For the first 30-odd years of my life I travelled past Newtownards Priory twice a day, either in a car or an Ulsterbus, but never knowing anything of its historic and cultural significance. It was just another old building, a bit of a wreck, no obvious signage outside it for many years and no way of getting into it either. All in all, it was an irrelevance.
How wrong I was. And why did nobody tell me this:
• it's an Anglo-Norman building, probably built by the Savages in 1244. It was one of the very earliest stone-built buildings in the Ards. Its Prior surrendered it back to the Crown in 1541 (then valued at 13 shillings and 3 pence!), who then in turn granted it to Sir Thomas Smith in 1572.
• the local landowner/land claimant in 1572 was Sir Brian O'Neill. He discovered that the English army was on its way to take over the land he believed to be his, because Queen Elizabeth had granted the land to her Secretary of State Sir Thomas Smith. Realising they would need strong buildings to garrison the troops, O'Neill burned down all of the abbeys in the area, and probably his own castle (a tower house) which was nearby.
• the Priory lay in a ruined and disused state until May 1606, when Hugh Montgomery arrived from Ayrshire with boatloads of Lowland Scots. He had struck a deal with Brian O'Neill's grandson Con - the result of which was that Montgomery got 1/3 of the O'Neill estate. James Hamilton and Con himself got the other two thirds.
• when they got off the boats at Donaghadee and did a scouting mission, the Scottish settlers found "...In the springtime of 1606, those parishes were now more wasted than America (when the Spaniards landed there)... for in all those three parishes aforesaid, 30 cabins could not be found, nor any stone walls, but ruined roofless churches, and a few vaults at Gray Abbey, and a stump of an old castle in Newton, in each of which some Gentlemen sheltered themselves at their first coming over...” (from the Montgomery Manuscripts). The Priory was one of these "ruined roofless churches".
• In 1607, Montgomery began the restoration project. There's a datestone inside the Priory with the year 1607 on it.
Montgomery doubled its' size, adding the North Aisle and the Tower (ie the parts of the building that can be seen from the road today). At the new doorway entrance to the Tower, he had his stonecutter carve some beautiful ornamented detail, as well as two Bible references on either side of Montgomery's own monogram "HLM":
"...Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil..." Ecclesiastes 5v1
"...I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD..." Psalm 122 v 1
• before winter of 1607, the Priory had been restored and "it was made decently serviceable".
• Montgomery's younger brother George was at this stage Bishop of Derry Raphoe and Clogher, so he may well have given some advice on the restoration project - he was probably doing similar work himself in the west of Ulster. Adjacent priory buildings, and the old O'Neill "stump of a castle" were also restored as residences for the Montgomeries and their workers.
• a report in 1611 said "...Sir Hugh Montgomery, Knight, hath repayred part of the abbey of Newtone for his owne dwelling, and made a good towne of a hundred houses or there aboutes, all peopled with Scottes.."
• Montgomery established a choir for the Priory, and it may well have been the first church in Ulster which witnessed the preaching of John McClelland (he went on to become one of the four Eagle Wing minister). McClelland was also the headmaster at Montgomery's classics school in Newtownards.
• Montgomery died in May 1636, and was buried inside the Priory in what was more or less a State funeral, with many nobles and lords from Ulster and Scotland in attendance. The funeral was 8 September 1636, and the emigrant ship Eagle Wing - the first ship to try to sail from Ulster to America - sailed from nearby Groomsport the very next morning.
• This postcard from 1904 shows a view of the inside - 100 years ago the Priory must have been a local tourist attraction. I have a few other similar postcards of it, scavenged from eBay
• In 1988, parts of the building were restored by the Environment & Heritage Service. They painstakingly reproduced the ornate doorway, not on the tower of the building, but at a second entrance. Sadly they didn't reinstate the two Bible texts.
Newtownards Priory is one of the great physical examples of the impact of the Ulster-Scots, of the skill and vision that they brought to the province. Perhaps the story of the Priory, and the other first Ulster-Scots churches, are deserving of a project in their own right.