Hannahstown & it’s Church on the Hill – A Turbulent History

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View from the front of Hannahstown Church
View from the front of Hannahstown Church

Early population

In the early eighteenth century the linen industry became established in the north of Ireland, particularly around the towns of Belfast and Lisburn. This attracted many poor families to the surrounding hills of Divis, Back Mountain and Hannahstown Hill. The landscape was dotted with cottages, each with their own handloom. The weavers produced cloth that was then sold in the local market. This plus whatever could be grown on their small patch of hillside provided for the families. This rural population was mainly Catholic, as Catholics had been forced to flee the towns.

“…for on this occasion I have made the constables return me a list of all the inhabitants within this town, and we have not among us above seven Papists”

George MacCartney, Sovereign of the Borough of Belfast, 1707

Origins of Hannahstown

The area now known as Hannahstown was part of the large ecclesiastical parish of Derriaghy. This parish covered Belfast, Derriaghy and Drum. The name Derriaghy comes from the Gaelic ‘the valley of the oak trees’. The civil parish of Derriaghy contained Tullyrusk, Derriaghy and parts of Lambeg, Drumbeg and Shankill.

The district of Hannahstown is roughly bounded by the Upper Springfield, Colinglen and Glenside Roads. It was originally known as Balladreenan, the townland of ‘the sloe bushes’. It is believed that the name changed first informally and then formally to Hannahstown as several families of that surname settled in the location.

View from Hannahstown Church grounds (edited to remove modern housing)
View from Hannahstown Church grounds (edited to remove modern housing)

Penal days

The Mass Rocks

As this was the Penal Era [1691-1778], the building of Catholic churches and the saying of Mass was illegal. Priests were hidden in local houses and Catholic ceremonies had to be held in secret. Mass was celebrated in secure locations and secluded glens, always with a look-out for the “Red Coats”. These places were known as Mass Rocks as a stone or boulder would serve as an altar.

Some of these sacred places still exist and are well-known in the area. An Cailin ‘the girl’ refers to the Colin Mountain and An Buachall ‘the boy’ to the Bohill Mountain. These were coded names used to let the people know where Mass would be said. The Mass Rock at Bohill was comprised of two intersecting mounds of earth which made a cruciform shape. Mass was celebrated in the angle most protected from the wind and rain. The Mass Rock in the townland of Ballycolin across the valley is still known as the Mass Corner.

“For ages, however, before the Catholics ventured to assemble at Hannahstown, they had a Mass station on the side of Collin Mountain, fronting Hannahstown. The station was at a little mound of about sixteen feet in diameter, and when the little mound was opened, it was found to be funereal, and contained a stone-lined grave. The spot is still called the Mass-corner; it was probably selected for its sheltered position”

Rev James O’Laverty, Historical Account of the Diocese of Down and Connor, 1880

Barns & Outbuildings

In very inclement weather, a barn or an outbuilding would sometimes be used as a substitute church.

Those who allowed their property to be so utilised risked imprisonment and the loss of their land. One such brave soul was Michael O’Kane. He permitted Mass to be celebrated in his barn on White Mountain.

The rear of Edward McQuillan’s house at Brown Moss was another secret rendez-vous, as was a stable owned by a farmer named Close.

Protestant Support For Catholic Neighbours

The Penal Code passed by the English government and enforced by the authorities was not supported by all Protestants. Often local Protestants sympathised with their Catholic neighbours. Many even aided them in the pursuit of their religion.

One such was a lady named Belle Steele. She offered to hide the ‘holy vessels’ and priests vestments in her cottage, as it was less likely to be raided. One of these was a small shell used by the local priest for putting water into the chalice. Belle lived in Friars (or Fairs Row).

