St Johnston and Carrigans Donegal



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History of Christianity in St Johnston and Carrigans Area

It is vital in this age that people be careful not to over-identify themselves with their religion or denomination or culture.  This avoids being needlessly afraid of change and challenges, a fear that can easily give rise to problems such as sectarianism, racism and sexism.

In any discussion of religious history, the problem of religious labels comes up. If a person is Christian, it does not follow that every person calling herself or himself Christian really is.  It is really up to the founders of the religion to decide who is a real believer or not.  If Jesus were on earth it would be up to him to decide who was Christian and who was not.  Plus the word Church means called out - people in the Church are called to be Christian but are not necessarily Christian.

Debates about how a person becomes Christian and what a Christian must believe and do and what Church if any they should be in will go on to the end of time.  Similar debates take place among Hindus about who is really Hindu and the same can be said for any religion. 

Religious labels can cause offence if applied inappropriately.  Many religious labels declare that people outside the group are heretics or mistaken. Some groups that claim to be the only real Christians would be offended at other groups being called Christian.

It would be hurtful to describe a Catholic who has little respect for Catholic tradition as a Catholic in the same way as a bishop or pope would be.    It is best to handle the problem by saying we use labels for the sake of communication and it is not a judgment on the religious entity or Church or person.  More scepticism and pragmatism about the validity of religious labels actually would help society cohere better.  It avoids the risk of developing ill-feelings towards a religion for its seeming sins when in fact pretenders were in that religion and using it to harm others.  Those people cannot be considered to be a valid reflection on the religion.  The humble response to say, "Are you a Christian?" is, "In Jesus's sight I hope I am."  Branches of Christianity resemble politics - they have policies, leaders and laws and handle finances and debate with the state.   They deploy many of the same methods used by politicians - it is not true that a sharp line can be drawn between religion and politics.  It is important to be careful that labels are not misused in the name of any kind of political ideology.

It is important to remember too that in each denomination or religion, sometimes some powerful members do grave harm.  The majority need to be venerated for the ordinary decent people they are.

So it is in the spirit of honesty and realism and avoidance of giving of offence that we wish to examine Christian history in the area.

Christianity came to Ireland before Patrick.  Patrick writes of problems with other Christian leaders so it took a while to make Irish Christianity more organised.

The monastic aspect was central to Irish Christianity.  It took precedence to everything.

Not surprisingly, the local area had a monastery too at Taughboyne - the site of the current Church of Ireland.  The monastery was organised in 560 AD on built on land donated by an Aileach Chieftain.

Its abbot was Baithin who later became abbot of Iona in Scotland.

Baithin was born somewhere in the Laggan Valley.  He was educated by St Columba.  The Annals of the Four Masters say that Baithin was a scribe.  It is believed that Baithin died in 600 AD.  He was so much compared to St John the Apostle that finally the village we know as St Johnston was named after him.  Often in the past the town was known as Saint Johnstown or Saint John's Town.

Baithin's  monastery was known as Tigh Baithin from which the parish name of Taughboyne is derived.  Tigh Baithin means Baithin's House.


The Irish Church was largely unaffected by the turbulence in the rest of Christendom such as the Iconoclastic controversy which was based on the allegation that the veneration of images of Christ and the saints was idolatrous or false worship. 

As the bishops of Rome began to claim to be the supreme heads, popes, of the Church in doctrine and administration and morals, the Church in the East  refused to abandon its tradition that the bishop of Rome, the patriarch, was equal to the other patriarchs, and excommunicated (severed from membership in the Church and declared to be a breakaway entity) pope and the dioceses that followed him in 1055 AD.   They became known as Orthodox - Orthodox is an adjective that describes believing no more or less than what is part of the faith and refers to their claim that they are Catholicism before the papacy brought in changes which they consider illegitimate.  After the schism, popes took more power over their own Church.

The Irish Church did not join mainstream Christianity.  Because of geographic considerations, the Irish Church had to consider union with Rome and not Constantinople the centre of Orthodoxy.  So the Irish Church became Roman Catholic at the Synod of Rathreasil 1110 AD. 

