Belfast Telegraph

Dismay and fond memories: Demolition of Ireland's smallest church - St Gobban's

The Rev Con Auld tells the Belfast Telegraph of his fond memories of St Gobban's, a former calf house which hosted the wedding of a four-star US General and raised over £100,000 for charity

By Allan Preston

The former owner of 'Ireland's smallest church' has spoken out about his dismay at its demolition and of the unlikely tourist attraction's colourful history. The Rev Con Auld, a retired religious studies teacher and former mayor of North Down, built St Gobban's at his summer home in the coastal townland of Portbradden in the Sixties.

Measuring just 11ft 4in by 6ft 9in, the miniature place of worship hosted dozens of local and international weddings - including that of a four-star US General who served in Vietnam.

Surprisingly, collections at St Gobbans helped raise over £100,000 for charity and a memorial service was also held in 1998 for the victims of the Omagh bomb tragedy which was attended by more than a hundred people.

St Gobban's even enjoyed a short-lived reign as "the smallest church in the world" in the Guinness book of records and previously enjoyed the status of a listed building.

In June, the Belfast Telegraph reported the church was to be demolished by a new owner causing an outcry from frequent visitors, but delight in equal measures from a number of Portbradden residents who disliked the large crowds it attracted.

Writing to the Belfast Telegraph the Rev Auld, now in his late 80s, detailed how he bought the property from a farmer 55 years ago, converting a calf house into the church.

Pupils from Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst), where Mr Auld taught classics and divinity, came up to help him convert the property into a seaside retreat.

He later discovered the property was one of the Christian sites established in the area by St Gobban in the 7th Century.

During the Christmas holidays of 1965 Rev Auld recalled one of the old Inst boys saying: "Why don't we convert the old calf-house into a chapel?"

Since then thousands of visitors flocked to St Gobban's every year. Many were local women who came back home to Northern Ireland to be married.

"Of course the tiny church can't accommodate many people, but there is a large garden for receptions. It stretches right up to the cliff top behind Portbraddan," Rev Auld said.

"I think the largest wedding we celebrated was that of a four-star US general with a lovely Irish Coleen from the family who owns the Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough."

He added: "The famous BBC star, Fr Brian D'Arcy, came up to bless the ceremony."

That 'Irish Colleen' was Francine O'Neill, who married Vietnam veteran Lt General William 'Bud' Forster on June 4, 1999.

Yesterday, Francine's sister Marnie O'Neill spoke to the Belfast Telegraph from her home in Brittany and said she remembered a "beautiful and very meaningful" ceremony.

"It was a mixed wedding officiated by Fr Brian D'Arcy and Presbyterian Minister Bill Hazlett," she said.

"They described it as the largest ecumenical service in the smallest church in Ireland.

"My sister Francine actually met Bud at the Londonderry Arms and I remember the American flag that flew that day from the flagpole at St Gobbans had flown in Washington that year. It was a really fabulous event."

She recalled only nine people could actually fit inside the church building for the service.

"I was a witness for Francine as was Bud's brother who came from Australia. The service was beautiful,very meaningful and very emotional. This man who had led combat groups in Vietnam was being married in this little church, it was just an extraordinary thing. He was just overwhelmed by it all, it was unforgettable."

She added: "I'm shocked it's been pulled down, here I am living in Brittany where they treasure those little churches because they're part of a seafaring tradition."

In a 2004 interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Rev Auld recalled the occasion.

"The American guests said to me: 'All we ever hear of Northern Ireland is news about Protestants and Catholics fighting, and when we come here we find that you are marrying one another.'"

General Forster had flown the Stars and Stripes on the Capitol Building in Washington for St Patrick's Day that year and later gave it to Rev Auld as a souvenir.

Marnie added: "I know it gave the Americans a completely different view of life in Northern Ireland."

Another couple - Helen and Jamie Wakeford - travelled back from Thailand in 2015 to tie the knot in Portbradden. Helen, whose mother is a cousin of Rev Auld, said she felt privileged to be married at St Gobban's.

"Con really only officiates for friends and family so when he offered to conduct our ceremony, we felt very privileged. He is such a great character and really made the day for us," she told the wedding magazine, RocknRoll bride, in 2015.

"His house is like a museum with relics from World War Two. Pieces of furniture, including the porthole windows that feature in some of the photos, were made for but didn't make it onto the Titanic.

"The church is the smallest in Ireland and one of the smallest in the world and we just about managed to squeeze the 11 people in. This made it all the more intimate and special."

St Gobban's also hosted a memorial service one week after the Omagh bomb tragedy of 1998.

"A crowd of well over a hundred peopled attended the memorial service, stretching right down to the boat house roof," said Rev Auld.

The tiny church was made a listed building in 1980, but lost the status following a complaint.

"A neighbour who was chairperson of the (now defunct) Moyle District Council objected to the crowds who were disturbing the tranquillity of Portbradden. The church was then de-listed," said Rev Auld

During a winter cruise to Australia in 1992, by chance Rev Auld bumped into the editor of the Guinness Book of Records Norris McWhirter.

"He was on board and on his way to survey the world's longest staircase on St Helena island," Rev Auld said.

"We had a long talk about St Gobban's church and he told me he had actually included it in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest church in the world in 1982," Rev Auld said.

He said the sizable charitable donations collected at St Gobban's over the decades first started by accident. "At first when I came up to Portbradden at weekends I would find pound notes and coins on the holy table with notes saying 'give this to charity,' so I installed a collection box," he said.

"Since then contributions, gifts, wedding fees have come to over £100,000 - a remarkable achievement for a tiny private family chapel on the Causeway path of the Ulster Way."

When news of the St Gobban's demolition emerged this year, the change sharply divided opinions.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph in June, UUP councillor Norman Mills said he had frequently visited the "tourist gem" over the years, but accepted that it was now private property.

One Portbradden neighbour, however, contacted this paper to say she and a number of other neighbours were glad to see it go.

The woman, who didn't wish to be named, said: "Over the years this did become a tourist attraction, but since then the old stone wall beside it has collapsed.

"This was wrongly promoted as a church. It's not a listed building and over the years it has been the bane of our lives."

The resident also felt all the attention had been unfair on the present owner, a businessman who uses the property as a holiday home.

"Let's face it if you bought property, paid good money for it, how can people tell you what to do with it?" she asked.

Sinn Fein councillor Cara McShane said she understood why it split opinions.

"I grew up in Ballintoy and I remember one or two people round that area didn't look on it overly positively as they said it wasn't a consecrated church," she said.

"But there were a lot of marriages there and people do attach a lot of sentiment to it. But what control do we have over a private building?

"Hindsight's a wonderful thing and it was located on that beautiful Causeway Coast way, which our council is very much trying to promote and extend.

"It's just unfortunate. If you see any pictures and paintings of the area, the church was always included. It became a big part of the landscape."

Rev Auld said he was saddened to see the church go, but accepted its future belonged to the new owner.

"I am sincerely sorry if St Gobban's is to be closed after over half a century of service to the public," he said.

"I sympathise with those who also hold this view, but I can do nothing to prevent it. In a couple of years I will be 90 and it is as much as I can do to maintain the house and grounds of my home in Holywood."

Bringing him some comfort, he said many former 'Instonians' who married at St Gobbans still write to him every Christmas with fond memories of the tiny church by the sea.

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