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King Fergus of Dalriada

Monkstown Cemetery is one of the oldest in Ireland, and is rumoured to be the final resting place of King Fergus.  Campion’s book, History of Ireland, refers to a tradition that Fergus, plagued with leprosy, came from Scotland to drink the mineral waters of a well on which Carrickfergus Castle is now built.  It was told that during a violent storm he was washed into the sea and was drowned, his body later found washed ashore three miles from the town.  He was buried at a site known as Kill-na-manach, or Church of the Monks, later known as Monksland, and today as Monkstown.  It was told that where there is a burial place and the ruins of a small chapel. 

Robert Armstrong, writes in Through the Ages to Newtownabbey that “there is no known written evidence to suggest that there was an early Christian church at Monkstown, although local tradition and the remains of an old medieval church leave me with the impression that this is a very strong probability.”  Perhaps the evidence which follows will show that there was indeed a Christian Church at the site up to at least 1622.

O’Lavery makes reference to The Montgomery Manuscripts, during the Duke of Ormond’s visit to Carrickfergus in 1666:

“His Grace stood a good while talking publicly of severall matters, and enquired if Fergus his body was found, and where buried; and there being none that answered, I told his Grace that Scotts history spoke of its being found, and that a place called Monkstown (about three miles from thence), claimed the honour of preserving his remains: but I believe that those Fryars, who built the very small chapel in that townland (and were not in being till long after St. Patrick’s days) could not show any of Fergus his bones, but some bodys els instead of them; and so cheated their credulous Irish converts and the Highland Scottish votarys, who came over to see Ireland, and those suppositious relicts of so greate and revered a man: for real they could not be; because the grave’s hungry stomach would not have taken time from 330 years before ye birth of Christ till the later centuries before it to digest that morcell.” (sic)

The modern translation of this is as Fergus was king of Scotland and Ireland around 330BC, it was impossible that he could have been buried at this church, and for his bones to remain in the condition they did.  Legend relates to his burial at a chapel, which would predate Christ by 330 years, and St Patrick by over 700.  Although, it could be the case that this was an ancient pagan burial ground, which was then consecrated into the Christian faith when the Monks were settling in the area.

However, as O’Laverty goes on to explain:

“King Fergus was a Christian; he granted Armoy to St Patrick, and lived more than thirty years afterwards”

I guess the jury is out on whether Fergus really is buried at Monkstown!

Monkstown Church in Medieval Times

Father MacCana is quoted by O’Laverty as saying in 1643:

“Not far from this (Whiteabbey) is a chapel, which is occupied by some monks, but to what religious Order it belonged I could not tell, unless I were to conjecture.  In Irish it is called Kill-na-manach, that is, “Church of the Monks” a portion of the walls of the chapel remains – I may, however, venture the guess that it belonged to the Monastery of Goodburn, which is about two miles distant to the ease, near the town of Karrick-Fergus, on the bank of the River Goodburn, and only one mile outside Karrick-Fergus on the west.”

The original church must surely have been one of the first in Ireland.  The church and monastery are the reason for Monkstown’s name.  However, little is known about the inhabitants, and only rumours and local folklore give any clues.  The church only seemed to have any significance in the area during the Medieval period, and judging by later reports, it was certainly destroyed before 1650. O’Laverty makes reference to the Visitation Book of 1622:

“Capella de Ballemacranaugh, no church or walls – the second part of all tithes impropriate to the Abbey of Woodburne; the third part belongeth to the Vicar, valued at Xs, worth 1 Xs”

Bardon writes about a taxation on Churches across the Christian Kingdom in 1306 (presumably by Pope Clement V) called Decimae Saladinae which was intended to raise money to help the recovery of Christendom of the Holy City.  He writes:

“Each church, abbey and monastery was valued and a tenth of the valuation was then levied.  Reports from the deaneries give us some useful information on ecclesiastical establishments in these dioceses – information which was skilfully analysed by Rev. William Reeves, one of the finest scholars of his day, in 1847”

The extract for Monkstown is as follows (full text taken from “Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore” by Reeves):

The church of Monketone ------ 10 marks – Tenth, 1 mark.

Monketone – Now Monkstown, a townland of Carnmoney parish, at the N.E. It the acquisition s of 1605, &c.. it is called by its Irish name Ballynamanagh (baile na manach ‘Monk’s-town’).  At the Dissolution, there were two chapels in the county of Antrim bearin this name, one of the belonging to Kells, and the other to Grey Abbey.  The latter is mentioned next to Carrickfergus in the Terrier, and is thus described:   “Ecclesia de Ballymanagh, hath 3 thownes in Spiritual and Temporal, and belongs to Gray Abby”.  It is now incorporated with Coole, and conjointly with it, forms the benefice of Carnmoney.  The west wall of the church is the only part which is standing: but the area of the whole building is defined by the foundations, measuring 63 feet by 17.  the graveyard has been by degrees converted into meadow, and the few interments which take place here are confined within the bounds of the church.  The Ord. Survey marks the spot “Abbey Ruinds, Grave Yard” – s. 52.”

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