Early Irish


Early Irish

The Story Of



Norman Nevin

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Until some months ago, it was generally believe that the earliest evidence of men in Ireland dated

back to around 5,500 B.C. that is about 7,500 years ago and. strangely enough that the north-east

of the island, today the least Irish part of it, has the longest archaeological record.. A new method

of dating pollen, charcoal and wood etc. by radio-carbon dating is much more accurate and Dr.

Peter Woodman, excavating at Mount Sandal on the river Bann, just south of Coleraine, has

shown just recently that here is the earliest record of men in Ireland, dated by radio-carbon to

between 8,700 and 8,600 years ago. Dr. Woodman, excavating at Newferry, which is at the N.W.

corner of' Lough Neagh, where the Bann makes its exit towards the sea, has found charcoal

which is 8,150 years old. Charcoal and wood col1ected from the raised beach at Cushendun,

which had been considered the place of the earliest evidence of man, has now been dated. 7,500

years old.

The basalt cliffs of Antrim show that the basalts have preserved beneath them a band of chalk

exposed on the cliff face - which is loaded with flints that were so precious to early man. Along

the Antrim coast, humanly worked flints are to be found in vast numbers, particularly in the

raised beach gravels at Larne, where they have long been collected and studied, and hence the

people who made and used them are known as Larnians. Who were these Larnians and where did

they come from? They came from Europe and reached Northern Ireland via Wales, England, Isle

of Man and Scotland. They lived entirely by hunting and fishing and were ever on the move,

especially along rivers and. along the shores of lakes. They had axe-like implements of chipped

stone, but they did not use these for forest clearing as their successors did. They do appear to have

made small clearings as seasonal camp-sites and these may have been fenced to keep out wolves

and foxes and. the occasional wandering bear. Most implements were made by a flaking process.

Suitable rounded pebbles of flint would be collected; one end would be struck off and a flat

surface produced; by striking blows at the perimeter of this surface, elongated flakes would be

detached and. the two types most sought for were parallel sided blades or knives and. leaf-shaped

flakes, to be used as pointed knives or mounted on a shaft to serve as an arrow or spear-head,

These people learned that a thin edge could be strengthened by removing small flakes at right

angles to the edge. Flakes were thus turned into scrapers and borers. In the same way one edge of

a flake could be blunted, so producing a ‘backed.' knife. Core-axes were occasionally made by

chipping off flakes from a chosen pebble until it was reduced to the desired shape.

It is believed that these people, who were nomadic, travelled slowly down the Dundonald valley

to make their settlements around Strangford Lough where fish and fowl were plentiful. They left

their evidence in the rubbish heaps and collections of fish spears, knives, axes, scrapers etc which

are found here and. there all along the valley. In 1958 some boys were sent to clear the new

playing fields at Comber Secondary School of stones to allow the new grass to be cut. Neil

Witham and. Jim Swindle each picked up a curiously shaped stone, which later were identified as

flint axe heads. They are now in the Museum in Belfast. Eventually these wanderers reached

Strangford Lough, where food was plentiful and encamped on a safe place, an island, later called

Slesny and later still Rough Island., at Island Hill. Here they caught any little animals that they

could and. gathered berries, roots and nuts, while from the sea they caught fish, seabirds and

gathered all kinds of shellfish. These were consumed at a communal eating place on the island,

the shells being thrown on to one big heap, seven or eight feet high, to be found thousands of

years later in 1936 by Americans from Harvard University excavating on the island for flints and.

other traces of their habitation. Later these wandering people spread round all the shores of the

Lough, which provided them with all their needs. Strangely enough not a single trace of these

people has been found on the shore-line from Donaghadee to Ballyhalbert, They were river folk.

This period lasted roughly until 3,000 B.C. These Mesolithic or Mid-Stone Age men were tall,

strong and hairy with broad noses and. large foreheads. They were wanderers clothed in the skins


of animals and carried heavy wooden clubs, wooden spears or flint hand-axes. They were quite

satisfied to do no more than get enough food.

