161a Gilnahirk Road
Belfast, BT5 7QP
© 2016 Gilnahirk Presbyterian Church Registered Charity in Northern Ireland : NIC 104474 firstname.lastname@example.org
Gilnahirk Presbyterian Church exists to:
Show the love of God in Christ Jesus,
Proclaim the Gospel and enable people to find its healing power,
Encourage members to worship and learn together and grow in faith,
Apply the faith in practical concern and help to others.
Setting the Scene
The 18th century was a turbulent time for Ireland in general and Irish Presbyterians in particular. The Anglican dominance and control continued to make life difficult for many of the new settlers from Scotland. New churches found it difficult to become established and tended to meet in local homes and keep a low profile to avoid creating waves. Even Presbyterian marriages were not always recognised as legal and often Anglican Clergy insisted upon “reading over the dead” before the burial could take place. Between these expressions of second class citizenship and the general economic recession -
The Presbyterian Church as a whole also experienced difficulties in this century, many due to an inability to agree with each other! First of all there was the split between the Subscribers and Non-
In this area there were already 2 local Presbyterian Congregations – Castlereagh and Dundonald. Dundonald is indeed one of the oldest in Ireland and dates back to 1645. Castlereagh was originally a joint charge, gathering at Breda and Knock. The first minister came there in 1652. There are no written records to say why the local people in Gilnahirk decided to establish their own congregation over a 100 years later. It is unlikely to have been due to a rise in population as Belfast did not expand across the Lagan until the 19th century, and the rural population, if anything, was declining due to the big rise in immigration of Ulster Scots Farmers heading to America. It is most likely that there was a dispute within one of the other congregations as Gilnahirk very clearly declared itself “A Seceding Congregation”. And their intention to establish a church under their own chosen minister rather than the choice of a local landowner may well have been the overriding reason why they bought the lease on the plot of land on November 12th 1759. We will probably never know! Again we have no written record of the first minister, but word of mouth has handed down the name of the Rev Alexander McDowell, a Scotsman.
As mentioned, this was not a great time for Presbyterians in Ireland and so to step forward and make your mark at the time when 10,000 people a year were leaving to make a new life in America, was a big leap of faith by the 6 men who signed the lease for the land on which our Church building still stands. They literally put their money where their convictions lay!
(Thanks to “The Church on the Stye Brae” by Crawford Millar and “Presbyterians in Ireland” by Laurence Kirkpatrick for this information.)
A Child’s Perspective
My name is Tommy and I am 10 years old, I just thought you might like to hear of all the excitement going on in our house. I am the youngest of 9 children and we live on a farm in Ballyrussell, in the County of Down, and my Da has just signed a lease on the land down where our wee Meeting House is. You see, my Da’s a dissenter, some people call him a Black Mouth, my mother calls him argumentative, but my Granny says he has the “Courage of his Convictions” and he’s “Putting his money where his Mouth is”. Him and 5 other men have signed the agreement to rent the land down along the Stye Brae and they are going to build a church – a real Church, like Castlereagh or Dundonald, only it will be our church and we can say who the minister will be and he’ll be our man, not the choice of some English favoured Landlord. Or that’s what my Da says anyway.
So here dear they have it all agreed and now all we have to do is build it. We have to clear the site first and with it being set on the side of the road it’s a bit rough. But we’re all going to help. The Harvest is in and even though the days are short, we are all going to give a few hours to help. Even my sister, Martha says she is going to get stuck in. She’s a fierce worker, but my mother says she has too many opinions and if she keeps talking like a man, she’ll never get one herself! My Granny says Martha’s just right and a woman can think just as well as many a man, and Martha can think better than most. She says we are going to get a minister who will teach girls their letters as well as boys. She says she is going to get a job teaching and she won’t stay at home on the farm or go into service if she can’t. She would rather go to the New Colonies in one of those big ships out of Belfast and she’s going to bring me down to the Lough shore to see them.
So we are off to start the clearing tomorrow; we’re bringing the donkey and one of the other families has a horse. My Da has the bill hook sharpened and the spade oiled and Martha and me are to be lifting the stones. My mother thinks we are all soft in the head and that it will be years before we can start to build and then where are we going to get the money, never mind pay a minister, with us all being tenant farmers. “Even a tenant farmer has the right to hear the gospel preached from a true man of faith unhampered by the aristocracy” my father tells her, but she doesn’t heed him. Anyway, I am going to add my weight to the effort and, you’ll see, we will have a fine church and a fine minister in the middle of Gillenahirk in no time.
Tommy’s mum wasn’t far wrong – it took 28 years before the Church on the Stye Brae was actually opened, and the determined congregation of Gilnahirk worshipped in their little thatched meeting house until then, with the goal of their own church fixed in front of them. There is no written record of the Minister, but it is commonly agreed that he was the Rev Alexander McDowell a Scotsman. They called themselves a Dissenting Congregation and this is engraved on the communion vessels that were in use from 1776.
There are no photos of the original church opened in 1789. This is the one that replaced it in 1845 when Dr Coulter was minister.
By this stage the Minister was the Rev. Francis Pringle whose name is on the first date stone, now to be seen on the wall of the church in the Stye Brae hallway. He didn’t stay long after the new church was built as his views clashed somewhat with the United Irishmen in the congregation and he was basically chased out of the area. It would seem that the people of Gilnahirk still held tight to their own particular convictions. No wonder it was 3 years before they managed to get a new minister! It was at this time that a group left and established Granshaw Church. Rev Dr J Coulter was greatly loved by the Congregation and respected throughout the church. Indeed he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly in 1851. But even he managed to create some controversy over his association with the All Ireland Tenant League. This movement was trying to bring better conditions to both sides of the religious divide and was supported by both Priest and Presbyterian Minister – but not all Presbyterian Ministers!
In 1887 a Manse was completed for the sum of £875 and in 1899 a Lecture Hall was added to the back of the Church. The church was extensively renovated in 1910 and it is more or less the same now as it was then. Various maintenance works have been carried out but the structure is easily recognised.
A new suite of Halls were built to the front of the church in 1985 -
Music has played an important role in the life of Gilnahirk congregation over the years. Many people speak fondly of church socials held in the old Upper Hall, where the Stye Brae centre now stands, and this tradition has been adapted to our times with a varied range of shows and concerts. In the room where the Choir hold their practices in the Stye Brae centre, you can see certificates hanging on the wall which record their success under the direction of the then Precentor, Hugh Hill, at Belfast Music Festival 80 or so years ago. Interestingly, the certificates are signed by a range of people who were at the time major figures on the music scene at a National level, giving some indication of the high standard that was being achieved at the time in Gilnahirk. Also, many people in the present day congregation are actively involved in music, as members of bands, in amateur musical theatre, or through their support of concerts and musical events on a regular basis. Although time moves on, and things change, and the way we do things change, nevertheless music is still important to us.
Gilnahirk today is largely unchanged from its appearance in this photograph