Old Banagher Church and the Last Dragon in Ireland
Old Banagher Church
“The ruins of Banagher Church, about a mile westwards of Dungiven, presents a beautiful and remarkable remnant of the sacred architecture of our ancestors”Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1837
The medieval parish of Banagher comprised Banagher and parts of the parishes of Boveva and Cumber. It is situated in the rugged glens of the Sperrin foothills between the Rivers Roe and Faughan.
“This parish is one of the most mountainous in the county and contains much of the original Irish population……The better cultivated portions are occupied by the descendants of the English and Scottish settlers at the Plantation”Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1837
The Founding of Old Banagher Church
The church itself is said to have been founded by St Muirdagh O’Heney (there are various spellings of the name (Muiredach/Murriagh/Murrough) who was said to be a contemporary of St Patrick. The saint is buried in the Old Banagher Church graveyard.
Folklore has it that St Muirdagh was led to the site, the remains of an ice-age drumlin on the banks of the River Owenreagh, by a stag. The stag also acted as a lectern allowing the saint to place holy books on its antlers while preaching.
The old church was rectangular in shape, 64ft by 26ft. It was constructed of freestone held by cement. Internally the wall facing is of coursed rubble, that is, irregular stones or flint levelled up in lines. On the south side were two Gothic-style windows with beautiful mouldings 6ft high by 3ft across.
The chancel, the space around the altar, is narrower than the nave and may have been added later in the thirteenth century. In Christian tradition the chancel is at the east end of a church facing the rising sun. The central part of the building was separated from the chancel by a 3ft thick wall.
The western entrance has square mouldings with inclining jambs. It has a straight lintel on the exterior but arched on the inside.
An inscription above the western doorway reads ‘This Church was built in the year of God 474’. This was added in the 1730’s by an ecclesiastical engraver by the name of Alexander Sterling. He claimed he had read the exact date of the church’s founding in an old manuscript and was recording it for future generations.
The first authenticated written reference to a church at Banagher is in the Annals of Ulster. It records that Gillespie Owen O’Henry, king of Keenaght, was killed by his kinsmen in Banagher cemetery in 1121.
The ecclesiastical taxation records of 1306 show Banagher as a parish church. In 1397 we know the church was visited by Archbishop Colton of Armagh during his tour of the diocese of Derry. However, the 1622 Royal Visitation documents record Banagher church as in ruins.
Next to the church are the remains of a monastic building/ residence. This is thought to have been 3 storeys high and constructed of the same materials as the church. It measures 25ft by 20ft.
Originally the graveyard would have been marked out with four stone crosses. Only two remain today, one of which is broken. Many of the graves were inscribed by the above mentioned craftsman Alexander Sterling. Sterling, known locally as Sawney Sterling, was reputed to be the best stone engraver in the north at this time.
There is also a bullaun stone in the graveyard. A bullaun stone is an ancient stone used for grinding grain with a pestle. They are often found near church sites and folklore has grown up around them that the water collected in the circular depression has curative powers for various ailments. The name comes from the Irish bullan meaning bowl.
St Muirdagh and the Dragon
Lig na Péist (or Paiste) – The Last Dragon in Ireland
St Muirdagh is also said to have vanquished the last dragon from Ireland. St Patrick is said to have banished all serpents & snakes from Ireland some years before but one dragon lived on…
Lig na Péist – the ‘Last Great Reptile’ lived in a deep pool in the Owenreagh River. It was reputed to be large, covered in armoured scales with curling rams horns, sharp fangs and fiery breath. The locals lived in terror of this fearsome creature, as it would rise from the water and devour their sheep and cattle.
“No warrior could defeat him and he began a reign of terror from the slopes of the Sperrins to the shores of Lough Foyle, burning crops, cattle and people before devouring them in hunger in vengeance for his banished kin”www.emerald isle
St Muirdagh Confronts the Dragon
In desperation the local inhabitants called on Muirdagh, a man of the ‘new faith’ for help.
St Muirdagh prayed and fasted for 9 days and 9 nights on a rocky outcrop overlooking the valley. Then he went to the river bank and called to Paiste. The dragon rose from his pool, thinking this man had been offered to him as a sacrifice.
Muirdagh flattered the creature and asked could he perform an ancient ritual sacred to his clan. The dragon, bemused, agreed. Muirdagh placed three bands of reeds across Péist’s back. Then the saint fell to his knees and implored God to grant his request. Immediately the reeds turned to unbreakable iron!
It is said the ground shook for miles around as the mighty creature roared and thrashed in a vain attempt to break his bindings. Muirdagh then had Péist cast into Lough Foyle, where the dragon remains a prisoner till Judgement day.
It is said that unusual tides occurring in the Lough or the Owenreagh River flooding is a sign that the dragon is still struggling to free itself. Even to this day locals claim, at times, that they feel unexplained fear or dread when crossing certain parts of Lough Foyle – an indication that Péist is close to the surface….
St Muirdagh’s Tomb
St Muirdagh’s tomb in Banagher graveyard is known as the Mortuary House. It is 8ft high and 5ft wide with a steep pitched stone roof. At one end was a panel bearing a religious carving, possibly depicting St Muirdagh himself. This type of tomb is only found in the province of Ulster.
West of the saint’s burial place and close to the original gate to the cemetery is thought to be the final resting place of the outlaw Shane Crossagh. Crossagh and his two sons were executed in 1822 and buried in an unmarked plot in the graveyard.
The Mystery of Banagher ‘Magic Sand’
The Magic Sand
Close to the ruins and St Muirdagh’s tomb is what is known as Banagher Sand. This sand was reputed to have special powers though the intercession of the holy man. However, these graces were only ‘activated’ when it was collected and distributed by a descendent of St Muirdagh.
“The house in which any of the above sand is deposited can never burn down by accident, in that it is a barrier and safeguard against burning, drowning, the spells of witches or necromancers, as well as against phantoms or evil spirits”Ordnance Survey Memoirs 1837
In past times most houses in the area would have had containers of the sand in their homes for protection.
Other Uses of the Magic Sand
Another use of the Banagher Sand was apparently pest control. A woman named Kitty Poston, who lived in Templemoyle, had seen an insect called a ‘douhal’ (a type of beetle) crawling on her floor. She called on Thomas Heaney, a descendant of the saint. He arrived at her home and sprinkled a circle 4 inches in diameter around the bug. Try as it might the douhal did not venture over the sand. When Thomas dropped some sand directly on it, the insect immediately died.
Emigrants travelling to America would take a small parcel of sand with them to bring good luck on their hazardous voyage in their new life’s endeavours.
The most common use of the sand however, was at the racetrack. The sand thrown over a horse would apparently ensure its success in a race!
Unfortunately the saint’s descendants have all died leaving us without a source of magic sand.
Old Banagher Church Today
Today Banagher old church and graveyard stands quietly on its grassy drumlin. Its stories of saints and dragons, outlaws and holy sand are all but forgotten.
However, we should not forget that over 1,000 years of history lies buried in this mound.
Gallery of Images
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The fact that the name of Shane Crossagh remains synonymous with bravery and justice reflects his popularity in those most dangerous times.
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