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In the years following the Williamite Wars in Ireland a series of acts pf parliament, commonly known as the ‘Penal Laws’, were passed. These were designed to limit the political influence of Catholics and imposed restrictions on the power of Catholic clergy, access to education, landownership and prohibited Catholics from holding political office. Restrictions were also placed on the location and building of Catholic places of worship. 

The Penal Laws also impacted on Presbyterians and Non-Conformists who were also excluded from public office and faced limitations on the building of places of worship. During the course of the 18th century this legislation began to be relaxed especially with the introduction of the Catholic Relief Acts from 1778 onwards. One consequence of this was more opportunities for the building of churches and meeting houses by Catholics and Non-Conformists.

Model of Newry Cathedral on display in Newry and Mourne Museum. Made in the early 20th century, the model shows the Cathedral as it was built in the 1820s before the additions in the later 19th century. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
A Model of Newry Cathedral on display in Newry and Mourne Museum. Made in the early 20th century, the model shows the Cathedral as it was built in the 1820s before the additions in the later 19th century. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

 Although there was probably a Presbyterian congregation in Newry by the 1640s, their first recorded meeting house was built in the 1670s ‘at a place called the Meeting House Rocks’, where Newry High School is now located. At the end of the 17th century, the congregation moved to another meeting house on the south side of Newry. Significantly, as stipulated in legislation, both these meeting houses were outside the town and not fronting main thoroughfares. This was true of the new Presbyterian meeting house which opened on High Street in 1724; High Street may have one of the principal streets of the early 18th century town but the meeting house was not located on the street frontage. It was not until the mid-19th century that the Presbyterian congregations were able to build landmark churches on main thoroughfares including Downshire Road, Sandys Street and William Street.

The Ebenezer Chapel on Trevor Hill which was built for the Congregationalists in 1819. This was one of the earliest Non-Conformist meeting houses in Newry to have a street frontage on a main thoroughfare. © William McAlpine
The Ebenezer Chapel on Trevor Hill which was built for the Congregationalists in 1819. This was one of the earliest Non-Conformist meeting houses in Newry to have a street frontage on a main thoroughfare. © William McAlpine

A similar location away from the town centre is evident in the first Methodist places of worship in Newry. The first Methodist chapel was built on William Street in 1785 and, in 1816, a Primitive Wesleyan Mission opened 1810 on Kilmorey Street. However, the latter building did have a street frontage. 

By the early 18th century, there was a Catholic burying ground in the townland of Ballynacraig on the road leading to Narrow Water (now Chapel Street) on the south side of Newry. A Mass House was built there c.1730 which served as a Cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Dromore until the building of the present St. Mary’s Church in 1789 at a cost of £1,800. Although much altered over the years, St. Mary’s still retains its T-shaped plan which was common for Catholic and Presbyterian churches of this period. The building was also equipped with three galleries with independent entrances and General Needham, later the first Earl of Kilmorey, gifted an organ to the new church. 

Extract from the Ordnance Survey maps of Newry from the 1860s showing the first Wesleyan Chapel on William Street which was disused by then and the Primitive Wesleyan Chapel on Kilmorey Street. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Extract from the Ordnance Survey maps of Newry from the 1860s showing the first Wesleyan Chapel on William Street which was disused by then and the Primitive Wesleyan Chapel on Kilmorey Street. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The passing of the Catholic Relief Acts began to create a more tolerant attitude to the building of Catholic churches and, when Dr Hugh O’Kelly became Bishop of Dromore in 1820, he began to make arrangements for a new Catholic Cathedral in Newry. By 1823 land been purchased in Hill Street and money was raised from the congregation and by subscription for the new cathedral. The foundation stone was laid on 8 June 1825 and the building was completed to a design by Thomas Duff, the Newry architect in 1829. The new cathedral was completed before the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 and its dedication was the first ceremony of its kind in Ireland after the passing of the Act.

This brief article illustrates that, with the gradual relaxation of the Penal Laws and the growth of greater tolerance towards the end of the 18th century, Catholics and Non-Conformists were eventually able to build landmark churches which are a still a commanding feature of the townscape of Newry today.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church which served as the Cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Dromore from it opened in 1789 until the Cathedral of SS. Patrick and Colman was dedicated in May 1929. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
St. Mary’s Catholic Church which served as the Cathedral for the Catholic Diocese of Dromore from it opened in 1789 until the Cathedral of SS. Patrick and Colman was dedicated in May 1929. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

A lecture titled ‘The Built Heritage of South Down’ by Philip Smith from the Department of Communities, Historic Environment Division, will be held at Newry and Mourne Museum on Thursday 5 March at 2.00 pm. Admission is free but booking is essential. To book please contact Declan Carroll, Museum Education Officer, at 0330 137 4422 or email museum@nmandd.org

The Museum is open to the public seven days a week with admission free of charge. For opening hours, information on events and exhibitions, other services and bookings please phone 0330 137 4422 or visit WWW.BAGENALSCASTLE.COM

by Ken Abraham

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