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A Time of Ruin

Records after 1800 point to the church being abandoned, derelict and ruined.  It is unknown exactly when the church met its end, although the Ordnance Survey Memoirs Of Ireland (Parishes of County Antrim 1, Vol 2) lists the following two entries regarding the ancient church. Both agree that the church was destroyed by fire, as they tell the story of someone digging for buried treasure found charred remains of the timbers at a depth of 6 feet (although they don’t agree on when this was!).  It is felt that even after 200 years, the timbers would unlikely to have been buried to this depth.  Possibly these were the remnants from a previous church which was destroyed by fire.  Given the state of the church in these memoirs, it can be assumed that it was finally destroyed around 200 years before them.

Memoir of James Boyle, 28th April 1839

View from Old Church of Monkstown

In the townland of Monkstown near the northern side of the parish are the remains of the ancient church from which the townland takes its name.  The ruins occupy a retired situation near the base of the precipitous ridge which runs along the eastern side of the parish, impending over the low and fertile district extending between it and the shore of Belfast Lough, from which they are 2 miles distant.

Ruins of Old Church

The ruins merely consist of the western gable and foundations of a square building, which stood east and west and which measures in the interior 63 by 17 feet.  The walls are 3 feet thick.  The gable which remains is about 16 feet high, but is so densely covered with ivy that no idea of its from, nor that of a small window near its summit can be ascertained.   The masonry is good and substantial and by no means rude.  The stones are somewhat worn by water and do not appear to have been procured from the quarry.  Their natural shape is good.  They preserve a good face, and though somewhat approaching to a square, do not bear any marks or indications of having been dressed or hammered.  The masonry is in courses of 2 feet 6 inches deep.  The mortar is exceedingly coarse and is composed of coarse gravel and sand and badly burnt lime.  It is more probably grout and is extremely hard.  There are not any remains or fragments of cut stone either in the walls or about the ruins, but about 2 years ago someone digging in search of treasure supposed to be buried in it found, at a depth of 6 feet from the surface, several pieces of cut stone and timber with quantities of rubbish of mortar and stones, all of which bore evident marks of fire.

Burial Ground

The burial [ground] is now unenclosed and is cultivated.  So lately as the year 1780 it was a common place of interment, and had until about that period been much used as such, but since then only destitute persons and un-baptised children have been buried in it.  King Fergus of Scotland is said to have been interred here.

Nothing whatever is locally known of the origin, history of or the date or cause of the destruction of this church, which by some is termed an abbey.  It is said that a village inhabited by monks stood contiguous to it, and that from this circumstance the townland and church took their name.  There are numerous traces of old earthen works such as the outworks of forts about it and along the brink of the rivulet which flows by it, but they are too unconnected and scattered to be laid down in a plan.  The ground about it is exceedingly rich, and near it are 2 aged hawthorns.

Extracts from Fair Sheets by Thomas Fagan, February to April 1839

Monkstown Ancient Church

In Monkstown and holding of Widow Barron, and about 4 miles west of north west of Carrickfergus, there stands the ruins of an ancient church or abbey, locally called by some Monkstown old abbey and by others Monkstown old church, but of the edifice nothing now remains but part of the west gable.  The east gable and both side walls are levelled to the ground.  The portion of the west end now extant is from 12 to 15 feet high, 3 feet thick and 11 to 16 feet wide, but both corners quite disfigured by dilapidation.  The existing part is mantled over with ivy, which, combined with a thorn bush growing on the top, not only contribute to its preservation but also gives it an ancient and venerable appearance.  It was built chiefly of whinstone in their natural shape, but bound by grouted mortar of good quality, similar to other ancient buildings.  As near as can be judged from the present ruins, this edifice sood nearly east and west and measured 63 by 17 feet inside.

In exploring the east end of the body of the edifice about 20 years back, in search of money supposed to have been deposited there at some former period, there was discovered about 6 feet beneath the surface a quantity of timber cinders and pieces of cut freestone, blackened or singed by fire, together with other remnants of building materials in a similar state.  These discoveries beneath the ruins induce a belief that the edifice was destroyed by fire, but of its founder or the period of its destruction there is no local detail to be had.  However, the situation is supposed to have been inhabited by monks, and from which circumstance it derived the above name of Monkstown.

Here also stood an ancient burial ground, the chief part of which is now reclaimed and under meadow.  Burials here were pretty extensive up to 1780, but since that period the practice is greatly relinquished, save that of strangers and young children.  Several graves of the latter classes are now visible in the body of this edifice, as wall as on the outside.  King Fergus is said to be buried in this place.

Tradition of King Fergus

King Fergus, who is said to be interred at Monkstown Ancient churchyard, is also said to have been King of Ireland about 320 or 330 years before the birth of Christ.  Tradition state him to have been the first King of Scotland, but, the name of Scotland as applied to that country was unknown for upwards of 1,000 years after Christ, the supposition of his being a Scottish prince is believe to be doubtful.  Campion’s History of Ireland tradition says that the cause of Fergus coming hither was to drink at the water of a well, now within the tower of Carrickfergus Castle, for the cure of a leprosy, that he was lost during a storm off the rock on which the castle now stands, and his body, being found on a beach, was interred at Monkstown, alias Monksland, about 3 miles west of the town of Carrickfergus, where is a burying place and ruins of a small chapel.  McSkimin’s History of Carrickfergus and information obtained from Mr McSkimin himself.

Remains showing the West Wing, December 2001

Remains showing the West wing, during the 1950s
from Robert Armstong’s Newtownabbey Through the Ages

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All information Copyright Stephen Barnes 2002.  Quoted text copyright original author.