Some Notes on the Parish of Maghera and Neighbourhood

By A. K. MORRISON and S. D. LYTLE.

Published in the Ulster Journal of Archeology Vol. VIII, McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, The Linenhall Press, 1902.

THE town and parish of Maghera are situated in the barony of Loughinshollin and the county of Derry. The parish is bounded on the north by Killyleagh, on the west by Ballinascreen and Kilcronaghan, on the south-east by Ballyscullion and Termoneeny, and on the east by Tamlaght-o’-Crilly, all in the diocese of Derry.

The town is of great antiquity. It is recorded that the see of Ardstra, or Ardstragh, was removed to Maghera in 597 ; it continued as a separate diocese until 1158, when it was united to the see of Derry. In 1641 it was burnt by the Irish, under Macdonnell. In 1688 it was assaulted by the army of James II, the inhabitants seeking refuge in the city of Derry.

It was anciently called Machaire Ratha Luraigh Machaire means a plain this was changed into its present name, Maghera. Ratha Luraigh means the fort of Lurach. St. Lurach was the patron saint of this parish, and his festival was formerly celebrated on the 17 February. Like many Irish saints, Lurach was of royal lineage. Lurach of the Poems, son of Griana uais, monarch of Ireland, who married Davorca, sister of Saint Patrick.

The ruins of St. Lurach’s church adjoin the town, and are in a good state of preservation. They are now under the charge of the Board of Works, and so are well looked after.

Samuel Lewis, in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), says about this church :

“The ruins of the old church are highly interesting, and some portions bear marks of very remote antiquity. Over the west entrance is a representation of the Crucifixion, rudely sculptured in high relief, with ten of the apostles ; and in the churchyard are the tomb and pillar of Leuri, the patron saint, whose grave was opened some time since, when a silver crucifix was found in it, which was carefully replaced.”

It would have been much better to have suppressed this information, as a couple of thieves came afterwards and opened this grave and stole the sacred relics. An information was sworn by the late Alexander Hipson of Maghera, describing these thieves ; and the late Rev. Spencer Knox had them followed to Magherafelt and Moneymore, but unfortunately all trace of them was lost.

On the 4 January, 1881, a paper was read before the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club by F. W. Lockwood, on “The Crucifixion and other Sculptures of the Ruined Church at Maghera, Co. Derry,” in which he stated :

“The ruined church at Maghera presents features perfectly unique amongst Irish ecclesiastical remains in its square-headed west doorway, above which is carved in relief, according to Lord Dunraven, the Crucifixion, the figures of the eleven disciples, and the two soldiers with spear and sponge. In Miss Stokes’s work it is described as ‘the Crucifixion, with lance and sponge, the figure of the Saviour draped to the hands and wrists, the three disciples and the woman standing near.’ A full-sized drawing explained that the decay of the stone rendered it difficult to identify some of the figures, but the two Roman soldiers, the blessed Virgin, and probably nine disciples, with the position of the tenth, are clearly to be made out ; angels are also to be seen hovering above the cross. Several similar features are also to be seen in the sculptured crosses of the ninth and tenth centuries at Monasterboice and elsewhere. The probable date of this interesting relic is between the years 960 to 1000 A.D.”

Local tradition has it that an underground passage existed between this church and the church on Mullagh Hill, about a mile distant.

St. Lurach’s grave is in the churchyard, and is marked by a rude stone, which is so decayed that no trace of anything can be made out of it. It is hoped that some suitable monument will soon mark the resting-place of our patron saint.

St. Lurach’s well is in the centre of the down [sic], at the gateway of A. K. Morrison. It was for a considerable time the principal source of the water supply for the town, but is now threatened with closure by the district authorities, and a pump erected over it; and though from a sanitary point of view this might be an improvement, yet it is a pity to obliterate such an ancient and celebrated landmark.

