The Building of the Parish Church at Glenarm

Be it remembered this 30th day of May 1763 that it is covenanted and agreed on between the Rt. Honble the Earl of Antrim and William McBride Mason that the said McBride shall build the stone work of Glenarm Church according to the Model proposed making good sufficient work and furnishing the Stone and Mortar at his own Expense (excepting what Stones and Mortar are already laid down on the ground which shall be allowed him) and shall build the Walls of said Church at four Shillings the Mason Perch without and regard to the thickness of the Wall the same to be according to Custom from Corner to Corner and shall execute the said Work with all convenient Speed without Delay on his Part.

And the said Earl of Antrim covenants and agrees to furnish Barrows Mortar boxes and (scaffolding Materials etc . . . the foundations of said Church to be properly laid out) and also to pay ten pounds sterl to said McBride at laying the Foundations of said Church and twenty pounds more when the Work is ready for laying on the Window sills and remainder when the Stone Work is built and ready for Roof in Witness whereof the above parties have hereunto set their Hands and Seals the day above written.

Witness Present

Reced from the Rt. Honble the Earl of Antrim Twenty pounds st on laying the Window Stones of the new Church at Glenarm and for which I promise wo give his Lordship credit in account. July the 25th 1763.


(July 25th) McBrides Rect for £20/0/0 on laying Window Stones of the new Church. July ye 25th 1763 [(on reverse)]

March 13th 1764 an Account of Sleats delivered by James Menarey for the use of the new Church of Glenarm to 13 thousand of Sleats at 18 Shillings per thousand £11/14/0

Reced from the Right Honble the Earl of Antrim the above sume of Eleven Pounds fourteen Shillings Ster.
James Menarey

March 13th 1764 Menareys Rect for Slates for the New Church of Glenarm
((on reverse))

These documents concerning the building of the parish church of Tickmacrevan raise various interesting points about Glenarm’s development in the 18th century. I hope the following notes will deal with the most important ones. Through Lord Antrim’s building scheme, Glenarm’s appearance had already been dramatically changed in the decade prior to 1763. The building of the new parish church, with its tower and spire forming an attractive eye catcher from the castle was the culmination of this process.

The work had started with the transformation of the old castle into a Palladian mansion. A stone on the front of it states that it was “rebuilt” in 1756. As the rebuilding consisted in not only constructing a grand Palladian façade with many Venetian windows but also in erecting colonnaded wings with substantial pavilions at each end and in internal decorations that included two storey hall with remarkable baroque plasterwork, the work must have in fact taken several years.

The next major undertaking was in the building of a meetinghouse for the dissenters of Glenarm in 1762. This was placed directly opposite the then gates to the demesne. Beyond the gates was a long straight avenue so the meetinghouse fulfilled not only a social need but also an aesthetic purpose, closing as it did the vista at the end of this road as it led out of the demesne.

Though the meetinghouse is oddly proportioned it owed much of its inspiration for its appearance to the pedimented main façade of the castle. Even its round-headed windows must have been inspired by the Venetian windows on that side of the castle. The meetinghouse is too eccentric in its proportions to be the work of an architect. Most probably it was the work of one of the masons who had been employed in the rebuilding of the castle. It may well be that he was the Mr. McBride we find contracted to building the church in the following year (1763). With all the building work that had been going on there would have been no need to look outside the parish for a mason.

The use of the word “model” in the contract needs explaining. In the 18th century, this word was applied either to a three-dimensional model or, equally frequently, to an architectural design. Normally it meant an architects drawing, and this is probably what it means in this case. It seems therefore that Lord Antrim had decided not to trust the whims of his mason for the design of his parish church and had employed an architect.

This seems the more probable because Glenarm parish church was the first ‘Gothic’ church to be built in Ulster. Though this precursor of Gothic Revival had had a considerable vogue in England since the 1740s, it had taken some time to catch on in Ireland. The earliest Gothic building I can trace in Ulster is only five years before at Hillsborough.

At just the same time as Glenarm’s church was being projected, Ulster’s most famous Gothic fantasy was being built in Castle Ward. We should therefore regard Glenarm church’s design as the fifth Earl’s attempt at Gothic rivalry with Lord and Lady Bangor. It may even be that they both employed the same architect. Both buildings have the same sort of ogival Gothic arch used for the tops of the windows, though Glenarm’s are much simpler.
This leads to an even more intriguing point. There exists one 18th century painting of the castle and the church seen from the sea. Though some details are too vague to be reliable it shows clearly that the seaward facing façade of the castle was topped with a little Gothic fancy – two turrets with crenellations between them to form a sort of medieval pediment.

The question this poses is whether the castle was in a very real sense another Castle Ward, that is a house that was Palladian on one side and Gothic on the other. There is one piece of evidence that bears this out. The stone used for the Gothic windows of both the church and the castle was the same, and the masons chiselling – marks were remarkable similar. Certainly the Gothic windows of this façade in a “Jacobethan” style in th 1820s. There is one reasonable explanation. The decision to out-Gothic the Bangors may have been taken after the work on the castle had been finished, so the curious Gothic pediment may have been added to an otherwise Palladian façade. This would mean that there was yet another period of building activity at the castle, presumably between 1770 and 1810. The painting of Glenarm from the sea certainly suggests that the gothicisation of the castle was an afterthought. It shows a completed parish church, while the windows in the castle façade be hind the church were painted as very ungothic rectangles.

