Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Celtic Roots Craic 67 – 1798, a bridge and 'the priest's grave'

Kilmore Parish Church re-built in Ulster Folk Museum, Cultra,  Co. Down

Well, we’ve looked at some further away parts of the Celtic world recently – so I thought I’d update you on my own part of the world. My wife, Gerry, and I are sort of in transition at the moment. Yes, I’ve finally got the underfloor heating working properly in our converted stone barn, which we hope to move into permanently later this year. In the meantime, we stay there about one night per week. It’s about fifteen minutes from Downpatrick, Co. Down – just outside Crossgar. 


Crossgar is a bit unusual for Irish towns – because before the year 1800 it didn’t exist. There was a big house nearby called Crossgar House, which has since become the Passionist monastery of Tobar Mhuire, meaning ‘Mary’s Well’, after a holy well in the grounds. An Cross Ghearr in Irish means ‘the short cross’, so possibly there had once been a Celtic Cross there which was broken? There is no trace of it now, though.

There was also a pub close to the Glaswater River – glas, in Irish, means ‘grey’, by the way – where apparently, ne’er-do-wells used to hang out. The people of the much older – 800 AD – village of Kilmore about a mile away, used to refer to, ‘those drunkards down at the bridge’.

Now the bridge is the secret to the existence of the village of Crossgar. The local landowner, Price, in what is now called Saintfield, four miles to the north, planned out the village of Tamhnach Naomh – Irish for ‘Field of Saints.’  

Saintfield had taken a major part in the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen against the English. A force, led by local Presbyterians, ambushed a British force in a wood, killing around 100 men in total. The British retaliated by pretty much destroying the village. The name change to Saintfield, in English, took place around the same time.


Now after re-building and improving the damaged village of Saintfield, this same local landowner then turned his attention to what was to become Crossgar. You see, there were only two roads at that time from Belfast to Downpatrick – one was the route for passenger coaches, via Killleagh and Comber, to the east; and the other, which passed through our little hamlet of Listooder, was the route of the mail coach, which also passed through the village of Saintfield.

Price decided to build a new bridge – at Crossgar – with a new coach road running from Saintfield, over the bridge, and on to the County Town of Downpatrick. Now, both mail and passenger coaches changed to the new route and a new village grew up beside the bridge, named Crossgar after the nearby demesne house. Of course, this road also brought prosperity to Saintfield – half-way between Belfast and Downpatrick – which, of course, was Price’s plan.

As a result, both Kilmore – which means ‘large church’, and Listooder – meaning ‘Fort of the Tanner’, after the Celtic fort on the hill nearby, became backwaters, served only by minor roads – boreens, really. The original church outside Kilmore was later numbered stone by stone, and transferred to the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra, in north Down, and a new Church of Ireland church built closer to the village.

The area was once known as the seven chapels, dating back to around 400 AD – six of which can still be identified because of the remains of old graveyards. Just north of our hamlet of Listooder, there is one of these – Killygartan – known locally as ‘the priest’s grave’. There is also a ‘mass rock’ , from Penal Times, in a field nearby. The priest in question was one Fr. McCartan, who also gave his name to the Killygartan River, which flows past our front door.  

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