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Tradition has preserved two facts regarding the past history of the neighbourhood in which Boveedy Church is situated. The older people, if asked, will tell you that in previous times the condition of the country was such that you could walk from Magherafelt to Coleraine on tree stumps; and that the worshippers at Boveedy came from distant parts, even from across the Bann. The truth of the latter tradition will be seen in the course of our narrative; the former tale merely serves to indicate that a large part of the country, including the Boveedy district, was once covered with forest, which provided splendid cover for the native Irish in the constant warfare of Queen Elizabeth's days. In fact, in official correspondence it was called the "strongest fastness" in all the country, harbouring the Neales, the Haggans, the Mulhallans, the MacCahirs, the Quins, and other dependents of the great O'Neils.
When King James I was arranging for the colonization of Ulster in the great Plantation of 1610, it was deemed prudent on account of the difficult and dangerous nature of the country to entrust the planting of the "County of Coleraine," with the subsequent addition of the Barony of Loughinsholin, to the wealthy London Companies. In the sub-division the Mercers' Company was allotted the larger part of the parishes of Kilrea and Tamlaght O'Crilly, with a small part of Desertoghill, or the area of country which subsequently became the congregational district of the ministers of Boveedy.
Considering the hostility offered by the dispossessed and rebellious Irish, slow progress in "clearing" the country was 52 made by the colonists, who were at first chiefly English, and but few in number. Before 1641, however, large numbers of Scotch, hardier in constitution than their English comrades, were introduced on the Companies' estates, only to be driven out when the great rebellion of that year began. Direct evidence is available to show that the English and Scotch settlers were worsted at Garvagh in December, 1641, a garrison having been placed there under Edward Rowley, Esq., of Castleroe. In the engagement that took place one of the Cannings of Garvagh was killed, having taken refuge, it is said, in the old church of Desert. This is still spoken of as the Battle of Revelin's Hill. But the most terrible local event of that critical period for the Protestantism of Ulster was the massacre of Protestant soldiers which took place at Portna on the 2nd of January following. Some companies of soldiers were guarding the passage of the Bann at this point, and among them were Roman Catholic Highlanders, who, with the Scots Protestants, composed the regiment of Lord Antrim's agent, Archd. Stewart. While a section of the Protestant troops were on duty further down the Bann, the Roman Catholics fell upon and murdered their comrades.
This disaster is of importance for out story. Tradition has it that about this date the meeting-house of the Scots Presbyterians at Moynock was destroyed. Considering the nearness of Moynock to Portna, and the existence of a strong colony of Presbyterian farmers at the former place, there is every probability that the first meeting-place for Presbyterian worship in part of the country was at Moynock. It is believed a minister of this persuasion was also settled at Garvagh as early as 1641. Certainly John Law had the tithes of Desertoghill and Errigal in 1658, and was ejected for nonconformity from these livings in 1661. He continued to preach at Garvagh till about 1673. He was the only minister in this particular part who was deposed for 53 conscience sake, and we may conclude that there was no Presbyterian minister at Boveedy or Kilrea as yet.
Here is inserted a footnote:-
When the Rev. Thomas Boyd resigned Aghadowey in 1661, he seems to have gone to Desertoghill. He was ordered to appear before the Assize Court for holding a conventicle in that parish. I find reference also to a Mr. McLean, a minister who died in Desert Parish after the Siege of Derry. He probably succeeded Mr. Gilchrist.The rector of Kilrea and Tamlaght had perished in the Siege of Coleraine in 1641. The Scotch were returning to their farms, though Cromwell expressly stipulated in his new charter to the London Companies that Scotch settlers were to be discouraged on their Irish estates.
At what time the Presbyterians of Kilrea and Tamlaght or Boveedy erected a new meeting-house, or when Mr. William Gilchrist became their minister, we have no evidence to show. We merely know that he was one of the heroic band of Presbyterians who "turned at bay" behind the wall of Derry in the famous Siege, and had ministered at Tamlaght and Kilrea before that. There was a student of that name at Glasgow University in 1660, and laureated in 1663, who may soon after have been settled at Kilrea. When Sir John McGill's regiment, which was stationed at Kilrea, and the other officers were no longer able to defend the passes of the Bann, the Protestant population fled over the mountains of Derry, and with them went their minister never to return. His poor widow was supported by the congregations of the Presbytery of Route for many years afterwards.
