by Peter and Aidan Sands

Drumgath is one of the smallest parishes in the diocese of Dromore. It comprises thirteen townlands and includes the small market town of Rathfriland which dominates the surrounding drumlin countryside. The parish was established by the Synod of Kells in 1152 when parishes in Ireland were first created. There are three Roman Catholic churches in the parish: Saint Colman's, Barnmeen, Saint Mary's, Rathfriland and Saint Patrick's, Drumgath. Around these three Catholic community identities have grown up.

Prior to the Synod of Kells, the district was ministered to by monks. It is likely that there was a monastery around about the site of the old Drumgath Cemetery - the finding of a ninth or tenth-century bell by a local woman in 1764 would substantiate this. The bell is a small hand-bell of the type which was common in Irish monasteries from the time of St. Patrick until the year 1000.


The Drumgath Bell' was found by a local woman in 1764. It is now held in the Down County Museum in Downpatrick.

The remains of a mound on the periphery of the burial ground is still further evidence of a monastic settlement. The old Drumgath burial ground, which was taken over some years ago by the then Rural District Council, does not now reveal very much of its ancient history. The inscriptions on the older crude grave stones are no longer legible. Although it cannot be stated authoritatively, these headstones are supposed to be the earliest ones in this part of the country on which there were inscriptions. The burying ground, first mentioned in 1407, served St. John's Rathfriland and Drumgath until the new. Catholic cemetery was opened some time after the building of a new church in 1833. The parish is now served by two other Catholic cemeteries.


The name Rathfriland is generally said to mean "the fort of Fraoileann". Fraoileann is presumed to be an early Irish chieftain but nothing more is known about him. In earlier times it was also referred to as "Oilcan Rath Fraoileann" i.e. the Island of the fort of Fraoileann. The hill on which the town is situated was similar to an island in the past as the land around was considerably wilder and more marshy than it is today. Native Irish speakers referred to it as "Mullach Rath Fraoileann" or, simply, "an mullach" - meaning `the summit'. The strategic importance of the hill is obvious and it is likely to have been fortified since ancient times. It was the seat of the Gaelic Magennis clan of Iveagh and their castle was situated close to the prominent modern water tower on the summit of the hill.


A stone castle is believed to have been erected in the 15th. or 16th. century which would have replaced earlier wooden structures. The original building is estimated to have been 30 feet by 50 feet and would also have had a stone perimeter wall. The stone was quarried from the hill itself and created a steep precipice on the west side which would have been useful in defending the site. The steepness of the site can still be appreciated when approaching the town from the Banbridge direction.

The Magennis clan were overlords of the territory of Iveagh from 1136. Arthur Magennis, first Viscount Iveagh, was married to Lady Sarah O'Neill the daughter of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who led the gaelic clans in the nine years' war against the English. He remained on after the `Flight of the Earls' and the Plantation of Ulster. He died in 1629 and was buried with his ancestors in Drumballyroney Churchyard which is approximately a mile north of the town. (The church and cemetery are in the Roman Catholic parish of Annaclone. They are now part of the Bronte Homeland Museum). Lady Sarah lived after his death in their castle at Narrow Water, Warrenpoint. His son, Hugh Magennis, was the last of the family to hold Iveagh. His role in the 1641 rebellion brought about their final downfall and loss of the family lands.

Following the defeat of the 1641 rebellion, the castle was destroyed by Cromwell's General Ireton and the manor of Rathfriland was granted to Alderman William Hawkins. His son, John Hawkins finally pulled down most of the castle and built a new manor house in the townland of Lessize below the town. No trace of this now remains. John Hawkins married Mary Johnston of Gilford through whom the family inherited the Gilford estate. He died in 1689 and was also buried at Drumballyroney along with the Magennises. The manor passed down to his great-granddaughter, Theodosia Hawkins Magill, who married Sir John Meade, later Earl of Clanwilliam. She was an independent woman for her time and managed these lands by herself leaving them, on her death, to her second son. The family lived mostly in Norfolk but had a Georgian Cottage at Burrenwood, near Castlewellan, which was built by Theodosia Hawkins Magill.

