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June 2019
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2003-08-13 We were seen as leftovers from British Occupation

As I scrambled through the ferny overgrowth on Church Island, playing hide-and-seek in the old ruined church, I was totally unaware all those years back of the hisory being trampled underfoot.


The half-moon shaped island, the largest on Lough Gill, was fittingly known as Inis Mór, and from the 6th century was the religious hub for the entire region.

The original monastic foundation was named after a 6th century saint, St. Loman, but the building now in ruins was a later church destroyed by fire in 1416. This fire also destroyed a very famous library which housed priceless books, manuscripts and local records. An inscribed stone just inside the church door is believed to be an ogham inscription.

On Beezies/Gallaghers island, aside from Beezies own burned-out house, there stands another ruined chapel thought to be from the medieval era. I have already devoted an entire column to that fascinating open-air museum, the monastic settlement on the beautiful island of Innismurray, a few miles off the North Sligo coast.

At Kilmacowen, all that remains of a once very important centre of Christianity in Sligo is a graveyard and ruins. On a remote exposed headland beyond Strandhill and Sligo airport is the ruined church of Killaspugbrone, founded by Bishop Bronus, a disciple of St.Patrick.

After the Reformation, little reference is made to this church as by then the parishes had all united in Sligo town. The present Church of Ireland Cathedral of St. Johns has its origin in the 12th century, though the building we know in John Street was built by the German architect Cassels in the 18th century (he is also responsible for several of Dublins finest edifices).

It is assumed that the name St.Johns came from the old Sligo castle which was rebuilt in the 14th century. We are very fortunate to boast two Cassels creations in Sligo  St.Johns and Hazelwood House. St.Johns was designed in the shape of a cross, with galleries in each corner, except at the East Window.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, visited Sligo several times and described it as a sink of iniquity, possibly referring to the whiskey which was distilled and imbibed locally in rather large quantities. A little harsh and a slight overstatement nonetheless John, I feel!In the early 19th century, Calry Church was built on the Mall in order to accommodate the growing Church of Ireland congregations.

Not long after, a cholera epidemic halved the towns population. Gentle rivalries and parish swopping was common from that time even until my youth. Several large local families played important roles in these churches at the time  the Wynnes of Hazelwood, the Pollexfens and the Yeats. W.B.Yeats little 3 year-old brother Robert is buried in the Cathedral graveyard, as well as many other relations of the poet.Growing up as a young boy in the Church of Ireland in Sligo, I was well aware of being very much in a minority.

I watched as my name remained on the Cradle Roll at the back of the church well into my teen years. I was also aware that many people saw our family as left-overs from British occupation  wearing the unwanted label of being a West-Brit.

As I walked or cycled home from the Model School to Cartron, on occasion I sampled the seeds of sectarianism, though it never went much beyond harmless name-calling. I was a Prod. From the moment I began history lessons, I was itching to point out to everyone that many of the huge figures in Irish patriotism were, like me, Protestant  Wolfe-Tone, Emmet, Parnell, Hyde, Countess Markievicz, and to a much lesser extent, though no less patriotic, my own father.

A little later, I was to become aware of the seemingly miniscule differences between the Protestant and Catholic traditions  the Pope as the main man, the emphasis on Mary, transubstantiation, the extra bit at the end of the Lords Prayer, Sunday School, and why our hymn-singing seemed more enthusiastic.

Now, as I write this, I think back to Church Island in the 6th century when there were no Protestants or Catholics, only Christians, and wonder how things, with a little effort, could have been different in our land.

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