Home » Places » The Forgotten Town of Coole & the Church of the Holy Evangelists
Church of the Holy Evangelists from the graveyard
Church of the Holy Evangelists from the graveyard

Location of the Church

Situated on Church Road in the parish of Carnmoney (Carn of the Bog) in County Antrim is the Church of Ireland Church of the Holy Evangelists. Its location overlooks the valley of Glen-gormlaithe – todays Glengormley.

In ancient times each of the glens bordering Belfast Lough had its own church. This church, graveyard and parish have an interesting, if somewhat turbulent, past.

The Parish of Coole

Coole Parish

The parish was originally known as the Parish of Coole. It is bounded on the west by the Glas-na-Braden River. This name has been variously translated as ‘Little Brigid’s River‘ (Rev Reeves) or the ‘stream of the salmon’ (F J Bigger). The boundary to the east was River Ballylinney (Three Mile Water), to the south by the shore and to the north by the River Aghsolas.

The old parish comprised 9 townlands – Ballyrenenge-Tollard (modern Whitehouse), Whiteabbey, Ballydownanney, Cloughfern, Ballycullo (modern Carnmoney), Ballycraigy, Ballyhary (modern Ballyhenry), Ballylinulduff (modern Ballyduff) and Ballyvoisine (modern Ballyvesey).

The Cemetery and St Brigid’s Well

The discovery of ancient 6ft deep stone graves in the cemetery proves this was a site of very early Christian worship.

“When or by whom the first Church at Coole was founded is unknown but the very old and deep stone-lined graves found last century make clear that the graveyard is extremely ancient”

Carved in Stone, North of Ireland Family History Society, 1994

To the rear of the Church is a stone-enclosed spring known as St Brigid’s Well. Probably once a place of devotion. Hence it is likely that the original wooden church on the site was dedicated to St Brigid, Patroness of Ireland.

St Brigid's Well
St Brigid’s Well

The Fate of the Town of Coole

The town of Coole was situated on the Old Irish Highway, today known as the O’Neill Road. It ran from the Church, through the valley to the shores of Carrickfergus Bay (Belfast Lough). Until 1836 this was the main route between Antrim and Carrickfergus. Archaeological finds of house foundations, quern stones and paving flags, show that this was a populous town with densely packed housing and a good road system. It also had a water-mill.

Coole was already a thriving town when the Anglo-Normans arrived in the twelfth century. They established a borough here named Le Coule. In the Papal taxation record of Pope Nicholas in 1306 the value of the Church was 10 marks and the presbytery 4 marks.

The town of Coole was destroyed in the civil disturbances erupting after the invasion of Edward Bruce. With the murder of the Earl of Ulster by John de Logan of Ballywalter and Robert de Mandeville, this area of County Antrim was ravaged by warring factions.

“There was a borough town at Le Coul for which the burgess used to pay 10 shillings, now it is worth nothing, as it is burnt and destroyed by John de Logan and other enemies of the King”

Inquisition of 1333
Cavehill view from the graveyard
Cavehill view from the graveyard

The Church at Coole

Attempts were made to rebuild the town but it was overshadowed by prosperous Carrickfergus and the growth of the village of Belfast.

It is believed another Church building was erected on the same site. The ‘Church at Coole’ is recorded in the Connor Terrior of 1615. However, further troubles lay ahead.

When the English general Arthur Chichester was appointed governor of Carrickfergus and Clandeboy in 1598 he waged a ruthless war against the native Irish population.

Chichester wrote:

“I spayre neither house, corne nor creature….sparing none of what quality, age or sex so ever; beside many burned to death, we kill man, woman and child, horse, beast and whatever we find”.

The land was devastated.

“Based on the fortress of Carrick, he ravaged the whole country and the neighbourhood became a desert… All the local churches were destroyed by this savage commander”.

