Anthony  D  Buckley

‘Three Churches at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum'


In Material Religion, The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief. 2011 7, 2, 297-299

Three churches, Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian, brought “brick by brick” into the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in County Down, Northern Ireland, together embody a complex history of theological controversy.

Church of St John the Baptist from Drumcree, County Armagh

Drumcree church was erected around1783 in agricultural land some three miles from Portadown.It was one of the earliest Catholic churches built in Ireland since the Williamite Revolution almost a century before - a revolution that had severely restricted Catholic civil rights, preventing new church building and often forcing Catholics to perform their rites in secret in the open air around “Mass Rocks”.

The Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which made possible the erection of this church, was an early step towards a tortuous rapprochement between Church and State.The Irish Church had long aspired to a “Gallican” collaboration between Church and State in the interests of moral and social order.The progress of this Gallicanism was later manifested in state funding for Maynooth seminary in 1795 and Catholic Emancipation in 1829.


The placing of the altar on the long wall of Drumcree church gives an echo of the Mass Rocks which had preceded its building. In the church’s earliest years, the congregation would have stood around the altar, just like the congregations at Mass Rocks, as these are depicted in traditional pictures.

The Museum, however, represents the church in a later period. In the 1830s, an outbreak of reforms and revolutions had established liberal and often anticlerical regimes throughout Europe. In response to this new secularism, Catholicism proclaimed its independence from the state, asserting Papal authority and emphasising elaborate ritual. This so-called “Ultramontanism” came to a climax in the Vatican Council of 1868 which asserted Papal infallibility and declared a radical opposition to liberalism, socialism and secularism, an orientation which broadly persisted until the Second Vatican Council of 1962.

The Museum therefore uses the Drumcree church to represent the period between the two Vatican Councils, illustrating features that have since become unfamiliar to many younger Catholics. Since its reconstruction in the Museum, several couples who were married in the original church have come to renew their wedding vows, and Drumcree parish has organized several bus trips to the Museum celebrating mass in the building they still feel is their own.

Parish Church from Kilmore County Down

The Church of Ireland church of Kilmore was built about1790 in the County Down countryside near Crossgar.The Museum represents it as an eighteenth century church in the respectable, conservative tradition known as “High and Dry.” It therefore has “box-pews” characteristic of that period.

Despite its apparently isolated location, Kilmore was once a place of theological turmoil. Like the Catholic Gallicans, High Anglicans thought Church and State, priest and squire should collaborate to maintain the moral order.However, the advent of a liberal, almost secular state in the United Kingdom in the 1830s turned many Anglicans to Tractarianism, asserting the independence of the Church and adopting the “bells and smells” of a Catholic style of ritual, rather in the manner of the Catholic Ultramontanists.

Tractarianism took hold in Ireland, but only briefly, and the small church in Kilmore had a major part in its cataclysmic failure*

In 1845, John Mussen came to Kilmore as vicar, introducing some small Tractarian reforms.His arrival unfortunately coincided with the defection to Rome of Tractarianism’s greatest leader, John Henry Newman.Suddenly, Tractarians everywhere were being accused of being covert Roman Catholics.

Mussen’s flock was outraged by his reforms and the Downpatrick Recorder documented the controversy for nearly a year, starting with this outburst on 13 December 1845:

The Rev. gentleman did not begin at once to celebrate mass – for that would have been going rather too far – but he had recourse to the observances – bowing to the east, reading the prayer for the church militant &c – with which Newman, Oakley and others commenced their course Romeward.

After a huge row, Mussen’s congregation hived off to nearby churches, leaving Mussen preaching to just four individuals.A wag wrote in the Recorder on 25th April 1846 that the Morning Prayer exhortation might have to be changed to “Dearly beloved Roger, the scripture moveth you and me, &c.”

In the ordinary run of events, Mr Mussen would have removed the church’s old-fashioned box-pews.In an earlier period, box-pews could be hired out to the well-to-do, leaving the poor standing in the aisles, but this practice had lapsed, not least because of Tractarian opposition.In Kilmore, however, Mr Mussen’s tribulations prevented him following the fashion in church furniture.

When Mussen retired in 1866, the congregation returned, and his successor, Henry Stewart, built a new church in an adjacent field.The old building was used successively as a hall, a school and a store, and its furniture was partly removed.When the Museum eventually acquired the building, enough evidence nevertheless remained for box-pews to be reinstated.

First Presbyterian Meeting-House from Omagh, Co Tyrone

The Museum’s Presbyterian meeting-house was built in 1717-23 on the Dublin Road in Omagh.In 1893 the church was replaced, and thereafter was used as a printer’s workshop. This made it impossible to know how it had once been furnished.The Museum therefore decided to copy the furniture in the rural church of Tyrone’s Ditches in the Presbytery of Newry.

Tyrone’s Ditches was always a conservative church.It belonged to the extreme Anti-Burgher faction in the Secession from the Synod of Ulster in the 1720s and it declined to join the general reunion in 1840.When it finally joined the mainstream, in 1922, the congregation insisted on their more strictly Calvinist traditions.

In particular, they served communion from linen-clad tables (“boards”) laid out with seats in the aisles.They also sang unaccompanied psalms and paraphrases directed by a singing master.This “precentor” sat beneath the pulpit, where other churches now had a communion table.

In the half-century before the Great War, a controversy had arisen in Presbyterianism over the use of instrumental music – the newly inexpensive harmonium – in religious worship. The dominant, Belfast-based faction had adopted the “Holiness” form of Evangelicalism that had taken Ulster by storm in the 1859 Revival.For them, music was a way of encouraging people to come to church and thus be saved.

Others, however, thought instrumental music contradicted the Calvinism of their Church. In the Bible, musical instruments were used in the Temple where (as in Catholic churches) sacrifices were made.In the synagogues, however, as in Presbyterian meeting-houses, there were no sacrifices and no instrumental music.

A newspaper gave a flavour of the debate:-

It is reported from Castlecaulfield, Co Tyrone that last Sunday a number of farmers took from the local Presbyterian Church a recently installed portable organ and demolished it with a hammer. This was their protest against the introduction of instrumental music to the church. (The Ulster Guardian June 23 1917).

The stricter Calvinists lost this battle. After 1918, the pro-organ faction unanswerably donated organs to organ-less churches as memorials to the War-Dead.By 1930, only one Presbyterian church lacked an organ, the small rural meeting house in Tyrone’s Ditches.

So it was that, shortly after the opening building of the church in the Museum in 2004, members of two Omagh congregations celebrated communion sitting around linen-clad “boards” in the aisles of the church, singing unaccompanied metrical psalms.

Notes and References

* McBride gives an excellent account of this controversy and its background (1996, 171-75 et passim)

McBride, Stephen, 1996Bishop Mant and the Down and Connor and Dromore Church Architecture Society. Unpublished PhD thesis, Faculty of Theology, Queen's University of Belfast.