“…the first door on the town side, on the Upper Falls Road as you go out the way to Milltown and Derryaghy. Fairs Row is a row of seven roadside houses, situated in the townland of Poleglass [the green pool], the first three of which are built with stone and the remaining four with brick”

Cathal O’Byrne, As I Roved Out, 1946

It is also said that the Steele family sheltered fugitive priests ‘on the run’. Mr Steele kept a cow’s horn which he sounded as an alarm if he saw soldiers nearby. The Steelestown Road at Poleglass is named after this courageous family.

The Contribution of Wallace Legge

Despite such hardships the Catholic population in the area continued to grow.

In 1792 Fr Hugh O’Donnell managed to secure a small plot of land on Hannahstown Hill from a Presbyterian land owner named Wallace Legge (or Legg as spellings differ). The Legge family had arrived in Ireland in 1690, when William Legge was an officer in the Duke of Schomberg’s army.

The Legges were then granted an estate at Malone where they had a farm. They also leased property in Belfast where they had sugar-houses and warehouses.

Legg’s Lane, off Rosemary Street was named after this family.

Fr Hugh O’Donnell

Fr O’Donnell lived in a small cottage at Springbank, not far from the site of today’s Church.

He seems to have been a very strong and determined man who was responsible for the building of St Mary’s the first Catholic Church in Belfast and St Peters, the Rock.

He was described by one of his opponents as “a fiery wee priest”.

Fr O’Donnell built a small schoolhouse on the acquired land which also doubled as a Church. This was built where today’s old graveyard is situated. The only remnant of the schoolhouse surviving to the modern era was one gable wall shrouded in ivy.

Rev. Hugh O'Donnell
Rev. Hugh O’Donnell

Aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion

Impact on Hannahstown

1798 was a year of great tension and disruption in Ireland both before and after the failed rebellion.

Fr O’Donnell’s little schoolhouse/ church was threatened with destruction. This was no idle fear as both the nearby Catholic Churches of St Patrick’s at Derriaghy and St Peter’s at the Rock had been burned to the ground in the past.

Again Wallace Legge was to prove a stalwart supporter of religious freedom. He sent two of his armed retainers to the Church every Sunday, while Mass was being said, to protect the building, the priest and the congregation.

The revolutionary fervour which had reignited in Ireland in the wake of the American and French revolutions did not miss the valleys and hillsides around Derriaghy. There was a Board of United Irishmen established in Hannahstown. Mr McCance was a member and he fought at the Battle of Ballynahinch. It is said that in a house near McCance’s Glen pikes were readied for the upcoming fight.

Changing Times

The Influence John McCance

Fr Hugh O’Donnell retired in 1814, he was succeeded by Fr Peter Cassidy and curate Rev Richard Curoe.

In 1826 the High Sheriff of County Down, John McCance Esq donated an acre of land to enlarge the graveyard at Hannahstown. He also gave £20 towards the construction of a Church on the site.

John McCance had inherited the Suffolk Linen Company in 1810 from his uncle. In 1824 he built Suffolk House situated at the top of McCance’s Hill, now the Stewartstown Road. Many balls and social events were held in this luxurious mansion and McCance kept a pack of hounds for hunting in the valleys around his estate. In a list of Houses of the Gentry, Mr McCance’s Suffolk is one of the houses described as

“particularly observable, as much for the appearances of their edifices, as the number of outhouses [chiefly employed in the preparation of linen or cotton]and many other striking improvements which surround them”

George Benn, A History of the Town of Belfast

The New Church

St Josephs Church

View from the front of Hannahstown Church
View from the front of Hannahstown Church

It is said that when the Surveyor arrived to examine and mark out the land for the new church, he attracted much excitement in the area. Folk came from all around to witness the beginnings of their first official parish church.

When the Surveyor had completed his measurements, he was taken to the nearest pub and his health was toasted.

While he was so engaged, some locals adjusted the pegs marking the size of the building ‘much to the benefit of the Parish’.

In 1826 the Church, dedicated to St Joseph, was erected on the hillside looking over the valley. The Church and later parochial house are actually situated in what we now know as Englishtown, but was originally in Irish ‘the townland of the church’. It was consecrated on 30th September 1827 by Bishop Crolly.

