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Our Ancestry Turned Into A Dog Poop Graveyard.
Nestled in the shadows of the beautiful Killyleagh Castle, sitting alongside the Dibney River is one of Irelands lost gems. Reportedly, to be the first church in Killyleagh and district, Killowen Church lyes in ruins. In approximately one and a half acres of quiet sheltered land, this site could easily be mistaken for a dog walking area. But in fact this little piece of history dates back to medieval times.
The name Killowen means 'Church in the Hollow' and even as early as 1613 the church was in a state of disrepair. It is said that the land on which the church was originally built was awarded to the Viscount of Clandeboye, (James Hamilton) by King James 1 of England around c1613. Indeed looking at some of the surviving grave stones, dating from 1615, this would appear to be true.
A new church was built by James Hamilton and was consecrated on the 2nd October 1640, standing overlooking the town and the shores of Strangford Lough. It is thought that the original building would of been a T-shaped structure, and vestry minutes from 1811 indicated that a loan of £2000 was arranged with the Board of First Fruits, a Church of Ireland body set up for the restoration of the church and assist in the repair and building of other churches.
The font is believed to have been sculpted from red porphry, a hard crystalline rock, deep red in colour and quarried in ancient Egypt. This has since been removed from the original ruins and set in place in the new church since 1640. Originally the font was thought to be a stoup for holding holy water, and of 11th or 12th century Mediterranean origin.
This churchyard is closely linked with the story of the Irish Emigrant which is recited and sung the world over. Situated in Clandeboye estate stands a memorial edifice, known as Helen's Tower, erected in 1861 by Frederick, first Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, to perpetuate the memory of his dear mother Helen Selina Lady Dufferin, Countess of Gifford.
Helen, born in 1807, the eldest daughter of Tom Sheridan and wife Henrietta (nee Callender) and grand-daughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright and politician, married Price Blackwood in 1825 at the tender age of just 17 years old. Her husband succeeded to the title of Lord Dufferin and Ava in 1839 and on his death she married Lord Gifford, a man much younger than herself, whom she had known for over 20 years. Prior to his marriage, Lord Gifford was involved in an accident, much worse than first thought and died just 8 weeks after the marriage. Helen herself died just 5 years later.
Helen was to live through desperate times, through the famine of the mid 1840s and it was as a result of a chance meeting at Killowen that she wrote the immortalised rendering of the "Irish Emigrant". A song which still tugs at the heart strings today, a beautiful soulful ballad.
The story goes that whilst out walking along Barrack Brae, under the shadow of Killyleagh Castle to Shrigley, she came upon a sad looking young man sitting on the churchyard stile weeping. The young man told her his name, Phelim Magennis, from the Burren district of South Down, and had just buried his wife Mary McAnulty and their young son, who had died from the Cholera Epidemic which was sweeping the countryside. Touched by the young man's plight, Helen wrote down Phelims thoughts and used them in the famous poem and ballad The Tale of the Irish Emigrant.
The ruined church and vandalised stile, are all that remain, except a scattering of broken gravestone and one wall, of a once beautiful ecclestiastical building of the middle ages. Killowen church, though not mentioned in the Papal Taxations of 1306 obtained it's name from Kill = Church, Eoghain = John - St John's Church. It is surrounded by the remains of a low wall, where Christians of all demoninations were buried in the surrounding graveyard.
Sitting in the graveyard, listening to the bird song and enjoying the many colours of early flowers, is a site that many visitors will remember. But, more unfortuneately, they will remember the smell and sight of dog poop. Because, this beautiful momument is now an area it seems, not steeped in history but littered with dog dirt. The vandals have been hard at work setting fires and the youth from the town litter the area with the remnants of a good night out. Condoms and broken vodka bottles etc.
It is horrendous to think that this once sacred church, steeped in so much history has now become a dumping ground. Walking past the church gate is evidence of broken toys dumped from children whose parents have already forgotten Santa. Litter strewn amongst the broken head stones is all that is left of a much loved relatives final resting place.
Ironically enough, the area is now dominated with the dark green branches of one of the deadliest trees known to man, the yew tree. This once beautiful churchyard seems to be rebelling against modern times, against the vandals and the thoughtless people who now use it as a dog walking area.