Seagoe Church

Vol. 10 No. 3 - 2017

Seagoe Church and the Baroness Von Stieglitz

by Dixon Terence

Seagoe Church
Seagoe Parish Church

June 2016 was the 200th anniversary of the consecration of Seagoe church. The 100th anniversary was overshadowed by dreadful news from the Western Front, but the 200th anniversary celebration was a success, enlivened by the loan of the old Seagoe Bell, from the National museum in Dublin. Mary Cahill keeper of Antiquities kindly facilitated the loan. The bell was on its first visit North since purchased from the Dean of Seagoe Church in the late 19th century. The bell nearly 13 inches high and made of light coloured bronze was reputed to be an ancient abbey bell with curative properties and its inscription dates it to the 10th century.

The Seagoe bell or Cloch Bann was purchased in the mid 1800s by the then rector of Seagoe Archdeacon Saurin from its hereditary keepers, a Lurgan family called Hennon. They were Inn keepers and the bell was traditionally borrowed by neighbours to be rung at funerals, for swearing oaths and for its reputed healing qualities if hung over a sick bed. It was last used for these purposes in 1836 at the funeral of the last keeper Paul Hennon’s father. The bell seemed to be used exclusively used by Catholics.

It had been buried for a time at the grave of the celebrated rapparee Redmond O Hanlon near Tandragee and dug up again in 1725. Legend has it that the Hennon family faced a heavy fine for excise duty breaches and were forced to sell the relic or face imprisonment. Archdeacon Saurin bought it for £50. That may be part of the story however a number of these holy relics were sold by their keepers at that time. This might reflect a change of emphasis in the Catholic church who were moving to a more sacramental faith and were discouraging the use of holy relics by the laity. The bell remained in Seagoe until the Archdeacons Successor Dean Dawson decided it was better in the Royal Irish academy and sold it to them in the 1890s. It later passed to the National museum in Dublin where it has pride of place in the treasury.

dedicated to St Goban

Seagoe Church of Ireland church is dedicated to St Goban an early Christian saint whose house was probably where Seagoe old church stands, in the graveyard opposite the current building. In Irish the name Goban means a smith or architect. The name Seagoe previously spelt Seago or Sego is derived from the name of the saint probably as in Seapatrick referring to the house of the saint(Suidhe) The first building was of wood. Saint Goban is said to be buried under the shadow of his house. The church is first mentioned in 590 AD in the Antiquities of Down, Connor and Dromore. The old church site is on a slight rise and has a proximity to the River Bann which would have provided access for travel and for baptism.

These isolated Christian communities were targeted in Viking raids beginning in 835AD and Seagoe would not have been spared. However, the church was rebuilt time and again. The old church that we see to- day and now in ruins was built by a local squire Valentine Blacker sometime after the 1641 rebellion and replaced an even earlier pre- reformation building destroyed in the earlier wars of the 17th century. Valentine Blacker was a soldier who came from Yorkshire. He bought 1000acres at Carrickbrack from the Copes of Loughall, and established the estate . The Blacker family continued their associations with the church over the years providing a rector and vicar in the 18th and 19th century and later assisting with the refinancing of the church after disestablishment. They were also closely associated with the foundation of Orangeism .

Baroness von Stieglitz
Baroness von Stieglitz

The old church extended several times was eventually replaced by the current building whose first stone was laid in 1814, completed and consecrated in June 1816 and then considerably enlarged and enhanced in the 1890s. The 1816 church was relatively plain and during the renovations was beautified by the addition of an elegant open naïve roof based on a medieval English design, and constructed by Collen brothers. A new organ and a chancel were added and the rebuilding completed by the addition of the marvellous east window. Plaques in the church indicate that much of this work was made possible by the generosity of the Baroness Von Stieglitz and in memory of her late brother Stewart Blacker. The window alone cost upwards of £400, a huge sum in excess of £50,000 today

During the recent celebrations several parishioners, myself included noticed the references in the church to the Baroness Von Stieglitz and wondered about the identity of this wealthy woman with the exotic German title. An old photograph displayed in the church hall purported to show the Baron and the Baroness outside her Carrickblacker mansion,now the golf club . This alerted me to the Blacker connection. Previously Miss Hester Blacker she, had inherited the house from her brother Stewart in 1881. However the baron was dead by this time and the photograph actually shows the Baroness, the coachman and her great niece Selina Von Stieglitz.

