‘The Light of the World’ – From the Abbey to Bangor Castle
Introduction to Bangor
Bangor, which was recently granted city status in 2022, is situated on the north County Down coastline. A busy town with a colourful marina, it lies just 13 miles from Belfast but Bangor’s ‘claim to fame’ long predates the popular town.
Around 558 AD, St Comgall founded a monastery here in a sheltered spot on the southern shore of Belfast Lough. This establishment became internationally famous for its learning. Students came from far and wide to be educated at this important ecclesiastical site.
Subjects taught were history, the classics, scripture, theology, logic, geometry and arithmetic.
St Comgall was born in Magheramorne on the shores of Larne Lough in Antrim in 517 AD. His father was a warrior from a noble family named Setna, and his mother was Briga. He was a studious and reserved young man. After studying at Clonenagh (Clonard) under St Fintan, he was ordained a deacon by Bishop Lugidius at Clonmacnoise in County Offaly.
Comgall decided to dedicate his life to God as a hermit. He retired to an isolated island to pass his days in prayer and penance. However, he was persuaded by some friends that his life would be better spent in sharing his knowledge and spreading God’s word. Hence Comgall left his solitary existence and initiated the Abbey at Bangor. St Comgall spent his life in the monastery and died in 602 AD after a protracted illness. His feast day is 10th May, the anniversary of his death.
The Name of Bangor
Bangor is sometimes referred to in old records as Beannchor derived from the Gaelic word ‘beann’ meaning horn. Legend has it that a king of Leinster once had a herd of cattle killed here and bones and horns were scattered over the area.
Another theory is purported by William McComb in his book A Guide to Belfast published in 1861 – stating that Bangor Abbey was famous for music. Visitors travelled great distances to listen to the liturgical chants and hymns. McComb states that the name Bangor came from the Irish Bean Choraidh translated as ‘white choir’.
The site has also been described as the Vale of Angels (‘Vallis Angelorum’). According to tradition, St Patrick once rested here while on his travels and saw the valley filled with bright angels singing glory to God.
Description of the Abbey
Bangor Abbey was one of the largest in Ireland, at one point housing 4,000 men. This would require a large number of buildings for housing pupils and teachers, schools, scriptoriums, dining, storage and the housing of livestock and so forth. The wooden structures with their reed roofs would have made up a village. The buildings were enclosed with a defensive timber rampart.
Life at the Abbey
Life in the monastery was far from easy. St Comgall enforced a strict and rigid discipline. Emphasis was placed on fasting and penance as means of preparing the soul for its heavenly reward. Vigils and long hours of prayer were part of the daily routine. There were 5 services every day and 3 every night. Only one meal was served per day in the evening time, this consisted of bread, herbs and water. Milk was provided for the elderly and ailing brothers. Apart from prayer and singing, silence was the norm.
Comgall lived by his own strictures. He was described as a humble man. Like his fellow monks, Comgall partook of public confession. When travellers arrived at the abbey, he would wash their feet.
Influence of Bangor Abbey Students Abroad
Many of the students of Bangor Abbey went on to become educators themselves or to found their own religious institutions. From Bangor, Columbanus and Gall established the abbeys at Luxeuil in France and Bobbio in Italy. St Moluag [also known as Luanus] is said to have founded 100 monasteries and evangelised the Picts in Scotland. While St Carthage became a bishop and established the school of Lismore.
“For Bangor is a very ancient place and was once the seat of a great monastic school which sent missionaries all over Europe and the British Isles to preach the gospel in early days”Richard Hayward, In Praise of Ulster, 1946
Antiphony of Bangor
One of the greatest works to come out of the Abbey is the exquisite Antiphony of Bangor. Written in the 7th century during the abbacy of Coleman. The 36-page manuscript contains a collection of hymns in Latin, prayers and antiphons (Christian chants using the text of psalms). This not only demonstrates the high quality of learning and artistry in the abbey but also provides a unique insight into Irish monastic life.
