The Cunningham Settlement.

Part 3

I am reproducing the entire article by Mick Bourke but I have changed the fonts to highlight the part that is of particular interest to the Cunninghams.


As a native of Donegal who lived in the county until I was 18 and continues to return fairly regularly, I was interested to read in the local papers recently of a seminar on ‘The Care and Conservation of Historic Graveyards’.  It brought to mind a holiday I spent at our family home in Newtowncunningham about 20 years ago during which I explored most of the abandoned graveyards in the wider Newtown area.  Shortly after I went back to work I was recounting a few of the things I had discovered to a colleague - RTE radio producer John Quinn - when he said “I wish I had spoken to you a few weeks ago before I gave a talk on local history to a group in the Midlands.  Most of them were saying that there was nothing of historic interest in their areas”.

What this story illustrates I suppose, is that there are lots of things of historical significance all around, but many of us neither understand or appreciate their importance.  And that being so, we perhaps fail to conserve them and then realise too late, in the words of the Joni Mitchell song, “that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”.

While the impetus underlying the seminar on Historic Graveyards gives hope that things are changing in that regard and is to be welcomed, unfortunately it is too late to save at least one of the historical items I encountered on those graveyard visits 20 years ago.  Inside the small ruined church situated off the main road at Burt, was a simple gravestone carved with the names, ages and death dates of John Cunningham and some of his wider family and descendants.  My memory, and I know that memory can be fallible, is that it gave a date of death for John Cunningham in the 1640s.  Quite clearly then it was the final resting place of the man who in 1610 was granted substantial lands in the area by James 1st in the plantation of Ulster, and who went on to establish and give his name to the village of Newtowncunningham.  Prompted by the news of the Graveyards Seminar, I went back there for the first time in 20 years to sadly discover that in the interim the top section of the gravestone had been destroyed (see photo on the previous page ), the result, I feel sure, of a crude act of vandalism.  To think that that gravestone remained intact for three and a half centuries only to succumb to destruction sometime in the last 20 years makes the task of the heritage authorities extremely urgent.  In my opinion that headstone and the information it contained probably constituted the single most significant historical artefact/document related to Newtowncunningham, and my regret is that I did not photograph it on that visit 20 years ago.

Although I have not researched it I suspect that that particular church was eventually abandoned for a bigger one, built to cater for its growing population, on the west side of the village of Newtowncunningham.  That church in turn was abandoned when the present church was erected on an adjacent site in 1881.  With the remains of that second church being levelled a few years ago to build houses, no trace of it now remains. 

Time has been a good deal kinder to the artefacts associated with another long abandoned church (Balleighan Abbey) near the shore of Lough Swilly, about half way between Newton and Manor.  There are a number of ancient headstones there, among them one which particularly intrigued me on my first visit.  It has a scull and crossbones below what appears to be a family crest (see photo below).  There are many explanations for the reasons for a skull and crossbones on a gravestone.  Among these is that it was the grave of a member of the Knights Templar; or a member of the Freemasons; or simply an acknowledgement of our mortality, and was popular in the early eighteenth century.  That particular gravestone is lying flat and is in two pieces, perhaps as a result of falling or being pushed over.  I suspect that the underside would reveal details of the grave’s occupants.The stone framework of the main window of that church is still intact and at its apex on the outside can be seen a carved stone head (see photo below).  What it represents I would love to know.

On my most recent visit to Newtowncunningham I noticed that the old stone bridge at the western end of the village has recently been reconditioned and upgraded.It was pleasing to see that the granite block with the surveyor’s benchmark has been retained in its rightful place on the inside of the northern bridge wall.  This benchmark was probably originally installed there in the early nineteenth century as part of the work associated with the first topographical and townlands survey of Ireland.  In order to accurately map the country - using a process of trigonometry - it was necessary to establish benchmarks, or fixed points, every few hundred yards or so.  For a long time these marks were protected structures but in recent years, particularly with the advent of satellite technology, their use has become redundant.  A benchmark can be recognised as the three spread legs of a tripod with a smaller horizontal line on top.  There must be some others still surviving throughout Donegal but I have not come across any.  A good place to look I imagine is on old stone bridges or walls.  Incidentally the benchmark on the bridge at Newton is upside down.  However this is not as a result of the recent upgrading work; it has been that way for as long as I can remember.

Of course historical artefacts can be lost in ways other than destruction, whether mindless or not.  At an auction in Dublin in the mid-1990s I came across a plan drawing of the Convoy Woollen Mills included in a lot with a number of fairly mediocre pictures.  The successful bidder was not interested in it, leaving it behind, and I subsequently managed to get it by arrangement through the auctioneer for the princely sum of £20.  Produced by a Derry City firm of architects in 1942, it is under glass in a wooden frame of about 5 feet by 4, and shows the various buildings, including detail like the individual carding machine positions etc.  It now has pride of place on the wall in the sitting room of my small but perfectly formed mansion in Dublin 8.  Presuming they want it, it is a condition of my will that it be donated to the Donegal County Museum. I just hope that won’t be anytime soon!



Both photos by Mick Bourke

Balleighan Abbey is thought to have been founded by Hugh Dubh O'Donnell in the beginning of the sixteeenth century and it was associated with Kilmacrenan Franciscan Friary.







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