The Roman Catholic Church elected Urban VI as pope in Rome, but his cardinals who elected him turned against him and declared his election invalid and uncanonical and elected Clement VI who was considered by half of the Roman Catholic Church to be their pope and he ruled from Avignon in France.  This resulted in two rival popes and rival Churches. Clement died and was succeeded by Benedict XIII.  During this schism, which lasted from   , the Irish Church was not in union with Rome.

There was a Roman Catholic Church at Taughboyne in 1404 AD and it was found that its priest Oddo Macsobney was an impostor pretending to be a priest. 

The tensions caused by papal power and its political manoeuvrings, led to the Roman Catholic Church splitting up at the Reformation.  Older forms of Church structure and the Christian faith were revived.   New Churches often called Protestant were created.  Protestant does not refer to protesting but to declaring truth firmly.  It is a myth that Protestantism necessarily protests against the Catholic Church.

The last Rector mentioned before the Plantation of 1609 was Eugene O Gallcubair and Dean of the cathedral in Raphoe.  He was the last Rector affiliated with Roman Catholicism.  Most of the Roman Catholic bishops helped form the Church of Ireland which is considered to be a form of Catholicism with Protestant elements.

The next Rector of Taughboyne belonged to the Church of Ireland and the Catholics who became part of the Church of Ireland retained the Church at Taughboyne and the Cathedral of Raphoe. 

Presbyterians follow the insights of John Calvin's Bible interpretation which was popularised in Scotland by John Knox.

The Congregationalists started a congregation in St Johnston in 1878 and have had no services since 1986 in the town. 

St Baithin's Church, Roman Catholic

St Baithin's Church, St Johnston was consecrated on  Sunday 9th of December 1860.  Bishop Daniel McGettigan, Coajutor Bishop of Raphoe performed the solemn opening and the ceremony.  The following year Daniel McGettigan became bishop of Raphoe having succeeded Patrick McGettigan who had been bishop since 1820.

The character of the exterior is simple and free from unnecessary ornamentation.  

The New Cemetery, adjoining the Church, was opened in 1951.

Canon Joseph Mulreany had the Church renovated in the sixties.  The altar was replaced with a modern altar facing the people to fit in with the changes in Church practice initiated by Pope Paul VI.  He had a wall built covering the stained glass window in the north and the closed off area became a sacristy.  

Ordained in 1931, he became Monsignor and Vicar General and was moved to Stranorlar in 1969.  He died October 13, 1984. 

Canon Daniel G. Cunnea PP DD had the Church re-roofed and a sacristy built in the early 1980's.  The wall was taken away from the back of the Church then so that the stained glass window behind the altar can once more be seen.  When the Church was closed Duffy's and then Houston's supermarket was used for a chapel.  The renovated chapel was blessed by Bishop Seamus Hegarty. 

The original baptismal font can now be seen in the porch of the Church.  It is now used for holding holy water.

St Johnston Presbyterian Church

Presbyterians ministered in St Johnston even prior to being organised into congregations.  A meeting took place in the town, 26/11/1673.  William Cox was ordained at this meeting for Clonmel.  William Liston was ordained for Waterford.

In 1691, Taylor - Minister in Enniskillen, had to ride through Barnsmore Gap past Ballybofey and past Convoy and Raphoe to use the bridle path made through Lettergull and Binion.  There was a danger of Reperees - robbers.

In 1723, Reverend William Gray was preaching to a group of Presbyterians in St Johnston from a lime kiln.

The St Johnston Congregation of Presbyterians was officially founded in 1726. 

They used a meeting house equipped with stables built alongside the Main Street, St Johnston, which was de-consecrated in 1849 and converted into one storey houses.

They built the Church in 1849 and ten years later they built the Church tower.  On the 19th December 1982, the tower was struck by lightning during the night.  The tower was restored using the same stone and the same design.  The Church was reopened on 4th March 1984.

In 1834 the Presbyterians had the highest membership in the locality with 3318 members.  Roman Catholics numbered 2207.  The Reformation probably had no effect on the area until the Plantation times when the new settlers from Scotland brought their Presbyterianism with them.  From 1609 on the Cunninghams and the Stewarts allocated land in such a way that eventually St Johnston and Carrigans developed. 

