Monday, April 06, 2009

Comber Abbey and Parish - a short history by Norman Nevin MBE

(this was sent to me a few years ago by David Gabbie - I'm posting it here in case someone in internetland might be looking for this information. Printed in a souvenir brochure to commemorate the opening of a new Church Hall at St. Mary’s Parish Church, Comber on Wednesday 8th June 1983)

I especially like the reference in point 4 to the Covenanted Presbyterians of Comber ripping the shirt off their minister in a near-riot!

1) Christianity Comes to Comber
Tradition has it that Christianity came to Comber about 1500 years ago. Apparently, Patrick having visited his favourite convert, Mochaoi (pronounced Maughee, or by the English – Mahee) of Nendrum (the island of the nine ridges), travelled north on his way to Donaghadee and hence to Scotland. When passing through the Comber district, Patrick was badly abused by Saran, one of the sons of Caelbadh, the local Chieftain of the district. Conla, brother of Saran, hearing with great sorrow, how uncivilly Patrick had been treated, went to apologise for his brother’s behaviour and to venerate Patrick. He consecrated himself and all his property to his service, offering to him a remarkable field called the Plain of Elom, for the purpose of erecting a church thereon.

Conla’s Church flourished and in the course of time became an Irish Monastery with many buildings for its many activities. Its situation was most likely on the plain across the river from the present Cricket Green. It was known locally as the Black Abbey, because of the black habit worn by the monks. The Abbey became obscured in later years by the fame of the Cistercian Abbey sited near the present Square, and it completely disappeared from history, the Cistercians taking over the townlands.

2) The Cistercian Abbey in Comber
The Cistercian Abbeys of the twelfth century are all remarkably alike in layout, as the plan was dictated by the rules of the Order. The architect was to strive for utility and simplicity and all unnecessary decoration was to be avoided. In Comber, the present site of St. Mary’s Parish Church (in the Square) was the site of the Cistercian Abbey. When it was built it was a virgin site with no buildings in the vicinity and it was the angle of two rivers – the Enler and the Glen. These rivers were essential, not only for fishing but also for sanitary purposes, as even in those days they had a crude but efficient type of flush toilet called the reredorter or necessarium. When the foundations of the new Hall were being dug out, traces of the bed of a fairly broad stream, in the form of a smooth damp clay, came to light. This came from the direction of the Glen River, which passes down the side of the Upper Distillery and can be seen from the present Car Park in Killinchy Street.

In the Cistercian Abbeys it was customary for the highest building – the Church – to be built on the north side of the Cloister, which was the centre of the Abbey complex. This enabled the monks to work or read there, profiting from the sun and sheltered from the wind; the Cloister also linked the various buildings that were sited around it. In Comber the present church probably occupies the site of the Nave and Choir of the Abbey Church and beyond the east end of the present church would be the Transepts, each with two chapels and a squat tower in the middle leading to the Presbyter containing the High Altar and the Abbot’s Chair. In the south Transept, that is towards the present graveyard, a doorway led to the Sacristy, where the Holy Vessels were kept and opposite would be the Night Stair leading to the Monks’ Dormitory.

In Comber, an abbey for the Cistercian Order was built in 1199 and it is generally believed that the man responsible for it was Brian Catha Dun, head of the O’Neills of Claneboye (not Clandeboye). In 1201, the founder had the misfortune to cross swords with de Courcy and perish in the conflict. The Abbey was occupied by monks from Caermarthernshire and it flourished until such establishments were dissolved by Henry VIII. In 1543, the last Abbot, John O’Mullegan resigned the Abbey and its possession to the Crown. It has seven townlands – Ballymonster, Carnesure, Cullintraw, Cattogs, Troopersfield, Ballynichol and half of Ballygowan. In previous years, when the Augustine Abbey closed it had taken possession of the townlands of that Abbey and later got possession of Ballyaltikilligan, where there had been a church and also claimed the tithes of the quarter “Kilmud”. So, by 1543 it was quite prosperous and a wealthy foundation.

