Big thank you from

Portmore - an area steeped in history
and flowing with milk and honey

The Digger unearths some surprising stories from the shores of Lough Neagh

The Horbison/Harbison headstone under a yew tree at Laa Lou, Portmore.PORTMORE is an interesting part of the district, steeped in history and located between Lower Ballinderry and the shores of Lough Neagh.

A Moravian church, remnants of Portmore Castle and an ancient burial ground all lie within walking distance of each other in this area.

Pass by Ballinderry Moravian Church along the Portmore Road towards Portmore Lough (also known as Lough Beg), and take left at the fork in the road. This is Dornan's Road, a long straight piece of roadway, that has borne witness to many of those making their final journey on this earth to their resting place at the graveyard. It was an area close to Bishop Jeremy Taylor's heart in times past.

That piece of roadway was also trodden by hundreds of herded cattle over many years, brought to the Lough's shores for grazing by farmers from the locality. The area was also visited regularly by thatchers seeking osiers to make scollops.

The Ordnance Survey memoirs in the 1830s refer to the graveyard as Laa Lau or Laa Loo. We are informed that people met here on the 4th of August in remembrance of St. Lau who was believed to be the founder of the church which occupied the site.

According to legend this practice stopped in 1798 due to the trouble associated with this period. The two gables of the old church are still in situ and dominate this elevated site, and, as recorded by the memoir writers in the 1830's, they remain covered with ivy to this day.

The following is an extract from an 1841 publication titled "Original Poems, sacred, moral elegiac" by William Anderson, an English teacher.

Stanza on viewing the ruins of Portmore, in the County of Antrim

With milk and with honey the place does abound -
The truth I do tell - I do write what is sound.
The next place I mention, they call it Laloo,
Lies hard by Portmore, and from it you can view
That old ancient church, and whose walls still do stand
And fine burying-ground for those in that land.
Who, wise to lie there, when their life it is fled,
And here be no more, but to sleep with the dead.
In the winter season it is surrounded o'er.
When floods they do swell all around by Portmore;
So that when a funeral doth go to the place,
I often have known it then to be the case.
That the corpse was ferried o'er to get there,
To a fine rising ground - interr'd there they were,
And there to remain until the judgement day,
And wait on the word, now, rise, come away.

The poem corroborates stories I have heard locally from those who recall their parents and grandparents telling them about crossing to Laloo in a boat when attending a funeral. Today you can walk to the graveyard, enter through the gates and experience tranquillity in a picturesque setting. Something of a rarity now in our modern lifestyles.

You may notice the name of the manufacturer on the gates of the pillar as you pass through them - "The Millfield Foundry, Belfast." They were also the manufacturers of one of the metal plaques marking the burial place of the family of Thomas Gregory, "Fumore." On this plaque you will discover family has been spelt "fmaily" and of course the spelling of the place name "Fumore" (Feymore/Feumore) is still the subject of heated debate in the locality.

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs also mention other interesting features within the cemetery referred to as the 'St. Patrick's Knee Stones.'

It was said the holes in these stones were left by St. Patrick whilst in "attitude of prayer." It was reported that in those days they were frequently visited by hundreds of people seeking a cure for warts and other diseases. They are sometimes referred to as Bollan stones. There are relatively few headstones in this graveyard, approximately 70 in total. Some of the older stones are now unreadable. Fortunately some of the inscriptions on the early 18th century headstones were recorded by historians. Francis Joseph Bigger, who wrote extensively in the field of local history, visited Portmore on 17th May 1893. When describing one of the rhyming legends that he found on the O'Dowd family headstone he wrote - "I regret to say that time's effacing fingers have made this legend rather hard to read."

A headstone under the ivy against the East gable wall of the old church was erected by James O'Doran in memory of his father, the Rev. Bernard O'Doran, vicar of Killead, who died in 1815, and Susannah, the wife of Bernard who died in 1857. It is recorded that Bernard O'Doran had been a Catholic priest but had rejected those beliefs, embracing the Protestant religion. In 1801 he was appointed Vicar of Killead where he remained until his death in 1815.

