History of Seagoe Parish

Vol. 6 No. 2 - 1991

History of Seagoe Parish

by David Riley

Seagoe Church
Seagoe Parish Church

The Parish of Seagoe is situated in the Lough Neagh lowlands to the south of the Lough itself and bounded on the west by the River Bann. From the point that the river enters the parish at Knock Bridge to its point of departure at Ballinacor the fall is reputed to be as little as three inches.

The area is covered by rather heavy soil with some lighter material to the Southern end of the Parish. Evidence of the Ice Age's influence was formerly supplied by two large boulders reputedly originating in the Mourne Mountains. One, the Blue Stone, was buried in a fascinating incident; the other, at Ballinacor disappeared as the result of the too enthusiastic celebrations at an Eleventh-Night bonfire in 1967 when the ancient rock was shattered by the heat from the burning timber.

The highest part of the parish lies on the edge of Portadown at Drumclogher Hill and Bocombra (202') and Lylo. There is a Bench Mark beside the West Door of the Church which is recorded as 127.6 feet above Low Water Mark. The land slopes away from these areas to Kernan and the mosses of Derryvore.

Saint Gobhan

The name of the parish has always been associated with that of Saint Gobhan and the link was very close indeed for it was never at any time referred to as a church but always as the house of Gobhan or in Latin "Sedes Gobhani" which it is said through the years became abbreviated into Seagoe, the name of the parish up to the present. According to Irish Scholars the Irish Teach-Gobha would have had the same outcome.

It is undoubtedly one of the most ancient Christian settlements in Ireland and is thought to date from 540 AD. An ancient Irish Manuscript "The Annals of the Four Masters" mentions in 700 AD that Gobhan had earlier built a house of prayer and Colgan citing the Calendar of Cashel refers to "Gobanus de Teg-de-Goba, ad ripam Bannii fluminis in Ibh-echach regione Ultonia" (Gobanus of Teg de-Gobhan on the banks of the Bann in Iveagh of Ulster) Bishop Reeves in his "Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Down and Connor (Page 10)". The spot where Gobhan built his house was the little mound where the ruined church now stands in the Cemetery in Lower Seagoe.

Saint Patrick founds Armagh Cathedral

St Patrick returned to Ireland in 432 AD, founded Armagh Cathedral in 444 AD and died in 461 AD so it is altogether possible that Gobhan was personally acquainted with some who had actually known his great predecessor. It is curious why the house of the Saint whould always figure so promiently. It may have been that it was regarded as an habitual meeting-place and this possibility may be strengthened by the fact that the name Gobhan has some links with the word for a Blacksmith.

There was no more important trade in old civilizations than that of Smith and if that was his profession in the same way as Paul claimed to be a maker of tents, he was ideally placed to spread the Gospel by talking to his customers who in every way would be a captive audience as anyone who has ever visited a blacksmith's shop will well know.

At this time, there was no area disignated as the Parish in the modern sense. The influence of the establishment would have extended to all who wished to come within its ambit. And the country round about would have presented a very different appearance to the present, for records more than a thousand years later, speak of it as a "very woodie and boggie" land. The Lowlands of the Montiaghs and the Mosses of Derryvore and parts of Kernan were largely uninhabited until the country became settled about 400 years ago. The well-to-do tribesmen and settlers preferred to have their lands at the higher levels.

In 1444 there is record of a Papal Bull giving notice of an intention to unite the Parish with what appears to be Annaghloist. The area thus included was by today's standards, really quite immense, since it included all inside a line from Knock Bridge to Buttermilk Bridge in what is now Knocknamuckley Parish and from there to Bird Island in Lough Neagh and then to the mouth of the Bann where it enters the Lough.

Further expansion halted

A later Bull of 1492 signified a further expansion to join Seagoe to Shankill and Aghalee but this was not proceeded with. 'Any further movement in a southerly direction was blocked by a gift in 1685 of the townland of "Monallen" to a colony of the Society of Friends in England.

There would have been few permanent dwellings for most of the clans living in the area were involved in livestock and this necessitated a good deal of movement in search of new pastures with the result that most dwellings consisted of mud-walled shelters with rudimentary roofs. It was natural that this type of construction should be reflected in the church building and tradition has it that this was indeed the case.

As, at present, things were not invariably peaceful so the small church and its servants would have been subject to any disturbances or incursions that might come along. The names of some of the townlands testify to this. Drumlisnagrilly, not far from the Golf Course on the Gilford Road is said to mean "the Ridge of the Dagger''.

Three swords and a spear of brass were said to have been dug up at this spot and were on display in Carrickblacker House in 1906. Legend had it that a battle had been fought between Blacar, a Dane, and one of the O'Neills and the Blacker family went on to claim the victor as an ancestor. Also the names Tamnifiglasson and Tamnificarbett were at times ascribed meanings which hinted at age-old conflicts.

The Church destroyed and rebuilt

The first stone church is believed to have been built by settlers who came over from England with Lord Essex in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It seems to have been attacked for it is shown on a map of 1609 standing roofless among trees. Having been rebuilt, it was once again destroyed in the troubled year of 1641 when the native Irish tried and very nearly succeeded in wiping out the struggling colony. So it remained until 1669, when Valentine Blacker, the occupant of the Manor House at Ballynaghie (beside Blacker's Mill) set to and had it repaired in the form that the still-existing ruins clearly show - a rather small church with seating capacity for 150.

