Kilbroney - Story of Belfast

ABOUT one mile distant from Rostrevor lies the ancient graveyard of Kilbroney. These lonely little burial-places are frequently met with in quiet out-of-the-way corners. An atmosphere of rest seems to dwell in the seclusion of "God's Acre," and some of them are full of a holy solemnity. I recall the rugged hill-side of the graveyard at Dunluce where Don Alonzo De Leyva and 260 of his men were buried, when the unfortunate "Gerona" was dashed to pieces at Port-na-Spania, the old cemetery at Bonamargy, and the one at Knockladye, where the three Princesses lie buried. These all live in memory—beautiful in their loneliness, but they lie on a desolate bare hill-side. Each has its own story and each has a distinct beauty of its own.

The gem of all I have ever seen is at Kilbroney. It lies on the southern slope of a hill that goes down to the river. Oak trees, pines, and larch grow in great luxuriance, and the sun shines through their foliage with golden light, and the grass is greener at Kilbroney than any other place I ever saw. The old church has been in ruins for centuries and when it was built no one can tell, but the ruins are of great antiquity. It is uncertain whether the church was dedicated to St. Bruno or took its name from the wood where the broneys or fairies used to live in the good old times. However, it has been in ruins for so long that an oak tree eighty feet high has grown out of the wall, and another out of the floor. The building is very small, as the oldest churches in Ireland were always small, some majestic yew trees flourish near the ancient walls, and the tower is a mass of ivy. Kilbroney had a famous bell called "Clogh-ban," the "white bell," which was known all over the country. When invasion threatened once in the old turbulent times and danger came very near, the precious bell was carefully hidden and safely kept. The danger passed, and, in later years when the new generation wanted the bell, it could not be found. Those who had hidden it had kept the secret so well that when they died it remained a secret still. It became a proverb in the country and people used to say in sceptical tones, "It will happen when Kilbroney bell rings again."

A great many years passed away, so many that the acorns which dropped into a cleft in the wall, and through the broken roof, had time to grow into trees before the bell rang again. One night a terrific storm raged over Kilbroney, and through the pauses when the wind seemed to wait to gather strength for a more violent blast, there was distinctly heard the full, clear sound of a bell ringing. All through that awful night it rang, and when morning came and the storm was over, it was still heard in tones—now high—now low—but full of music. The frightened people came near. There in the ancient tower was the famous bell. It had never been anywhere else, for the old monks had built it in with stones, and no one had ever thought of looking for it there. As years passed away, the tower was covered with ivy and the clinging tendrils had held the stones together until the storm had swept the ivy away, and, when the stones fell down, the bell was once more free to swing to and fro, as it had done hundreds of years before. It was removed from the roofless ruined building and was placed in the new chapel, where it is used every Sunday morning as the altar bell. About the year 1810, three very old candlesticks were found in the ruins, where they must have lain for some centuries—brass candlesticks connected at the sides and bottom. The one in the centre had an inscription, on one was carved a cross, and on the other a hand. But the most curious part of all was that in each candlestick was a piece of wood, wrapped round with wool which had been oiled. The wood was perfectly sound, was easily ignited and retentive of flame, and they were probably used as a substitute for wax tapers before candles were invented, and had evidently been altar lights. Candles were not invented until 1300, so these old candlesticks must have been of very ancient date.

A spacious cave was found, containing broken urns which were filled with calcined human bones and ashes. Cremation is a very old fashion revived.

There was also at one time a chalybeate spring, but it fell into disuse long since. A holy well was under the shade of a majestic ash tree, and it was once a favourite place of pilgrimage, but it too has only the memory of departed days.

Some very curious tombstones are in the graveyard, and one stone figure of a child has a strange history. The last Irish giant lies buried here, and an epitaph is on his headstone. In all the land one could not find a lovelier spot than the old peaceful graveyard of Kilbroney.