The Presbyterian meeting-house in Parkgate was built in the mid 1700s but the congregation has always been named Donegore. It shares its origins with Second Donegore whose separate existence began as a Secession congregation in the 1780s. Parkgate sits on the ancient road between the towns of Antrim and Carrickfergus and overlooks the fertile valley of the Six Mile Water. Parkgate is so named because it was an entrance to a great park set aside for hunting by Sir Arthur Chichester in the early 1600s.
The name Donegore comes from the ancient church (pictured on the right) of the Donegore parish now known as St. John’s. This historic site provides a junction between the colonists of the reformed faith, Anglican and Presbyterian, and the early Christians from well before the Reformation.
On the east wall of St. John’s there is a well preserved memorial to Andrew Stewart, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland who came to Donegore in 1627. This tablet provides the benchmark for the Donegore Presbyterians. They start their history from this date, and from that place.
Andrew Stewart (born 1598), who was a nephew of John Knox, ministered at Donegore between 1627 and 1634. The early Scottish, settlers were detached from the discipline of organized religion. A sea change occurred when a few determined Scottish clergy made their way to East Ulster. Among their number were Josiah Welch of Templepatrick and Andrew Stewart of Donegore. These ministers were on hand to harness the spontaneous religious impulse which became known as the Six Mile Water Revival of 1625 to 1630. The Six Mile Water has always been the southern boundary of the Donegore Presbyterians.
It took decades to build an organized denomination capable of survival. On his death bed in 1634 Andrew Stewart prophesied troubles to come. “Wo to thee, Dunagor, for the nettles and the long grass shall be in greater plenty in thee, than ever were people to hear the Word of God.” He was right. A native Irish rising very nearly smashed the settlement in the 1640s. The Scottish Army sent to save the settlers provided the first formal manifestation of the Scottish Kirk in 1642. Then Presbyterians had to adjust to the suspicions of the Cromwellian regime. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 reinstated an Established Church of Ireland which did not favour Presbyterians.
Thomas Crawford, who married Andrew Stewart’s daughter Janet, was the Presbyterian incumbent from 1655 to 1662, by which time Presbyterian clergy could no longer be accommodated within an Episcopal Church of Ireland. Crawford was denied his Donegore living and his Presbyterian followers eventually built a place of worship in or near Parkgate. With Thomas Crawford begins an unbroken line of Presbyterian ministers to the present day. For the first two hundred years every Donegore minister was educated at a Scottish University, except one.
Thomas Crawford’s successor William Shaw was ordained secretly to avoid being denounced for non-conformity. Francis Iredell was the first Donegore minister born in Ulster and his tenure coincided with the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne. He was the first of four Donegore ministers who became Moderators of the Irish Presbyterian Church.
Alexander Brown was the longest serving minister (1702-1758) and he and his liberal successor, John Wright, shared the Eighteenth Century between them. Wright was an Enlightenment man. The Wright years saw much unrest. There was the violent agitation of the Steelboys against excessive rents. A few years later the better off became Irish Volunteers and supported the reform of an independent Irish Parliament. There was a Donegore company of the Irish Volunteers. Some of them joined the revolutionary United Irishmen. Their rising failed terribly at the Battle of Antrim in 1798. The insurgents assembled on Donegore Hill about one mile from the meeting house in Parkgate.
A Unitarian tendency could not be sustained in Donegore under Wright’s chosen successor, James Crawford Ledlie. He was succeeded by the most famous of Donegore’s ministers, and a major figure in the Ulster story - Henry Cooke. The congregation had reluctantly rejected Henry Montgomery who would become Cooke’s arch rival. When Montgomery’s New Lights withdrew from the Synod of Ulster the way opened for a union with the Seceders. Cooke was followed at Donegore by James Seaton Reid, the distinguished historian. It was Reid as Clerk to the Synod of Ulster who read the articles of Union between the Synod of Ulster and the Secession Synod to the newly formed General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in July 1840.
The 1831 Census of Population provided the first reliable head count of the Donegore catchment area. John Doherty (Minister, 1824-1836) confirmed that most of his congregation were drawn from three parishes: Donegore, Kilbride and the Grange of Nilteen. The total population of this area in 1831 was 5,490. They belonged to 988 families. Doherty reckoned that about 700 of these families belonged to his flock. Everyone had a townland address. It was a self sufficient Presbyterian monoculture: the church and the community were one and the same thing.
In this community land was a key economic and social factor, who owned it, who worked it and on what terms. From the original land grant there sprang a long association with the Chichester family, later Earls and Marquises of Donegall. This relationship had its low points but ultimately tenants gained the upper hand when they acquired perpetual leases at low rents from the near bankrupt Donegalls. In the early 1800s the sporty and spectacularly broke 2nd Marquis was often among them at Fisherwick in Doagh, where he could hunt and avoid his creditors.
In 1881 James Ferguson, a prosperous tenant farmer and leading member of the First Donegore Congregation told the Bessborough Commission in forthright terms what was wrong with land tenure and how it held enterprising people like him back. The early years of the Twentieth Century saw a massive transfer of ownership from landlords to their former tenants facilitated by Government purchase schemes. These new owner-occupiers formed the backbone of this rural congregation.
After 1922 the Donegore Presbyterians shared the experiences of rural Protestant areas in the ups and downs of the history of Northern Ireland.
They celebrated their three hundredth anniversary in 1927 with Viscount Craigavon, first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, as their guest.
It is possible to humbly repeat, well over a century later on, the conclusion to JA’s Donegore history written in 1882 that “the congregation of First Donegore is still strong, and influential for good, and is not without various tokens of the Divine blessing.”
©Donald Alexander: January 2010
For further information or any enquiries about church history you can contact Donald at:
donald.alexander (at) firstdonegore.org