1886, p. 110.