By Harry Allen
Donaghadee is a small town on the north-east coast of County Down. For at least two centuries it served as the Irish end of the short sea passage with Scotland. The reason for this was mainly due to it being a safe haven only twenty miles from the Scottish shore. It was also visible from there. At the end of the sixteenth century, there was great discontent among the crofters and farmers in the Scottish lowlands and Southern Uplands. In 1606, when Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton, two Scots who had secured huge land grants in north Down from King James I and VI, started spreading the news that might make a new life of liberty in the sparsely populated lands of Ulster, thousands of these Scots began to be attracted by the prospect.
So, even before the official Plantation began in 1610 there was a steady influx of farmers and artisans from Ayrshire, Kirkcudbright, Galloway and the north of England taking passage to Donaghadee to begin new lives. More settlers followed these pioneers during the rest of that century. Many migrants passed through the small port, some going to the small settlements of Newtownards, Comber and Killyleagh, and some to other counties of Ulster. There was a comment written by a contemporary with a mixture of criticism and admiration that:
From Scotland came many, and from England not a few, yet all of them the scum of both nations, ... fleeing from justice, or seeking shelter ... In a few years there flocked such a multitude of people from Scotland that these northern counties of Down, Antrim, Londonderry etc. were in a good measure planted which had been waste before.1
Some of those arriving stopped where they disembarked in Donaghadee. From its two eminences beside the harbour, one a Norman motte and the other with its tower-house stump,2 a homesick Laalander could easily see the Rhinns of Galloway on a clear day. With them these people brought their belongings, their religion, their industry, their speech, their customs and their Scottish names. The tower-house stump literally served as the corner-stone of their first church.
The church itself was officially established by Viscount Montgomery in 1626, but for a number of years before and after this date both clergy and congregation were quite relaxed about the church’s liturgy. It may have been a part of the established church, but its principles and articles of faith stayed as non-conformist as its Scottish-born members, until common sense and the church authorities demanded a more structured demarcation between the two.
The Dissenters, who were the great majority, then erected a place of worship at the south end of the town at a place which unsurprisingly was soon named Meetinghouse Street. They praised God there until the 1820s when the Presbyterians re-formed into two churches, First Donaghadee in High Street and Shore Street Church. It is known that by 1764 Donaghadee’s population of 1948 souls comprised 1848 Presbyterians and 100 Anglicans.3 As was often the case the Wesleyans came later, shortly after visits by that church’s founder.