THE NEOLITHIC AGE - The First Farmers

We now come to the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age), which was very roughly around. 3,000

B.C. until 2,000 B.C. - that is four or five thousand years ago. The sea-level had come to stand

approximately where it is today though there were some later fluctuations. It was from this time

onwards that the Atlantic coasts of Europe were settled by small groups of colonists from the

South - the Mediterranean -seeking land for their crops (wheat and. barley), fodder for their

livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and dogs), and flint and. other hard stones for their tools. They

came to this district from the Iberian Peninsula and Brittany, the light soils attracting them. These

were the first farmers and in choosing the land which best suited their purpose, the farmers had to

clear the mixed oak forests and for felling or ring barking the most serviceable tool was the axe of

hard, fine grained stone which could be ground and polished into shape. Ideal stone for this

purpose was found in the north-east of Ireland and a trade in axes developed with other parts of

Ireland and with England.

Farming meant that they had to stay near their growing crops, so life was more settled and. they

learned among other things to build. better houses and to spin and. weave The homes, at first,

were crude shelters made from branches and. leaves, later they were probably huts in the form of

a cone of logs, held firm by a double ring of stones at the base. Very much later they were houses

made of wood and thatch surmounting stone walls.

We still do not know a great deal about these people, but we are slowly adding to our knowledge.

We do know however that they left very impressive monuments behind them - great stone tombs

- which indicate their interest in magic rites of food production and hopes of future reward. The

term MEGALITHIC is applied to these tombs, because in many cases they were constructed of

large stones -from the Greek - Megas - great and. Lithos - a stone. These are sometimes locally

called "Giant's Gravel", "Giant's Ring", "Druid's Altar", etc but they are all chambered graves,

some containing many burials. We should remember that when we are looking at a Megalith that

we are often looking at the skeleton of the tomb only, the covering mound or cairn of small stones

and soil and subsidiary features having been removed. Outside this, further standing stones were

often placed surrounding or leading into the mound. Thus we see the chamber, consisting of

supporting stones and the roof, when the cairn of stones and soil, which once hid it has gone, or

the uprights only may remain after cairn and roofing material have vanished.

The grave goods such as the leaf-shaped arrowheads are the product of high craftsmanship and

long practised skills and their pottery vessels are of very high quality. One of these arrowheads,

of great beauty, was found by Mr. William Steele, when digging the garden of his new home on

the Glen Road, in 1975. We have several examples of these Megaliths in the Comber district and.

they are well worth a visit. The best example is at Greengraves where we have the Kempe Stones.

This is a portal grave, that is, a single chamber grave with tall entrance pillars. The chamber

measures about five feet square and is entered over a sill, rising to half the height of the wellmatched

portal stones. The back of the over sailing capstone - 8½ ft. x 7½ ft. - rests on a smaller

horizontal roofing slab. All the stones are basalt. Traces of the cairn survive - apparently a long

cairn. The height of the Megalith is ten feet and, the weight of the capstone is 17 tons.

Other examples in the district are the locally known "Giant's Grave" on the left hand side of the

Killinchy Road, in Ballygraffan, another on the right hand side of the Ballynicholl Road, known

locally as "The Five Sisters" and yet another on the right hand side of the Ballygraffan Road near

the old Windmill Stump. In a Year Book of 1887 it was stated that beside the "Five Sisters" was a

capstone measuring 18 feet long, five feet broad and four feet thick. This has now disappeared. In

all these cases the stones were probably dragged on rollers (tree trunks) from the shore of nearby

Strangford Lough. This huge capstone, known as "The Druids' Altar" was used by Roman


Catholics as a place of worship, when they were not allowed to worship anywhere, as it was off

the beaten track.

THE BRONZE AGE - The Metal Workers

The Bronze Age was roughly from 2,000 B.C. until 500 B.C. The New Stone Age people

discovered that the earth contained such materials as gold, copper, tin, silver and iron. They

looked on them as unusual sorts of stone. They could not be chipped but could be hammered or

beaten into shape and would last a long time. Much later and more slowly it was discovered that

the metals could be melted by great heat and poured into shapes to harden again. Then moulds

were invented and. it was found that many well-shaped weapons and tools could be made easily.