For some time after the Siege the country was in a state of desolation. It was not till 1697 that the inhabitants of Boveedy were in a position to secure a minister-Mr. Matthew Clerk, who had been licensed a short time previously. 54 Mr. Clerk had already a fine record, having served as a Lieutenant in Derry during the Siege, where he received a wound on the temple from a bullet. His ministerial career accorded with his character as a soldier. He entered with energy and enthusiasm into the controversy which raged round the question of subscribing the Westminster Confession of Faith. He boldly published two pamphlets, to which he appended his name, and in which he defended Subscription with stout, if somewhat rude, courage. He was, according to his American biographer, "sound in the faith, decided and independent in his sentiments, and fearless in defence of what he judged to be correct in doctrine or in practice." Several stories are told which serve to attest his distinctive character and outspoken nature. "While sitting as a Moderator of the Presbytery, the martial music of a training band recalled his youthful fire, and for a while he was incapable of attending to the duties of his office. To the repeated calls of the member his reply was, 'Nae business while I hear the toot of the drum.'" It is also recorded that when preaching on the confidence of Peter, he remarked, "Just like Peter, aye mair forrit than wise, ganging swaggering aboot wi' a sword at his side; an' a pui han' he mad o' it when he cam' to the trial, for he only cut off a chiel's lug, and he ought to ha' split down his heed." Still another example of his preaching. He began with the words: "'I can do all things.' Ay, can ye', Paul? I'll bet a dollar o' that!" whereupon he drew a Spanish dollar from his pocket. Then he continued: "Stop! Let's see what else Paul says: 'I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.' Ay, sae can I, Paul; I draw my bet!" Such was the man who for thirty years ministered Boveedy.
Let us consider the field of his operations. His parish was a wide one, including the parishes of Kilrea, Tamlaght-O'Crilly, Desertoghill, and probably Errigal. There was for twenty years after the Siege no minister at Garvagh, which lay at the junction of Desertoghill and 55 Errigal, so that the tradition before mentioned is well founded that worshippers came from all parts to Boveedy. Mr. Clerk was clerk of the Route Presbytery, and has left a record largely in his own hand of Presbyterian discipline in the opening years of the eighteenth century. From his account of a visitation at Kilrea, we learn that he preached a sermon which he had to guarantee to be of uniform quality with his ordinary discourses; and the people were required to be good sermon tasters for once and confirm the point. In addition to preaching he lectured, visited, catechized, and administered the Sacrament of the Lord's supper once yearly. There were regular meetings of Session, at which the elders attended. The awkward questions were those put to the representative elder. It was easy to express satisfaction with the minister in every particular; it was a different matter to give satisfactory answers about stipend and repairs to the meeting-house and minister's dwelling-house. Although the parish was so wide, default in payment of stipend was so frequently before the Presbytery that Mr. Clerk was to be "declared transportable" if there was no improvement-a drastic procedure in those days of few ministers. There were promises that as soon as harvest was over or when the butter was sold the meeting-house would be thatched, the minister's dwelling-house and office houses finished, and arrears of stipend paid. In 1703 Thomas Reid appeared from the congregation (then known as "Kilrea") saying that some of the people have provided "boards to floor their minister's cellar," but that the parishes of Kilrea and Tamlaght had done nothing.
The following extract is instructive as to the difficulty of getting maintenance for a minister:-
George Woodburn and David Gordon 56 appeared from Kilrea, the first declaring that they are using diligence to collect stipends in Desart and doth now ask the Pby whether they shall take corn from some of ye people at one shill per boll more yn ye market rate and whether they shall prosecute by law such as will not pay or deprive them of church privileges. The meeting makes answer they cannot take corn above market rates and for suing at law the Pby will not hinder them but for depriving them of church privileges the Pby has determined already that such who are able to pay stipends and will not shall be deprived of church privileges.How shorn of their former powers are our modern Presbyteries! With what eagerness would a present-day Sustentation convener in his returns make a shilling count a florin, or a shilling "more than ye market rate!"
The second, namely, David Gordon comes only from ye parish of Kilrea, one of ye four parishes of Mr. Clarke's congregation and he promises that that parish which was only ye most deficient of ye four are now designed to be as forward if not more than any of ye rest.