Consecration of the Church - Newsletter 9th October 1827
Consecration of the Church – Newsletter 9th October 1827
Hannahstown Church from the hill
Hannahstown Church from the hill

Hannahstown Growth

For the parish of Hannahstown life though still arduous, was improving

“…the village of Hannahstown, which is situated five miles from Belfast, in the valley between the Black Mountain and Colin. This place, which contains a small Roman Catholic Chapel, was till lately an assemblage of wretched cabins; but it is now, as well as the adjacent land, undergoing great and rapid improvements”

George Benn, History of the Town of Belfast
Hannahstown Church from the old graveyard
Hannahstown Church from the old graveyard

Hannahstown Church

The original 1826 St Joseph’s Church was much smaller than today’s. In 1871 the bell-tower was added. In 1998 the Church was enlarged and refurbished with two extra wings added to the earlier building.

Hannahstown bell tower
Hannahstown bell tower
Hannahstown Church with St Joseph statue
Hannahstown Church with St Joseph statue

The interior space is bright and airy and beautifully lit by the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows. The altar is of intricately carved dark wood facing a small balcony reached by a spiral staircase.

The Altar
The Altar
The balcony with spiral staircase
The balcony with spiral staircase
Hannahstown Church Interior
Hannahstown Church Interior

In the porchway two colourful stained glass windows recall when the parishioners had to hear Mass in secret places.

“There, when the hunted priest dared not appear within the town, they gathered in response to an eagerly-awaited whispered message that was quietly passed around to the effect that his reverence was coming to the mountain”

Cathal Bradley, Histories of the Parishes, 1900
Description of the porch windows
Description of the porch windows
An buachaill window
An buachaill window
An buachaill detail with shell shown
An buachaill detail with shell shown
An cailín window
An cailín window
An cailín window detail with cows horn shown.
An cailín window detail with cow horn shown.

The New Parishes

In 1812 Belfast was designated a separate parish. By 1955 the sprawling parish of Derriaghy was so populous that it was divided into four distinct parishes – Derriaghy, St Teresa’s, St Agnes and Hannahstown joined with St Peter’s, the Rock.

Subsequently with the rapid urbanisation of the area and the resulting expanding congregations, more new parishes were formed from the original Derriaghy – St Oliver Plunkett, Holy Trinity, St Michael’s ,St Luke’s and the Nativity. While in August 1994 St Anne’s and Our Lady Queen of Peace were established.

The People of Hannahstown

The history of Hannahstown is the history of the local people. The graveyard contains the names and final resting places of those folk, rich or poor, clergy or laity, who lived and died in the surrounding glens.

All had a story, but only a few of those stories remain. Those we know of include Phelmony Hanna, a lime-burner who lived in the first house on the right-hand side of Hannahstown Hill. The Horner family who lived in the farmhouse Glenview on the hill. Patrick Burns the last headmaster of the old Hannahstown School. The McQuillan family who owned the quarry at Glenside and the Brennan family who had the public house at the top of the hill. Some families are only known to us by the tragedies they endured, like the Mulholland’s who lost five children to cholera in 1873.

The old graveyard
The old graveyard
Hannahstown old graveyard headstone
Hannahstown old graveyard headstone
Hannahstown old graveyard
Hannahstown old graveyard

The Hamill Family

Another family whose story is deeply connected with the history of Hannahstown Parish are the Hamills.

Michael Hamill started his career as a butcher in Hercules Street (now Royal Ave). He was obviously very financially astute as over the years as he acquired land in Malone, Upper Falls, Ballydownfine and Ballyfinaghy. His son John was similarly successful – adding properties in Durham and Barrack Street to the family portfolio.