Old illustrations display a porch, a belfry and narrow windows reaching up to a roof covered with shingles or strips of rough wood of the type more normally associated with early American structures. In 1687, it was resolved that "20 oakes be fallen in lands at Kilvergan for shingles for the Church roof, the old ones being much decayed through long continuance''. A stone porch and gallery were added in 1705 and a transept in 1755. Both of these can still be traced in the foundations. Not far from the entrance was a Horse Block to enable women to mount on departing.

So the old church served its purposes for praise, prayer and thanksgiving, for marriages and baptisms, for confirmation and for burials for something approaching one hundred and fifty years. However in this period the graves encroached more and more closely on the old walls and even penetrated within, for two rectors, Rev Buckby and Rev John Campbell were interred inside the building.

Long-standing cuctom

The obvious belief was, the nearer the church the closer to God". This is further illustrated by a long-standing custom in old Seagoe burials of carrying the coffin right around the church so that it could be made to touch all four corners of the building.

The effect of the press of graves was two-fold. Firstly, space about the church became non-existent, and secondly, the ground, over the years steadily rose so that on entering at the porch it became necessary to go down two steps to reach the level of the nave.

This was obviously an unhealthy state of affairs as well as a constriction upon future development. So it comes as no surprise that mention is made by the Rev George Blacker that there was a need for a new church on an entirely different site. It must have been quite a wrench to contemplate moving out of Lower Seagoe which had been the heart-land of the church for such a long time. However it comes as a real surprise that there was quite a clear intention to build as far away as Kilvergan and that the tools were even carried to a site in that townland before there came a change of mind and the site in Upper Seagoe was fastened upon.


Kilvergan, of course, in the Parish of the day would have been by far the most central position and added to the fact that Kilvergan, like Lower Seagoe, had been Church land from the earliest times and that there was also a tradition of an early church having existed in that towland, the logic of the choice becomes apparent.

The first stone of the present church was laid on 1st June 1814 and it was completed and consecrated for worship on 28th June 1816. The Rev George Blacker, whose thinking had led originally to the construction of the new church had died in 1810 and so was not alive to see how his vision was finally realised.

Various commentators agree that the new building, whilst larger, was no great improvement on its predecessor in appearance. It consisted of a simple oblong 70 feet by 30 feet without a chancel and having, of all things, a flat plaster ceiling which over the years became more and more obscured by a steadily increasing gallery which by repeated extension eventually brooded over half the nave.

The tower existed at the west end, a bell was installed in 1860 and the only other improvement in a space of seventy-four years was the replacement in 1862 of the old square pews, such as one still finds in Downpatrick Cathedral, and other ancient foundations, by the non-existing open type. This work was carried out while Archdeacon Saurin was rector.

Dean Dawson's vision

His successor, Dean Dawson, had the vision of something more worthy for the house of God and the discernment to employ one of the leading architects of the day to bring it about. This was Mr. Thomas Drew RHA, who proceeded to transform the interior by sweeping out the gallery, lengthening the church by the addition of a chancel, a new vestry room and an organ chamber, and converting the existing vestry into a porch. A new southern aisle and the greatest glory of all, constructing the open-timbered nave roof in place of the flat ceiling. The soaring arches were introduced at this stage and the architect's own words for the treatment of the roof run as follows: "the difficulties of proportions (are met) by adopting a treatment in the manner of 15th century architecture, which lends itself to lower pitched roofs and wider spans.

The roofs of the nave, aisle and chancel are accordingly of a design not usual in other churches in the diocese - a four-centred arch framing, springing from hammer-beams and all richly moulded and peculiarly massive and bearing the character of old examples of the 15th century English roofs. They will be of pitch pine, left untouched after the carpenter's tools, without varnishing, it being found that pitch pine, treated in this way, assumes in time an appearance as pleasing as that of old oak.

The old vestry on the north side, becomes a spacious and imposing porch, encased and adorned with cut-stone dressings, buttresses and pinnacles. The windows of the new additions, as well as the old openings in the nave, will be large and handsome traceried stone windows, designed in the same consistent "perpendicular" style as the rest of the work, and specially adapted for effective filling with stained glass at a future day. The new seats will, of course, be open and of the best kind according to modern ideas for convenience of worshipping.

Dumfries red sandstone is used for the windows and other portions of wrought stonework externally, and Bath stone for the interior. "The work was carried out by Messrs Cullen Brothers of Portadown for £2,832. The Baroness von Stieglitz donated £1,400 towards the cost, £400 came from the Beresford Fund and £50 from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (London). The Carved Oak Pulpit, a Stained Glass Window and Chancel Furniture were also donated at this time.

The new Chancel

The foundation stone of the new Chancel was laid on April 11th 1890 by the Baroness who had contributed so much to the undertaking. As is to be expected, there was a very large and distinguished attendance, including clergy and the Bishop of the Diocese. The Church was re-opened for Public Worship on Friday 7th August 1891. It is almost incredible to realise that such a massive building task took less than eighteen months to complete when one considers that few, if any mechanical tools were available, and that all the hoisting, levering, carving and sawing relied upon human muscle for their accomplishment.

Prior to the works being carried out, the Date Stone to be found on the southern side of the tower was in position above the former East Window, This refers, of course, to the original construction when the rector was the Rev Stewart Blacker and the Curate, his nephew, the Rev Richard Olpherts. Mr Olpherts had given £500 towards the building and so his initials are placed beside those of the Rector under the figures for the year 1814.

It is an interesting fact that the East Window in Armagh Cathedral is a copy of that in Seagoe and that the design for the mosaic tiling in the Chancel was derived from a Norse or Danish coin discovered on the breast of a body found lying in the crypt.