Rev H J Clarke, 30 Centuries in South-East Antrim, 1938

In the Visitation records of 1622, it states “Ecclesia de Coole ruynous

The Church Rebuilt

The Return of The Church at Coole

Gradually the Church was rebuilt little by little. It is thought to have been situated near the centre of the current graveyard. It was described as a plain rectangular building 64ft by 26ft made of stone and roughcast. It had a small square tower with a belfry.

The Parish Church of Carnmoney 1820
The Parish Church of Carnmoney, 1820

Three pointed windows on the south side and one on the eastern wall provided light. Inside there was little ornamentation. Wooden pews provided seating. The Communion Table sat underneath the east window and the door was at the western end. There was no organ, vestry or heating.

At first the church was poorly attended as there were not many people of the Establishment Church of Ireland in the area.

“There were few or no English church people in the parish until recent years, the district having been planted with Scotch Presbyterians, so its use was not very great and its ornament nil. There were no Catholics left in the parish”

Francis Joseph Bigger, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Vol 5 1909

Up to the thirteenth century the Church at Coole had been assigned to the Abbey at Woodburn. With the Dissolution of the Monasteries all Catholic churches had been destroyed or transferred to the Anglican faith. The Chichester family took over the appointment of clergy for Coole.

The Growing Congregation

As more English and Scottish settlers arrived in the area the population increased and the congregations expanded. In the seventeenth century the Church was repaired and refurbished. In 1640 Lord Edward Chichester endowed the parish with 40 Irish acres of glebe land. An Irish acre or Plantation acre as it is sometimes known is roughly equivalent to 1.62 English acres.

One of the earliest ministers of the Church was Scotsman James Glendinning who had been educated at the University of St Andrews. He was vicar in the 1620’s but because the Church was in such bad condition, he resided at Carrickfergus and then at Oldstone near Antrim. He appears to have been a very fiery and passionate orator

“Men swooned during his preaching and one occasion as many as a dozen were carried out of doors as dead”

Ernest V. Scott, The Carnmoney Connection, 1985

The Strange Story of Alexander Colville

Galgorm Castle

In 1626 the next incumbent was Alexander Colville. He was responsible for more repairs to the Church and introducing the English Prayer Book into religious services. He remained in Coole until 1635. He subsequently bought Galgorm Castle in mid-Antrim from Sir Faithful Fortescue, a nephew of Arthur Chichester.

For one reason or another (ie where did his money come from?) Colville seems to have aroused much animosity among his contemporaries. Disparaging rumours as to the source of Colville’s wealth flourished.

A Deal with the Devil

One of these stories is reported by Classon Porter in his book Witches, Warlocks and Ghosts published in 1885. Colville is said to have sold his soul to the Devil!

The story tells how the Devil and Colville met at the site of a nearby kiln. The deal was a hatful of gold in return for the clergyman’s soul. However, the wily minister made a slit in the crown of his hat and positioned it on top of the kiln so that coins fell into the kiln below. As a consequence, he actually received a kiln-full of gold!

When the day of reckoning arrived, 21 years later, Colville was in his study in Galgorm Castle reading his Bible. The Devil appeared. Colville pleaded with the Devil to allow him to continue reading the Holy Book until his candle was spent. The Devil agreed to wait. Whereupon Colville blew out the candle and locked it in a sturdy chest. So, as the candle never burnt out, the Devil could never collect his soul. The Devil appears to have kept his promise!

In the 1850’s a treasure chest was discovered in Galgorm Castle containing a seventeenth century Bible and a half-burnt candle…

The Ghost of Galgorm Castle

To this day, it is said, the footsteps of the old minister can be heard pacing the corridors of Galgorm Castle, now a prestigious golf club.

A portrait of the Rev Alexander Colville hangs in the mansion and it said that if the portrait is ever removed then disaster will befall the castle!