On 8th September 1828 John married Hannah Davies. The couple had nine children, two boys Michael and Arthur and seven girls Hannah Maria (who died young), Catherine, Jane, Margaret, Hannah, Maria and Teresa. Some historians believe that it was this Hannah Hamill who gave her name to the district of Hannahstown. Certainly the family were very involved in the life of the Parish. Mrs Hamill endowed the little school with £50 and it was recorded as being ‘well attended’.

The Influence of the Hamill Children

Michael Hamill has died in 1867 in a boating accident on the Mississippi River at New Orleans.

In 1880 Trench House was built in the nearby townland of Ballymoney. The impressive dwelling was designed by Belfast architect Alexander Macalister.

By 1901 Arthur Hamill was residing in the property with his six sisters. All the girls were unmarried. By 1911 only two of the family remained alive, Hannah and Teresa. These Misses Hamill were extremely generous and spent their wealth providing social welfare for the poor in the district.

They financed the building of a church hall at Hannahstown known as Hamill Hall. Unfortunately this was burned down in 1921 by the ‘Black and Tans’ (British recruits enrolled in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) from January 1920 to July 1921 named after the makeshift uniforms they wore).

The Hamill sisters also paid for the construction of St Teresa’s Church nearby on the Glen Road and a parochial house for the new parish.

The last surviving member of the Hamill family, Teresa, died on 3rd September 1918.

Trench House was left to the order of the Sisters of Mercy. The building later became St Joseph’s Catholic Teacher Training College. It was finally demolished in 2009.

The Hamill Vault is a prominent feature in the graveyard at Hannahstown Church. The stone-built crypt resembles a small chapel. Another reminder of the Hamill family is the stained-glass window in St Teresa’s. It depicts the nine patron saints of the nine Hamill children.

The Hamill Vault in sunshine
The Hamill Vault in sunshine
Hamill Vault and old graveyard
Hamill Vault and old graveyard
St Joseph and the Hamill Vault
St Joseph and the Hamill Vault

Hannahstown Today

The story of Hannahstown is one of struggle, endurance and survival and is well worth remembering.

“For the retention and restoring of the Faith in this city, no place contributed so much as the ‘blessed district of Hannahstown’…Honoured with a proud and distinguished history it is, perhaps, our most interesting parish”

Cathal Bradley, Histories of the Parishes, 1900

It’s the story is far from over as Hannahstown remains a thriving and vibrant parish today. The fact that so many families from all areas owe their roots to the perseverance of the folk of Hannahstown can be witnessed by the large crowds that attend the annual blessing of the graves on this historic hard-won land.

Hannahstown Church in it’s impressive hillside setting, overlooking the lands below, make a visit to this church a rewarding experience.

Further Information


The Parish of St Joseph’s Hannahstown, Co. Antrim – Eileen Fulton 1993

Historical Notes on the Parishes of St Teresa’s, Glen Road, Derriaghy, Hannahstown – B Sharkie 1985

Online Records

National Library of Ireland, Parish Records Online

Hannahstown, Rock and Derriaghy

  • Baptisms 07.10. 1877 – 30.12.1880
  • Marriages 13.10.1877 – 18.04.1881

See some Hannahstown Records in early Dunsford and Ardglass Parish Records

  • Baptisms 13.04.1845 – 1848
  • Marriages 29.6.1845 – 05.02.1848

Gallery of Images

View from Hannahstown Church porch
View from Hannahstown Church porch
The church on the hill
The church on the hill
Saint Therese stained glass window
Saint Therese stained glass window
Remembering Fr Hugh O'Donnell
Remembering Fr Hugh O’Donnell
Hannahstown Church with St Joseph statue
Hannahstown Church with St Joseph statue
Hannahstown Church from the old graveyard
Hannahstown Church from the old graveyard
Hannahstown Church entrance
Hannahstown Church entrance
Hannahstown Church from the modern graveyard
Hannahstown Church from the modern graveyard
Hannahstown - Stained glass window
Hannahstown – Stained glass window
Hannahstown Church and bell tower
Hannahstown Church and bell tower
Hamill Vault from the old graveyard
Hamill Vault from the old graveyard
Hannahstown Church Grotto
Hannahstown Church Grotto
Construction date plaque
Construction date plaque
Hannahstown graveyard view
Hannahstown graveyard view

