Rich Heritage of Stewartstown and Environs
Aidan Fee shares the secrets of the area
If you were to give Stewartstown a ‘miss’, would you be missing anything? The answer is a resounding ‘yes!’
The town lies at the centre of an area steeped in history. There is evidence of settlement dating from the bronze age: hill top 'ring forts', which were the dwelling places of iron age farmers, island-dwellings or ‘crannogs’ which were used as places of safety even up to the seventeenth century; the landscape can speak volumes to those with a trained eye.
An awareness of the rich historical and cultural heritage of the Stewartstown district led a small group, some twenty odd years ago, to found a local history society. An essential aim of the society was to produce a publication on a regular basis, which would include articles and features relating to the area. To date, nine issues of The Bell have appeared and their impact has been powerful.
What might the casual visitor note about the town itself? It is named after a Scotsman. Andrew Stewart, a Scots nobleman who undertook to 'settle' a large area in the east of Co Tyrone with Scottish tenants. He was one of many Scots and English ‘undertakers’ who became involved in the plantation of Ulster in the early years of the seventeenth century. Part of his ‘undertaking’ was to build a stout house with a walled enclosure or 'bawn' and to provide houses for his Scots tenants.
While the remains of Andrew Stewart’s plantation ‘castle’ and ‘town’ are visible today, only with the aid of aerial photography, the fine castle of his son (also Andrew Stewart) can be visited at Roughan, some miles south-west of the town.
The Stewarts and their legacy of carved stone can also be encountered in the peace of Donaghenry old graveyard, one mile outside of the town on the main road to Cookstown. There the visitor will see the horizontal stone slabs which record, in raised Latin lettering, the life and death of those first Scottish settlers. In the same cemetery a fragment of carved stone has been found and dated to the mid twelfth century when the area was the territory of the O’Neill’s, the Devlin's and the Quinn's.
The fort of Tullyhogue, a couple of miles from Donaghenry ,on the road to Cookstown, is a spectacular earthworks commending views over the rich countryside of Tyrone and Derry. It was the site of the installation of the O’Neill's, chief of the clan and protector of his people in pre-plantation days.
Here, the selected O’Neill was the centre of ceremonial ritual, whose origins are lost in antiquity. The inauguration stone was smashed by Lord Mountjoy, the English commander, during the Elizabethan Wars against Hugh O’Neill and his allies.
The present day peace and tranquillity of Tullyhogue (the Hill of the Young Men) is in stark contrast to the violence of so many years ago. Mountjoy’s name is also remembered in the ruined castle overlooking Lough Neagh. This building owes its origins also to the Elizabethan War against O’Neill.
Captured by the native Irish in 1641, and subsequently recaptured by Parliament, it was deliberately destroyed by the state so that it would not be used by ‘rebels’. A strong local tradition holds that a tunnel runs from Mountjoy castle to the old house of the Morris family at Bellville, a quarter of a mile away. Bellville was also, it is said, haunted by a distraught woman, until her spirit was secured in a bottle and buried!
The same rising and civil strife, which saw the capture of Mountjoy Castle, also saw the destruction of Andrew Stewart’s fledging town 'Stewartstown’ and the overrunning of his Castle.
Stewart’s Castle was built close to the site of the present day Castle Farm, with its view of the small lough and crannog. It was to this crannog that Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, came in September 1607 on his journey to Donegal in what was to be known as the ‘Flight of the Earls’.
It is one of the mysteries of history why O’Neill and his entourage chose to stay at this place, but it is tempting to believe that he had some wealth, jewellery, precious metals, secured at the spot. A generation later, another O’Neill, Sir Phelim, would be captured on the crannog on Roughan Lough and taken to be beheaded in Dublin for his rebellion against the state.
One of the Bartlett Maps, a fascinating visual record of the Elizabethan Wars in Ulster in the 1590s, actually shows an attack on the crannog in 'Lough Crewe' , the lough beside present day Stewartstown.
Two miles or so north of the town on the road to Coagh, is the townland of Ballyclog which gives its name to a parish in its own right. The old church is in ruins, replaced by its grander sister building across the road. This area , ‘the district of the bell’, was the name of the O’Mellans, hereditary keepers of St. Patrick’s Bell. The bell is a very simple piece of sheet metal folded over; the shrine to contain it was commissioned by the high king Domhnall MacLochlainn in 1121 and is an exquisite example of artwork in bronze, silver, gold and glass. Both objects are on permanent display in The National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.
A literary connection with this place exists in the link with a nineteenth century poet and clergyman Rev Charles Wolfe. He ministered in this parish in 1817 and 1818 before moving to Donaghmore as curate. He is the author of the much anthologized 'The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna', a poem he composed while still a student at Trinity College, Dublin.
In some of his letters to friends in Dublin, Moore mentions his friendship with a Rev Meredith, who ministered in the neighbouring parish of Ardtea. This gentleman died suddenly in May 1819. Whether his death is connected with a strange incident involving an exorcism and the firing of a silver bullet is not known.
Rev Wolfe comments in another letter on how he is ‘surrounded by grandees who count their income by thousands’. The aristocracy of the district would have included the Earl of Castlestewart, and Messrs Stales and Caulfield. The Conynghams’s of Springhill, Moneymore, Co Derry would also have been known to the young clergyman from Dublin.
To these landlords, with their wealth from rents, we might also add a substantial list of prosperous middle class linen merchants. Stewartstown in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was at the centre of a thriving trade in linen, spun and woven in the kitchens of local cottages and brought to town to be sold on for finishing. The former market house, where the linen was bought and sold can still be seen in the Square, at its junction with West Street. What were once open archways have now been bricked up and the building has housed many commercial undertakings since its days as a market house.
Few, if any, of the buildings in the town’s square have remained unchanged since the town was laid out by order of Messrs Staples and Caulfield in the eighteenth century. One building in North Street is known as ‘Kerry House’, because of its links with a group soldiers of the Kerry Militia, who on 12th July 1797 were involved in an unfortunate affray with the inhabitants of the town and paid for it with their lives.
The Kerrymen were confronted by local Orangemen and retreated into the house on North Street. A party of Dragoons was summoned and a shooting match ensued. Accounts differ as to the number of casualties which occurred. The bodies of ‘Sergeant Mahoney and privates of the Kerry Militia’ were buried in the Roman Catholic graveyard where a headstone was much later erected to their memory; this can be seen to this day.
The military world of James Alfred Caulfield (1830 – 1913) encompassed Ireland, Hong Kong and the Crimea. His home was Drumcairne House, overlooking his beloved Coney Island, the largest island on Lough Neagh. As ‘Colonel Caulfield’, he served the Viceroy in Dublin Castle in the position of ‘Compbroker of the Household’ and he succeeded to the title Viscount Charlemont when he was in his sixties.
An article on his life and times appeared in Bell 9 and his house and gardens at Drumcairne are celebrated in the poetry of John Canavan of Killycoply (1862 – 1921). Lord Charlemont is buried on Coney Island.
Stewartstown and its surrounding district provide fascinating fragments of Ireland’s rich and sometimes troubled past. What endures is the beautiful and varied landscape of gentle hills and winding country roads, forever promising and delivering surprises.