All that remains standing today of Rathfriland Castle is a small portion of the south gable wall. measuring 30 feet long by 25 feet wide. When it was finally taken down by John Hawkins, the stones were said to have been used to build some of the oldest buildings of the town. Among those which have survived is the old three-storey `Town Inn' which still stands at the corner of The Square and Newry Street. The cellar of this building was said to be the meeting place of the notorious `Hellfire Club' in the 18th. Century.

The large town square was the site of a thriving market for many years which like the town has now fallen into decline. The Market House which stands in the centre was built in 1764 and stands where there was formerly a village pond. From every street, radiating out, there are panoramic views of the County Down countryside and the mountains of Mourne.

On 14th. April 1834, the renowned gaelic scholar, John O'Donovan, arrived in the town while travelling around the country researching placenames for Ordnance Survey maps. He lodged in the Town Inn for five nights. O'Donovan noted that "in the town there are upwards of thirty public houses" and reported a high degree of drunkenness. He was impressed by the beauty of the area and the friendliness of the people, of whom he remarked "the inhabitants of this district of the County of Down are a kind, warmhearted and tractable people and it is a pity that the seeds of dissension should be sown among them by ill-designing men and party newspapers".


St. Colman's Church, Barnmeen - the oldest Catholic church in use in the diocese of Dromore.

Of the three Catholic churches in the parish, Saint Colman's, Barnmeen, is the oldest and it is distinguished by being the oldest Catholic church in use in the diocese of Dromore. It is located close to Barnmeen Bridge, two miles west of Rathfriland, on the Newry Road. The Church faces onto the old Newry Road which was superseded by the present road in the early nineteenth century. It is a simple, attractive country church in a fine unspoilt country setting.

The church was built in 1760 by Rev. Thomas Digenan P.P., at a time when the Catholic Church in Ireland was only just emerging from a period of intense persecution and Catholic church-building was extremely rare indeed. Following the Reformation, the first recorded Catholic priest in the area was Fr. Bryan Fegan who was living in Tamary in the year 1691. He had been evicted from his farm in Barnmeen. He was succeeded by a Fr. Mines and then by Fr. Digenan. Fr. Digenan lived on a two-acre farm in Lurgancahone which he held on a sub-lease from Con Boy Magennis. Magennis was a sub-landlord of that townland and of Ballykeel, which he held under the Marquis of Downshire. Patrick "Fegan of Barnmeen was another sub-landlord. He was known as "the Laird" and was one of the few prosperous Catholics of the period. His descendants still live in Barnmeen. Fr. Digenan was a native of Drumgath Parish and was educated at the Irish College in Paris. He was parish priest of Drumgath from 1745 to 1785 and was buried in the old graveyard in Drumgath. The church was built with the assistance of the Seneschal (similar to the modern-day magistrate) - one Captain Kerr of Rathfriland.

The side-aisles were added in 1820 by Rev. Fergus Rooney RR A free-standing iron bell tower was built alongside the church by Rev. Canon Gallery P.P. in 1914. The sanctuary and high altar of 1905 was sensitively remodelled by Very. Rev. Canon Patrick McAnuff in the 1980s, to comply with the requirements of Vatican 11.

The church both inside and out fortunately retains much of the austere, rustic charm of the vernacular Catholic and Presbyterian churches of that era. The narrow, gothic lancet windows, some of which still have plain diamond glazing, fill the interior with light. Of particular note are the stained-glass windows behind the altar by Clokey of Belfast. These depict the Crucifixion scene and were erected by parishioners in 1880 as a memorial to the Barnmeen Martyrs. The inscription (which was previously hidden from view by the old high altar) reads "Sacred to the memory of those called the Barnmeen Martyrs".

The first Barnmeen School formerly stood to the right of the present entrance gate and is commemorated by a plaque. It was burnt down by the Black and Tans during the troubles of 1921. The curate at the time, Fr. McCartan, was arrested by the Black and Tans but released the following day. He was referred to as "the bomber curate" by an English Sunday Newspaper, for which he recovered �750 libel damages in the High Court.


St. Mary's Church, Rathfriland (1831). The striking rose window on the entrance front was installed in 1936.