Monreagh Presbyterian Church

Presbyterianism started in Monreagh in some buildings near a limekiln.  This stood on rising ground north of the Brook, which flows around 500-600 yards down the side road from the present church. It was called Brookhill by local people in years gone by. There is a stone erected to mark where the site of the meeting place was. This was in 1644, making it the oldest Presbyterian Congregation in the Laggan Valley.  The first minister was installed in the same year. 

The site where the first worshippers met is marked by a memorial stone and is a short walking distance from the present Church.

Monreagh boasts the second oldest Presbyterian Church congregation in Ireland and the oldest Presbyterian Church building in Ireland - dating from 1707 to 1710 AD.  The graveyard around the Church was dedicated for use about 1860.

The manse was built by Rev. William Thompson, who was Minister of Monreagh from 1874-1882. The Manse now is Monreagh Ulster Scots Education & Heritage Centre.

Despite being called Monreagh Presbyterian Church, the present Church is actually in the townland of Tonagh.  It is not the original building.  The site of the old Meeting House was cleared and the present Church was built nearby.      People kept calling it Monreagh after the old Meeting House.  The term Meeting House was used because Penal laws forbade it to be called a Church as it was not a place of worship of the Established Church, the Church of Ireland.

Four members of the Laggan Presbytery, notably John Hart of Monreagh, met on February 2, 1681, to arrange a day of fasting and prayer for the Church.  They decided upon the 17th day of each month.  For this, they were summoned before a Bench of Magistrates at St Johnston.  In June, they were summoned to appear before the Lord Lieutenant and his council in Dublin.  They were fined £20 each and ended up in Lifford gaol for more than eight months.  The case reflects the poor tolerance for Presbyterians at the time.  John Hart is buried at Taughboyne Church.

During the Great Famine in 1847, Monreagh had 168 families which paid a stipend of £48  10   0 to the minister. 

John Hood of Moyle, Newtowncunningham, the surveyor and inventor, expressed an intention to put a clock up on the Church in honour of the Duke of Abercorn in a letter dated 26th January 1778.  Later in the year on the 22nd March, he wrote that Hugh Rankin paid the rent to the Duke for the Church and complained that Hugh expected the grass around the Church in return for doing this.  Hugh Rankin belonged to the townland of Tonagh and the bid to make the Duke stop him taking the grass worked. 

The Laggan Presbytery was the second Presbytery established in Ireland.  The first having been established at Carrickfergus.  The Laggan Presbytery comprises the oldest Presbyterian community in the Irish Republic.  It originated from members of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland settling in the area.

The minister in 1863 was suspected of drunkenness and lost his post.  The legend then started that he operated a secret distillery in the field behind the manse.  The field has been known as Distillery Field ever since.

People from Newtowncunningham used the Church for worship until Newtowncunningham got its own Church in 1830.

Reverend Andrew Long wrote about a religious revival in Monreagh which took place in the 1850's.

“On Lord’s day, June 26, we enjoyed showers of blessing. The scene, which took place, baffles description. The church was crowded to suffocation. I preached from the words, ‘Thou restrainest prayer before God.’ (Job xv. 4) especially with reference to the outpouring of the Spirit in answer to prayer, (Luke xi. 13). God strengthened me as He never did before, for the services of that memorable day; but I know it was in answer to many prayers, and especially those of some of our new-born souls who were heard pleading for me during the day. I never witnessed such deep solemnity. The exercises had almost closed, when one person fell out of her pew upon the aisle, the door being open, and shrieked loudly for mercy. In a few moments about twenty were prostrated in different quarters of the house. And then, what a scene ensued! Relatives in groups carrying their striken ones into the adjoining vestry; multitudes weeping, and the whole congregation moved and excited as if the judgment day had come.

“In every part of the church there were broken-hearted penitents on their knees pleading for mercy; and at the same time, not a few hardened sinners were looking on and wondering. But at length the big tears rolled down many a wrinkled cheek.

“In the evening I held a meeting in the open air about a mile from the church, and addressed an assembly of two thousand, from Acts xvii. 30. There were three converts from Derry present—a porter, a tailor, and a sailor. The former said in his own tender, simple, touching manner, ‘I am but a poor porter, earning nine shillings a week, for drawing my handcart through the streets of Derry, but I would not change my situation for that of the richest among you if you have not got Christ.’ The tailor, in offering up a short prayer, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on those poor sinners who do not care one happorth about their souls.’