Again it was found eventually, that a mixture of two metals sometimes gave a harder and better

weapon. Copper and tin were the first metals to be used in such a way and eventually it was found

that the proportion of one part tin to nine parts copper was the best. This was bronze.

This was the Age of the "Beaker Folk" known for their distinctive type of pottery, (Beakers). In

Southern Ireland these people most likely came from Iberia and in Northern Ireland from Central

Europe. Early in the second millennium they began to exploit their native sources of copper and

copper axes and other small tools and weapons were being made in Ireland. About 1750 B.C. a

bronze industry was established. The need to import tin to add to the native copper stimulated

contacts already established with Spain and Central Europe as well as with Cornwall and the

Early Irish Bronze Age was a time of brilliant achievements with, not only copper and bronze, but

with silver and gold. Ireland at this tine, had some of the finest goldsmiths, silversmiths and

coppersmiths in Europe, and supplied much of Britain with bronze implements as well as silver

and gold ornaments.

These new people brought with them new customs and new ideas, but the places where they lived

are not known with any certainty except for the many artificial islands (Crannogs - from crann

meaning a tree) built in lakes and marshes. Hunting was still important for food, but farming did

improve slowly. Wheat, oats, rye and barley were grown and wooden spades, graips and yokes as

well as flint and bronze sickles were in use, flax was probably first grown in this age and the

horse was first brought into Ireland. Clothing also improved with long, loose dresses for the

women and short kilts for the men, made of cloth woven from wool and goat's hair. Many

ornaments of stone, shells, bone and metal were worn by both men and women, but they were

often charms against evil. This improvement in clothing became important because around. 500

B.C. the weather became wetter and stormier and as a result peat began to cover large areas and

probably hid traces of the earlier inhabitants. Characteristic of this period are the ceremonial

circles of earth or standing stones or a combination of the two. These had some magic - religious

significance to Bronze Age man, probably connected with sun and fertility worship. Examples of

these are to be found at "The Giant's Ring" not far from Purdysburn and at Ballynoe, south of

Downpatrick. These are the most mysterious relics of antiquity as they are places of ritual and not

burial or habitation and. therefore their excavation produces little to serve as evidence of date.

The "Cock and Hens" stones at the ‘hairpin' bend in Dundonald are also an example of this.

There are also many single ‘standing stones' in the countryside like those at Dundonald (The

Long Stone), Ballyhalbert and outside Dundrum on the road to Maghera, which are also of this

era, from these stones evolved the stone gate posts of later years, the belief still clinging that if

one drove one's animals between these posts, they would prosper and be more abundantly fertile.

Also associated with this period are the box-like graves of stone slabs, called ‘cists' - containing

cremated remains, in an earthenware urn and often with a food vessel beside it. Some of these

were found west of the Primary School in Comber, beside the river in 1858, at the entrance to

Andrews' Bleach Green in 1850, by a farmer in Ballyloughan in 1885 and on the site of the

Primary School when it was built in 1937. These are now in the Museum in Belfast.

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The Early Christian Era runs roughly from 450 A.D. until 1200 A.D. In Europe this period was

"The Dark Ages", when Christianity and Learning almost died out, following the collapse of the

Roman Empire. It was also the period, when Ireland earned the name - "A Land of Saints and

Scholars". The story of St. Patrick and the numerous legends concerning him are well known, but

the truth of some details is weaker than often supposed. His birthplace is by no means a certainty,

but the general opinion is that it was somewhere along the estuary of either the Severn or the

Clyde, and that he was born late in the fourth century.

The Britonic Picts of Galloway had their St. Ninian and "Candida Casa", 398 A.D.in

Wigtonshire, long before Ireland had St. Patrick. This was just across the Channel from

Strangford Lough (Loch Cuan), and had become a celebrated Monastery and College. The Mull

of Galloway is quite close to Down and no doubt there was trade and social contacts between the

two places and possibly resulting in some Down people becoming Christians, before the arrival of

St. Patrick. However, his success as a missionary was so great that he has become the Patron

Saint of Ireland. His original name was Sucatus or Sochet and he later adopted the Roman name

of Patricius. He most likely did land on the shore of Loch Cuan at the mouth of the river Slaney

and met the local Chieftain, Dichu, who was converted and who gave him a barn, in Irish -

Sabhall - which became his first Church - Saul.