The Growth of Coole

In the eighteenth century the ministers of Coole tended to live in Belfast or elsewhere and ride about their extensive parish on horseback. In 1806 the parish is listed as comprising 20,000 acres. One former rector, Thomas Merrifield, is said to have stabled his horse in the Church porch while he conducted Church services. Coole Glebe, the vicar’s residence was not built until 1814.

In 1796 a new curate was appointed to Coole whose family was to have a huge influence on the growth of the parish for the next 100 years. Samuel Smythe from Lisdillon, Derry had the role of curate until 1808 and then vicar until 1849. The Rev Smythe started the Vestry Book which details all the out-goings of the Church, repair bills, wages for a sexton (£2.10 shillings a year) and so forth.

Considerable refurbishment of the Church building, interior and exterior, was carried out as well as the purchase of a font and the creation of a path from the Church door to the road. Money was raised by public subscription or paid for by the Rev Smythe himself. Indeed in 1837 the Church at Coole was described as

“a modern and spacious edifice in good repair”

Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

In 1810 Samuel Smythe married Rachel Margaret Hester Owen from Tilderg, Holestone, County Antrim. The couple raised a family of three boys John, William and George and two daughters Mary and Anna in Coole Glebe.

“The house, which is delightfully seated on a declivity, commands a beautiful and extensive view of the lough and town of Belfast. It is a modern and commodious residence, two-storeys high, and possesses suitable offices and a tolerable garden”

James Boyle, Ordnance Survey Memoirs, 1839

Unfortunately, Rachel was to die in 1820 aged only 37. In 1837 the eldest son John, who had joined the ministry, was appointed curate at Coole to help his father with his religious duties. In 1843 when John was selected as Vicar of Ballyclug, younger brother George took over the curacy. Rev Samuel Smythe died in Coole Glebe on 24th February 1849.

Samual Smythe Obituary Newsletter 2nd March 1849
Samual Smythe Obituary Newsletter
2nd March 1849

(One unusual fact, recorded in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs in 1838, was that when the floorboards within the Church were being replaced a “human jaw bone of enormous size was found beneath the floor”).

Construction of the Current Church of the Holy Evangelists

After the death of his father, George remained as curate at Coole. The newly appointed vicar, Rev James Carson Battersby however, did not live in Carnmoney and rarely visited the parish. So, we can assume that George was doing all the ministerial work by himself. On 1st June 1853 he was at last installed as vicar of the parish. As such he oversaw the demolition of the old Church and the construction of the current building.

The Church of the Holy Evangelists was consecrated on 23rd December 1856 by the Lord Bishop of the Diocese Robert Knox. The congregation included notable inhabitants of the district both lay and clergy.

The sermon was delivered by the Rev John Gibbs, Rector of Dunluce. A sum of £63 16 shillings and 6 pence was collected towards church building costs. Afterwards the Bishop and his party retired to Coole Glebe for lunch.

The Consecration of the Church, Newsletter 26th Dec 1856
The Consecration of the Church, Newsletter
26th Dec 1856

Description of the Church of the Holy Evangelists

The stone-built Church measures 98ft by 44ft, considerably larger than the former construction. The square tower is 85ft high. The east end features beautiful stained-glass windows depicting the four evangelists. It is believed to have been gifted by the Smythe family.

The Four Evangelists
The Four Evangelists

In 1857 an organ was donated to the Church by Robert McCalmont and in 1891 the bell was a gift from Daniel Grainger.

Many of the items in the Church today were donated in memory of deceased family members, for example, the marble pulpit was the gift of Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson in honour of her husband John. The south transept window was erected in 1864 by a mother in remembrance of her only child William Andrews who died aged 14.

The Church of the Holy Evangelists Pulpit
The Church of the Holy Evangelists Pulpit

“With the opening of the new church in 1856 new conditions brought new life into the parish. George Chichester Smythe was vicar – a venerable and much-loved man whose memory is still green in the parish.

