A Heritage of Saints
Updated: Jul 19, 2019
Across Ireland and further afield into Europe and the United States, Killybegs has attracted fame due to its world-famous carpet making industry and maritime culture. However, Ireland’s largest fishing port boasts some of the richest religious heritage in the country. Join thousands of annual travellers in a visit to the parish of Ne Cealla Beaga (The Little Churches), dedicated to St. Catherine as its patron saint.
Like many of the ancient parishes in the See of Raphoe, the parish of Killybegs (Na Cealla Beaga) has existed since early medieval times. Whilst it is generally accepted that Christianity maintained a presence in the region from the sixth century, the exact origin and position of the original parish remains unknown, with few references to be found in religious history or in the stories of the saints. Despite a lack of any mention in ecclesiastical history, tradition has nonetheless framed the village of Killybegs as the first location of the ‘Little Churches’.
The central religious attraction in Killybegs can be found at St. Mary of the Visitation Church. The original site of the Church was to be found on the western end of Killybegs harbour, close to the current site of the holy St. Catherine’s Well. Following the Plantation of Ulster by English and Scottish settlers, the church was taken over by the Church of Ireland during the penal persecution, when native Irish Catholics were forced to celebrate their faith in forlorn shelters (Scathláin) which were frequently built over massrocks. Today, many of these massrocks can be found within the current church building.
Worshippers and pilgrims can find a particular visit of interest at St. Catherine’s Well. One of several holy wells in Ireland, it is a large spring well surrounded by a stone wall. Presently in excellent condition, the well contains its own story of religion and faith. During the Spanish wars against England, Spanish sailors encountered a fierce storm, with doubts for their survival compelling them to pray, in earnest, to St. Catherine. In their prayers, the sailors pledged to build a well in her memory if they landed safely on shore. Upon landing in Killybegs the sailors fulfilled their promise, before the local Church of Ireland minister discovered the Catholic structure, going into a rage. He ordered that the well be covered, returning to his chambers once the job was completed. The next morning, the minister awoke to find the well filled with water. The rest was history, and the well quickly adorned a religious status.
The Church in its current form was overseen by the Very Rev Edward McGarrigle until his death in July 1883. Ballyshannon native, the Rev William Drummond, managed the building of the new church: an endeavour that was pushed along thanks to the charity of one Alexander Murray, who bequeathed the young cleric his land to build the church on. Murray also assisted Drummond in calling in the services of architect John Buonarotti Papworth of Marleybone, London, who designed the structure as we see it today.
The limited space granted by the site meant that the church had to break tradition, aligning the church on a north/east, south/west axis, as opposed to the standard north/south alignment. The property was transferred into ownership of the Catholic Church in 1844, and cost a then-huge sum of £7,500. Much of the masonry behind the Church was extracted from McSwyne Castle at St. John’s Point.
Since its 1844 transfer to Catholic ownership, the Church has undergone extensive improvement and addition. In 1854, German firm Meter installed three stained glass windows above the main altar, depicting St. Catherine of Siena, the Mother of God at St. Catherine of Alexandria (the patron saint of Killybegs). A sacristy built in fine cut stone was installed in 1880, and a timber ceiling was installed in 1946. Five years later, a church bell was installed thanks to a charitable donation from Killybegs resident Charlie McIntyre. Improvements continued in 1992 when another stained glass window telling the story of the “Calming of the Storm” was installed, and again in 1994 when a memorial stone depicting the coat of arms of the Mac Sweeneys was placed by the Donegal Historical Society.
Now a favourite for tourists and a religious mainstay for the local community, St. Mary of the Visitation Church received protected status following a successful motion passed by Donegal County Council in December 2003. The Parish of Raphoe is currently overseen by Bishop Alan McGuckian, from Cloughmills, Co. Antrim.
Visitors to Killybegs can now enjoy a heritage trail which plots several points of religious significance. To find out more about discovering religious heritage in Killybegs, check out “Things to Do”.