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CROGHAN: The Presbyterian Congregation at Killeshandra
(based on an article by Lindsay T. Brown, M.Sc., Ph.D.)

In 1607 Lord Chichester, the new Lord Deputy of Ireland, undertook an extensive tour through Ulster. As a result it was decided that six of the Ulster counties should be planted. In 1609, the Co. Cavan barony of Tullyhunco, which included Killeshandra, was allocated to Scottish settlers. Many Scots Presbyterians, wanting to escape from the difficulties facing Presbyterians in their native land, were keen to accept the possibility of settling in places like Killeshandra. We read in the Carew Survey of 1611 that Claude Hamilton had brought servants and a minister with him to Killeshandra. This is the first mention of a minister in the region.

1641 Rebellion
The number of settlers around Killeshandra increased steadily until 1641, when the Rebellion broke out. While atrocities occurred in various parts of Ulster, it seems that the O'Reillys in Cavan showed a more humanitarian attitude towards the settlers. This may have been due to the fact that they still spoke Gallic and that they, as Scots, had also suffered at the hands of the English. After a long and heroic stand at Castle Keelagh and Croghan, the settlers surrendered and were allowed travel to Drogheda.

Baptismal Font Sometime after the Rebellion had been suppressed a Presbyterian congregation was established in the vicinity of Killeshandra. The precise date is unknown, but it is known that the Rev Samuel Kelso, the local minister, left Killeshandra in 1688 fearing another rebellion. The revolution that followed under William of Orange ended with the Williamite forces marching through the area on their way southwards from Enniskillen. Throughout the 1690's a whole new wave of Scottish settlers seems to have settled in the area. In 1697 they appealed to the Ulster Synod for a regular supply of preaching for Killeshandra. However, apart from this group around Killeshandra, it seems that the number of Presbyterian congregations in this part of the country were thinly scattered indeed. Pictured here is a Baptismal font that was used by those early congregations and which dates back to the late 1600's.

A Time of Growth: 1701 - 1834
In 1701 a new presbytery, later known as the presbytery of Monaghan, was formed and the congregation at Killeshandra was placed in its care. After a long vacancy, a local man, Rev James Tait, was ordained in Killeshandra on 10 May 1705. He attended the Ulster Synod on a regular basis and in 1728 he successfully opposed an attempt to include Killeshandra in the Dublin presbytery. His reputation in the Ulster Synod was very high and in 1724 was chosen as its Moderator. Many young men from his Killeshandra congregation were entering the ministry, among them Samuel Irwin, ordained in 1718, and William Fairis, licensed in 1725. Rev Tait died in 1729.

The next minister, Rev James Hamilton, did not arrive until 1732 and he left the following year.

The Presbyterian Church
The Presbyterian Church at Croghan, built in 1742

He was followed by Rev George Carson who was ordained in 1735. It was during his ministry that the present church was built at Croghan in 1742. Its congregation was scattered over a twelve mile radius of Killeshandra and, after the closure of the congregations in Belturbet and Cavan, it was the only Presbyterian place of worship for a very large area.

Life for the settlers was not easy during these times. Evictions were common, as was emigration. It was quite common to evict one group of tenants if others were willing to pay a higher rent. An advert in the Belfast Newsletter in 1764 offered tenements and parcels of land to anyone who would be willing to settle in the Killeshandra area. Tenants of many years standing were evicted to make way for these new settlers who were willing to pay higher rents.

The linen industry was well developed in Co. Cavan and much of it was in the hands of local Presbyterians. Looms were to be found in many of their homes. By 1760 a linen market had developed in Killeshandra. The town also had a bleach yard. Looms were also made in the town.

It was at this time that John Wesley visited the county and appointed a William Smith to be a missionary to the county. Smith established a Methodist Society in Killeshandra. During his ministry hundreds were converted, so much so that a minister horsewhipped him near Killeshandra, accusing him of emptying his church.

Rev Carson retired 1780 after nearly 45 years ministry at Killeshandra. He died in 1782. One of his more noted successors was Rev Joseph Denham who was installed in Killeshandra in 1799. The number of Presbyterian families in connection with Killeshandra in 1800 was about 180, about 1100 people in all. In 1808 Rev Denham was elected as Moderator of the General Synod of Ulster. In 1809 he was appointed as a member of a committee to 'draw up a code of laws for the future government of the church'. His work on that committee still survives to this day in what is known to all Presbyterians as 'The Code'.