Sacred music as a way to give glory to God was an important part of Bangor’s routine. It is said that the choirs sang here for 20 hours every day.
“The music which made the vale of Bangor resound as if inhabited by angels, was their own composition; the hymns that accompanied it were their own….the Antiphonarium of Bangor, as well as that of Armagh, remains to show that such a want was not left unsupplied in the early Church”Thomas D’Arcy McGee, A Popular History of Ireland, 1863
Being situated on the coast however, Bangor Abbey was easy prey for the marauding Vikings in the 9th century. This marked the beginning of the end of Bangor’s ‘glory days’. The Annals of Ulster record that the church buildings were plundered by the Norsemen in 822 AD and 824 AD.
The Four Masters, written in 1636, claim that many students and bishops were killed in the attacks. It is said around 900 monks were murdered. Also, the relics of St Comgall were taken from their shrine and destroyed. After this the abbey fell into decline.
St Malachy and the Rebuilt Abbey
St Malachy was appointed Abbot of Bangor in 1121 and rebuilt the ancient establishment.
“While still a young man, St Malachy undertook the restoration of the famous Abbey of Bangor. Here he erected a small oratory of wood, and joined himself to a few devoted men ardent for the perfection of religious life…..With the assistance of some of the faithful monks, he restored what war and rapine had destroyed”.Mary Frances Cusack, An Illustrated History of Ireland, 1868
However, due to the military activity of the northern king Ui Neill of Aileach, Malachy and a band of 130 brothers were forced from Bangor. It was only in 1137 AD that the monks could resettle in the Abbey.
When Malachy returned to Bangor after travelling in Europe, he constructed a stone oratory here, after the ‘Continental fashion’.
The Abbey Destroyed
The Abbey was later home to the Franciscans and subsequently the Augustinian friars.
However, in 1572 the Abbey was destroyed by fire. As part of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the 16th century, Bangor Abbey, (now a burned-out ruin), and its lands were granted by James I to Scotsman James Hamilton (later Viscount Clandeboye) for a rent of £4. The once flourishing religious and educational institution was replaced with the trappings of worldly success achieved through unscrupulous political intrigue.
James Hamilton was the son of Hans Hamilton, a minister from Dunlop in Ayrshire. He acted as an agent and informer for James VI of Scotland during the Elizabethan age. When James also became James I of England, Hamilton was rewarded for his scheming by being endowed vast tracts of land in County Down. He set about importing large numbers of Scottish immigrants to Ireland and has been described as the ‘founder of modern Bangor’.
In 1615 James Hamilton built himself a ‘fayre stone house’ using masonry from Bangor Abbey. This was the first ‘castle’ at Bangor. It was an imposing two-storey building to reflect Hamilton’s status in the area. The house was surrounded by formal gardens and also had a granary and stables.
In 1617 Hamilton had a Protestant church built on the site of the old Abbey church. He brought over Scottish Presbyterian ministers to service the needs of the newly ‘planted’ settlers. The church today is mainly from the 19th century but the tower is from the 14th century and the steeple was constructed in 1693 AD.
“The coming of Lord Clandeboy and the alien faith in the seventeenth century brought altered fortune even to the ruin of the old Abbey. With its stones was built the new church for the new faith upon the old Abbey’s site, and to-day fragments of carved stone, pillars and pointed windows, and monumental remains, can be pointed out where they are built into the walls of the modern structure, and show forth, to those who have eyes to see, in pitiful, if eloquent, mosaic”Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946
However, by the end of the 17th century the Hamilton line had died out. The Bangor estate passed into the hands of cousins who had married into the Ward family of Castleward.
The Late-Georgian Gothic Castle
The Wards constructed a new castle on their Bangor demesne. This was a very dramatic building in the late-Georgian Gothic genre. The roof was topped with battlements and the corner turrets were shaped like chess rooks. Each tower had slit windows, resembling a medieval castle. The windows had hooded mouldings. The residence was surrounded by parkland. It was certainly an impressive residence sitting on an elevation overlooking the town of Bangor and Belfast Lough.