Mochaoi (pronounced Maughee, or by the English - Mahee), founder of Nendrum (the island of

the nine ridges) Monastery and its first Abbot, was converted by Patrick on a journey from Saul

to Bright. Mochaoi's mother, Bronach, was the daughter of Milchu, the farmer of Slemish, where

Patrick had been a slave for six years. (From the Triparte Life;) - "In 433 A.D. as Patrick was

going along the way he saw a tender youth herding swine, Mochaoi was his name. Patrick

preached to him and baptised him and tonsured him and gave him a gospel and a Menistir (a

sacred vessel). The meeting place was at Ballynoe or Legamaddy (site of a circle of standing

stones)" Mochaoi was educated at Templepatrick and later had a cell at what is now called

Kilmakee in Co. Antrim, i.e. the Church of Mochaoi. Mochaoi founded Nendrum in 445 A.D., St.

Colman, a pupil of Mochaoi, founded Dromore around 500 A.D., St. Finnian, a pupil of St.

Colman and of Whithorn, founded Movilla in 540 A.D. and St Comgall founded Bangor in 555

A.D. He, like St Finnian, graduated in the schools of Co. Down and finished in the older

established "Magnum Monasterium" of Galloway and then went to the Continent. At first these

places were devoted to the ascetic life, simple, frugal and industrious but became in turn the

centres of material culture and were a powerful influence in founding the tradition of Irish

Learning which was to spread over Europe.

Tradition has it that Christianity came to Comber about 1500 years ago. Apparently Patrick

having visited his favourite convert, Mochaoi, travelled north on his way to Donaghadee and

hence to Scotland and the famous monastery at Whithorn, where he was always welcome. When

passing through the Comber district, Patrick was abused badly by Saran, one of the sons of

Caelbadh, the local Chieftain of the area. Conla, brother of Saran, hearing with great sorrow, how

uncivilly Patrick had been treated, went to apologise for his brother' a 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 built the church

and Patrick blessed him and. told him that his family and descendants would be great and.

powerful. This came to pass as Conla was the ancestor of the great Magennis family of South

Down, who later became the Earls of Roden. The widow of the fourth Marquis of Londonderry


was the daughter of the third Earl of Roden. She became a Roman Catholic in 1855, being largely

influenced by Cardinals Manning and Newman. She built at her own great expense the beautiful

Chapel and Schools in Newtownards and provided a set of Communion Plate in pure gold. She

also gave a very large subscription for the building of the Roman Catholic Chapel in Comber. She

is buried in a vault; beside her husband in the Old Priory in Court Street, Newtownards.

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. This would be "The most remarkable Plain of Elom."

The lane leading down to the site of the old Andrews' Flour Mill and Bleach Green, past The Old

House" (built in l744 and site of the present Cinema), is known to the older generation of

Comber, as "The Monks' Walk", possibly as it leads to the site of the Monastery.


St. Columbanus, a monk of Bangor, who did outstanding work in Europe, saw the monastic life

as contemplating and. practising the presence of God. For him, Jesus is "the joy of Man's

desiring" and "to long for God is greater bliss than any worldly pleasure or any earthly

fulfilment." This is the idea we still have of life in a Monastery, but some Irish saints were not

meek and mild; indeed some were depicted as violent, vengeful and mighty cursers.

The head of the monastery was the Ab or Abbot, who might be in Holy Orders and yet again he

might not. He directed all the activities in the monastery and. his word was law. Under him was

the Bishop, who attended to the religious services and who ordained, consecrated and performed

other sacramental duties. There was the head of the monastic school, where the sons of the

wealthy were educated, together with the eldest sons of the lay monks, They were taught Latin

from a Latin Psalter, which they loved and constantly recited; (I wonder was it from this that

children in National Schools learned everything by rhyming aloud in class, including spelling,

tables, geography, history, grammar, and. Euclid. A method that was not always successful).

They also learned to read, to write, to draw and to illuminate letters with beautiful designs. So

they produced copies of beautiful and famous books, which took a long tine to complete and

which became part of the monastery treasure. This work would be supervised by the Scribe, who

would order the work to be done again, if it was not perfect, and they believed strongly in

corporal punishment for carelessness.

