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Notes on Bonamargy Friary, Ballycastle
In the fertile plain spreading from the foothills of Knocklayd to the sandy beach of Ballycastle Bay, amid surroundings of incomparable beauty, stands the picturesque ruin of the Franciscan friary of Bonamargy. Its appearance has been greatly enhanced in recent years, not only by the important work of restoration so admirably carried out by the archaeological section of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1931, and by the Ancient Monuments division of the Ministry of Finance, in whose care it is now vested, but by the circumstance - hardly less important - that the Friary is now entirely surrounded by portion of Ballycastle Golf course. Viewed from the Glenshesk road, the general effect of the ruins, set in the midst of an undulating green sward, is most pleasing.
As a building, the friary was never an elaborate structure like some of the Franciscan houses in the south and west of Ireland, such as Cong, Creevelea or Ardfert - the last mentioned with its great three light east window and ruined chantry chapel; yet Bonamargy is the only ruin of its kind in the North of Ireland of which the fabric remains in anything approaching a tangible form. The Franciscan foundations at Armagh, Bangor and Glenarm have either entirely disappeared or are little more than the merest vestiges of their former state.
Founded in 1500
The first part of the name Bun-na-Mairgie, often modernised into Bonamargy, is derived from the sandy mouth of a stream, as in Bundoran and Buncrana. Mairgie is the old name for the river formed by the confluence of the Carey and Shesk rivers at Drumahammond Bridge. It has been pretty well established that Bonamargy was founded in 1500 by Roderick Macquillan, a descendant of the Anglo-Norman de Mandevilles who came to Ulster in the train of either John de Courcy, or his successor, Hugh de Lacy, the first Earl of Ulster, who died in 1242. By a strange metamorphosis, the de Mandevilles became known as the Macquillans, Lords of the Route. While it may be accepted, failing other evidence, that the Friary was founded about 1500, it cannot be assumed that no religious house previously existed on the site. If any such foundation so existed, it was probably built by the de Mandevilles early in the thirteenth century. The new building apparently embodied the remains of the old, the west gable and part of the south wall of the church being the most likely parts extant when the friary was built in 1500. It was quite common in ancient times to ascribe the merit of originally erecting such structures as Bonamargy to chieftains who had only the honour of repairing them, or, in certain respects, of adding to the dignity and comfort of their occupants.
Nothing in the general architectural details of the building, as it now stands, is out of harmony with the year 1500 as the probable date of its erection. It is said that it was originally intended that the friary should have been erected in what is now the townland of Kilmoyle, in the Grange of Drumtullagh, at a place locally referred to as Croshan. The tithes of this Grange were appropriate to some religious house, the name of which is now unknown, but in view of what has just been stated, that house may have been Bonamargy. The derivation of the townland of Manister in the Grange of Drumtullagh is "monastery."
Not Large Foundation
As a religious foundation Bonamargy was never a large or pretentious establishment. Its friars were of the third order of St. Francis, i.e., tertiaries, founded in 1220 and they were in the main, lay teachers and preachers, with one or more ordained clerical members among their number. The friary is of a plan usual in the case of Franciscan foundations. Its main feature is the church, a plain rectangular building, almost one hundred feet long, without side aisles. It had three windows and a door to the south, but no opening on the north, except a door that leads to the first apartment of the domestic buildings.
Though it never possessed, unlike the larger Franciscan houses, a central tower dividing choir from nave, it must nevertheless have been an imposing edifice in its day. The domestic buildings, kitchen, refectory, dormitory, etc., extended at a right angle to the north side, with the cloister garth in the angle. Like most Franciscan foundations, the cloisters were on the north side of the nave, thereby differing from the Cistercian plan, in which they usually lay on the south side. The cloisters of Bonamargy were only of wood and thatch; the garth may still be seen, though it is used as part of the graveyard. A south transept (now the Antrim vault and mortuary chapel) extended on the south side, in a line with the domestic buildings. The entire ruin is thus the shape of a capital "T"; the nave represents the upright part of the letter, while the domestic buildings and south transept (now the Antrim vault and chapel) on the north and south sides of the nave respectively, represent the horizontal part. It is said that there was once an altar on the south side of the chapel. On the outside of the southern gable of this chapel is a square stone on which was inscribed what is now altogether indecipherable:-
In Dei, Dei-Matrisque honorem
Nobilissimus atque illustrissimus
Comes de Antrina
Hoc Saceullum fieri curavit
Anno Dom. 1621.