See Also

Saint Mary’s Church, Belfast – An inspirational story

St Mary's Church, Belfast - Altar view from right
St Mary’s Church, Belfast – Altar view from right

The construction of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Belfast in 1784 with widespread Protestant support reflected the end of the Penal Laws

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Simon Sheppard · 16 September 2022 at 9:21 pm

Really enjoyed this well-researched piece. I visited Hannahstown in 2016 and enjoyed walking around the church, graveyard and strolled on the mountain too. Gorgeous day, very much like your beautiful pictures. The views are breath-taking from this aspect. My ancestors are McQuillans from Hannahstown and I was delighted to visit the grave of William and Hannah McQuillan who died 1858 and 1869 respectively.
Indeed they used to live right next to the church graveyard (the plot has a gate over it now, so not sure what remains of their dwelling, if anything). Bit of a tragic family, really. I descend from their daughter Sarah who married Thomas Elwood a Protestant from Glenavy in 1855 in Belfast.

Thanks again.

    P&P · 20 September 2022 at 5:39 pm

    Thank you Simon. It is a lovely small church and beautifully situated. It also has a striking history (which is something we always look for). There are much grander churches with much less of a story behind them. It is strange to think of Hannahstown as rolling hills with a small number of scattered houses. The views are great on a bright day

    James Moore · 24 October 2022 at 11:52 am

    Hi Simon,

    I went to the primary school in the 1960’s. The school (St Joseph’s Primary) was adjacent to the chapel. My class was in the main hall. One of two classes divided by a curtain. There were some other classroom buildings on the far side of a small play ground. I believe the teacher was called Mr Sullivan. We used to sit in fours at a square table. Andrea and Peirce were two of the children I sat with, the other was Delores Mc Quillan. I’m pretty sure she had red hair. Possibly a relation of yours?
    Is anyone aware of any old photographs of the school in the sixties?

Brian Spence · 2 January 2022 at 7:32 pm

At the opening of the Hannastown Chapel, there were 4 collectors as described in the newspaper cutting. Would these men be representatives from adjoining. Churches. ?
I am intrigued that the John Sinclair could be my ancestor……he would be possibly be from Dundrod Presbyterian Church where my family live.
Doubtful if you can help, but still intriguing.
Thank you for a very informative article.
Brian. Spence

    P&P · 3 January 2022 at 12:36 pm

    In truth Brian we have no information on John Sinclair beyond pointing out that the collectors for the consecration were not all Catholics and presumably carried out that role as a recognition of their support and donations for the church. Hopefully someone will be able to add more information.

      B Spence · 6 January 2022 at 5:42 pm

      Thank you for your help
      Nice gesture If Dundrod church had contributed.
      Best wishes. Brian

        P&P · 7 January 2022 at 3:19 pm

        Thanks Brian.
        Take care


      Brian Spence · 13 January 2022 at 11:42 am

      Thank you
      Maybe some time that I am home , I will try to visit your church
      Live in Scotland now.
      Best wishes. Brian

        P&P · 13 January 2022 at 1:08 pm

        Thanks Brian. For clarity, it’s not actually our church as we try to cover a variety of churches with an interesting history or setting. This church obviously has the benefit of both. We’ve probably covered about a half dozen other churches of different denominations over the past year – each with a history worth reading. Thanks again.

Máire · 1 January 2022 at 7:24 pm

A very interesting, well researched and illustrated article. Thank you.

    P&P · 1 January 2022 at 7:26 pm

    Máire, thank you very much for your feedback. We put a lot of effort into our articles and its always nice to get positive feedback.

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