Fortunately a 'Register of Interments' for Portmore exists for the period 1894-1928 and a copy has been placed in the Public Records Office for Northern Ireland.

In a study of the register by local historian and author Francis McCorry in his book 'Sacred Landscapes and Human Endeavour in South Antrim he refers to the 452 burials during the 34 year period. Francis makes an interesting observation and records the fact that 140 of the burials during this period are from the Belfast area.

He explains the reason for this - "Going home to the place of birth for burial is part of the human condition."

The surviving register contains the name, age, religion, occupation, address and date of both death and burial of the deceased. The average number of burials at Portmore during the period 1894 to 1908 is approximately 16.

Those buried there in the six years from 1894 were engaged in a variety of occupations during their lives and included 12 labourers, 11 weavers, 5 farmers, 4 servants, a carpenter, brush maker, dressmaker and mill worker.

There were many during the period 1894-1907, who would not live to see "three score years and ten." Approximately 20% of those burials were children, ten years of age or younger. Almost half of those did not survive beyond their first birthday. Just over 20% of the people buried during the period lived beyond the age of 70 years, with only four surviving over the age of 90. A headstone, now broken, can be found lying flat under yew trees to the north side of the cemetery. It marks the burial place of Frances Horbison, who died in 1736 aged 51, her five children and her husband Arthur. His surname has been inscribed as "Harbison."

The Harbison surname had a long association with the surrounding district. Persons bearing that name occupied the town lands of Portmore, Ballinderry, Aghagallon, Lurgill, Derrypaseer, Magheralin and Moygarriff. There is a belief that the surname is of English origin. During the course of Irish history many families succumb to events they experienced during tumultuous times.

Family historians who have researched the surname in this area, relate a story about a member of the family who was sentenced to death by hanging in the area. It is alleged he was given a 15 minute reprieve to run for his life. He took that opportunity, went into hiding, and then made his escape across Lough Neagh to the County Tyrone shore, making a new life for him- self and establishing the family surname in a new territory.

There is also a belief that the Harbison were local squires in the Ballinderry area, and at some point in history they had to give up their land, settling for three acres at Portmore. The three acres were from that time known locally as Ned's acre, Pat's acre and Dominic's acre and collectively were known as "Harbinsonstown." Dominic Harbison had been a well-known hedge school teacher, described as a "learned-man", to whom some sources credit as the author of the famous ballad "Bonnie Portmore."

In the register of interments for Portmore there are 18 recorded burials of persons with the Harbison/ Harbinson surname. They are all recorded as Roman Catholics. One of those burials took place on the 28th October 1914. Sarah Harbison, aged 75 years from Belfast was laid to rest within the cemetery. A notice of her death appeared in the Irish News on Monday 26th October, 1914 informing interested parties that her remains would be removed to Portmore by motor. She was the second wife of Philip Harbison. They had been married on 16th September 1864.

Sarah was the daughter of Arthur Doran, a bundler. Prior to her marriage she was residing at 16 Michael Street, Belfast. She had died at the home of her daughter - Susan McLaverty, 30 Clowney Street, in the Falls area of Belfast. In addition to Susan, Philip and Sarah had a large family that included John (born 1865), Philip (born 1867), twins Joseph and Arthur (born 1869), Mary Elizabeth (born 1871), William Edward (born 1873) and James (born 1882).

Sarah Harbison's husband Philip and his brother William, later described in the local press as a native of Ballinderry, were sons of a John Harbison, a weaver. In 1867 their names would become well-known within Ireland and beyond as I will explain next week.

Thanks to the Deputy Keeper of records PRONI for granting permission to quote from The Portmore register of Interments. (D3300/64 refers). Thanks also to Fr. Colin Crossey C.C., Belfast for his assistance.

The Digger can be contacted at or by contacting The Ulster Star office.