3) The Abbey is Destroyed / A Church Arises
After 1543 Comber Abbey lay deserted and decaying rapidly. All the treasures had been removed and anything of any value or use had been plundered.

So in 1606 came the Hamiltons to Bangor and the Montgomerys to Newtown to find the place desolate. The only shelter Montgomery could find was the stump of an old Tower House in Newtown and a few vaults in Greyabbey. In Comber about 1610 a portion of the ruined Cistercian Abbey was fitted up as a Church for the increasing population. This is the site occupied by the present Church of Ireland, the Montgomery Church being in use until 1840. Sir Hugh also built a bell tower and provided a bell to call the people to worship.

In 1622 Sir Hugh Montgomery’s eldest son, also called Hugh, married Lady Jean Alexander, daughter of Sir William Alexander, Secretary for Scotland. As a wedding present Sir Hugh built a large Manor House on a gently rising hill outside Comber for the happy couple and called it Mount Alexander. From this we get Castle Street and Castle Lane. The stone for the building came from the ruins of the old Cistercian Abbey. Not all the stones were taken and some of them are in the walls surrounding the present church. One at least has been recognised as it bears a Mason’s Mark and it has been preserved. The same mark is on a stone in Greyabbey, showing that the same band of masons who built Greyabbey from 1193-199 also built Comber from 1199-1220 A.D.

4) Clergy of St. Mary’s
The first minister in the repaired monastery church in Comber was James Fresall, appointed there by Sir Hugh Montgomery, who, as a supporter of James 1st was careful that ministers under his patronage adhered to prelacy. Nothing is known of the Rev. Fresall’s ministry. Sir Hugh Montgomery died in 1636 and his son the second Viscount, who had married Lady Jean Alexander, died in 1642. His son also Hugh was very young when he succeeded to the title as third Viscount and his mother, the Lady Jean, succeeded in getting the Rev. James Gordon, a Presbyterian, appointed to the Church in Comber in 1645. The position of the early ministers of Down was peculiar, in that, while Presbyterian in Doctrine, they were admitted by the Bishops to the Parish Churches and received tithes. This period has been described as “Prescopalian”, for they were not ministers of “Non-Conformist” congregations. The “Form” used for ordination was one that satisfied the Bishops but at the same time enabled the Presbyterians to assert that they had received Presbyterian ordination. Trouble was bound to come and it did over the years until at last in the reign of Charles the second in 1661, the newly appointed Bishop of Down – Jeremy Taylor – gave the ministers the option of conform or suffer ejection. Thirty-six were ejected in one day and among them was James Gordon of Comber. His pulpit was given to William Dowdall and he remained until 1692. He met with much opposition at first, chiefly from women, whose attack on him in the pulpit led to prosecution. At the trial in Downpatrick one of the rioters boastfully informed the judge, “These are the hauns that poo’d the white sark ower his heid!” They were fined for causing a riot in the church.

After Mr. Dowdall, came a succession of ministers. The first was David Maxwell in 1692 and seven years later he was buried in Comber on the 30th July 1699. In 1700 came the Rev. Edmund Bennett. A stone attached to the gable end of the Church, facing the entrance gates, bears this inscription, “Near this place lyeth the body of ye Reverend Mr. Edmund Bennet ye late learned and Pious Minister of this Congregation and Chaplin to the Earle of Mount Alexander; he died the 15th Febry 1710-11 very much lamented”. James Montgomery came in April 1712 and was followed by Patrick Hamilton in May 1716. He resigned in June 1733 and was immediately succeeded by Annesley Bailie who was licensed the same day by Bishop Hutchinson. He died at Innishargie (his birthplace) in 1758 and was “universally lamented by all his parishioners for his many virtues”. It was during his term of office that the Glebe House was built in 1738 and had eleven acres of land attached to it.