There is no evidence that the McDonnells did anything for Bonamargy further than to adopt it as a family burying-place and build that small portion of it specified in the above inscription. Within the nave, on the south side, and near the entrance to the Antrim vault, is a red sandstone bearing the following inscription in Roman capitals:-
HEIRE LYETH THE BODIE OF JHN. MNAGHTEN FIRST SECRETARIE TO RANDAL, FIRST ERLE OF ANTRIM, WHO DEPARTED THIS MORTALITIE IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD GOD, 1630.
The built up arch of the south transept may still be seen in the south wall, though it has been suggested that this arch may have been the original doorway in the western gable and that this doorway was removed to its present position when the south transept was converted into the existing mortuary chapel. A few moments within the dismal vault beneath this chapel ought to be sufficient to convince any thinking person of the vanity of earthly grandeur! The complete disappearance of the western gable certainly suggests that it could have been used as a quarry for the new chapel of 1621. "The whole place" wrote the Rev. George Hill, "literally heaves with Macdonnell dust, the chieftains having found a last retreat in a very gloomy vault, while the humbler members of the clan sleep around in the sunshine of the open cemetery."
If the friary dates merely from 1500 its life as such must have been comparatively short, since the dissolution of the smaller religious houses occurred in 1536. Apparently the friars remained on - at least until 1584. This was no doubt because of the remoteness of its situation. Has not the historian Du Pin stated that until the beginning of the seventeenth century Ulster was "the most constant in maintaining its liberty and in preserving the Catholic religion"? Titular guardians of Bonamargy were appointed until 1837. The friary was burnt in 1584 in the course of an attack by the Macdonnells on the troops of the first Elizabeth. These troops formed the expedition of the Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrott, against Sorley Boy; they bivouacked in the friary until Sorley took them unawares, suddenly set fire to the thatch and inflicted a nasty defeat upon them. After its destruction by fire in 1584, the friary must have been at least partially repaired, as the last known great religious ceremony held within its walls took place on the feast of All Hallows, 1639, when Doctor Bonaventure Magennis, Bishop of Down and Conner, confirmed a large number of Highland Scots. The wars of 1641 probably saw its final destruction as a place of worship. Close to the remains of the altar and on the Gospel side of the nave, is a large slab of sandstone covering the grave of the Franciscan, Doctor Francis Stewart, Bishop of Down and Conner, who died in 1750. The bishop was a member of the Stewart family of Dundermot, a grange near Glarryford, Co. Antrim.
The most distinctive architectural feature of the friary is the traceried east window which bears such a strong resemblance to the window in old Culfeightrin (Churchfield) church at Magherintemple, as to suggest that it was the same architect who designed each window. The friary was surrounded by a vallum or mound, astride which is the ruined Gate House or Guest House. This detached building, with its conspicuous chimney, formed the only regular entrance. The well known holed cross at the western end of the church is said to mark the grave of Julia Macquillan, the "black nun" of Bonamargy. It greatly resembles a similar holed cross at Layd old churchyard, Cushendall, which has been appropriated to serve as a modern headstone!
To see Bonamargy aright, it is not necessary to visit the venerable ruin by the light of the moon, as in the case of the far-famed Melrose Abbey and. no doubt, many another structure similarly circumstanced. Certainly its original builders selected a picturesque and appropriate position for their religious foundation. Though the sound of saintly prayer and praise may no longer be heard within its walls, yet the friary stands as a silent witness to the things unseen and eternal.