STEPPING BACK IN TIME: Saintly locale of Quoile, Inch and Downpatrick

When we both retire my wife and I have a dream, writes Darryl Armitage. That dream is that we will sell up in east Belfast and relocate to the Quoile, Downpatrick and Strangford areas of Co Down.

Friday, 13th November 2020, 4:21 pm
The view from Inch Abbey, Downpatrick, Co Down, over the Quoile River to St Patrick’s Cathedral. Picture: Darryl Armitage
The view from Inch Abbey, Downpatrick, Co Down, over the Quoile River to St Patrick’s Cathedral. Picture: Darryl Armitage

The reason? Simply because it is the most amazing part of the country; it has acres of history and vistas, breathtaking paths to walk the dog, and would be a wonderful place to see out our latter years.

That sense of the place was perfectly captured by the Roamer in late August 1938, with less than a year to go before the outbreak of the Second World War, when they wrote: “I stopped at the Quoile Bridge near Downpatrick a few nights ago to gaze at one of the most beautiful spectacles I have ever seen.

“The setting sun shone over the tops of the high trees that stand on the far bank of the river and threw on the water a reflection of sparkling gold.

The site of Inch Abbey was originally on an island in the Quoile Marshes. The pre-Norman Celticmonastic settlement here, known as Inis Cumhscraigh (or Inis Cuscraidh), was in existence by the year 800. In 1002 it was plundered by the Vikings led by Sitric, King of the Danes, who came up the Quoile with a fleet from the sea. The Vikings plundered the settlement again in 1149. Picture: Darryl Armitage

“It turned the sky above the ruins of Inch Abbey into a golden sea and transformed small black clouds into lonely islands.

“The view of the Quoile from the old bridge where the road to Downpatrick branches off to Strangford is one of the loveliest pieces of scenery in Ulster and I know of no place that looks more beautiful on a moonlit night, but although I have often stopped there before to admire the view I had never seen anything like this late August sunset.

“Beyond the bend of the river, sky and water were so subtly blended that it was almost impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.

“The rippling pattern of gold on the river caught the eye of every passing motorist, and one after another stopped to watch the sun sink.”

An interpretative board at Inch Abbey. Picture: Darryl Armitage

Antiquarians have travelled to the area from all over the country (and further afield no doubt) because of the the locality’s connections with the legend of St Patrick and the Christian relics which litter the surrounding hills and fields.

One such site is Inch Abbey, from where you can look across the Quoile River to St Patrick’s Cathedral, sitting proudly over Downpatrick.

The News Letter of Saturday, July 1, 1905 reported on one antiquarian’s discovery at Inch Abbey.

“A well preserved example of ‘elder day’ art has recently been found in a field adjoining the Abbey of Inch,” the article read. “It is an oblong stone, with two attendant figures rudely carved in low relief, and was likely the central panel of the altar.

Judged by medieval standards Inch Abbey was wealthy. In 1291 its temporalities were valued for taxation at £10 19s 4d. In 1380 Parliament tried to help waning English influence by restricting the membership of the Order at Inch to English or Anglicised Irish. Twenty-four years later, the abbey was burned and that, perhaps together with the collapse of a central tower and a dwindling community, gave the impetus to alter the size of the church. Picture: Darryl Armitage

“Judging from the position the feet, which are crossed, it is probably of 12th or 13th century workmanship, as most, if not all, of the 11th century crucifixes have the feet nailed apart. Major Purceval-Maxwell, DL, of Finnebrogue has kindly given permission to have photographs taken for publication in the antiquarian journals.

“As the members of the Royal Society Antiquaries of Ireland will visit Down Cathedral, the high cross, and St Patrick’s grave on 5th inst, it will be placed in convenient position the cathedral.”

Of the man who discovered the stone the News Letter remarked: “Mr S Hastings, while viewing the sixteenth century armorial stones of the Maxwell family, found the stone slightly embedded in the ground; the edges showed chisel marks. He carefully raised it, and, removing the soil from the under-surface, saw the carved rood and figures.

“When the antiquaries have seen the crucifix it will be restored to the Inch Abbey, and probably inserted in wall the great east window.”

A plaque to Major R D Perceval Maxwell DL which can be found inside the ruins of Inch Abbey, Co Down. Picture: Darryl Armitage

Is there a historical place in Northern Ireland that you think that I should explore? Email: [email protected].