Sunday 24 March 2013

Saint Donard of Maghera, March 24

Remains of the Round Tower at Maghera, Co. Down

March 24 is the feast of Saint Domangard or Donard, who has given his name to the highest mountain of the north of Ireland: Slieve Donard in the Mourne range of  County Down. Sources record Saint Donard as one of the earliest converts of Saint Patrick, certainly his memory remained very much alive in the area and he was the subject of many stories and popular traditions. One, recorded by the nineteenth-century scholar John O'Donovan, was that he still celebrates the Sunday liturgy each week at the cairn atop his mountain home. Slieve Donard also appears to have been the site of a penitential pilgrimage in earlier centuries but it is only one of two sites associated with the saint. The other is Rath Murbhuilg or Maghera, a monastic foundation which sits at the foot of the Mournes. It's an interesting site comprising a modern Anglican parish church with the ruins of a medieval church behind it, plus an old graveyard attached. The remains of a round tower are set in an enclosure in an adjoining field as the attached picture shows. For a comprehensive account of Saint Donard and his locality I can recommend Sam Moore's book, The Archaeology of Slieve Donard: A Cultural Biography of Ulster's Highest Mountain,  published in 2012. Details can be obtained from the Down County Museum here. Below, however, is an earlier paper by an Anglican clergyman, Henry William Lett (1836-1920). Canon Lett, himself a County Down man, was a keen naturalist who had explored the Mourne mountains on fieldwork expeditions to collect specimens of mosses and lichens on which he published a paper in 1890. Here, however, he is writing about the site of Slieve Donard and the lore surrounding its saintly guardian. Lett also attempts to sort out some of the confusion introduced into the identification of some of the landmarks by the eighteenth-century writer Walter Harris:



[Read July 3, 1905.]

The following version of the legend of St. Patrick and St. Donard was collected just seventy years ago by John O'Donovan. It is the history of the conversion of "St. Donard." I give it precisely as Dr. O'Donovan relates it in a County Down Ordnance Survey letter, dated Downpatrick, 24th April, 1834, for it would he a pity to risk the loss of the characteristic touches embodied in it by attempting to edit it. He mentions that the officer of the Ordnance Survey had stated that" there was no account of St. Donard existing in the traditions of the neighbourhood, and then he says:

" I find, however, that the fact is otherwise. The tradition preserved in the country concerning St. Donart is briefly this. When St. Patrick and his holy family came to Iveagh, and to that level district at the foot of the mountain called Slieve Donart, he sent one of his servants to a neighbouring chieftain named Donnart, to request of him to contribute something towards the support of his clargy (sic). Donart, at this time a fierce and warlike pagan chief, desired the servant to go and drive home yon bull (pointing to him in a certain field) to his master Patrick; but this was out of derision, because the fierce warrior well knew that twenty persons would be unable to drive that bull to any place, in consequence of his fierce and untameable nature.

'Patrick's servant, sir, goes to the field, and far from being able to drive home the mad bull, he narrowly escaped being killed by that fierce animal.

" So he returns to Patrick, and tells him the whole transaction. Then Patrick said to his servant “ As Donnart has given you leave to drive home the bull, take this halter with you, and as soon as you go to the place where the bull is, he will put his head into it, and then walk home with you.' (The power of God, you know, sir, goes beyond anything. ) This was accordingly done, and, mirabile dictu, the animal having laid aside his native ferocity, walked over to the servant, put his head into the halter, and then walked home with him, meek and silent as the lamb when led to the slaughter. So great are the favours bestowed by the Almighty on those He loves! Patrick then got the bull killed and salted.

" Soon after this, as the fierce Donnart was one day walking out from his habitation, the fort of Rath Murbholg, near where the old Church of Maagherawe [1] stood, he missed his bull, and swore by the wind, the sun, and the moon, that he would banish Patrick and his clargy out of his territory; with that, sir, he assembles his chosen troops, and coming to where Patrick, his family, and adherents were, accuses the saint of having sent his servant to steal his bull. Patrick replied that his servant had first obtained his highness's permission, but Donnart denied that he had granted any.

" 'Well then,' said the holy Patrick, ' if your very great honour says so, you shall have your bull back again.'

So taking the feet, flesh, and skin, and placing them together, as well as he could, he knelt down, sir, on his hare knees on the ground, and prayed to the Disposer of all things to restore the hull to his former life and ferocity; and, wonderful to he said, all the distorted joints of the animal were replaced in their respective sockets, and all the organs and instruments of motion and life in all the channels and conductors of the animal fluids and spirits of existence were restored to their original functions, and the hull started into life resuming all his original fierceness.

" At the sight Donnart was seized with dismay, and throwing himself at the feet of the saint begged that he would take him under his protection, and make him one of his people by baptizing him.

" From this moment the warlike Donnart became a meek and humble disciple, and having become acquainted with the mild spirit of the Gospel, and seen the strict morality and self-refusal recommended in the Book of Life, he was induced to resign his chieftainship, abandon his fortified residence, give up his savage amusements of hunting the elk and other wild animals of the plain, and to betake himself to fasting and praying on the highest apex of that wild and desolate range of mountains which formed the southern boundary of his kingdom.

" St. Donnart says Mass every Sunday on his altar on the North -Western cairn on the mountain. There is also a cave running from the sea-shore at the South of Newcastle to the summit (if report be true) of Slieve Donard, through which cave some men have been so foolhardy as to venture up to the summit of the mountain, but after they had gone to a certain distance they were met by St. Donnart in his robes, who admonished them of the foolhardiness of their adventure, and, Lord bless you, Donnart was right, for it is difficult to climb up the steep side of that wild mountain in the open air, and under the broad light of day, not to say in a dark, steep cave. He also told them that it was to be his own peculiar residence until the day of Judgment."