Saint Mary's, Rathfriland, was built in 1831, by Rev. Laughlin Morgan P.P., at the bottom of Newry Street on the outskirts of the town. It is similar to many of the Catholic churches which were being built in the diocese during in the mid-19th. century.

As one enters, there is a fine stained-glass window on the left, by the famous Harry Clarke studio, which depicts a crowned virgin and child. The striking rose window on the entrance front was erected in 1936. Many of the period features of the interior were removed during renovations in 1980. This has unfortunately detracted from the church's internal appearance.

To the north of the church can still be seen the small ruined cottage, surrounded by trees, which was the Quaker meeting-house in the town. It was built in 1780. For many years a prominent Quaker family named Murphy lived in the town. William Penn is reputed to have visited the town and lodged in the Town Inn.


St. Patrick's Church, Drumgath. The building was completely restored in 2000.

Located approximately mid-way between Mayobridge and Rathfriland, the small vernacular church of Saint Patrick's, Drumgath, was erected in 1833 by Rev. Arthur Polin P.P. It was originally a long, low building with two doors on one side and the altar at the centre of the wall opposite. This design can often be seen in pre-Emancipation Catholic and Presbyterian churches.

The original building contained the present transepts and sanctuary. In 1865, the nave was added by Very  Patrick McKey, P.P., to give the present cruciform plan. The church's style is traditional and typical of country churches built at that time. St. Patrick's replaced a former Mass Station.

The building was completely restored by Rev. Gerard Powell P.P., in 2000. The major renovation included the provision of a new roof of natural slate, which is fully insulated and ventilated. Because of rot and major worm infestation, all the timbers have been replaced with steel and new timber. The walls were stripped back to the original stone and replastered internally and externally. A new heating system has been provided along with new seating, the renewal of the floor structure, tiling and carpets. A new confessional was installed, new porches were developed, rewiring was undertaken and amplification with a loop system for the hearing-impaired was put in place. Outdoor amplification is now provided for funerals and cemetery Masses. The sanctuary includes new altar furniture - a baptismal font, ambo and celebrant's chair. An old window has been reopened, leading into the sacristy. Now known as the `Drumgath Jubilee 2000 Window,' it tells the story of St. Patrick and the faith of the people of Drumgath. The sacristy has been upgraded with new furniture and the building has been fitted with fire and intruder alarms.

The former Drumgath Primary School which stood beside the church was demolished in 2000 to make more room at the entrance to the church. A gable wall was retained, which now serves as a bell tower for the church.

On the east side of the Square in Rathfriland is Saint John's Church of Ireland Parish Church, built in 1733. It has a plain, rendered exterior with a squat tower to the front.

There are three Presbyterian churches in the town. Rathfriland First Presbyterian Church stands at the bottom of Newry Street. The congregation dates from 1662. Rathfriland Second Presbyterian Church is situated further down, below the old school which is now the Parish Centre, and was built in 1799. Rathfriland Third Presbyterian Church is at the top of Newry Street and was built in 1836.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church is on Castle Lane and was also erected in the 19th. century.

There is a Baptist Church, on the Loughbrickland Road, which was built in 1982.


The historic Drumgath Cemetery. Here rest the remains of the `Barnmeen Martyrs' and their lawyer, Charles Christian.

This little-known, ancient site is located half a mile or so beyond the present St. Patrick's Church in the direction of Mayobridge. Local legend claims that Saint Patrick preached to followers of his in the district. He ordered a spear to be cast off Tamary Hill, which rises behind the graveyard, in order to choose the site for building a church. From this, the name of the townland and the parish is said to derive: "Druim an ghaith," meaning "the hill of the spear". While this colourful legend is unlikely to have had any basis in fact, the old graveyard was indeed the location of an early Christian church or monastery. The site itself is circular in shape, like the ringforts of the time. Although overgrown, the remains of some buildings can still be identified. In the south- east corner a stone barrel-arch still stands. The graveyard is covered in crude granite gravestones most of which are now, sadly, illegible. Until Barnmeen graveyard was purchased in the mid-19th. century, Old Drumgath was the main burying ground for the parish.