“At this meeting a few were awakened and at its close a great number flocked to the church, though it was now nine o’clock, and remained there till next morning. There was one great-grandmother present, and several grandparents were rejoicing over their penitent offspring.

“On the following Tuesday evening, June 28, I held a meeting in the church, and chose as the subject of my address Luke vii. 36-50. At the close of the service, about seventy were on their knees praying as in an agony—some of them the vilest of the people. Next day I addressed about three hundred in the open air at Molenan, from the text 1 Kings xviii. 21. Fifteen persons who were in deep distress retired to an adjacent house, and prostrated themselves on an earthen floor.

“On Friday, July 1, a most interesting meeting was held in the church, which could not contain the numbers that repaired to it. Many had come from a great distance, so that the like was not seen here in the memory of the oldest inhabitant. Upwards of seventy were brought to cry. ‘What must I do to be saved?’

“Before the congregation was dismissed, I announced that a meeting would be held next evening at Carrigans, in the open air. Although the notice was short, upwards of one thousand of the surrounding population assembled, and among the multitude I saw a few of the aristocracy of the district, who belong to the Established church. There were many violent prostrations, which created a wonderful sensation in the minds of those who had not previously witnessed such manifestations.

“On the following day, Sabbath July 3, I arranged to hold three meetings—two in the church, and one at Drumennon in the open air, about three miles distant.

“The Divine influence came down upon the people at each service throughout that interesting day. There were many physical manifestations. Upwards of one hundred persons lay prostrate in the pews, and agonised in prayer till three o’clock next morning.

“Towards the end of July, bodily prostrations became less frequent, yet God did not cease to work mightily among the people.”

A booklet was published by Bertie Roulston in 1994 called "A History of Monreagh Presbyterian Church ,1644-1994".  This was to mark the occasion of the 350 years celebrations.  Reverend David Latimer wrote the foreword. 

The booklet reveals that the records and minutes of the first century of the Church were kept in Dublin but sadly lost in a fire (page 4).

Close to the site of the present Church, the first Congregation used storage buildings attached to a lime kiln at Brookhill as a meeting house (page 9).

The Church building that now stands at Monreagh was erected in 1710 when Reverend William Gray was minister.  He died in 1730 aged 58.  He answered a call to minister in Dublin but he wanted to return to the area.  He did and started a Presbyterian congregation in a Corn Mill near St Johnston.  As a result, the St Johnston congregation was officially founded in 1731 (page 12, A History of Monreagh Presbyterian Church).

Monreagh got the Reverend Patrick Davidson who was a Scotsman as its minister on 9th January 1775 but as he denied the traditional Christian doctrines that God is three people and that Jesus is God a split occurred in the congregation with the spin-off founding a new congregation at Crossroads.  Eventually Reverend Davidson resigned in 1786.

The congregation had 240 communicants in May, 1865 and 136 in May 1980.

The Reverend Elijah McMordie who had formerly ministered in Newtonstewart Co Tyrone was installed as minister of Monreagh on 15 November 1887 and afterwards there was a dinner in Monreagh School to celebrate.

The Laggan Presbytery met at St Johnston on 1 March 1676.  The meeting was about the heavy handed tactics of the Church of Ireland Bishop Hopkins.

John Hart a minister of the Monreagh Congregation was excommunicated by Bishop Robert Leslie and consigned to Lifford Gaol for not appearing at the bishops court in Raphoe.  He was more than six years in jail.  At that time, Presbyterians were persecuted by the Church of Ireland.   This happened in 1676.

Ballylennon Presbyterian Church

This Church was founded in 1831.

A Presbyterian, Mary Jane Gourley of Craighadoes, Ballylennon, married the Reverend Robert Mitchell.  They had no children and he died in 1901. At that time, his wife lived at Leckpatrick, Co Tyrone, where he was the Presbyterian Minister.  The Church today is a simple building with a Church hall closely by.  A cemetery surrounds the Church.

Reverend G Lecky BA, was Minister from 1878 to 1929.  He investigated the history of the Laggan area and wrote two books based on his studies.

Taughboyne Church of Ireland Church, Churchtown

In 560 AD a monastery was erected on the site of this Church.  The land was donated by an Aileach Chieftain.  A clachan or village began near the monastery.  As St Baithin ran the monastery and was compared to St John the village got the name of St Johns Town, St Johnston. Even when Baithin was Abbot of Iona in Scotland he still made many trips back to the area. 