About an English mile from Maghera, at Tirnony, there is a very fine cromleac, near to which Lewis says there is an artificial cave formed of field stones and covered with flags; but the oldest inhabitant never heard of this souterrain, and if it exists its precise whereabouts is unknown. To the north west of this cromleac, about 200 yards distant, we have the ruins of Killelagh old church, a very ancient structure, but unfortunately no reliable record can be found regarding its erection. Lewis says it was destroyed in the wars of 1641 by the Earl of Tyrone, and subsequently rebuilt. Lying close to the wall of the churchyard is a large Flat stone, 3 feet by 4½ feet, and about 6 inches thick, with two basin-shaped cavities in it. Close to this old church there is a very fine rath, with one circumvallation. MADGHS

About two miles farther there is a sweat house in Tirkane, with a well a few yards distant from its entrance. The favourite explanation of this sweat-house is that it was used something like our Turkish baths, and as a cure for rheumatism and such-like complaints. A fire was lighted inside on its jagged floor, and when well heated the fire was cleared out, and after the patient had dipped himself in the well he was closed up in the house until he perspired profusely, with beneficial results.

There are a number of other places in this neighbourhood of traditional interest, such as giants’ graves one in Slaghtnail and one in Corlecky ; also the remains of what is said to be one of the palaces of some of the Irish kings in Granaghan.

At Culnady, about three miles distant from Maghera, there is a very large and perfect rath at Dunglady. It is compassed by treble walls and a trench, but unfortunately there are no records regarding its occupation. It is said to be one of the most perfect in Ireland, and commands a most extensive view of the surrounding country.

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The following is a copy of a deposition made by Alexr. Hipson regarding

the rifling of Saint Lurach’s grave, before J. J. Clarke, 20 January, 1865 :

CITY & COUNTY OF LONDONDERRY TO WIT.} I Alexander Hipson of Maghera in the county of Londonderry  carpenter do solemly & sincerely declare that in or about the year 1829 I think in the month of March I was in the employment of the Rev. Jas. Spencer Knox rector of the parish of Maghera, when one morning having to pass through the old graveyard on my way from the glebe house to the town of Maghera to buy nails I met two persons dressd like gentlemen in the graveyard, one had a paper in his hand, on which there was writing. He askd was I a native of the town I said I was- He then enquird [sic] if there was a long grave in the churchyard in which Saint Lorny was buried. I said I had often heard of it. He again askd if it had a black whin stone for a head stone I told him it had. He lookd at the paper and bid the other gentleman to come along. We went together to the grave which I pointed out. He took a rule out of his pocket & measurd [sic} the grave which he compard [sic]with the writing on the paper with it and the headstone. At his request I got him a spade from James Cassidy who was planting potatoes. On giving him the spade he gave me a half crown piece & said to me & Thomas Quinn who had just come up that we might go and have a glass. We went to Billy Crocketts had a glass & divided what was left of the half crown between us. I then went to Harry Porters the nailer, got the nails & retd  through the graveyard, and there found the two gentlemen filling up the hole in the grave that appeared about 2½ feet long & about 2 ft broad. I don’t know the depth. On the grass was a handkerchief spread out the wind raising it up I saw underneath a cross which might be about 18 inches long. They then left taking the cross with them. I began to think I should tell Mr. Knox & went to the hall door, but he was not in the house. Half an hour after I ret d1 found him in his study and told what had occurrd [sic]. He sent me immediately to the hotel kept by Mr Falls to make enquiry who said, they had been gone for some time, but whether to Moneymore or Magherafelt he could not say. Mr Knox & myself then drove in his gig to Magherafelt but could not find any trace of them there but got a fresh horse & proceeded to Moneymore, with no better success-  came back by Desertmartin to Magherafelt hoping to meet with them Mr Knox having left instructions in Magherafelt to have them detaind shd they make their appearance there.

Mr Knox told me afterwards he had reason to believe they had gone to Dungannon & was greatly displeased with Mr Falls as he blamd him for misleading him.

I make this solemn deposition conscientously believing same to be true, and by virtue of an act passd in the 6 year of his late Magesty King Wm. the Fourth chapt 62 for the abolition of unnecessary oaths. Alexander Hipson.  {Made and subscribed before me this 20 day of January, 1865 (sixty-five), at Largantogher. Jas. J. Clarke, J.P. for Co. Londonderry.

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