Unfortunately the church has suffered as badly as the castle from 19th century improvements, so the only surviving original windows are on the tower wall beside it. There can also be seen the outline of the blocked up doorway to the Antrim family pew, which has an identical type of ogical Gothic arch. (it is said that my great grandfather ordered it to be blocked up in reaction to a sermon on how there was only one gateway to heaven, however contrary an impression the rich might give to the poor.) Luckily there are photographs showing the church before it was altered. The windows of the nave were larger but otherwise identical to the ones that now remain at the tower end. The choir was shorter than it is now. In plan it looked like three sides of a hexagon. In elevation each of the three walls had a large window in it,again topped by an ogival Gothic arch.

Apart from the fact that the church is remarkably early in terms of Irish Gothic, it stands in a well-defined path of architectural tradition and evolution. This type of hall church with a centrally placed tower stuck onto its west end, whose width is about a third of that of the end wall behind it, had been popular since the days of Wren a hundred years before. It had been used in Ireland for almost as long and was to continue as the basic church design for many Church of Ireland parish churches until well into the 19th century. Up to this moment it had only been used in Ireland with classical details, but after the building of Glenarm church it soon became a normal vehicle for the expression of the new Gothic fashion. Cappagh church near Omagh in 1768, and Hillsborough church in the 1770s were the next examples of Gothic to be built, and these were quickly followed by several parish churches built for the Earl Bishop of Derry. Several of them were also intended to be eye catchers from the “Big House”, just as at Glenarm.

Lord Antrim’s schemes for Glenarm were not limited to buildings. As was very much the fashion at the time he decided to landscape the glen. For the last two miles of its course the river was forced to meander from side to side and a road crossed over it by several bridges. A shell grotto was built somewhere up the glen of which all trace has now disappeared, and a considerable amount of tree planting was undertaken. Many of the finest trees in the demesne date from this time. In front of the castle itself a large statue of Hercules was put up.

There was a negative consequence of these schemes. Up to this time, much of the village had nestled between the walls that run along the river, and the castle itself. Before the 1750s, the place must have had much of the appearance and atmosphere of a walled medieval town. None of this fitted in with Lord Antrim’s Palladian dreams, and so the houses were removed, the inhabitants being re-housed on the other side of the river. Doubtless much of the grander housing in the village dates from this time, particularly around the semi-square at the end of Altmore Street. One might have expected Lord Antrim to have some Grand Square created in the town as many Landlords did, but maybe this was one extravagance more than he could afford. We should perhaps remember Hill’s reference to financial carelessness; “He became recklessly generous to his boon companions, so that afterwards had cause to regret the folly which induced him to alienate without renumeration several fragmenst of his estate”. His friends, his racehorses and his transformation of Glenarm must have swallowed up a vast amount of money between them.

The contract implies that the dimensions of the Church have already been stipulated, presumably in the architects drawing. But it also states “Stones and Mortar are already laid down on the ground”. If it just said stones, we could have presumed that it only referred to the remains of the friary, freely available for the mason to use as a source of building materials. But the mention of mortar suggests that some other mason may have tried to undertake the work already and had abandoned both the task and his materials. Alternatively they may be the Earls free gift of what was left over from the rebuilding of the castle. His recent activities would also have left him with the “Barrows, Mortar Boxes and Scaffolding Materials” he seems to have offered Mr. McBride. I expect that we may attribute the scantiness of the friary’s remains to Mr McBride’s use of them as a quarry.

In order to appreciate the sums of money involved in this contract some comparisons are called for. We know that the dissenter of Glenarm thought Lord Antrim’s gift of 30 guineas worthy of a grand tablet, so that the donation must have presented a substantial fraction of their building expenses. A church at Donabate near Dublin cost £160 to build in 1762, much of the difference in price being caused by some elaborate internal plasterwork. But perhaps it puts these costs in their proper perspective to remember that another small Irish building of this period the Marino Casino, cost well over £60,000.

I would like to end this article by referring readers back to Jimmy Irvine’s article on the 1779 map of Glenarm in the 1981 issue of The Glynns. The map bears out much of what I have tried to explain about the landscaping of Glenarm in the eighteenth century; in particular the meetinghouse is shown standing opposite an entrance to the demesne, and the church is separated from the castle by an elaborate garden, which still existed in the late nineteenth century. It also shows the old church in Bridge Street (now Castle Street) which the Church of Ireland congregation had used since the seventeenth century. As Jimmy Irvine explained, the old church must have been tiny, but then, so had been the congregation. In 1683, Dobbs could find ‘not above eight or ten persons’ of the Church of Ireland at Glenarm, though no doubt the conversion of the fifth earl of the Established Church during his minority encouraged some increase in the congregation, just as it must have later inspired him to build a new church as a monument to his conformity. It must be admitted that it is architecturally modest, but even so we should be grateful that we have such a remarkable early example of Irish Gothic at Glenarm. I can only wish that someday some enlightened souls might think of putting all its windows back to their original form.

By happy coincidence, the Ulster Museum has acquired since the above notes were written, an eighteenth century drawing which illustrates many of the points I have tried to make. The artist, Nixon was a gifted amateur rather than a professional, so allowance should be made for some of the crudities and inaccuracies in his drawing. However, the main details are clear and most importantly he shows the church’s peculiar little many-sided choir. Nixon lived in England though his parents were Irish and he is known to have visited Ireland many times during 1780s and 90s.

1 thought on “The Building of the Parish Church at Glenarm

  1. I enjoyed reading this article. Where are the original documents kept? It is possible I’m a descendent of William McBride, the builder of the church referred to above, and I’m trying to find out more about him and Hunter McBride, born in 1895 or thereabouts, who was possibly his grandson. Many thanks.

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