Church History

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The History of St John's Church, Islandmagee

As you drive along Low Road, Islandmagee, 3.5 miles from Whitehead, (on the left-hand side) you will come to St John’s Church, situated in the townland of Ballyharry in Islandmagee.

The church is surrounded by trees and overlooks Larne Lough to the west and is an excellent example of a small rural church. The area around the church has evidence of being inhabited since Neolithic times.

In advance of construction of the new house immediately to the west of the church graveyard, a rectangular Neolithic house was discovered. Two more similar Neolithic houses were found upslope and to the east of the church during installation of a gas pipeline in the late 1990s. This area was clearly a focus of early Neolithic settlement activity.


St John’s Church is regarded as one of the oldest churches still in use in Northern Ireland and is said to date back to 1595, although there is some doubt about the exact date. Other dates given are 1596 and 1609.

It has been suggested that St John’s Church may have been constructed on or close to an earlier religious establishment. This suggestion is based on the information contained within the Ordnance Survey Memoirs for the parish, where it is reported that a burial ground was located within 200 yards of the church. The reuse of old burial grounds and ancient churches by the incoming Planters was a common feature of early 17th century Ulster. Given this, it is possible that the church is situated directly over an earlier graveyard of Early Christian and or Medieval origin,and that the disarticulated bones found underneath the present building during renovations represent burials within this old graveyard.

St John’s has a simple rectangular structure built in typical early Planter style, with Tudor windows, three-foot thick walls, a semi-circular arched Renaissance classical door and massive exterior buttresses added at a later date.


The first conclusive documentary evidence for the existence of the church is contained in an inquisition by the Cromwellian Government in 1657 which states that the church was in repair. The church, however, appears to have been frequently in need of restoration work.


In 1683 it was described as handsome but much out of repair; it was also noted at this time that the inhabitants of Islandmagee were predominately Presbyterians. In 1693-94 John Winder noted that the church was ruinous.

It is likely that the church was therefore in a state of disrepair before 1683 and remained so through to 1693. It is also possible that the church remained in this condition after John Winder’s record of 1693-94. An exact date of its repair is uncertain, but it is probable that the church saw re-use in the 18th century.  

The present St John’s Church is locally known as the ‘New Church’ which distinguishes it from the more ancient St John’s church situated in the townland of Ballykeel. It is the only Church of Ireland on the peninsula. The church is moreover one of many throughout the country that belonged to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem and was said to have originally been the Church of St John of Ransevyn.


The graveyard that surrounds the church has been used by all denominations in the area, and since the island is largely Presbyterian most of the gravestones are of Presbyterians. The oldest dates from 1752. The oldest stones are located close to the church on its north side.


It appears that the size of the church was reduced in 1828. According to the Ordnance Survey Memoir of the parish (1830s), prior to 1828 the church measured 88 feet by 28 feet and there was an aisle or transept attached to the west end of the north side. In that year the aisle and 28 feet of the main body of the church were removed. The compiler of the Memoir commented: “The original church must have at one time been a building of some consequence, to judge from the superior quality of the white oak and that of the cut sandstone sold on its alteration.” 

(More recently a modern extension was added to the rear of the west end of the building. The original construction is now covered over and not visible)

Parish Registers

When St John’s Church was built, Islandmagee was still divided into many parishes, but these were finally united in 1638. The original parish registers were destroyed in 1922 and the oldest registers now date from 1878.

The History of St Patricks Church, Whitehead

The Rev J Hamilton Bennett was appointed to the Parish of Templecorran and Islandmagee in 1875 to commence work building up a congregation in the growing town of Whitehead. Initially small meetings were held by permission of the Admiralty in the Coastguard Boat House, Whitehead.
The present Parochial Hall located on Edward Road in Whitehead was built and opened on Sunday 3rd July 1898 by the Rev Canon O’Hara AM Vicar of Belfast. The Parochial Hall was built by Mr David Barbour, Building Contractor, and the architect was Mr H Sykes. The cost of construction was £650 and served for 10 years as the church.


As Whitehead grew and developed and the congregation grew the Parochial Hall became overcrowded at the services, and the decision was taken to build a proper church.

On Saturday 19th October 1907 five foundation stones were laid.


The new church of St Patrick was consecrated on Friday 24th July 1908 by the Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, the Rt Rev Dr Crozier.

The Bishop accompanied by his chaplain and members of the building committee were received at the west door of the new church by the minister Rev J Hamilton Bennett and churchwardens, who presented him with a petition asking him to consecrate the church. The procession then made its way to the chancel where the Bishop was presented with a certificate to signify that the church had been properly vested and this was laid upon the communion table before Rev CW Frizzell who was present in the role as registrar.

A Memorial Bell which had been presented to the church was rung for the first time on Friday 9th October 1908.

Madame Daisy Creeny played a part in the opening events by performing the solo ‘Nearer My God To Thee’, while the choir under conductor SW Thornton led the praise, Mrs Egerton presiding at the organ.

The Church of St Patrick was built by Mr James Kidd from Belfast and the architect was Mr DR. Taggart (Hill & Taggart) Belfast. Mr Thomas Blaney, Belfast, supplied the cut stonework for the church.

When Rev Hamilton Bennett addressed the congregation during the special Sunday opening service following the consecration, he reflected on the changes he had witnessed during his 32 years in the parish. He spoke of how services had begun originally in a small way using, by permission of the Admiralty, the Coastguard Boat House. 

He described how, after some years, the congregation were enabled by the kindness of their many friends of all denominations to erect the Parochial Hall, which they had opened free of debt. Rev Bennett went on to describe the newly built St Patrick’s Church as a stately edifice.


The Rev JH Bennett died in 1915, having served faithfully for 39 and a half years in the parish.