The Smythe’s held the vicarage for over 100 years and for three generations. It would be a badly dispositioned person who ever said an ill word about any of the Smythe family or the memory of them”

Francis Joseph Bigger, Belfast Telegraph, 22nd December 1923

The Church of the Holy Evangelists Graveyard

The graveyard is an irregular shape and surrounds the Church on two sides. It was enlarged in 1820 and enclosed by a stone and lime wall in 1838. In 1839 the price of a grave was 10 shillings. Apart from the ancient burials, the oldest section of the graveyard is in the corner area bounded by Church Road and Prince Charles Way. The Lebanon Cedar trees planted in the cemetery were paid for by the Rev George Smythe.

Church of the Holy Evangelists graveyard
Church of the Holy Evangelists graveyard

The earliest legible headstone discovered belongs to a Lieutenant Paul Cunyngham and various family members. The large flat stone is inscribed

Here lyeth the body of Lieut. Paul Cunyham who departed this life April the 6 1692 aged 72 years

Paul Cunyngham headstone
Paul Cunyngham headstone

Altogether there are 852 numbered plots in the cemetery. Many notable families are interred here – the Biggers, the Cairns, the Grimshaws (founders of the first cotton spinning mill in Belfast), the Leppers (prosperous merchants from Trainfield House), the Blands (from Tobercoran), Sir Charles Lanyon (architect of Queens University and the Palm House in Botanic Gardens) and, of course, the Smythes

Most of the headstones mark the final resting place of local families

– the Grays from Ballycraigy
– the Campbells from Ballyhenry
– the Dawsons from Cloughfern
– the Logans from Whiteabbey
– the Rodgers from Monkstown

Lady Panmure's headstone
Lady Panmure’s headstone

However, many folk from Belfast and further afield are buried in the graveyard, for example:

– M Walker of Strandtown (1878)
– James Carson of Grove near Belfast (1807)
– Richard Murry of Ligoniel (1894)
– Lady Panmure of Castleton (1821)
– William Steen of Belfast (1869)
– John Russell of Whitewell (1755)
– John Orr of Greencastle (1853)

“It (the burial ground) is neatly and decently kept, though the old portion of it is crowded with graves. It is said to be a very ancient place of interment. It is still a favourite place of burial, and as such is used by many respectable families from Belfast and the surrounding districts from a considerable distance, several of whom have very neatly finished and enclosed vaults and tombstones”

James Boyle, Ordnance Survey Memoirs, 1839

(For a complete record of memorials in the graveyard at the Church of the Holy Evangelists see “Carved in Stone” North of Ireland Family History Society, 1994)

General William James Smythe

His Memorial

A notable monument in the graveyard was erected in honour of General William James Smythe. William was the second son of Rev Samuel Smythe and brother to John and George.

The memorial is a 17ft high Celtic Cross made of Irish limestone. It was designed by Thomas Drew Esq, a member of the Royal Hibernian Association. The stone carver was Mr A. P. Sharp of Dublin. Intricate lace-like Irish motifs and crosses decorate both sides of the cross, reminiscent of the Celtic designs in the Book of Kells. The base depicts the dead body of Christ being taken down from the Cross. It was carved in high-relief by Sir Thomas Farrell. The iron railings enclosing the plot are based on ancient Irish spears and are the work of Mr Alfred Webb of the Ulster Metal Works.

Celtic Memorial Cross, The Irish Builder 15th Feb 1881
Celtic Memorial Cross, The Irish Builder 15th Feb 1881
Rev Samuel Smthe Memorial
Rev Samuel Smthe Memorial
The base of Rev Samuel Smythe's Memorial
The base of Rev Samuel Smythe’s Memorial

The Life of William J Smythe

William J Smythe was born on 25th January1816. Unlike his bothers he did not enter the ministry but joined the Royal Artillery at the age of 17 as a ‘gentleman cadet’. He fought in the Kaffir War in 1835. He was part of the Commission sent to Europe to seek ways of improving military education after the failures of the Crimean War. Accompanied by his wife Sarah Maria Bland, he travelled to the Fiji Islands to oversee the details of land ownership and transferal.

