Dicky Barton

Vol. 2 No. 1 - 1971

Dicky Barton

an eccentric Lurgan curate

by T J Malcomson

The Parish Church in Richard Barton's time. This was taken down about 1860 to give place to the present building.

Rev. Richard Barton, B.D., a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, was appointed curate of Shankill Parish, Lurgan, in 1744, and he seems to have retained that position until 1768. (He had served in a similar capacity in the Parish of Donaghcloney from 1728 -1736 ). At Trinity, Barton had won a Fellowship Prize in Mathematics, and this subject continued to occupy a prominent place in his subsequent career.

It was, perhaps, in his application of mathematics to everyday, problems that Barton's eccentricity was most clearly seen. One of his inventions was a combined knife and fork by the use of which, he declared, all jealousy and unfairness could be banish-ed from the family meals. This knife and fork, based on the principle of the compass, cut out circular portions of meat of equal size, and so each child got exactly the same amount. In his Journal, Rev. John Wesley described the house (on Bird Island, Lough Neagh), of this "eminent scholar", as he saw it on 17th May, 1758:

"The door into the yard we found nailed up; but we got in at a gap which was stopped with thorns. I took the house at first for a very old barn, but was assured he had built it within five years; not indeed by any old, vulgar model, but purely to his own taste. The walls were part mud, part brick, part stone, and part bones and wood. There were four windows, but no glass in any, lest the pure air should be kept out, The house had two storeys, but no stair-case and no door; into the upper floor we went by a ladder, through one of the windows; through one of the windows into the lower floor, which was about four feet high. This floor had three-rooms, one three square, the second had five sides, the third, I know not how many. I give a particular description of this wonderful edifice, to illustrate that great truth; there is no folly too great even for a man of sense, if he resolves to follow his own imagination."

Barton was the author of a number of books and pamphlets. Of these, his "Analogy of Divine Wisdom in the material, Sensitive, Moral, Civil and Spiritual System of Things" went into at least four editions, but the book for which he is now best known is that which contained his six lectures on Lough Neagh. This book was printed in Dublin in 1751. In it is included a list of over 470 subscribers, some of whom subscribed for more than one copy, and amongst the subscribers were; Sir Hans Sloane (President) and three Fellows of the Royal Society.

Rev. John Wesley

In his Journal for 28th July, 1756, (two years before he visited Barton's house), Rev. John Wesley noted:

"I read Mr. Barton's ingenious Lectures on Lough Neagh, near Lurgan, which turns wood into stone and cures the king's evil, and most cutaneous distempers. Under part of this lake, there is first a stratum of trees four feet thick, all compacted into one mass, doubtless by the presence of the incumbent earth, (perhaps water too) which it has probably sustained ever since the general deluge."

In this note, Wesley mentioned two of the main themes of Barton's Lectures; the petrifying properties of Lough Neagh, and the curative qualities of its waters. Another theme was the precious stones which were to be found on the shores of the Lough, and in its immediate surroundings. By way of preparation for the discussion of these themes, Barton devoted the lectures to a number of scientific propositions and, amongst other things, he claimed to have proved:

  1. that each of the four elements (fire, air, earth and water) contained portions of the other three;
  2. that matter when it decreased in quantity increased in surface (proportionately)
  3. that matter was infinitely divisible
  4. that all matter was in absolute motion; and
  5. that every mass of matter contained within its surface more space that was void of matter than that was filled with it.

Barton's third lecture bore the imposing title: "Lecture of Metomorphoses, or a Catalogue of Specimens of the Transmutation of one sort of matter into another". As indicated by this title, he did not confine himself solely to the question of the petrification of wood. One of his specimens was "the half of a calculus humanus taken out of the bladder of a man who died of the disorder in the town of Lurgan. The whole stone weighed very near eight ounces." Another specimen was "produced in the lungs of a certain Gentleman of the same town who coughed it up before he died." In his second lecture, Barton had asserted that "Lightning which is an extreme subtle fire, has prodigious effects in the dissolution of bodies. It can instantaneously melt the bones of a human body, and not deform the flesh, it can melt a sword and not damage the scabbard. An extraordinary instance happened in this kingdom (at New Forge on the Lagan) in the year 1707, and a later instance in the county of Tir-Owen, in 1749."

According to Barton, "the first specimen found of indisputable petrification, weighing about twenty-eight pounds" was found at Ardmore point, "close upon the great bay called Tradubach." "At Ahaness (half a mile south of the river Glenavy) there had been raised from time to time, about two ton weight of stones, with wood continuous in them, one of which weighing 150 lbs. was deposited in Trinity College, near Dublin; and several small fragments of extraordinary rarity, got by breaking the large stones, were deposited in the University of Cambridge." Some of Barton's evidence of petrification was impressive, but some was open to doubt. For instance, he describes specimen 26:- "This is whet stone, which as Mr. Anthony Shane apothecary, who was born very near the lake, and is now alive, relates, he made by putting a piece of holly in the water of the lake near his father's house, and fishing it, so as to withstand the motion of the water, and marking the place so as to distinguish it, he went to Scotland to pursue his studies, and seven years after, took up a stone instead of holly, the metamorphosis having been made in that time. This account he gave under his hand writing. The shore thereabouts is altogether loose land, and two rivers discharge themselves into the lake very near that place." Whetstone figured in more than one of the specimens, reminding us of the jungle:

Lough Neagh hones

"Lough Neagh hones, Lough Neagh hones, Put in sticks, they come out stones."

