Gruesome and bizarre tales
It is by now evident that the parishes of Londonderry are rich in history and lore, and that for the most part its stories are told with relish. The memoirs were originally conceived and commissioned for taxation purposes yet the writers for County Londonderry have captured and preserved a whole world of enchantment. Their legacy is a host of stories that range from charming – like that of Desertlyn Old Church where it is said ‘ a fine ash tree’ grew from a handspoke (used for carrying a coffin) after it was thrown into the grave – to the blood-curdling: The practice of body snatching, for example, was common place at the time and prompted churches such as Magilligan Old Church to position a guard over the graves, ‘To prevent the practice of exhumation of bodies, a night watch is kept in the church until the body is decayed’. More gruesome still, is the fact that executions were actually carried out in the very doorway of one of these old churches, ‘Local tradition says that all persons condemned to die were executed or hung from a stone that projected out some inches over the door of Kilcronaghan Old Church. In this stone there was a gutter cut to embrace the rope or prevent it slipping off the stone during executions. The blood of some of the persons executed at the above old church remained on the walls to a very late period’. The grounds of this same church are the scene of yet another unsettling story. The memoir relates how the skulls of nuns from the nearby convent were unearthed there, . . . ‘several skulls [were] raised out, with silk skull caps on them, completely cemented to the skulls by time’.
But perhaps the most bizarre of all these tales is that told of Downhill Temple in the parish of Dunboe. The temple was built in 1788 by Lord Bristol and housed the only Roman Catholic chapel in the parish. It was believed that the temple also housed an iron chest containing a number of old books and manuscripts said to belong to St. Columbkille. ‘It was said that this chest could not be opened but by a man who had never been born, and who was to ride on a white horse without a black hair, and which had never been foaled. The bishop, thinking himself possessed of the above necessary qualifications, procured a white horse on which was not a black hair, and which had never been foaled but was taken out of the mare’s side as he (the bishop) had by skilful surgeons been taken out of his mother’s side.’ This foolhardy bishop proceeded to prise open the iron chest and calamity ensued; ‘the consequence was that the bishop could not sleep two nights in the one house and from the disquiet state of his mind fled to Rome where it is said he died a papist and in a miserable state’. Human folly is clearly no match for the supernatural. It is only when one supernatural power is pitted against another that the religious foundations of one begin to crumble, quite literally. Such was the case at Clondermot Parish Church. This church was built at Altnagelvin in 1753, a belfry was added in 1789 and in 1794 a wooden spire covered with copper. This spire however, lasted but a short time, for it was destroyed in a storm in November 1831. According to tradition this was no ordinary storm but the workings of a witch – one Bell Miller, who it was believed has the power to transform herself into any shape. ‘It is the general opinion that the high wind which in 1831 blew down the spire was caused by the illness and death of Bell Miller, an old woman of Ardlough, for they say the moment she expired, the wind ceased to blow’.