In 1764, a local woman named Peggy McGivern found an ancient hand-bell somewhere in the hedge near the graveyard. It is similar in appearance to Saint Bronagh's Bell which can be seen in the parish church in Rostrevor. The Drumgath Bell, as it is known, was probably used in the church at the old graveyard. It is made of cast bronze with an iron clapper and is eight inches high. The only decorations are three grooves along the handle. There is a hole to one side, presumably to improve the tone.

For many years it was used on the altar of Barnmeen Church. The bell was given away in 1820 by the parish priest, Fr. Polin, to Issac Glenny of Glenvale. Glenny was a famous local antiquarian whose home is now the Carmelite convent. The Glenny collection was bequeathed to the Belfast Museum and the Drumgath Bell is now on display in the Down County Museum, in Downpatrick.


The story of the men known as the `Barnmeen Martyrs', despite being almost two hundred years old, is still well remembered in the locality. In 1820, twelve men were tried in Downpatrick Courthouse for the murder of a Rathfriland man, Samuel Duncan. His death took place on the night of 1st. November 1819 on the old road between Newry and Rathfriland, not far from the present Drumgreenagh School. Of these twelve, seven were convicted and sentenced to death. Five of them were hanged outside the gates of the old jail in English Street, Downpatrick, and two more had their death sentences commuted to penal servitude for life.

In the early 19th. century sectarianism was rife in the area. Wolfe Tone had visited Rathfriland in 1792 to meet with local clergy in an attempt to calm local tensions following a sectarian faction fight known as the "Battle" of Ballyknappogue. One person had died and several others were injured in a fight between the Catholic Defenders and Protestant Peep o'Day Boys. The conflict arose out of Protestant objections to Catholics holding a burial at Drumballyroney graveyard on a Sunday. The owner of the Town Inn refused to serve Wolfe Tone. Tone satirically referred to Rathfriland as "that flourishing seat of liberality and refinement" and expressed the opinion that "it cannot be that the rabble of Rathfriland shall stop the growing liberty of Ireland". It was in this environment that the martyrs' deaths occurred.

The victim, Samuel Duncan, a shoemaker from Rathfriland, was on his way home from the All Saints' Day races at Carnbane, near Newry. Local tradition has it that he was drunk and cursing the Pope. It appears that he was struck over the head by someone. He was taken home to Rathfriland, where he died later that night.

Over the next few days, a large number of local men were arrested by local militia and brought to the jail in Downpatrick. They were tried at the assizes on 24th. March 1820. Local people believed the charges to be so preposterous that an acquittal was widely expected. The trial was presided over by Mr. Justice Bushe, a liberal man who went on to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. The accused were represented by Mr. Charles Russell Christian, a well-known solicitor from Caddell's Lane in Rathfriland who was a passionate advocate of Catholic Emancipation. The jury were all Protestant, as was normal for the time. They convicted seven of the men, notwithstanding the flimsy evidence against them.

A large number of Barnmeen people travelled to Downpatrick to be present at the execution on Monday 27th. March 1820. In those times hangings were held in public. The condemned men were attended by Fr. McAleenan (later parish priest of Castlewellan) and are said to have shown great composure in meeting their fate. They reportedly asked the priest on the scaffold "Do we die as martyrs?", to which he replied "You do, my children".

Their bodies were taken down and later secretly recovered by their families, rather than be buried within the confines of the jail as was required by law. They were laid overnight in the Catholic Church of Ballykillbeg, between Downpatrick and Clough. On the following day they were returned home in a cortege that was reputedly over two miles long. The bodies were buried side by side in the old graveyard in Drumgath. No memorial marks their resting place except for a single stone over the grave of Hugh Toman. Incidentally, their lawyer, Charles Christian, is also interred in the same graveyard in a prominent railed enclosure with a tablet bearing the words "Christian's Place".

The two men due for transportation were brought to Warrenpoint. There they boarded a prison ship bound for Liverpool and, thereafter, Van Diemen's Land - modern day Tasmania.

The stained-glass windows behind the altar in Barnmeen Church were erected by the people of the parish, in 1880, in memory of the martyrs.


Drumgath Parish goes back to the year 1152 (the date of the Synod of Kells) when parishes were first definitely drawn up and arranged in Ireland. Before that time there were no parishes, as we know them today. The people were ministered to by monks from the local monastery.


