powered by FreeFind
Ireland Gazeteer

County Down in 1837

History & Antiquities

Before and for some time after the coming of the English, Down was known as Ulladh or Ulidia, the original of the name of Ulster. The ancient inhabitants are supposed to have been the Voluntii of Ptolemy.

The north-eastern portion of Down was at an early period occupied by the Picts, of whom there was a considerable colony so late as the 6th and 7th centuries, extending from Strangford Loch to the Lower Bann in Antrim. Whether these Picts, who are called Cruithne by the annalists, were of a nation essentially different from the bulk of the Celtic inhabitants of Ireland is still under discussion: the region occupied by them abounds with stone-circles, cromlechs, and subterranean galleries, which usually mark the presence of this peculiar people. The territory occupied by them was called Dalaradia, and extended from the Ravil river in Antrim over the southern part of that county and the north and north-east of Down.

The presence of St. Patrick in this county in the sixth century is attested by authentic records, and can be traced with topographical exactness at the present day. Downpatrick, Saul, Dromore, Moville, and Bangor, are the chief ecclesiastical foundations of Patrick and his immediate successors.

Of these the last was the most famous, having a college, which for many years rivalled the schools of Armagh and Lismore. The foundation of the abbey of Newry for Cistertian monks, by Maurice Mac Loughlin, king of Ireland, in 1153, is the most interesting event connected with Down prior to the English invasion, as the charter is still extant (O'Connor's Rer. Hib. Scrip. Vet. Proleg. ii., 153), witnessed by the celebrated primate Gelasius and by the petty kings of most of the northern provinces. The lands are conveyed with their woods, waters, and mills.

Down was overrun by the English under John de Courcy in 1177. The chief families introduced by the conquest were the Savages, Whites, Riddles, Sendalls, Poers, Chamberlains, Stokes, Mandevilles, Jordans, Stauntons, Logans, Papelaws, Russels, Audleys, Copelands, Martells.

Of these the Savages, Whites, and Russels still remain: most of the other names have become extinct in consequence of subsequent conquests by the Irish, and forfeiture.

The county was originally divided into two shires, Down, and Newtown or the Ards, to which sheriffs were regularly appointed until 1333, when the revolt of the Irish on the murder of William de Burgho overturned the English authority throughout Ulster.

The family of Savage, who had possessed the baronies of Ards and Castlereagh, were driven into the peninsula between Loch Strangford and the sea, and the Whites, who had held the centre of the county, were confined to that part of Dufferin which borders on Loch Strangford on the west.

Castlereagh fell into the hands of the O'Neills; Kinelearty into those of the Mac Artanes; and Mac Rory and Magennis obtained the whole of Upper and Lower Iveagh.

Lecale and Mourne, being protected until the middle of the seventeenth century by the castles of Ardglass, Dundrum, and Green Castle, held out against the natives, and having a sea communication with Louth, were considered as part of that county, while the rest of Down remained without the pale.

The Whites and Savages being separated from the English fell soon after into Irish habits, but still maintained an independence among the hostile tribes around them. Ardquin in Upper Ards, and Killileagh on the shore of Loch Strangford, were their respective places of defence.

The attainder of Shane O'Neill, who was slain in rebellion in 1567, threw all Iveagh, Kinelearty, Castlereagh, and Lower Ards into the hands of the Crown.

The dissolution of religious houses had already enabled the government to place an English colony at Newry, which had been granted to the family of Bagnall, and an attempt was made in 1572 to occupy the Ards and Castlereagh with a similar force under the family of Smith: but the son of Sir Thomas Smith, who led the expedition, being killed by Neal Mac Brian Artagh, one of the attainted O'Neills, the project miscarried. Some indulgence was now shown to the O'Neills, Magennises, and Mac Arlanes, who upon submission acquired grants of their estates.

In 1602, however, O'Neill of Castlereagh being seized on some slight pretext, and imprisoned in Carrickfergus Castle, contrived to make his escape by the assistance of one Montgomery, the brother of a Scotch knight of some fortune, who afforded the fugitive protection on his arrival in Scotland, and afterwards negotiated his pardon on the terms of having the greater part of O'Neill's estate made over to himself and Mr. Hamilton, his associate in the proceeding.

The colony led over by Sir Hugh Montgomery settled chiefly about Newtownards and Grey-abbey, along the north-eastern coast between Strangford Loch and the sea, and by their enterprize and industry soon raised that part of the county to a very flourishing condition.

The general plantation of Ulster soon after gave security to their improvements. Sir Hugh was raised to the rank of viscount; and his colony proved of the greatest service during the subsequent wars which commenced with the rebellion of 1641.

The family of Hamilton settled at Bangor and Killileagh. That of Hill, which about the same time acquired large estates in the north of the county, settled in the neighbourhood of Belfast, and soon after their arrival laid the commencement of a town at Hillsborough, the residence of their present representative, the marquis of Downshire.