The Presbytery appoints ye whole congregation in gross to give account at our next meeting of what duty they have done to their minister.
Where was this thatched meting-house of 1700? We can only assume it was on the site of the present structure. Why was it built here? Possibly on account of its central position for the four parishes. It is traditionally reported that it was removed from Moynock about 1650 through the influence of the Cannings of Garvagh. Boveedy townland was one of the six freeholds on the Mercers' Estate, and was held by the Carey family in the seventeenth century. There was a considerable number of houses forming a village, and every Christmas a fair was held at it where singing, 57 dancing, cockfighting, and drinking were a common practice.
The Ordnance Survey Memoirs preserve particulars of the meeting-house that preceded the present structure. The building was erected about 1756 on a site presented by Mr. Carey, and cost £150. It was of the usual unpretentious kind, with thatched roof and clay floor. Its dimensions were 58ft. 10in. by 21ft., the receding aisle at right angles to the main portion measuring 27ft. by 21ft. The windows, twenty-five in number, were diamond-paned, and in 1836 the pulpit, pews, etc., were not in good repair. A later proprietor of Boveedy, Andrew Orr, Esq., of Keely, ornamented it with a fence and plantation of trees. The session-house was on the opposite side of the road.
To return to Matthew Clerk's ministry, it may be interesting to have the names of elders and other members of the congregation-David Morrison, Robert Cochran, John Campbell, John Reid, John Paton, Ninian Pattison, David Gordon, Alex. Hinman, Hugh Young, Daniel Kerr, Geo. Woodburn, John Lilly, Wm. Clark, John Moorhead, James Stranahan, Samuel Reid, James Sterrot, Thomas Reid, Robert Houy, Alex. Wilson, Robt. Wallace, William Shearer, Robert Hill, John Millar, and Robert Hendry. These belong to the period 1701-1706.
After this time the seasons grew gradually worse, with the result that there were bad harvests and much poverty; and Presbyterians were subjected to much oppression both from landlords and the State Church. Hence a tide of emigration to America started in 1718 from the valley of the Lower Bann. James MacGregor, the minister of Aghadowey, with many Presbyterian families of Kilrea, Aghadowey, Coleraine, and Ballymoney joined in the exodus, and after some wanderings settled in New Hampshire and formed the progressive township of Londonderry, their express design, in the words of their minister and leader, 58 MacGregor, being to avoid oppression and ruin, and to have an opportunity of worshipping God according to the dictates of conscience. MacGregor had been a lieutenant in the Siege. His comrade in arms Matthew Clerk, laboured on in Kilrea and Boveedy to 1729, when at the age of 70 or upwards he also went to New Hampshire, only to find his friend had just died, and to become pastor of his flock for six years.
"Long as stands good Londonderry,
With its stories sad and merry,
Shall thy name be handed down
As a man of prayer and mark
Grave and reverend Matthew Clerk."
It is related that John Scott, a member of Boveedy, enlisted in William's army about 1690, crossed the Boyne and after five or six years deserted. Being pursued to Boveedy, he escaped by the aid of Mr. Clerk and settled in Lismoyle.
Little is known about the next minister, the Rev. Robert Wirling, who was installed in Boveedy, 25th July, 1732. He was a member of the Belfast Presbytery, and had been ordained some years earlier to the company of the ship, the "Revival," of London. He removed to 2nd Donagheady in 1741. Before his departure Boveedy presented a petition to the Synod of Ulster complaining that the congregation had been "greatly weakened by defalcations made on both ends of it," and were in danger of being deprived of Gospel ordinances. They were receiving assistance from the Sustentation fund of that time, but it was so much in arrear that they were in very straitened circumstances. The Presbytery, to whose negligence their plight was due, were instructed to attend to the matter and do justice to Boveedy.
Circumstances must have improved, for Mr. Alexander Cumming, a native of Kilraughts, was ordained 22nd May, 1744, and remained there till his death in November, 1748. 59
Where Matthew Clerk resided is not known, but during the ministry of his successors, Wirling and Cumming, the manse was in Drumagarner, where the Hutchinsons subsequently resided. Mr. Cumming left a widow who married his successor, Mr. John Smyth, half a year after the ordination of the latter, which took place 31st October, 1749. Smyth was from near River Roe, parish of Boveva, and must be carefully distinguished from his successor of the same name.
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