At this time there were many soldiers stationed in the Killeshandra area. The little church at Croghan could not accommodate all who came on Sunday. So a new wing, known as 'Soldiers' Wing', was added to the church. Rev Denham was also very involved in the missionary activity of the wider church. He helped establish a new mission station in Mullingar, and assisted congregations and churches in Cavan town and in Turlough, Co. Mayo. Local Presbyterians were actively missioning in Arva, Ballyhaise, Belturbet, Cavan and around Virginia as well as around Carrigallen in Co. Leitrim.

Rev Denham was a member of a deputation appointed to meet King George IV in 1832. He died in 1834. His son James had also entered the ministry (1826) and was a minister in Derry. He too would become Moderator.

The Famine
In July 1840 the two groups of Presbyterians in Ireland united to form the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Their annual synods became the General Assembly. In 1841 Rev William Sweeney was installed as the new minister in Killeshandra. In the 1840's the congregation built a schoolhouse at Croghan. Then, in the mid 1840's Ireland was hit by the Great Famine. There are some contemporary reports of the effects of the famine in the town of Killeshandra, speaking of bodies lying in the doorways. The number of Presbyterians who died may have been relatively very small but the famine allowed the trickle of emigration to become a torrent from all over Co. Cavan. Congregational numbers which had been growing steadily and rapidly now began to decline almost as rapidly. In 1854 William Sweeney reported that he had only 56 at the November Communion and nobody for first time Communion. The Presbyterian school at Croghan had 72 pupils in 1855, but it had closed a few years later. While the Revival spread to Co. Cavan in 1859 and had a deep effect in the neighbouring Drumkeeran, there is sadly little on record about Revival at Killeshandra. Rev Sweeney retired in 1867 and died the following year.

Years of Decline.
There now followed many years of gradual decline. The Rev John Holmes Whitsitt was ordained in 1881 and spent his entire ministry in Killeshandra until his death in 1930. He lived through difficult days as his congregation faced financial problems and numbers continued to decline. Down the years Lord Farnham had given financial support to the church at Killeshandra in the form of a free glebe farm and an annual stipend. These donations had been built up into a fund. In 1881 the congregation had to withdraw the money from the fund. In 1881 Drumkeeran and Carrigallen amalgamated , thus starting an inevitable process as numbers fell. In 1901 Rev Whitsitt sought a loan of £80 to £100 to make alterations to the church at Croghan. Cavan presbytery refused the loan and recommended that he undertake a public appeal. Rev Whitsitt's alterations took away the 'Soldiers' Wing' and restored the church to its original 1742 format. In 1923 the congregation drew a sharp rebuke from the presbytery because it organised a dance to raise church funds.

In the world of politics the early 1920's were also troubled times. Many members of the Killeshandra congregation felt that there was no future in this troubled, poor land and decided to emigrate. Their departure left the Killeshandra congregation all the poorer. When Rev Whitsitt died in 1930 Killeshandra was amalgamated with Carrigallen and Belturbet under the Rev James McClean. He retired in 1934 and the following year Drumkeeran was also brought into the union. After the war the congregation received a new minister in July 1946, Rev Samuel Rutherford Watt . During his ministry Cavan presbytery, including Killeshandra, was united with the Monaghan presbytery under the name 'The Presbytery of Monaghan'. Rev Watt stayed in Killeshandra until 1964 when he moved to Clontibret.

The process of amalgamation continued for all the congregations in West Cavan. Killeshandra was now linked with Drumkeeran, Cavan and the Bellasis under the care of Rev Jean Mackeral who was installed in 1985. She is the first lady minister in the Monaghan Presbytery.

Today, the congregation around Killeshandra is very small, consisting of just a few families. Their church at Croghan is the oldest church in the presbytery. It has been recently renovated and a service of thanksgiving to celebrate it's re-opening was held on 5 May 1997. The Moderator, Dr Harry Allen was the guest preacher for the occasion.

Croghan Church Interior
Interior of Croghan Church, May 1997

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