Belfast Telegraph

Ruined church to be preserved - masons work to rescue ancient Enagh Church

By Linda Stewart

It may look like a bit of a lost cause at first glance, but stonemasons have stepped in to preserve the ruins of Enagh Church in the Foyle Valley.

It's hoped that the work to restore the once overgrown ruin will add to local knowledge of the past and attract tourists exploring the north west.

The church, which sits in an ancient graveyard near the shore of Enagh Lough, once looked across the waters to an O'Cahan tower house built on a crannog, or artificial island. While the tower house is long gone, the gable walls of the church remain intact.

One of the gravestones dates back as far as 1638 but the exact date the church was built is unknown. However, it is thought to have been built on the site of a much older ecclesiastical centre, which may have been founded by Saint Canice, Bishop of Aghaboe and patron saint of Kiannachta, who died in the sixth century.

Other sources suggest Colum Crag or Columba may have founded the Enagh church, but there is little firm evidence. However, this earlier church is known to have been one of three that were plundered in 1197 by an Anglo-Norman raiding party.

It is thought to have been a monastic site, later converted into a parish church.

Northern Ireland Environment Agency senior archaeologist Liam McQuillan said the church has been in ruins for at least 100 years but appeared in the 1830 Ordnance Survey Memoirs.

The west gable is now only a couple of metres in height, but the remains of the east gable are still at full height and include the remains of a window, surrounded by dressed stone, some of which has been plundered over the years.

The stonemasons have discovered that after that stonework was stolen, leaving the wall in need of support, someone stepped in during the 19th century to carry out repairs of their own.

"The wall is badly destabilised at one end and the stone on one side of the window was badly robbed. The stone used to repair it was built out further than the stone work would have been so we have had to build round it," Mr McQuillan said.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said the work to conserve scheduled monuments in the Foyle Valley was vital.

"These relatively unknown sites are often of great beauty and have huge potential to add to our knowledge of history but also to attract and retain tourists in the Derry area. To realise this potential we first have to invest in protection and conservation and this is what my department is doing," he said.

"NIEA has invested almost £7,000 in this vital work. This follows on from conservation work at Prehen Bawn earlier this year. Once completed, the team will move on to the medieval St Aidan's Church at Tamlaghard which is located in a prominent position at the foot of Binevenagh overlooking Magilligan Strand," the minister said.

The work, which aims to ensure that the ruins are stabilised and conserved for future enjoyment, is being carried out under the supervision of NIEA's archaeologists.

Background

One of the graves at Enagh Church was that of Capt Stephen Heard, who was 'attainted' (outlawed) by King James's government and died in 1695. Another fascinating story was that of Alexander Gilfillan, a surgeon who sailed to the Arctic with Sir John Franklin, but lost the sight in one eye due to snow blindness. Years later, the alcoholic Gilfillan prophesied to his father that the white horse at his Gorticross home would carry them both to the graveyard. Both died on the same day and were buried together at Enagh Church, fulfilling the prophecy.

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