I do not intend to rewrite the history of the present church addressed by David Reilly in an earlier Review and book, nor the story of the overlapping Catholic parish of Seagoe, already covered in the fine book, The Parish of Seagoe, by Dean Moody(reprinted by the society). Instead I will examine the life and legacy of the Baroness and her families, the Blackers and the Von Stieglitz’s.

Converted to the Lutheran faith

Frederick Lewis von Stieglitz was born in 1803 near Cookstown and was the grandson of Christian Ludwig von Stieglitz who was a created a Baron of the holy Roman empire in 1765. The Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon in 1803. Fredericks father Heinrich known as Henry was the second son of Christian and resided in Saxony. The family had originally been Jewish but had converted to the Lutheran faith. The name Stieglitz is an ornamental name meaning goldfinch and two goldfinches are incorporated in their crest. They appear to have been financial advisors to the royal court. One branch moved to the USA and is represented by Professor Stiglitz who recently won the Nobel prize for economics.

Fredericks family emigrated to Ireland in 1802. His father had met Colonel Stewart of Killymoon Castle, Cookstown during the Napoleonic wars. The wars had caused major disruption on the continent. The Colonel was on Wellingtons staff. It appears that he encouraged Henry to move to Ireland where he met and married an Irish girl called Atkinson .Initially they appeared to be well to do. They lived first at Lewis Hill then later at Gortalowry House, a large Georgian town house ,still standing in Cookstown main street. They are mentioned in 1820, among a list of local gentry and clergy. There is no usage of the title Baron, its plain Mr Henry Von Stieglitz. (Approximately 70,000 residents of present day Germany lay claim to such ancestral titles which could in theory be used by all members of the family, male and female). Unfortunately, Henry died in 1828 leaving 6 children. They were now found themselves in straightened circumstances. Mrs Von Stieglitz bravely decided to emigrate with the older members of the family to Tasmania in 1829 where grants of land were being offered. They chose an area called Fingal near Hobart where a number of Irish Families had settled, including one of the Talbots of Malahide castle.

Nearby was an Inn at Kempton, the owner and Landlady was called Catherine Christiana McNally often referred to as Mrs Ransom. She was the common law wife of a pardoned felon called Thomas Ransom who had received his pardon in 1810 after being transported to Tasmania ( Von Diemen’s land) in 1791. He had originally been sentenced to death at the old Bailey for burglary, in 1789 but this had been commuted to transportation for life. . Ransom had been granted 200 acres of land on release. He and Catherine lived as man and wife and had two children Thomas junior and Ann. They could not marry as Ransom still had a wife living in England They appeared to be good business people and bought and ran what was described as the second best Inn in Tasmania. Frederick may have lodged there, whatever, a year after the death of Thomas senior he married Catherine, in 1830. She was older than him but these were pioneer times and she was moneyed and available.

A canny couple

The marriage, although childless, appears to have been happy. They were a canny couple with business acumen. Frederick had acquired a grant of land on arrival and with his wife’s money began to acquire more, eventually owning and farming some 5,000 acres. He seems to have got on well with his step children. He built a house which he called Killymoon after his father’s patron. It was a castellated and grand house based on the design of the original Killymoon castle. It was still in the Ransom family in 1990.

Frederick became a member of the first legislative assembly in Tasmania. However, after his wife’s death in 1857 he sold all his land, his house Killymoon being sold to his stepson Thomas. He had made his fortune. He returned to Ireland, and set himself up as a gentleman. He assumed the title Baron, bought a large property in Newry called the Glen and became a justice of the peace. He took a particular interest in Church of Ireland affairs and left bequests to a number of local clergy.