Other Officers were the Lector or Reader, the anchorite, the butler, baker, cook, carpenter and. the

most lowly - the janitor, who had his hone in the outside wall and. who rang the bell for the

services, of which there were six daily.

The monks went to bed when the sun went down, slept and then rose for Nocturnes round the

middle of the night. At dawn they attended Lauds then Terce at 9.00 a.m., because Christ was

given to Pontius Pilate at that hour. Sext or mid-day was the next service as Jesus was put upon

the Cross at that hour, then None or 3.00 p.m., because at that hour Jesus died on the Cross and

finally Vespers was said in the evening. In the monastery, the smith included all branches of

metal working in his craft. Not only did he work with iron, but he was a goldsmith, silversmith

and coppersmith as well and produced many beautiful articles in gold and silver that became

treasures of the monastery. He was the "gowan", one of the most important members of the

community and was held in the highest esteem. The name is preserved in hereditary surnames,

and place names like Gowan, Macgowan, Magowan, Ballygowan (the town land of the smith)

and. Lisnagowan.

Some of the monasteries, with their bishops and priests, had frequent lapses from grace as in the

case of Columkille or Columba. While studying with Finnian at Movilla, he, without permission,

in the dead of night copied the Psalter from St. Martin's manuscript of the Gospels, brought by St.

Finnian from Whithorn. He was found out and Finnian claimed the copy and. when Columba

refused to give it up the case was taken before the Ard-ri, who pronounced his famous judgement,

"as every calf belonged to its mother cow, so every copy belonged to its mother book". Columba

refused to accept the judgement and. war resulted with the slaughter of 3,000 men.

St. Colomba's condemnation by a Synod, his anathema by book, bell and candle, and his

banishment to the Celtic colony just formed at Iona, is a chapter of history forgotten and more

frequently replaced by the garbled tales of self-banishment on the part of this fiery churchman,

whose early title was "The Wolf" and the name Columba, the Dove, only bestowed on him as a

term of' sarcasm, The evening of his life spent amongst the savage people of North west Scotland

made some atonement for the bloodshed of his early years.


The first Monastery in Comber was part of the ancient Celtic Church, which was organised, not

on a diocesan basis but rather on a tribal one. It continued to flourish and grow wealthy, owning

several townlands and considerable treasure. In the Annals of Loch-Ce it is recorded that in A.D,

1031 the Vikings burned Kill (or Cill) Combuir with its oratory, killed four clerics and carried off

thirty captives. In the Annals of the Four Masters it is recorded that in 1121 A.D. Cormac, Abbot

of Comar was killed. At the Synod of Cashel in 1101 A.D. Cellach, Bishop of Armagh began the

reform of the ancient Celtic Church and by 1110 A.D. at the Synod of Bresail, the Roman

Diocesan Episcopal system was adopted, with Cellach, as High Bishop or Archbishop of Armagh.

It was at this time that continental Orders were being introduced to Ireland.

The Benedictines were never popular in Ireland, though they did settle at Down and Nendrum.

The Augustinian Canons were popular and though leading a celibate life under religious rule, they

wanted to be near people to whom they might minister, so they often set up their establishments

in old monastic centres like Comber, where the Augustinian Rule was adopted by the existing

community. 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 its

townlands. Portions of the buildings remained until 1644.

THE NORMAN ENGLISH. - John de Courcy 1177 A.D.

Pope Adrian 1V "for the purpose of extending the limits of the Church, checking the torrent of

wickedness, reforming evil manners, sowing the seeds of virtue and increasing the Christian

religion and in consideration of a payment of one penny per house per annum" gave Ireland to

Henry 2nd of England. Leinster and the South and West quickly became the spoil of the King's

Knights, but Ulster, the difficult, remained untouched until 1177 A.D. when John de Courcy, with

twenty-two Knights and about 300 followers invaded Down, defeated the Irish at Downpatrick

and paid his followers with large estates in the land of the rolling hills, Geoffrey do Marisoo

(Morris) got Dundonald and his neighbour de Hanwood has left his name in Ballyhanwood;

