From Derriaghy (1704) to St Agnes’ Church (1949)

Most Rev Michael Dallat

St. Agnes Parish was born in 1955 from the historic parish of Derriaghy.

We know the name of the parish priest of Derriaghy in 1704, thanks to a penal law “for registering the popish clergy.” In accordance with this law the priests in CountyAntrim were registered at a general sessions of the peace held in Carrickfergus court house on 12 July 1704. Among them was Father Phelomy O’Hamill, aged 60, who was described as parish priest of Belfast, Derriaghy and Drum. He is stated to have been ordained in 1667 by St. Oliver Plunkett. This raises a problem. St. Oliver was not consecrated until December 1669 and did not arrive in his diocese until the following March. There could be a mistake in the year; but O’Laverty identifies Phelomy O’Hamill with the “Felix O’Hannig, of good life but weak as regards learning” who was named as one of the priests of Down in St. Oliver’s report to Rome of 1 November 1670. This suggests that Father O’Hamill was already a priest before St. Oliver came to Ireland. Possibly it was not St. Oliver but his relative Bishop Patrick Plunkett who had ordained Father O’Hamill.

Father O’Hamill’s name appears again in 1708, this time in a letter of 24 March from the chief magistrate of Belfast to DublinCastle. The latter is worth giving in full for what it tells us about Father O’Hamill and about the state of Catholicism at the time.

“Sir, – In obedience to the proclamation issued by the Government and Council, I immediately issued a warrant against the Popish Priest within my jurisdiction of Magistrate of Belfast; the Priest, whose name is Phelomy O’Hamol, immediately upon the first hearing of it, being ill, wrote me a letter that he would surrender himself to me, and as soon as he was able to come to town would wait upon me; accordingly he came on Monday last, but being then at Antrim upon the Commission of Array for the Militia, he stayed in this town till I came home, and hath this day surrendered himself to me. I have put him into our Town Gaol and desire you would communicate this account to their Excys. the Lords Justices, where I intend to keep him till I know their further pleasure. His behaviour has been such amongst us since, and was, upon the late Revolution so kind to the Protestants, by saving several of their goods in those times, that I had offered me the best Bail the Protestants of this country affords. However, the Proclamation being positive, and no discretionary power left in us, I would not bail him. Thank God, we are not under any great fears here; for upon this occasion I have made the Constables return me a list of all the inhabitants within this town, and we have not amongst us within the town above seven Papists; and by the return made by the High Constable there is not above 150 Papists in the whole barony.

Favour me with an answer to this, with the Government’s pleasure therein.

Your humble servant, GEORGE MACARTNEY”.

The barony referred to was that of Upper Belfast which stretched in a north-easterly direction from Lambeg along the Antrim bank of the Lagan to the river mouth and thence north by the shore of Belfast Lough to Whitehouse. In breadth it extended from the Lagan to the range of hills which lie north-west of the river valley with an offshoot further west to Dunadry. This had been the scene of Father O’Hamill’s labours. They are now ended; for Macartney’s letter was endorsed “Let him continue for the present where he is.” There he remained till his death.

Father O’Hamill was succeeded by a Father Magee until 1733 and he in turn by Father John O’Mullan who was parish priest until his death at eighty years of age in 1772. The late Canon Rogers described the activities of these penal-day priests thus:

“Living under the menace of a legal code framed for the extirpation of the Catholic religion in Ireland, they risked imprisonment and banishment to bring spiritual consolation to their people. Father Magee and Father O’Mullan were worthy representatives of their class. Tradition points to three ‘mass stations’ where they offered the holy sacrifice – a little mound on the side of Collin mountain fronting Hannahstown, a place on Bohill mountain where two ridges of earth intersected cross-wise, and a rock from which the present Rock chapel, situated close by, takes its name. There is no record of interference with either priest. On the contrary, they were often shown kindness by their Protestant neighbours. At Collin the vestments and altar requisities were left in the safekeeping of a Protestant family named Steele. More than a century afterwards the last of the Steeles presented Father George Conway, parish priest of Derryaghy, with a cow’s horn which had been used to sound the alarm when any suspicious looking person was seen approaching at Mass-time. At Derryaghy, where most of the farmers around were Protestants, the first chapel possessed by the parish was built. It was a rude structure which served merely to shelter the priest and such of the congregation as managed to crowd in. During a Jacobite scare in 1744 it was burned down, but in the following year Father O’Mullan erected a more commodious building on the site.”

In 1768 the Bishop of Down and Connor appointed a young priest to help the aged Father O’Mullan. He was Father Hugh O’Donnell and his name will be forever associated with the history of Catholicism in Belfast. The story of the opening of St. Mary’s in 1784 is too well known to be related here, and in any case belongs to the history of Belfast rather than that of Derriaghy.

During the ’98 rebellion the chapel at Derriaghy was burned down by a band of so-called loyalists known as ‘the wreckers’, and for the next four years Mass was said

in a barn belonging to a farmer at White Mountain. In 1802 Father O’Donnell erected a much smaller chapel on the original site. In 1785 he had built a chapel at the Rock. It too was destroyed in 1798 by ‘the wreckers’ and for many years a thatched cottage had to serve as both school and church. Near his own residence at Springbank, Hannahstown, Father O’Donnell built in 1792 a school house which was also used as a church,

Father O’Donnell died at Springbank on the first day of 1814. He had already resigned in the summer of 1812 when his parish was divided, Father William Crolly becoming parish priest of Belfast, and Father Denis Magreevy parish priest of Derriaghy. Father Charles Hendron, who succeeded in 1824, built Hannahstown Chapel. It was consecrated by Dr. Crolly on 30 September 1827. Father Hugh McCartan, who had succeeded Father Hendron at the end of 1827, erected a church at the Rock.