Frederrick marries Hester Anna Blacker

In 1859 he married Hester Anna Blacker younger sister of Major Stewart Blacker of Carrickblacker house, a landlord of some standing. Fredericks will make mention of his marriage settlement which was substantial but figures are not available. I presume he didn’t divulge his first wife’s background to Stewart who was the marriage broker. Hester born in India about 1810 was now like her husband to be, in middle age. Unfortunately, within a few years of the marriage the” Baron” was dead. Hester after a short time returned to live with her brother at Carrickblacker. She was known as the dowager Baroness and usually addressed as Dame Hester Baroness von Stieglitz. It was said that when she came to Portadown in her carriage, it was like a Royal visit, the streets were cleared and men touched their caps. She apparently got much satisfaction from her title.

On Stewart's death in 1881 the Baroness was left a legacy and a life interest in his estate at Carrickblacker. Both her sisters were dead and Stewart had never married. The house a 3 storey mansion in the Dutch style had been in the family since 1690. It contained many important family portraits and Orange relics including the stirrups, pistol holders and saddle cloth used by William at the Boyne.

As a companion she brought over the Barons great niece Selina Von Stieglitz born in 1849, often referred to as Lady Selina. The two lived at Carrickblacker in some style until the Baronesses death in 1899. The baroness left a legacy to Selina but the house and estate by direction of her late brother went subsequently to her godson and relative Major Stewart William Ward Blacker Co Wexford. He was the third son of the Rev Robert Shapland Blacker of Woodbrook, Co Wexford. The major, a professional soldier who had retired, was recalled in 1914, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and commanded the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers known as Blacker’s Boys at the Somme.

A generous and liberal contributor

The Baroness was a generous and liberal contributor to all charitable objects but in particular to Seagoe church providing most of the funding for the renovations, as mentioned, a total of £2,700. She donated £500 to Knocknamuckly Church. She was an enthusiastic admirer of the Orange institutions. Laying the foundation stone at Carlton Street Orange hall and providing much of its funding, similarly at Seagoe Orange hall, built on land donated by her. She and her late brother had provided much of the aforementioned refinancing of Seagoe church amounting to some £3,000, after the financial shortfall that followed disestablishment. This provided Seagoe church with £300 per annum in perpetuity, inflation was still in the future.

It wasn’t all sweetness and she clashed frequently with tenant farmer rights groups This was the era of the land wars. A local GP at such a meeting claimed that the cut stone that hit him on the head as he was leaving a meeting in the town hall came from the Baronesses cart.

Her funeral in 1899 was described as the largest seen in the district, since her brother’s death 20 years before. Twelve of her tenants, matters presumably settled, acted as pall bearers and she was interred in the ancient Blacker plot inside old Seagoe church.

The Baroness has been largely forgotten. Her German name was unpopular in the 20th century , particularly I understand to her godson and heir Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Blacker whose men were so mauled by the Germans at the Somme. Twelve of the Seagoe parishioners fell in the first days. A reprinted Seagoe church magazine of July 1916 was a poignant reminder of those days. A note said that Major Atkinson of Eden Villa had been back on leave looking fit and well. By the time the magazine was distributed he was dead.

Left, never to return

In 1918 the Colonel numbed by war, left Carrickblacker never to return. He died in 1935, near his home in Dorset. The great house fell into disrepair and was pulled down in 1957 to make way for a clubhouse and the demesne became the current golf course. Its historic contents went mainly to Woodbrook, which was subsequently sold. Woodbrook is now a popular country guest house listed in the Hidden Ireland Booklet.

The Baron is buried in a grand tomb with other members of the Von Stieglitz family against the Chancel of Derryloran old church in Cookstown. It is surmounted by the family crest, his poor Baroness lies in a derelict and dangerous grave inside Seagoe Old church. It would be a worthwhile project for the Blacker family, the church and the council to make necessary repairs to the grave of this important former citizen and benefactor.

RTD © 2016

References include:

  • Diocese of Down and Conor News
  • Belfast Newsletter
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • Burkes landed gentry of Ireland 1958.
  • A history of Seagoe Parish Church, by D. Reilly
  • For God and King, the Story of the Blackers of Carrickblacker by J. Kane
  • PRONI wills
  • Seagoe church magazines
  • Obituary of the Baroness 1899 Portadown News
  • The history of Seagoe Parish by Dean Moody