The 5th May 2000 was an important date for the clergy and congregation of the R.C. Church of St. John the Evangelist, Gilford, in the parish of Tullylish. A concelebrated mass to mark the sesquicentenary of dedication was celebrated. This milestone created a new awareness of the church and its people in surrounding areas. The commemoration date of the historic event was the more fitting, coinciding with the second Millennium and the advent of Christianity. The origin of the parish name goes back to the siting of an early monastery, founded in the 6th or 7th century on an elevated site overlooking the River Bann to the east of the present Church of Ireland in the town-land of Tullylish. Before the wars of 1641 Tullylish was the property of Magennises, Lords of Iveagh.
Tullylish, 'hill of the fort', and the ancient and historical Donacloney, 'church of the meadow', included the areas Magherally and Seapatrick. The single parish was administered from Tullylish. Since 1851 the parishes of Seapatrick and Tullylish have had their own identity. This parish is therefore of great historical interest with several denominational churches having famous people interred in the adjoining cemeteries. Within the parish there are numerous earthen forts. This article will concentrate on what is locally known as St. John's Church, Gilford.
Gilford, once a vibrant mill town, is situated five miles Northwest of Banbridge and lies on the Bann valley, leading to Portadown and Lurgan, and central to several villages. With the river being an important resource for the whole linen industry, it is no coincidence that Gilford, 'Magill's Ford', had a thriving yarn-manufacturing mill. We will see that linen played an important part in the foundation of St. John's.
It is interesting to note that the Church is the most historic building still visible on a road that in a former time was the main road leading to Dublin and part of the Mail coach route and which contains at least one Fort. Nearby to where the church is located, there was a large house, or castle, after which it is believed that Castle Hill was named.
The Church is situated on an elevated site on Castle Hill, It faces east, in the townland of Loughans, 'Little Lakes; on a plot of two rood and twenty three perches of ground donated by Mr. Hugh Dunbar, one of the then Gilford Linen Mill owners, on 11th August, 1846 at a nominal rent of one penny half-yearly.
"It is hereby declared and agreed by and between the parties to these present respectively that neither the said Michael Blake, John Byrne, and Benjamin Thomas Parks or any of them or their survivors of any of them or any trustee or trustees to be hereafter appointed shall permit any part of said premises to be used as burying ground."
This is indeed the case for all four plots of ground donated by the mill owners for purposes of denominational church building. As a result of this stipulation all subsequent Catholic interments take place in either of the parish sister churches of Laurencetown or Clare graveyards.
So in 1846 this landmark in the district, on the land acquired was made ready and building commenced. It was of simple Gothic architecture, and very much perpendicular in character and built of local stone. An unfortunate accident occurred during the early stages of the building. The Newry Telegraph during November 1846 reported the deaths of two men and three more injuries, According to the report, the gable and subsequently the scaffolding collapsed, carrying with it the five workmen, However, following that incident work progressed, albeit much more slowly than would be the case today.
On the 5th May, 1850, The Right Rev. Doctor Blake, Catholic Bishop of Dromore, dedicated the building to the worship of God. The Parish Priest then was Rev. John Byrne. Many clergy from neighbouring parishes assisted at the ceremony. Several prominent businessmen, some from Belfast, attended and took up a collection, which helped to offset the debt incurred in the building of the new Church. Judging by newspaper accounts of the day, the Church building and the dedication was a very happy occasion and deservedly celebrated by the congregation and clergy.
The 1850 Church had neither tower nor belfry. Aware of this fact, Mr Patrick Reilly, a former parishioner and now a successful merchant living in Baltimore, USA, presented the bell as a gift to the parish in memory of his mother. The bell weighs about one ton and is cast of ore from Lake Superior. Forty years after the church was established, the Rev. Bernard O'Hagan P.P. was responsible for adding the bell-tower, which with bell intact, was blessed on 2nd June 1889.
If you live near Gilford or travel that route around noon you will hear the distant and distinct tone of the Angelus bell calling people to prayer.
Another feature of the interior of St. John's is the two valuable stained-glass windows on either side of the high altar. One of these was donated by William H, Gourley, Paterson, New Jersey, and erected in 1923. The second is likely to have been donated by the same family as the inscription bears the same family names. Both are believed to have been by the famous stained-glass designer and manufacturer, Harry Clarke Studios in Dublin. A recent survey of the windows, from the present studio owner, confirmed this as fact and commented that the two windows are: "Part of our National Heritage, and should be preserved".
In keeping with the generosity of parishioners and their respect for the Church two more families donated religious objects, Mrs. Margaret Byrne of Castle Hill donated a set of Stations-of-the-Cross, in memory of her husband, John and their son Charles, in 1930. Following renovations to the interior of the Church, a more ornate altar from the parish of Clonallon replaced the original high altar and was consecrated in 1933. In the church grounds, a tall crucifix dated 1934, stands in memory of members of the Boyle family both teachers at the first school and donated by the family. This school, dated 1878, was situated in the same grounds as the church. In September 1957, a larger replacement school building was opened on a new site on the opposite side of the same road. The original still stands.
Today the question is being posed as to how the local people in 1846, during the great Irish famine with all the hardship, not to mention loss of life that existed, were able to afford the building of a new Church, Theories abound, and since no record has been found to date of such funding, it is assumed that 'money from America' played a part in taking on the project. And yet there was mention of substantial contributions from the local congregation from an already frugal budget. Records do exist of priests going to affluent parts of the USA, with large Irish immigrant populations, giving fund-raising lectures to aid Church funds back home. This was especially the fact for the bell-tower building. Throughout the 150 years of its establishment the Church has served the people's religious rites from their coming into the world to leaving the earth as the people have served the Church through their generosity and general support.
There is no doubt that the advent of the Spinning Mill was responsible for an increase of population, from 643 ten years earlier to 2,814 in 1851. Less than half the population was of the Roman Catholic faith. Looking at the ethnography of the areas, some of the employees came from Monaghan, Cavan, Fermanagh and Armagh. It is likely that a large percentage of these people formed part of the congregation at St. John's. Officially opened in 1841, "the mill" was a fledgling industry producing fine linen thread. A weekly wage there would have been around 7 shillings, equivalent to 35 new pence. Others were employed in the related linen processes along the Bann Valley around Gilford. The other main occupations of that time are listed as, merchants, tradesmen, labourers and farmers.
As we enter the third Millennium with around 300 families worshipping at this Church and living in a comparatively affluent society, it is interesting to look back at how people and their clergy managed to build and sustain the church without public funding. Perhaps it confirms that with commitment and a positive attitude, things do happen. Today the Rev. Fr. Desmond Knowles is Parish Priest at Tullylish and the Rev. P.J. Murray is curate at the Church of St. John the Evangelist,
A committee is undertaking a more in-depth study of the church and its people, and this will be published in a book early in 2002.