Smythe had a keen scientific brain and in 1842 he was appointed Director of the St Helena Magnetic Observatory. In 1864 William was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society, in recognition of his work in the field of magnetic and meteorological observation.

Both William and Sarah Maria were active in the Celtic Revival movement, which sought to encourage an appreciation for Gaelic art, literature, music and culture. They supported Charles Stewart Parnell in his attempts to secure legislative independence from England and land reform. William was vice-president of the Irish Language Preservation Society and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. He also joined the Irish Protestant Home Rule Association which put him at odds with many of his neighbours and colleagues.

His Philanthropy

The Smythes, as we have seen, were dedicated, but unassuming, philanthropists. William was very generous to the Church in Carnmoney as well as to others in the area. It is believed that he donated the wall tiling in the sanctuary depicting religious themes as well as the baptismal font. In his will he bequeathed money to the R.I.A, the Representative Body of the Church of Ireland, and towards the salary of vicars appointed to the Church.

William J Smythe & Sarah Maria tribute
William J Smythe & Sarah Maria tribute

Sarah Maria Smythe

Sarah Maria Smythe was also an energetic, courageous and generous woman. Having made the arduous journey to Fiji she aided William in his endeavours. An account of their life and work there was written by Sarah Maria and published in 1864 entitled “Ten Months in the Fiji Islands”. It is still a highly acclaimed work.

Church of the Holy Evangelists Stained Glass Windows

The window in the north transept of the Church of the Holy Evangelists depicts Our Lord quelling the storm. It was donated by the Smythes in thanksgiving for their safe journeys. The window contains images of coconut palm and breadfruit from Sarah Maria’s sketches while in the Pacific.

“If ever there was a parish endowed with a sweeter, kinder more charitable and loving lady than the late Mrs General, as she was affectionately called, it would be a pleasure to know of it”

Francis Joseph Bigger, Belfast Telegraph, 22nd December 1923
North side Smythe window
North side Smythe window at the Church of the Holy Evangelists

Other Graves with a Story

Tom Scott

After the death of sportsman Tom Scott on 12th May 1908, his team mates at Cliftonville Football Club erected a memorial in his honour. However, the monument was slightly misplaced and Tom was buried in an adjoining grave. Instead of going to all the expense of relocation, a small stone with a carved hand and pointing finger was added to the memorial to indicate poor Tom’s actual final resting place.

Tom Scott marker
Tom Scott marker

Minnie Cunningham

Across Church Road and down Tory Lane is a further section of the burying ground. Here is another interesting headstone. It is the grave of Minnie Cunningham and is inscribed:

Minnie, enjoying health and happiness, was put asleep on 20th April 1927 at the R V Hospital, aged 27 years

Apparently, Minnie had agreed, for a small payment, to participate in the trials of a new anaesthetic process but never recovered.

Minnie Cunningham on Family headstone
Minnie Cunningham on Family headstone

The Church of the Holy Evangelists Today

From ancient times through wars, invasions and famine there has been a Church on this site – A credit to the faith and tenacity of the people of the area.

The story of the parish of Coole includes a vanished town, supernatural pacts, philanthropy and dedication. Ultimately it is the story of a people and a congregation.

The Church of the Holy Evangelists remains a thriving and welcoming community today.

Church of the Holy Evangelists
The Church of the Holy Evangelists
Stained Glass
View of Church from the graveyard
View of the Church of the Holy Evangelists from the graveyard
Stained Glass window
A gargoyle watches
A gargoyle watches
Baptismal Font
Church of the Holy Evangelists Baptismal Font
Graveyard Angel
Church of the Holy Evangelists Graveyard Angel
Church and headstones
Church of the Holy Evangelists & headstones

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