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Folklore in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs

Nocturnal demolitions


A much documented phenomenon associated with the older churches of the county is that of unexplained nocturnal demolitions, which the churches suffered whilst under construction. As a result of these mysterious night time activities the site chosen for the erection of the church would have to be abandoned. Among the churches thus afflicted was Ballynascreen Old Church, said to be the central one of the nine churches founded by St. Columbkille. Everything about this old church has romantic connotations and the memoir writer seems to have fallen under its spell when he describes it as ‘. . .enclosed on every side by cliffs and rising grounds. The situation is lonely and must have been singularly so when the country was wild and covered with woods.’ Onto this romantically charged background he paints a picture of preternatural doings: ‘While (the church) was building the architects were greatly disturbed by a ‘pesht’ or monster who pulled down their work by night.’ After many such disappointments it is said that St. Columbkille, called together ‘both lay and ecclesiastic, that they might join together in prayer. . .to choose a fit and proper site to build the church on. At concluding their devotions the saint heard the sweet clangour of a bell as if descending from the heavens, which he believed was the harbinger of good sent by the almighty to point out the spot on which the church was to be built.’


In similar circumstances the intercession of St. Austin was sought to settle a dispute over Errigal Old Church. The story says that the saint retired to the original site and spent some time there in prayer and reading until he fell asleep. He later awoke to find the book he had been reading carried off by a bird. The bird flew off and deposited the book at a new site which the saint decreed to be the proper site for the erection of the church. And indeed the church was finished ‘without any of those midnight interruptions which had attended the previous work.’


Stories such as these attend several other churches in the county and all have a common thread running through them: the work done by day would be undone by night until eventually a new site was chosen. But it is the method of allocating the new site that lends colour, interest and even humour to these stories. At Church Island in the parish of Ballyscullion the stones from the original construction site were dismantled, removed and positioned at the new site. Likewise at Bovevagh Old Church the matter was settled when the keystone or ‘Quoin-stone’ was removed from the original construction site and deposited in a more suitable place. A dispute as to the best site for Banagher Old Church was settled by a deer with a manuscript fastened to her antlers showing the way to the chosen spot. And in the case of the Ancient Church of Balteagh two ravens carry a plumb line and deposit it at the appropriate place. Interestingly, it is from this occurrence that the parish of Balteagh derives its name. For, from that time forward the place was called Baileagh-ein-dah-eigheagh which translates to ‘the town of the two ravens’.


It is only when relating the story surrounding the construction of Greenally Roman Catholic Church in the parish of Agivey that the memoir writers sound a note of cynicism, offering a more prosaic explanation for these nocturnal activities, ‘The builders of this church were long in doubt as to whether (this church) should be in Agivey, Mullahinch or near the eel-weirs of Movanagher. They left a stone in the three places. In the night a cunning friar transferred them all to Agivey and in the morning a miracle was proclaimed.’

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