The forfeitures consequent on the rebellion of 1641 and the war of the revolution deprived almost all the old Irish and Anglo-Norman families of their estates. Magennis, Lord Iveagh, was the chief sufferer by the first; the Whites, Russels and Savages, were the principal families affected by the latter.

At present the fee of the county is almost entirely in the hands of Protestant proprietors of English and Scotch descent.

Of the Pagan antiquities of Down, the most remarkable is a stone cromlech, inclosed by a circular ditch of extraordinary dimensions, called the Giant's Ring, near Shaw's Bridge, half way between Lisburn and Belfast. The inclosure is nearly half an English mile in circumference; and the rampart is still from 12 to 14 feet in height.

There are stone monuments of the same character at Sliddeny Ford, near Dundrum, and Legaraney in the parish of Drumgoolan.

There is a remarkable cairn, or sepulchral pile of stones, on the top of Slieve Croob. The main pile is 77 yards in circumference at bottom, 45 yards at top, and 54 feet high at its greatest elevation: there are twenty-two smaller cairns raised on the top.

Along the Armagh boundary of Down there extends a great earthen rampart, called by the people of the country the Danes' Cast, and sometimes Tyrone’s ditches. The native Irish call it Glin na muic duibh, or the Glen of the Black Pig, which is the name applied by the lowland Scotch to the wall of Antoninus.

The Danes' Cast measures from 80 to 50 feet across, and occurs at intervals along the line of the Newry canal from the lands of Lisnagade, where it commences, near Scarvagh in Down, to the neighbourhood of Forkhill in the county of Armagh, west of which it has been traced to a great distance by the officers of the Ordnance Survey. Its origin is quite unknown.

There are numerous raths or earthen entrenched mounds throughout Down, of which the most remarkable are at Downpatrick, Donaghadee and Dromore.

Of the Anglo-Norman military antiquities of Down, the castle of Dundrum is the most important. It is imposingly situated on a rock over the bay, and consists of a circular keep with numerous outworks. It is said to have been built by De Courcy for the knights templars, who occupied it till the suppression of that order in 1313, when it was granted to the prior of Down.

In 1517 it was taken from the Irish, who had seized it some time before, by Gerald earl of Kildare; and again in 1538 by the Lord Deputy Grey, with seven other castles in Lecale. It afterwards got into the hands of the Magennises, who held it for Shane O'Neill, who is said to have usually kept 200 tons of wine in his cellars here.

In 1601 it was taken from Ever Magennis by the lord deputy Mountjoy, and was finally dismantled by order of Cromwell during the progress of the war of 1641. It is now the property of the marquis of Downshire, as representative of Lord Blundell, to whom it came through the earl of Ardglass after its forfeiture by the Magennises.

Green Castle in Mourne was a place of great importance in the early history of Ulster. In 1495 it was deemed so important a post, that none but an Englishman was permitted to be warden.

The castle of Newcastle was built by Felix Magennis in 1588, and is still inhabited. The Magennises had castles also at Castlewellan and Rathfriland.

There are extensive military remains at Ardglass, and the castles of Killileagh, Ardquin, Portaferry, Bangor, and Hillsborough, are the most important of those still standing.

There are also some remains of the fortifications erected by General Monk for the defence of the passes into Armagh at Scarvagh, Poyntz, and Tuscan passes.

The chief ecclesiastical remains in Down are at Downpatrick, where there are the ruins of the cathedral, and of three other religious houses. The cathedral was 100 feet in length; the roof of the centre aisle was supported by five arches of fine proportions. Prior to 1790, a round tower 66 feet in height stood at the western end: it was taken down at the time of the partial rebuilding of the cathedral; and it is worthy of remark, that part of the wall of some more ancient edifice was found to run below its foundations.

There is another round tower at Drumbo, near Belfast. There are a few remains of the abbey of Bangor; and at Greyabbey there is still standing in good preservation a part of the ancient abbey founded here in 1192 by Africa, daughter of the king of Man, and wife of De Courcy.

A mile and a half to the east of Downpatrick is a hill about 150 feet high, called Strual mountain, celebrated all over Ireland for the resort of the lower orders of Roman Catholics, who come here every Midsummer for the performance of penance. The ceremonies commence by the penitents climbing Strual mountain on their knees, with a large stone placed on the back of the neck, three, seven, or nine times, according to the circumstances of the case: after this they are turned thrice round in a stone seat called St. Patrick s chair, by a person who in 1830 used to come annually from the county of Mayo for the purpose of presiding over this part of the ceremony. The penitents then descend to a neighbouring plain, where they bathe promiscuously in a well dedicated to St. Patrick, and conclude by drinking from another well. Tents are erected in the adjacent fields, and the evening is generally spent in dissipation.