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16 October 2014
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History from Headstones, St. Aidan's

As part of a series of special features, Helen Mark visits the prehistoric site of St.Aidan's near Magilligan..

St. Aidan's Graveyard at Magilligan

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In this visit Helen Mark spoke to William Roulston of the Ulster Historical Foundation, Jim Hunter, local historian, Willie McLaughlin, Sacrastan and his assistant Sheila Crawford, and also to Maud Allison, who's family is now in its 10th generation here.


The original gable wall of the old church is the place where St. Aidan is buried.
The original Gale wall where St. Aidan is buried
The site at St. Aidan's, near Magilligan, goes back to prehistoric times and thus has great historic importance. The Druids worshipped here. When the early Christian missionaries such as St. Patrick and St. Columbkille came along in the 5th and 6th Centuries, they did not totally dismiss the ways of the Druids. In fact they adopted and adapted some of their customs and traditions. St. Columbkille built his church on the sacred grove of the Druids. The holy well of the Druids later became St. Aidan's holy well.

The church here was used by the Church of Ireland community from 1608 until 1772 when the C.o.I. Earl Bishop Frederick Gustus Hervey decided that it should be moved to a new location a couple of miles to the north.

It is said that his reason for this was that he could keep a closer eye on the parishioners there as it was within sight of his great castle at Downhill!

This led to an interesting court case some 100 years later when the Irish Churches Act came along in 1869. This effect of this act was to disestablish the Church of Ireland, putting it on an equal footing with the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church. As part of this process, all of the lands owned by the Church of Ireland were confiscated by the state. A claim was thus made upon the church here at Magilligan and some of its surrounding churchyard. The case eventually went before the courts in 1886. At that hearing the Church or Ireland Rector, Rev Gauge, represented the Roman Caholic's point of view, saying that the Earl Bishop had in fact bequeathed the properties to the Roman Catholic community during the 1780s.

Subsequent to this, the Roman Catholic community used the church until a new one was built in 1826.

Audio Clip 1: Historical background to the site at St. Aidan's



Willie McLaughlin, Sacrastan at the Chapel, tells us of a quite remarkable woman who is buried here. Sarah Sweeney died in 1963 at the age of 110 (yes one hundred and ten!). She lived a considerable part of her life in a sod-house... a house built from mounds of soil. She also lived for a time in an upturned boat near Magilligan Point. Among her other talents, she was a midwife to many children born in the locality and in addition was renowned to be a great singer!

Another quite famous singer from this area was Eddie Butcher (1900-1980) Eddie was born in Aughill, Co Londonderry. As a folk singer he had a rich repertoire, running to around 300 songs including some from his father's and wife's family. It is said that he wrote songs about local occurrences and adopted and adapted old traditional airs to fit into the modern day situation. Eddie Butcher became widely known through broadcasts in the 1960s. He was an influence on Paul Brady, Andy Irvine, Frank Harte and Len Graham. His songs include 'The Tractor' and others traditional songs such as 'The Marriage', 'The Mountain Stream where the Moorcock Crows' and 'David's Flowery Vale'.

Audio Clip 2: The old woman who lived under a boat.
Eddie Butcher the folk singer






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