With three churches the people of Derriaghy were now probably as well catered for as any other extensive country parish in the diocese. There are very few records to tell the story of the parish in the nineteenth century. Here is a list of the parish priests from 1812 to 1955.

Denis Magreevy   1812-1824

Charles Hendron 1824 – 1827

Hugh McCartan   1827 – 1830

Arthur McGlew   1830 – 1832

Peter McCann    1832-1838

Edward Mullan   1838 – 1844

William McMullan 1845 – 1848

Michael McCartan 1848 – 1855

James O’Hare    1855 – 1869

George Conway  1869 – 1889

Bernard McCartan 1889 – 1902

Richard Storey   1902 – 1907

Patrick Boyle     1907-1955

When Father Boyle became parish priest in 1907, Derriaghy was still a country parish. Most of his parishioners lived in the upper reaches, and of the few who did live in the city end of the parish the majority were non-Catholics. Some idea of the size and state of the parish at this time can be obtained from Bishop Tohill’s remarks when he administered Confirmation in Hannahstown in the spring of 1909.

“There are 436 Catholics in the Rock and Derriaghy, and 850 in the Hannahstown portion of the parish. The total population is, therefore, 1286 souls. Of the people generally it may be said that they attend well to their religious duties … Some Catholics living in the outlying districts of this parish are at a great distance from any of the three Churches. Hence, taking distance, the state of the weather, and the health of those absent from Mass, the number of defaulters is comparatively small . . . About 18 persons go to Communion each week; 361 go every month in the parish. The members of the Sacred Heart Society go on the first Sunday of every month, and also the members of the Apostleship of Prayer. A considerable number go fortnightly in all three churches. Probably an additional number of persons living on the city borders go to Holy Communion in some of the Belfast Churches.” (Irish News 26 March 1909).

His Lordship reminded the congregation of the Holy Father’s recently expressed desire that all the faithful should be exhorted to frequent and even daily Communion. While he accepted that attendance at daily Mass was quite impossible, as most of the people in the parish lived at such a distance from the church, he felt that the great majority could go to Communion on Sundays and Holidays of Obligation.

In the schools the religious instruction of the children was well looked after, and the Christian Doctrine Society gave great assistance at the Catechism on every Sunday. Catholic Truth Society booklets were extensively read by the people, and the recently formed St. Vincent de Paul Society was doing most useful work.

The school at the Rock was in excellent state, but the church there, on which nothing had been spent for almost thirty years, was in need of extensive renovation. That the church at Hannahstown had been entirely renovated from floor to ceiling was due to the generous munificence of the Misses Hannah and Teresa Hamill of Trench House. “They had paid the cost of heating the church, of Stations of the Cross, of vestments, of statues, of chalices and of other church requisites. They had, in addition, defrayed the expense of building the wall around the cemetery outside.”

While a new school had to be built at Hannahstown at the earliest moment, both church and school accommodation had to be provided for the people living along the Glen Road and around Andersonstown. Within a short radius of the proposed site on the Glen Road there were seventy-three children of school-going age. His Lordship hoped that in the near future they would see a commodious church for the accommodation of the people in the Andersonstown district.

The ‘proposed site’ for church and school had not yet been acquired. By mid-May, however, it had been bought, and before the end of August a contract for the building of the church had been signed. On 20 October the foundation stone was laid, and a year later, on 11 October, Father Boyle recorded in his diary: “Spire of Church completed today. Flag flying.”

St. Teresa’s was dedicated by Dr Tohill on 15 October 1911. It is a memorial to the generosity of the Misses Hamill. Within a few years, in addition to paying for the renovations at Hannahstown, they had given £1,000 to endow a place for a Down and Connor student in the Irish College, Rome, had built the chapel of St. Anthony at the Mercy Convent on Crumlin Road (it was dedicated on 13 June 1910) and now had expended more than £20,000 on building at St. Teresa’s: the church, school and parochial house.

Hannah and Teresa Hamill both died in 1918 and for the next twenty years Trench House was the residence of the Bishop of Down and Connor.

St. Teresa’s gradually became the centre of the parish. As new streets were opened and houses built, more people moved into this end of the parish. But in the depression between the wars development was slow. There was still much poverty in the parish. “Gave bus tickets for Mass on Sunday,” “Distributed clothing among the poor,” “Gave St. Vincent de Paul tickets in Black’s Road and Kilwee” are only some of the depressing entries in the parish priest’s diary in the last weeks of 1933.

On 9 December 1934 Dr. Mageean dedicated the convent of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. About this time Canon Boyle, as he now was, acquired from Mr Fred McMullan of Avoca Lodge the site for St. Agnes’ Church. Provision of a new church in the parish was not yet a matter of urgency – the erection of new schools at St.Teresa’s was the priority. Two masses on Sundays could still accommodate the people in this portion of the parish – it was not until the spring of 1938 that this provision was doubled. A new church, had it been provided in the Thirties, would have been more of a convenience when people almost without exception still walked to Mass on Sunday. It was the sudden explosion in house building after the war, when green fields disappeared almost overnight, that made the erection of a new church an urgent necessity. Building materials were scarce and still under restriction, and there were no Miss Hamills who could pay for churches. Nevertheless St. Agnes’ was erected in a remarkably short while. Its opening in November 1949 belongs to the history of the parish of St. Agnes.