Monday, December 29, 2014

Holywood Priory, Co. Down

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In a recent discussion of ‘where will we go today?’ with my family, l gamely suggested a trip to Holywood, Co. Down, to see the old Priory and graveyard. When this failed to elicit the desired response from the Chapples Minor, the plans were revised to include a visit to one of the local playgrounds. To cut a long story short, the eventual compromise we reached was that they’d go to the ‘Johnny the Jig’ playground in Holywood and I’d proceed alone to the graveyard! All things considered, I reckon I got the better of the deal … if only because the other parents give me nasty looks when I go on the swings and slides.

Overview of the Priory building and graveyard,
with the modern Presbyterian church in the background
Tradition relates that St Laiseran was a local boy, the son of a princess called Nasca, and studied in Bangor under St Comgall. After some time spent around Cork, he returned home to found a monastery in Holywood. It was certainly active before 640 AD, as a priest-abbot of Holywood, called Laisrianus, was mentioned in a Papal letter regarding the date of Easter. However, there remains some uncertainty as to whether that foundation lay here at the Priory, or near the later Holywood Motte. Certainly, no early remains have been discovered at the Priory site where the oldest structures are the ruins of the 12th century Augustinian Abbey, built by Thomas Whyte on the orders of the Anglo-Norman knight, John deCourcy. From what I can gather, the site fell into decay and around the 1490 it was refurbished by Niall O’Neill for the Franciscans. The fine traceried East Window dates to this period of activity. After its dissolution in 1541, the lands eventually passed to Sir James Hamilton, First Viscount Clandeboye, who laid out the plan for the modern town of Holywood. The site was burned by Sir Brian O'Neill in 1572 – along with the Abbeys at Movilla, Bangor, and Greyabbey – to prevent it falling into the hands of the English government forces. The tower at the western end dates to 1809, when the site was refurbished for use as a parish church. It continued in this role until the present Church of Ireland building was completed in 1843.

Carved window in the tower
West Doorway
Plan of the Priory (Source)
Early 19th century gravestone with
fluted fan motif over a classical urn
View of the graveyard
Selection of gravestones
View down the priory building, from the East Window
The Priory and graveyard, from the east
Romanesque-inspired monument
to James McLean d. 1821
The last name on the memorial commemorates Captain John Frederick Smellie, grandson of James McLean. Smellie was a glider pilot who died at Arnhem in September 1944. He is buried at Arnhem (Oosterbeek) War Cemetery in The Netherlands.

Detail of the interlaced carving on the
James McLean memorial
'In Memoriam William Emelius Praeger' d. 1881
The last name on this stone, though worn and hard to read, is Sophia Rosamund Praeger (1867-1954). Many archaeologists will recognise her chiefly as the younger sister of naturalist Robert Lloyd Preager, author of The way that I went: an Irishman in Ireland. However, she was a remarkably talented illustrator and sculptor in her own right, and the NIVAL Artists Database notes that ‘Her work played a significant role in the late Victorian and early twentieth century Irish Art World’. She was a native of Holywood and for many years had her studio in Hibernia Street in the town. She was initially educated at the Slade School of Fine Art, but also studied in Paris. She wrote and illustrated more than twenty five children’s books, along with providing illustrations the Irish Homestead, designs for Gaelic League pageants and the Irish Women's Suffrage Federation. Today, she is best known for her work as a sculptor, with pieces on permanent display in the Ulster Museum, and the Carnegie Library on the Falls Road, Belfast. Regular readers of this blog may also remember that she provided the figure carving for the Campbell College WWI memorial. The ‘Johnny the Jig’ playground – where Chapples Minor were enjoying themselves as I wandered the graveyard – is named after a sculpture by Praeger on the street outside (the original is in the North Down Museum in Bangor). She gave this statue of a young boy playing an accordion as a gift to the town in 1953, to commemorate a local member of the Boy Scouts, Fergus Morton, who was killed in a road traffic accident while participating in ‘Bob a Job’ week, the previous year. I’m no art historian, but I can’t help but feel that this gravestone – initially designed to commemorate her father – is likely to be her work. To my mind, at least, there are some strong similarities between her known works and the figures of Hope and Memory on either side of the inscribed panel. Although limited to online sources, I can find no reference to this piece as being by her. If this is a Praeger, it is truly a shame that a work by one of Northern Ireland’s leading late 19th and 20th century sculptors is being allowed to quietly decay in this way. Further examples of her work may be seen here (adapted from the NIVAL Artists Database).