Ralph do Rossal (Russell) Ballyrussel got the Comber district, where he erected two and possibly

three "Mottes". We have the remains of one near Maxwell Court, one at Ballyalloly and one at

Ballyrickard - a mound at the Moate Corner on the Newtownards Road. On the opposite side of

the road leading to Scrabo was a small church - a ruin in 1622 and all trace of it has since

disappeared. Ballyrickard or White Richard was a Parish containing six townlands - Ballyrickard,

Ringcreevy, Baliyneganeme, (Glass moss and Longlands), Ballyhenry, Castleavery and

Carnemuck. Carnennuck was near the island of Slesny (Rough Island) and seems to be the

townland of Cherryvalley which in 1679 was called Chirivally also Carrowcrossnemukley.

The Normans resettled existing religious foundations as at Nendrum in 1178, which de Courcy

repaired for Benedictine monks from St. Bee's in Cumberland. In 1183 he repaired Downpatrick

and established monks from Chester. In 1187 he founded a Cistercian Abbey at Inch, outside

Downpatrick. This was on the site of an older Abbey called Erinagh, which he had destroyed.

Another Cistercian Abbey was built by Affreca, wife of de Courcy, at Greyabbey in 1193.

Affreca was the daughter of the King of Man, and on a journey from there to Co. Down, she was

caught in a fierce storm at sea and vowed that if she reached land safely, there she would build a







George James Bruce was the eldest son of Mr. Samuel Bruce, of Norton Hall Campden,


His mother was Louise Mary Julie Colthurst of Blarney Castle, County Cork. He was of Scottish

descent, an ancestor having been killed at Flodden in 1513. Another ancestor was the Rev. Michael

Bruce, Minister of Killinchy, who suffered much persecution on religious grounds.

George Bruce was born in 1880, was educated at Winchester and in 1907 married Hilda, daughter of

Mr. John Blakiston-Houston, D.L. of Orangefield, Belfast. Before the 1914 - 18 War he resided at

CUAN, Killinchy Road, Comber and was Managing Director of the Comber Distilleries Company

Ltd., of which his father was Chairman. He was a most versatile sportsman. He played cricket for

North Down and for The North of Ireland Club, was a Plus Two handicap player in the Golfing world,

was a magnificent shot and a fine tennis and billiards player.

There is a tablet to his memory in Comber Parish Church.


COMBER :- 426 men answered the call to arms in 1914.


The War Memorial was unveiled on 14th April, 1923.








Books Limerick






Athea, archaeology; Went, Arthur E. J.   1956       102-103 "Two Irish Salmon Spears" - one of which came from Gortnagross near Athea




Newcastle West


Westropp, Thomas 1909 42-58, 350-368 "The Desmonds' Castle at Newcastle Oconyll, Co. Limerick"


 Johnson (plates).




Glin castle


  Dinely, Thomas         1867            188-189


  Fitzgerald, Walter       1923            143 ref to Patrick Crosbie's effort to take over Glin Castle.




Hewetson, or Hewson family


  Garstin, J. R.             1906            428-429                "The Hewetsons or Hewsons in Ireland"


  Hewetson, John        1909            155                      reference to Limerick Hewsons in article "The Hewetsons of


                                                                            the County Kildare"


Hewson, George James


                               1905            83                       notice of death of this Adare resident, frequent contributor to


                                                                            the IAJ


Lacy, Francis Maurice, Field Marshal


  Cavanagh,                1926            97                       biographical note of Lacy, son of Count Peter Lacy of the


  Lieut-Col.                                                             family of Ballingarry in article "Irish Knights of the Imperial


                                                                            Military Order of Maria Theresa"


  Cavanagh,                1927            121, 125                2 mentions of Lacy  in article "Irish Colonels Proprietors of


  Lieut-Col.                                                             Imperial Regiments"


Lacy, William, Count


  Cavanagh,                1926            100                      biographical note of Lacy of Ballingarry in article "Irish


  Lieut-Col.                                                             Knights of the Imperial Military Order of Maria Theresa"




  O Danachair,             1955            193-217                "The Holy Wells of County Limerick"