The Current Castle
In 1832 Robert Edward Ward succeeded his father to Bangor Castle. Around 1848 he commissioned his own ‘castle’ just to the south of the imposing Gothic mansion. When this was completed in 1852, the previous house was demolished.
The new Ward residence was designed by Scottish-born architect William Burn. Among Burn’s notable works are Camperdown House (1820), Blairquhan Castle (1821) and Edinburgh Academy (1824). In Ireland he was also responsible for Dartrey Castle in County Monaghan, Muckross House in County Kerry and Helen’s Tower in County Down.
The Wards new grand mansion has an asymmetrical frontage and 5 eastern-facing bays. It was built with imported sandstone from Giffnock in Scotland. The many pointed roof has a castellated tower and a corner clock turret. The house cost £9,000, a huge amount at the time.
Needless to say, the interior of the house was sumptuously adorned with a grand mahogany staircase and expensive furnishings. It contained vast public rooms and 35 private bedrooms. The grand saloon was adorned with stained glass windows. These represent King Edward III (1312-1377) from whom the Wards claimed descent. The luxuriousness of the mansion was a far cry from the austerity of the original Abbey.
Such a residence required a large staff to maintain it. In 1901 there were 16 servants actually living in the castle including a butler, a housekeeper, cook, nurse, laundress, two footmen and four housemaids.
On 30th April Robert Ward married his cousin Harriette. Her father the Rev Henry Ward was the minister of Killinchy. The couple had one child, a daughter, Matilda Catherine Maud. Robert was a keen musician and Bangor Castle was the venue for many concerts and recitals, including the famous English violinist William Henley and the Belfast Orchestral Society.
Robert Edward Ward died in Bangor Castle on 29th November 1904, aged 87. Though it is interesting to note from the records that his death was not officially registered until 20th May 1905, some 6 months later. He is buried in a private plot in Castle Gardens. Robert’s portrait, complete with cello, still hangs in the castle.
Matilda Ward, known as Maude, the only offspring, married John George Barry Bingham, otherwise the 5th Lord Clanmorris from County Mayo. The wedding took place in Bangor on 27th June 1878.
Most sources claim the couple had 10 offspring. However, according to the 1911 census they had an even larger family of 15 children, 9 of whom were still living. The children we have found are –
- Arthur Morris Robert b. 22nd June 1879
- John Denis Yelverton b. 11th August 1880
- Edward Barry Stewart b. 26th July 1881
- Harriette Ierne Maude b. 18th July 1882
- Emily Ina Florence b. 3rd March 1884
- Hugh Terence de Burgh b. 31st December 1885
- Henry Derrick Thomas b. 17th October 1887
- Eleanor Clare Alice b. 18th January 1892
- George Roderick Bentinck b. 10th May 1894
- Richard Gerald Ava b. 8th March 1896
Clanmorris passed away on 4th November 1916 at the age of 64 in Bangor Castle. His son Arthur succeeded to the title. Matilda continued to reside in the castle until her death on Valentine’s Day 1941. The dowager baroness left effects of £15,722 18s and 6d.
The Castle Today
Subsequently Arthur Morris Bingham, the 6th Lord Clanmorris, sold Bangor Castle and grounds to Bangor Borough Council for £35,000. In 1952 the council relocated to the stately home, which is now also referred to as Bangor Town Hall.
When the Wards had their residence built in the 1840’s, they also had landscaped gardens designed. Part of this, the Walled Garden, was opened to the public in 2009. There are a wide range of flowers, fruit and vegetables as well as sculptures to admire. The gardens remain free to visit today.
As for the Abbey, very little of this gem of scholastic history survives, only an ancient stone wall near the parish church.
“There are few visible remains of the early monastic site. The earliest extant feature is a stretch of rubble wall to the north-east of the modern church. This wall is known as ‘Malachy’s Wall’ and probably dates to the thirteenth century”Ronan McHugh, Malachy’s Wall Bangor Abbey, QUB
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