Greyabbey, County Down - Story of Belfast

GREYABBEY lies on the shores of Strangford Lough, about fifteen miles from Belfast, and it has a very romantic story to tell. It was built as a thank-offering to God for merciful deliverance from the dangers of the sea.

The famous De Courci married Affrica the daughter of Godred, King of Man. When she was crossing the sea at one time to return home, a great storm arose and the vesel was in imminent danger of being wrecked. Affrica vowed that, if she arrived safely in Ireland, she would build a house in honour of the Virgin.

An angel appeared to her and she had a miraculous passage home—we may suppose under the guidance of the angel. She built Greyabbey in the year 1193, and she brought some monks over from the Cistercian Abbey of Holm Cultram in Cumberland.

As was usually the case, it was built in a secluded sheltered spot, well-wooded hills beside it and a clear stream of water and never-failing springs. The ruined remains are most beautiful and picturesque, and the building must once have been of great extent.

The eastern gable is nearly entire; it has seven windows, and the stone work is almost perfect. The north and south walls have each similar lancet-shaped windows. The nave was used as the parish church until 1778, and is still in good condition. Remains of several very ancient monuments are still existing, and within the choir are two recumbent effigies, carved in freestone, of John De Courci and Affrica his wife. The sculptured decorations of the chapter house show that it must once have been singularly beautiful.

The walls trace the extent of the rooms, and the plan of the building can be clearly defined. There must have been a large colony of monks living at Greyabbey. The refectory, the buttery and the kitchen, with the passages and the remains of a stone staircase are still seen, while the outside buildings cover a considerable area.

When the dissolution of monasteries took place in the year 1536, Greyabbey lived on for thirty years longer, but at the end of Elizabeth's reign it was almost destroyed, and later on Cromwell's men ruined the remainder. What is left now shows that Greyabbey must once have been a stately pile of buildings of more than usual beauty, and even yet it breathes an atmosphere of monastic peace and calm repose.

The foundation walls of an older building have been found in a neighbouring village. A very large tumulus was opened in the year 1825, and a most remarkable discovery was made. Seventeen stone coffins were found, formed by placing together several flagstones on edge, and covering with one large stone. The cavity in the centre was larger than the others, and in each was found an urn of baked clay, containing dark coloured earth. How we would like to know the story that lies buried there! Greyabbey is the property of the Montgomery family, who have resided in the mansion house of Rosemount since 1622. The house was burned three times, and this present house is the third built on the same site on the east side of Strangford Lough. Rosemount was built in 1762. The Montgomerys came to Ireland about four hundred years ago. On the summit of a hill near, there is a beautiful little building, a model of the Temple of the Winds at Athens, and the view from the doorway well repays the ascent of the hill.

The remains of Blackabbey are also full of interest. It was part of a great Benedictine monastery built also by De Courci, and there is an underground passage from Greyabbey, which is one mile distant. Blackabbey fell into O'Neill's hands and was finally granted to the Archbishop of Armagh.

At Cloughy there are the ruins of another abbey of the Knights of St. John; also the remains of Slane Church and Kirkstown Castle.

The desmene of Mount Stewart is in the same neighbourhood. The residence of Lord Londonderry, it stands on the shores of Strangford Lough, and is built from stone quarried from Scrabo Hill. The monument which crowns Scrabo is a striking feature in the country. It was built in memory of a former Marquis of Londonderry, and commands a really magnificent prospect. An old ballad written and sung a great many years ago says,

Oh, Scrabo Hill, that mountain bonnie,

That hides my love from me;

I'll bore a hole through Scrabo's side

And then my love I'll see.

The hole has never been bored through yet, but who knows! some day it may be. There are a great many places of interest round the shores of Strangford Lough. The name indicates the meaning of "Strong Ford" and woe betide the unwary traveller who faces the force of that inland sea when the tide turns!

Its surface is dotted with three hundred small islands some of which are well worth a visit. The town of Newtownards lies a few miles from Mount Stewart and has a handsome old church and several points of interest. One house still bears this humble inscription on the front.

Not by my merit do I inherit.

Meritorious or not, he did not object to accept the inheritance.

A very long time ago, some Dutchmen offered to buy out a large tract of land at Newtownards, as they found it was extremely suitable for growing herbs, and they wished to develop their cultivation. However, the town refused their offer and the medical profession lost the herbs. The same ground now produces some of the most beautiful roses in the world, so we have fragrance and beauty instead of medicinal herbs.

The little town of Comber lies adjacent to Newtownards, and a Abbey for Cistercian Monks was founded there by De Courci in the year 1199, and again St. Patrick is said to have been the founder of an Abbey of Regular Canons. Comber is better known now as the early home of a very famous man. A stranger passing through the central square of the quiet little town is immediately arrested by a tall column, which forms a striking feature in the place. It is a monument to the memory of Comber's great warrior, Sir Robert Rollo Gillespie, who was born in Comber in the year 1766. He entered the army at an early age and had a long and glorious career. Once, when living at Port-au-Prince, his house was attacked by assassins. Armed only with his sword, he courageously attacked them. He killed six and the rest fled in terror. He was in many conflicts, was at the taking of Vellore, Cornells, and Java. He was commander of the famous expedition in 1811 to Meerut. Leading his men in a desperate attack on Kalanga, he was shot near the walls. With the red stream of his life blood flowing, he raised his voice in a last shout and cried, "One shot more for the honour of Down."

A memorial was raised over his grave at Meerut, and a statue erected in St. Paul's Cathedral to honour his name, but perhaps the monument raised by his townsmen speaks most eloquently of his worth, and the affectionate remembrance of those who knew him best.