The minister to succeed Mr. Bailie was the Rev. Guy Stone M.A. of Barnhill, who had been Curate in Newtownards for five years. He came to Comber in 1758. His daughter, Jane, married Robert Mortimer, Curate of Comber, and he succeeded his father-in-law as Rector in 1783. They had thirteen children and the third son, born in Comber, in 1796 became Incumbent of Magherhamlet. He died in 1876. The Rev. Robert Mortimer and his nephew were killed in the ambush at Saintfield in the 1798 Rebellion. They are buried at York Island in the river near the scene of the ambush. The story is told that the York Fencibles, a cruel, rough half-trained regiment of Militia (they had two weeks training each summer) stationed in the Market House (now Town Hall) in Newtownards, marched under the command of Colonel Stapleton to Comber on their way to Ballynahinch, where the main force of the rebels under Henry Monroe was assembling. When Stapleton’s force reached Comber they did not know which road to take for Ballynahinch, so they enlisted the help of the Rector of Comber, the Rev. Robert Mortimer, as the one they could trust. He saddled his horse and with his nephew conducted them on the way. The Mortimer Plate was lost in this rebellion, but was later found on the top of Scrabo Tower.

The remaining Rectors of Comber with date of appointment are as follows: 1799 – Rev. George Birch and his son in 1828 – George Watson Birch. He died aged 30 years. 1831 – Rev. Robert Ferrier Jex-Blake, an Englishman who resigned in 1851. It was at this time that the church was rebuilt – 1840. 1851 – William Thomas Delacherois Crommelin of Carrowdore Castle, a relation of the last Countess of Mount Alexander. 1868 – The Rev. George Smith. He died in 1911 aged 76. A new Transept to the church was erected as a memorial to him with a Mural Tablet in 1913. IN 1911 came Charles Campbell Manning, followed in 1918 by the Rev. John Sheffield Houston, and in 1954 by the Rev. Richard Clayton Stevenson. 1960 – Rev. Robert Joseph Norman Lockhart, 1962 – Rev. Hamilton Leckey, 1979 – Rev. F.D. Swann and 1984 – Rev. Dr. J.P.O. Barry. The Rev. Manning became a Chaplain to the Forces in 1914-18 War and a new Rectory was built for him.

Comber Parish are most fortunate in having a set of parochial records which go back to 1688. The Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials are frequently consulted by those researching their family history; and contain many interesting facts about Comber families. Perhaps the most unique is the entry for 19th March 1946 when our present Queen, then her Royal Highness The Princess Elizabeth acted as Godmother at a baptism in St. Mary’s.

We are also fortunate in having a set of Vestry records covering a similar period. These make fascinating reading and cast an interesting light on parochial life in a bygone age.

5) The Present Parish Church
By the early 1800’s St. Mary’s was getting beyond repair, so it was decided to build a new church on the same site. This was done in 1840 and is the building that exists today. The bell in the tower was made by Thomas Mears of London in 1840 and is still calling the people to worship today. The clock made by Robert Neill of Belfast, has a pendulum ninety inches long, giving a slow even beat and is driven by two huge weights suspended on cables which take them to the roof of the clock-room and then begin a seven day descent to three heavy wooden beams on the floor. There is a brass inscription as follows “Upon the completion of the new church, this clock and chandeliers were presented to the parish of Comber by Viscount Castlereagh, 1841”. The chandeliers, holding many candles, illuminated the interior of the church in the evenings for many years.

6) Parish School
In 1813, a day school was established in connection with the Church and occupied the site of the present Hall. It functioned from that date until the new Primary School was opened on the Darragh Road in 1938. The school was built jointly by the Countess of Londonderry (her husband did not become a Marquis until 1816), and the executors of the Erasmus Smyth Charity. It was a single storey building, facing The Square and with a small playground in front. It had two rooms, one 40 feet long and the other 30 feet long and both 18 feet wide and 10 feet high. It had accommodation for 126 pupils. In 1837 the school had 233 pupils, 137 boys and 96 girls. They were all Protestant except 8 who were Catholic. The Master received £30 yearly from the Erasmus Smyth Foundation and one half-penny per week from such of his pupils as were able to pay it. In 1832 Lord Londonderry erected a house for the Master at the rear of the school. It has now been re-modelled as a house for the Curate.