The Church of St. Lurach and associated religious sites in the Maghera area can be said to be the foundation stone that the town was built on. In fact, the name Maghera is derived from the Irish Machaire Rátha meaning “plain of the fort”. However this is itself derived from the older name for the parish, Ráth Lúraigh, meaning “Lúrach’s fort”. One manuscript states that Lúrach was from Ráith, which hints at an even earlier name for the parish before Lúrach’s name was suffixed to it. A Rath or fortified homestead would make sense when you consider that Lurach was of the family of Colla Uais, King of Ireland and they were local chieftains and held a degree of political importance in the area, with seven descendants of Lúrach’s father Cuanu being kings of Airgíalla. There is circumstantial evidence to place their seat of power at Ráth Lúraigh.
Lúrach mac Cuanach was himself the 6th-century patron of the eccesliastical parish, with the local parish church which he is credited with founding, St. Lurachs, named after him. His connection with early Christianity is most probably gained from his Uncle (his mother’s brother) St. Patrick himself. Lurach was nicknamed “Lurach of the poems” and was bishop of Derrygloran, County Derry. St’ Lurach’s church is the centre of a monastic settlement which also includes the monastery (later church) on the Mullagh hill and the convent at the Grillagh.
St. Lurach’s church was plundered by Vikings in 832 according to the Annals of Ulster, and in 1135 was one of several churches burnt down during a period of internecine wars. The ruins of the medieval church still stand in the town of Maghera in the townland of Largantogher, with the earliest remaining sections dating to between the 10th and 12th centuries. Within the old church there is a beautiful carving of the crucifixion, which is thought to date from the 10th Century, but the church is of varying ages of construction; the tower, for example, dates to the 17th or 18th Century. The east end was built about the year 1790 at the expense of the parish of Killelagh, which at that time was united with Maghera. This is therefore a very ancient and historically colourful site.
In 1111, the parish of Maghera was incorporated into the diocese of the Cinéal Eoghain, the seat of which was located at Ardstraw. In 1150 however the seat was transferred to Maghera, until 1254 when after complaints of its isolation from the “mainstream of civilisation” it was removed to Derry.
As a result of the Plantation of Ulster in 1606, the lands of the parish of Maghera were divided among three of the London livery companies, namely, the Drapers, Mercers, and Vintners and a large portion of land around the modern settlement of Maghera was given over to the Established Church.[
The Old church continued in use until 1819 when it was dismantled and part of the stones used to build the new church just across the road. It has always been speculated that there were tunnels emanating from the old church to various parts including the Mullagh hill, St. Lurach’s well etc. The Presbyterian church is close to old St. Lurach’s and when the foundations were being dug for the new Presbyterian church, a workman’s shovel fell down into a cavity. This hole was then investigated and a subterranean room was found in which wsas discovered a wooden watering can, a book and the remnants of an old turf fire. Clearly the room has been occupied at some time unknown.