"The ingenious, Mr. Simon had taken great pains to prove of recent petrification. He had made many accurate esperiments to prove this" and had favoured Barton "with large quantities of the wood, some of which was wholly, some only a part petrified." Barton had also obtained specimens of petrification from Germany. It was Barton's belief that petrification was caused mainly by the evapouration of water. In an Appendix to his Fifth Lecture, Barton pointed out that, while there were eight rivers, besides streams, flowing into Lough Neagh, there was only one river flowing out of it. The imbalance was rectified by evaporation.

He made a number of elaborate calculations and, from these, he estimated that, during certain times of the year 864,250 tons of water was raised daily from the Lough in vapour, At the end of his fifth lecture, Barton claimed that the fact of petrification had been put beyond all doubt, and that it could not by any future enquiry be contradicted. He had told his story and he issued the challenge: "If any reasonable objections occur, which are offered with good manners, a reply shall be made with the same courtesy, or not at all. If any persons through petulance object without reason, he would be prepared not to answer but to bear."

Natural and Civil History of the County of Down

In his fourth lecture, Barton dealt with the curative qualities of the waters of Lough Neagh, particularly those, of Fishing Bay (or Fishers' Bay). According to him, these waters had had a reputation for healing disorders of bathers for many years past, and that they still continued to have this reputation was to be seen from the numbers of people who came from Dublin and other places to Fishing Bay, and to Lurgan, to bathe in the lake during the summer months. To support his claims, Barton quoted from a Mr. Neill's "Natural and Civil History of the County of Down... the story of a boy named Cunningham who had an evil which ran on him in eight or ten places. He had been touched by King Charles the Second, and all imaginable means had been unsuccessfully used for his recovery. At length, he was bathed in Lough Neagh for eight days; his sores were dried up, and he grew healthy, married and begat children. Barton commented on this story; if the boy's father had lived in England, "he would probably have thought it more prudent to have used any pool in his own neighbourhood. Are not Abana and Pharphar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel."

Gems of the Physics

Lecture Four dealt with the History of the Phenomena of Lough Neagh, and Lecture Five was an essay towards solving the phenomena described. The title of Lecture Six was "Gems of the Physics - Mechanical Lecture being the productions of Lough Neagh of the more precious kind." In this lecture, Barton mentioned some of the precious stones which were to be found upon the shores, or in the neighbourhood, of the Lough; "not only crystals and agates, but gems also deserving the following denominations, carnelians, mochas (mochas'), pseudo-adamantes, and at some distance from the lake, topazes and amethysts." In an earlier lecture, he had quoted from a treatise on Gems by Mr. Boyle (the Robert Boyle of "Boyle's Law'" There is a lake in the North of Ireland, which supports fish as well as other lakes, when nevertheless in the bottom of it are rocks, to which adhere masses of beautiful figured sub-stances in clearness and transperancy imitating crystal, a present of which the chief proprietor has sent me with the promise of more."

One crystal found on the shore of Lough Neagh weighed two pounds two ounces. "As to the quick generation of crystal" Barton reported, "the opinion generally prevalent in the neighbourhood of Cranfield Spring is that it grows in a night's time, particularly the first of May. For the people allege that if the well be emptied on May eve and the Crystals be all swept away, there will be found next morning a considerable quantity of them which grew in that time." While Barton was inclined to think that the growth was quick in that place, having never had the time freely at command, he could not allow himself to stay, to make observations sufficient for this purpose. The River Bann, according to Barton, was esteemed of old for the production of pearls "but the price of pearls was so much depreciated of late, by a nice imitation of them by means of the scale of a fish encompassing wax, or some other matter, that little search is made for them. In the same manner hypocracy is depreciating true virtue in the moral world."

Barton had prepared another lecture comparing the form of the earth in his time with the antediluvian and paradisical forms. This would have given a fair account of the inundation of the general flood in the time of Noah but, unfortunately, the lecture was too long for inclusion in the book.

Newry Canal saves lives

One of Barton's pamphlets, "A Dialogue concerning some things of importance to Ireland" had some interesting sidelights on the life of his time. For example, he claimed that the opening of the Newry Canal had been the means of saving 50,000 lives during a famine in 1744; "there was neither human food in the parts of the counties adjoining upon Lough Neagh, nor horses able to carry it from seaport towns." In addition to provisions, trading vessels on the canal carried help, potashes, flax seed, iron, timber, corn and many other things. Barton had been on one vessel which was made for a burden of 70 tons.

The price of Salmon taken from Lough Neagh varied from three pence to a penny halfpenny a pound, but a salmon of a particular size could not have been purchased in London under two guineas. Soap was then manufactured in Lurgan to great perfection for it was a considerable instrument in the bleaching of linen. Barton could not say how much linen was then sold in Lurgan, but the excise of the town for malt drink was nearly one thousand pounds per annum, the principal consumers being dealers in linen.

Although linen was sold in an open market, it was measured under cover and it had become a rule that the seller should spend three pence on liquor for the use of the house. Other sidelights are to be found in his lectures. Coal carried on the Newry Canal was sold at nine shillings a ton and Barton mentioned that the manufacture of glass had been carried on in the neighbourhood, sand from the Lough being used in the process "Till the dishonesty of workmen put a stop to it."