St. Michael’s Church serves Newtownhamilton (NTH) and the surrounding areas.
The building of what was to be the first stone and slated chapel in the Newtownhamilton district of the parish of Lower Creggan was a significant event in an area where the Catholic population was becoming more numerous in keeping with the rise in general of the population of Ireland in those pre-famine years.
The area had been part of the old historic parish of Creggan until the 1790s when that parish was divided into the Upper and Lower Creggan parishes. The first stone chapel in the whole of the united Creggan parish had been that built in the centre of the village of Cullyhanna around the 1770s. The faithful of the Newtownhamilton district had been served by a wooden chapel which was a feature of many catholic communities in a country where poverty was widespread amongst that religious grouping and no better place of worship could be afforded. Like many parishes in Ireland the Catholics of Newtownhamilton had worshipped for well over a century in the open fields at a Mass Rock. According to information supplied to local historian Louis Trodden by Newtown resident Peter Slane in the 1930s the local Mass Rock was located just off the Dundalk Road in the garden of a farmstead belonging (at that time) to the late John Mooney.
“to the person who passes the old laneway on the Dundalk Road leading to the old home of the late John Mooney no other impression probably is uppermost than the dim consciousness of passing yet another ruined homestead. What might be his surprise were he guided down the little boreen and round the old dwelling to stand within the small triangular garden where once the sacrifice of Mass was offered in the penal days. Possibly seven out of every ten who may chance to read this account have at one time crossed over or stood within the tree belt of the A-shaped garden. The place was anything but ideal from the point of view of security since it comes easily within vision once the old Irish Mile Stone is reached not two hundred yards from the road entrance. “Newry Reporter, Christmas Supplement, December 1934
The first catholic chapel we know of in the locality was located on what is now the Old Coach Road in part of the Tullyvallen townland then known as Lurganeena (a name seemingly lost in modern times). Local people still refer to it as the Chapel Field. It is directly behind the old stone house still known as Cooke’s house.
The most remarkable and indeed perhaps unique fact about this event is that the foundation stone should be laid by a layman and not only a layman but one who was also a non-Catholic. I can find no record of anything like this ever happening in Ireland before or since. That the invitation to carry out this prestigious task should have been given to a local Protestant gentleman might suggest that there was sectarian opposition to a catholic chapel being built this close to the town and that this was a means to gaining the approval of local Protestants for the enterprise. The Protestant (mainly Presbyterian) inhabitants of the Newtown district had only arrived in the area from about the 1730s when a number of local townlands were purchased from the Ball Estate by the Hamilton family from County Down. The quality of the land was poor enough and had been given over previously to rough grazing. The Cromwellian 1655 confiscation map of Tullyvallen indicates that it was owned by local Gaelic chieftain Henry O’Neill of the Fews (described as an Irish Papist) and that the land was “coarse and mountainous”. To remedy this situation the Hamiltons advertised for tenants and most of those who came were from the same county i.e. Down as the landlord’s family. Giving evidence to the Devon Commission in 1852 local Presbyterian minister the Rev Daniel Gunn Brown outlined how the district was peopled by protestant settlers;
The opening of the new church then presented an opportunity for the Catholics of the Newtownhamilton district at long last to have at their disposal a modern church. It was a hopeful time for the parish faithful of that locality little knowing that in only two years’ time the dreadful visitation of the Great Famine would be upon them. Despite the troubles and misfortunes that were to beset them over the next almost two hundred years the chapel of St Michael’s, raised up in poverty stricken times, has continued to serve the needs of the parishioners of Lower Creggan throughout that long and often turbulent era.
Reports from that time
“On Monday last the first stone of the new Roman Catholic chapel of Newtownhamilton was laid by Hugh Garmony of Mountain Lodge esq. in the presence of a large and highly respectable assemblage of all denominations. Among those who assisted on the occasion were Messrs Miles, McShane, Rev. Messrs Caraher, Hughes etc. It is at once a happy and a gratifying reflection to the inhabitants of this town that among the respectable and well thinking portion of the community Christian charity is maintained and genuine toleration practised and it is but justice to the Protestants of that part of the county to record the liberality of sentiment which they have manifested in the munificence of their subscriptions to the new building. Among those who are certainly entitled to great praise and whose example is well worthy of imitation we may mention Messrs Barker, Pepper, Morrison, Shaw, Simpson, Reid, Sinton, Rowan, Wright etc. To Mr Pepper the Catholics have every reason to be deeply grateful. He has given them a beautiful site for the building in which they are hereafter to worship the God of their fathers and bestowed on them a large lot of ground for ever.The Newry Examiner, 19th July 1834
We understand that the respectable and pious pastor Rev. Mr Caraher and his flock have at a public meeting offered Mr Pepper their grateful acknowledgements and on Mr Garmony they have conferred the honour of laying the first stone of an edifice with which his memory will hereafter be, in some degree, identified. This is a mark of respect which Mr Garmony well deserves. It is a just and well-earned tribute to his worth as a landlord and his usefulness as a country gentleman. We will only add that it was truly gratifying to witness the kindly feelings evinced and the deep interest taken by all in the sacred undertaking and that such instances of good fellowship among all classes afford a fair promise of better and happier days for our hitherto distracted an divided country.”