St. Donnart, or Domangard, or Donard, spent the life of a hermit on the mountain which bears his name, and built a cell or oratory on the top of it, somewhere near the end of the fifth century, having died, according to the Calendar, in the year 506, on the 24th of March; but the Patron Day used to be observed on St. James's Day, the 25th of July, when, according to Harris, "people in this neighbourhood climb up the mountain to do penance, and pay their devotions perhaps to both saints."

This author states further, that: "On the Summit of this Mountain are two rude Edifices (if they may be so termed) one being a huge heap of Stones piled up in a piramidical Figure, in which are formed several Cavities, wherein the Devotees shelter themselves in bad Weather while they hear Mass; and in the center of this Heap is a Cave formed by broad, flat stones so disposed as to support each other without the help of Cement. The other Edifice is composed of many Stones so disposed in rude Walls and Partitions, called Chappels, and, perhaps, was the Oratory and Cell erected by St. Domangard."

Sir William Petty marks on his map, on the north-east side of Slieve Donard, "Leniord's Chapel," [2] which is probably a mistake for Donard's Chapel. Unfortunately none of these edifices now exist; they were knocked down by the staff of the Ordnance Survey early in the nineteenth century, to form the cairns that now surmount Slieve Donard, and to provide materials for the erection of their camp. The remains of the camp are visible a short distance south of the great cairn. The men engaged on the survey occupied quarters here for nearly nine months, and it was by them that the covered well now taken by visitors for St. Donard' s cell was formed in the great cairn to provide them with a supply of water.

Harris alludes to the tradition in the neighbourhood celebrating the virtues and miracles, &c., of St. Donard, and adds to what is related above, that "by his application much money was collected for building the Cathedral of Down; which must then be understood to be one of the first churches erected there in the time of St. Patrick."

In the same vol., p. 120, is the statement that " Slieve Donard . . . is known also by the latter name of Mount Malby, from a Captain so called, of no inconsiderable reputation in the wars of Queen Elizabeth, and whose name yet continues about Dundrum." The present writer has not met with the name in any book or map.

There is a description, in several topographical writers, of a remarkable bit of wild scenery in the heart of these mountains, which introduces the name of two mountains, “Slieve Neir" and "Slieve Suaven"; concerning the latter of which Dr. O'Donovan wrote: "I could not find (it) in Mourne, or in the neighbourhood of Slieve Donard. I am confident that it must be a mistake for some other name. The writer seems to be well acquainted with the place." [3]

An attempt was made many years ago in Black's "Guide to Ireland " to identify "Slieve Snaven" with the Cove Mountain, but it was not convincing. A curious thing about this is that Harris in one place suggests that Seafin is the same as "Slieve Snaven," and gives it so on his map, and in another particularizes for it a situation remote from Seafin. He says: "Upwards of two Miles North- West of Newcastle stands Briansford, or Tullamore, near which, on the skirts of "Slieve Neir" and "Slieve Snaven" (Mountains so-called) the Lord Limerick has two Deer-Parks, remarkable for excellent venison, or rather one divided into two by a "Wall carried through the middle of it, finely wooded, cut with Hidings and Vistoes, and watered by a River running through it in a Channel of Rocks and Precipices, which passes under a Bridge of hewn Stone, from whence are beautiful prospects of the Sea." [4]

This makes "Slieve Snaven" and "Slieve Neir" to be identical with Slieve Commedah, of which Shanslive is the northern shoulder, and Slievenamaddy and Slievenabrook are the lower slopes.

And on "A Map of the County of Down, with a chart of ye Sea-coast, done from actual Surveys, and accurate observations," which is dated 1755, and goes by the name of Dr. Kennedy's Map, this "Slieve Snaven" is placed to the west of Slieve Donard, precisely where Slieve Commedah is. O'Donovan had seen this map previously to his discovering that there were no such mountains as the "Slieve Snaven" and "Slieve Neir " known in the Mournes. [5]

It is Walter Harris, in his description, at p. 123 of his "Antient and Present State of the County of Down" (1744), and his Map of the said County, which has made it difficult to know what mountain he intended to designate by the name of "Slieve Snaven." I have shown above that Harris's description, at p. 81, must refer to another locality than that marked "Snaven" on his map. And now I come to the passage which has been slavishly copied, and without any acknowledgment, into Irish tourists' guide-books for many years, and which has constituted a puzzle to those who have tried to identify the localities.

This passage in Harris begins: "A deep and narrow vale divides Slieve Donard from Slieve Snaven, or the Creeping Mountain, so called because it must be climbed in a creeping posture; and through this vale winds a pretty serpentine stream which discharges itself into the sea to the Eastward of the Mountains."

I think that those who are familiar with the Mournes will not fail to recognise in this passage an accurate description of the valley over-hung by the Eagle Rocks of Slieve Donard, and through which flows the Glen River, or White River, that forms the cascades in Donard Lodge Demesne: Slieve Commedah, i.e. Harris' Slieve Snaven, being divided by it from Slieve Donard; while the rest of the passage in Harris refers to quite another place, viz. the Cove Mountain.


[1] Maghera, near Newcastle, where there is part of an old church and round tower.

[2] Or this may have been intended for the Church of St. Mary, a ruinous bit of which still remains in a churchyard near the Bloody Bridge.

[3] O'Donovan had met with this description in The Dublin Penny Journal of May 3rd, 1834.

[4] " Antient and Present State of the County of Down " (1744), p. 81.

[5] O'Donovan, in one of his letters from the County Down, mentions having examined a copy of this map in Scarvagh House, County Down.

Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Vol. 35 (1905), 230-233.

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