The independence of the Catholic Church of Ireland from Rome began to end at the Synod of Rathreasil 1110 AD and Rome began to take more control over the Churches in general as the papacy more and more came to believe it was the head of the Church.  If there was a church at Taughboyne at this time then it became Roman Catholic.  There was a Roman Catholic Church there in 1404 AD and it was found that its priest Oddo Macsobney was an impostor pretending to be a priest.  Philip Macgrabrurtyagh, a genuinely ordained priest,  took over but gave up his post in 1420.  Matthew Magdalaid was his replacement and was infamous for dishonesty, profligacy and selling the sacraments to fill his own coffers.  He governed the Church until he was sacked and Laurence O Buighi became the new priest for the area in 1442.   But it was found that Laurence was the son of a priest so he was fired.  Cormac O Gallenbayr and later Edmund O Robartaich became the priests in the year 1476.  The Rectors of Taughboyne, priests who ran the parish, were recorded from 1404 to 1537.  The rector in 1404 was Donald McGillabridy who through the mistakes and bad records of the times was able to successfully masquerade as a priest and he was even Dean of Derry.  The last Rector mentioned before the Plantation of 1609 was Eugene O Gallcubair and Dean of the cathedral in Raphoe.  The next Rector of Taughboyne belonged to the Church of Ireland and the Catholics who became part of the Church of Ireland retained the Church at Taughboyne and the Cathedral of Raphoe. 

By 1622 the parish Church was in bad repair.  It was restored and completed by 1627. A Stone Tablet above the door reads, "Thomas Bruce aedificavit restoramus 1627".  Thomas Bruce was the then Vicar of Taughboyne.  By 1754 the Church was once more in a dilapidated state though it was still used.  The Church bell was installed in 1844.  In 1845 to 1849 the potato famine raged through the country.  It was not mentioned in the Taughboyne records.  It seems that the famine was not as destructive in the Laggan area as it was elsewhere because it was such a fertile area and because of the fishing.   

Master Reverend John Hart who was a theologian (divine) and a philosopher of noble background served in the ministry at Monreagh for more than three decades until his death on January 8th 1687 when he was 70.   This is the information on his tomb which is unfortunately now illegible.

Vicars of Taughboyne in the twentieth century were, John Molloy until 1915, next Alexander Knight until 1934, next Joseph Kildare Beattie until 1953, next Harold J Fennell until 1967, next George Henry Yeo until 1972, and next Edward Alexander Moore until 1983 and from 1984 to the present time, David W T Canon Crooks.

Old Graveyard Church

The ruins of a Church can be seen in the old graveyard of St Johnston.  This Church was never completed or used.  It was built to replace Taughboyne Parish Church which was derelict at the time but it was decided to abandon the project and restore Taughboyne Church.  The new Church was originally scheduled to be finished at Midsummer 1622.  The Old Graveyard dates from 1815. The Church was designed in a cruciform format, it makes the shape of the cross.

Craighadoes Chapel of Ease 

Craighadoes Chapel of Ease, Church of Ireland, was built on land sold by the Marquis of Abercorn.  It had Robert Galbraith's Farm to the east and George Monteith's farm on the west.  It was built in the late 1830's but ended up being used as a school house at first and finally renovations were undergone to turn it into a Church which were completed in 1869 or 1870.

Killea Parish Church 

Killea Parish Church is in Carrigans.  We don't know when the first Church was built but we know that in 1693 the Church of Ireland Diocese of Derry had a Chapel of Ease near Killea village.  The current Church was built in 1765 in Carrigans to replace it.  John Oswald was Bishop of Raphoe and William Law was rector when this Church was built.  Killea Parish joined the parish of Taughboyne in 1969.  The Church is still in use today.   


In the Footsteps of St Baithin, A History of the Parishes of Taughboyne with Craighadooish, All Saints, Newtowncunningham, Christ Church, Burt and Killea, Carrigans by Canon DWT Crooks MA BD, published by Donegal Democrat Ltd, Ballyshannon 1992

The Laggan and Its People, by S M Campbell,  Donegal Democrat Ltd, Ballyshannon

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