Praeger memorial. Detail of Hope figure
Praeger memorial. Detail of Memory figure
Praeger memorial. Detail of inscribed panel
Dunville family monument
The Dunville family fortune came from a successful whiskey blending and tea import businesses. Although the company went out of business in 1936, bottles of their whiskey are still available … if anyone’s wondering what to get me for Christmas/Birthday etc. … just sayin’

Overview of the Priory
Selection of gravestones
The Priory from the south-east

Praeger’s ‘Johnny the Jig’
As I always say in these types of posts – I do hope you enjoy the images, but I also hope that they will inspire you to come visit the sites for yourselves – whether you’re coming from afar, or are local!

It was only in doing some follow-up research for this post that I realised that one of those buried here was Sir Joseph Larmor (1857-1942). He is chiefly remembered for his opposition to Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity along with arguing against the notion that space is curved. Early in his career he taught physics at Queen’s College Galway (now NUIG) where a lecture theatre is named in his honour. I remember it chiefly as a place I was forced to sit, listening to long, rambling lectures about metaphysics. Interestingly, there is a crater on the dark side of the moon named Larmor in his honour. To the best of my knowledge, it has not been the venue for any lectures in philosophy.

I'm very grateful to Séighean Ó Draoi for bringing the following to my attention:
An Ulster Sculptor. Sophia Rosamond Praeger (1867-1954) by Catherine Gaynor published in the Irish Arts Review.

No. 25 in the catalogue of her works is the Praeger Family memorial discussed above.

I am indebted to Mr Michael Caldwell for providing the following information on Captain John Frederick Smellie, who is commemorated in Bangor: 
The first attempt to rescue Capt Smellie, after he was most likely shot by a sniper, was by Sgt. Moon. He took Capt Smellie on his shoulders but was shot through the head and died. SSgt Hann, SSgt Bowen, Sgt Collett and Sgt Renard then picked up Capt Smellie and brought him to the RAP (Regimental Aid Post) in the house of Kate ter Horst. It is reported he died during a mortar shelling on the RAP. The date on his headstone in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Oosterbeek would indicate that this happened the following day, 23rd. His fieldgrave location is remarkable as he was found in a meadow west of the Polderweg. While others who died at the RAP were all buried in the garden. Mr Caldwell also notes that the principal source for the information concerning Smellie is the book 'Glider Pilots at Arnhem' by Mike Peter's and Luuk Buist.

Wikipedia Page


  1. Trawling the Webb under "Hollywood Priory Graves" and I found your blog. Very informative and entertaining but a distraction from my own quest to find the burial place of a couple of my long dead relations. They were Anna Moran who died in Feb 1868 and her son Frank Cunningham Moran who died in Sept 1877. They were the wife and third son of the Rev. John Moran of Belmont Presbyterian in Strandtown B'fast. In at least two of her obits. in B'fast newspapers her burial place was given as "Hollywood" His burial location was not given but I have no reason to think they were not together especially as in Rev. John's 1880 Will he asked for a memorial "tomb" to be erected to them. The Graveyard burial records start after Anna's death and before Frank's but he is not recorded. I know this is not your area of expertise but I have bothered enough folk with the question so why not one more? As holders of smart passes my wife and I were considering taking the train from Londonderry to Hollywood to maybe see the yard and now you suggest it might be worth it anyway even if there is no Moran grave marker to see. Maybe wait for the warmer weather.

  2. While I can't give you specific answers to your questions, I can heartily recommend a trip to see the Priory Graveyard. But, as you say, warmer weather is worth waiting for!

  3. Hi, in relation to the Captain Smellie reference I can provide an image of headstone in Oosterbeek and information about the circumstances of his death if you wish. Just let me know.

  4. Hi, Really enjoyed reading your blog. I have started recording all the headstones in the old graveyard and digitising the plots. Unfortunately there does not appear to be any map of the old graveyard so its difficult to be totally accurate. Will post a link when there is something to show.

    1. Hi Seamus,
      Making or getting maps of old graveyards is extremely difficult & usually expensive. The first graveyard I recorded (back in the mid 90s), I tried to do the map myself & the result was a disaster. Eventually, I settled on paying a surveyor to record it & worked with them on site to ensure that every grave was included ... expensive, but worth it! I'm hoping that developments in drone technology and computer processing will allow future maps to be more quickly & easily made ... but until then it's not a simple proposition!