Bangor Abbey, the Ulster-Scots History
The early 17th century marked the arrival of the Scots Settlers who came to Ireland to make a better life for themselves (there had been failed attempts in the late 16th century). This area owes much to James Hamilton, an agent for King James I of England and an ambitious man who foresaw the opportunities here. He arrived in County Down following secret deals which saw him secure a third of Con O’Neill’s land. His major task was to build ‘towns’ on his lands and encourage Scots to come to Ireland and populate them. In recognition of his work he was granted the title Sir James Hamilton, 1st Viscount Claneboye in 1622.
First Parish Church and Ministers
James Hamilton first developed the town of Bangor, erecting 80 new houses for the Settlers and building the original Bangor Castle. Religion was also important to Hamilton, in 1609 he brought John Gibson over to be Dean of Down. By 1617 he turned his attention to the Abbey itself which was in bad state of repair. He employed William Stennors as master mason who built a simple rectangular structure with two windows beside the existing tower. As a mark of respect for his work Stennors’ tombstone is in the Abbey by the Vestry entrance.
When Gibson died in 1623 Hamilton appointed Scot, Robert Blair to Bangor Abbey. Blair had strong Presbyterian beliefs which caused some tension within the church. This led to him being deposed for disobedience in 1634. However, there were many who agreed with Blair and decided to seek a better life in America. The group left Groomsport aboard the ill-fated ‘Eagle Wing’ on 9 September 1636. Unfortunately the ship was caught in terrible storms near Newfoundland and returned to Ireland. Blair decided to go back to Scotland, though a memorial to his first wife Beatrix Hamilton can be found on the wall at the west end of the Abbey.
The Rathgael Drum is a reminder of the 1798 Rebellion, a time of conflict when the country was split for and against the United Irish movement. It concluded in violent battles at Saintfield and Ballynahinch. Around Bangor there were several influential families involved from both sides of the argument. James Dowsett Rose-Cleland of Rathgael himself funded an army to suppress the Rebellion (the drum is from one of the infantry yeomanry). While in the Abbey the grave of James Dunlap can be found, one of the rebels who was hanged for his involvement in the rebellion.
Within the Abbey there are a number of stone memorials to the early Ulster-Scots. The earliest is the Bradeshaw Stone, the tombstone of Thomas Bradeshaw who died in 1620. You can also find a memorial to James Hamilton who died in 1649 within the Abbey, remembering him as a merchant and Provost of the ‘city’. Another family with Scottish connections are the Blackwoods whose name features on some of the stones. The family estate was at Ballyleidy which later changed its name to Clandeboye. It is linked to the Abbey because of Clandeboye Chapel (the family’s private church) where services are still conducted each Sunday. There are also a wide range of headstones which have family names of the first Scots Settlers within the Abbey graveyard.