Milo Omistega (Myles McStay),


Michael O'Hennan,


Eugene Magennis,

(after a long vacancy)

John MacGennity,


Neil Mac Kay,

Parish Priests

Bryan O'Fegan,


Father Mines,


Thomas Digenan,


Fergus Rooney,

1785 -1822

Patrick Mac Evoy,


Laughlin Morgan,


Arthur Polin,


Thomas Brady,


Patrick O'Neill,


Patrick Mac Key,


Thomas Mac Givern,


Thomas Gallery,


James Fitzpatrick,


James Mc Corry,


James Mc Evoy,


Patrick J. Mc Anuff,


Aldan Hamill,


Gerard Powell,


James Poland,

M. McAlinden, 1750
Thomas Mac Key,  1814
Patrick Mac Evoy, 1820-1822
Thomas Mac Givern, 1832-1837
William Aiken, 1837-1838

Michael Maginn,

Daniel Mooney, 1841-1843
Bernard Maginn, 1843-1844
John Mooney, 1844-1846
Bernard Troy, 1846-1847
John Mac Donnell, 1847-1850
Michael O'Loughlin, 1850-1851
Arthur Finnegan, 1851-1852
Charles O'Hare, 1852-1863
John Gribben, 1863-1864
Felix Mac Laughlin, 1864
Terence Quinn, 1864-1866
Stephen Mac Nulty, 1866-1867
Cornelius Woods, 1867-1871
William Bradley, 1871-1879
John O'Hare, 1879-1891
Daniel Grant, 1891-1901
William Mac Ginn, 1901-1905
Patrick Greenan, 1905-1913
Daniel Toman, 1913-1923
Patrick Mac Cartan, 1919-1922
Stephen Mc Nulty, 1922-1923
John Lennon, 1923-1927
James Murney, 1923-1932
James McCorry, 1927-1934
Michael McCartan, 1934-1941
Daniel Fegan, 1941-1943
James McEvoy, 1943-1945
James Murtagh, 1945-1956
James Mooney, 1956-1961
Patrick Rooney, 1961-1967
Gerard McCrory, 1967-1970 & 1970-1974
Aldan Hamill. 1970-1971
Desmond Knowles, 1974-1979 & 1980-1981
James Sheppard, 1979
Oliver Mooney, 1981-1988
Kieran McPartlan, 1988-1992
Patrick Reidy C.S.Sp., 1992-1997
Martin McAlinden, 1997-2000
Thomas McConville, 2000 - ad nunc.

This former school building in Rathfriland has been adapted, in recent years, for use as a parish centre. The new St. Mary's Centre was opened in 1996.



Archdeacon Thomas Mooney was born in Lurgancahone, educated at Maynooth and ordained in 1934. He spent the year following his Ordination on a temporary mission in Down and Connor Diocese. Fr. Mooney returned to his native diocese to become, successively, C.C. Magheralin and C.C. Gargory, before becoming E.I. (1937-1950). In the latter year he was appointed C.C. Seagoe. In 1959 he was appointed C.C. Burren.

In 1963, Fr. Mooney was appointed Parish Priest of Magheralin and became Parish Priest of Kilbroney in 1972. He was appointed Archdeacon in January 1984 and retired in August 1987. Archdeacon Mooney lives beside the church in Drumgath where he enjoys his many interests. These include historical research, beekeeping and gardening.


This window was installed in St. Patrick's Church, Drumgath, during the renovations which took place that year. It celebrates aspects of the story of St. Patrick and of the Christian heritage of Drumgath Parish.

The symbols included in the window represent the following:

Tree - The growth and spread of the Christian faith through St. Patrick's teaching.
Arrow - The legend of the archer and St.Patrick.
The Drumgath Bell - Ancient bell found by a parishioner in the nineteenth century.
Bishop's mitre - St.Patrick
Ship & wave - St. Patrick's journey to Ireland.
Shepherd's staff-
St. Patrick's early years on Slemish.
Four shamrocks - The four provinces.
Three sets of three squares -The Trinity.
Trefoil shape of border - The Trinity.
The dove - The Holy Spirit.