A Church for all Weathers


In 2012, Donaghadee Methodist Church published its 200-year church history as part of its bicentenary celebrations.

No doubt of some interest to past and present members of the church, but why should anyone else be interested?

Well, it turns out that the church has its origins in some remarkable historical circumstances.  In 1813 Donaghadee was not just any town, it was a strategically important seaport, and the reasons why a Methodist chapel was founded went beyond the simple enthusiasm of the local worshippers.

The church was founded in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen, when Scots Presbyterians who had supported the American colonies in their war for independence and Irish Catholics who supported the revolutionary government in France joined forces to claim freedom from British rule.

The Church of Ireland was loyal to the British Crown, but only the top 5 per cent of the population belonged to it.  Methodism was seen by the authorities as the safe, loyal denomination for the working classes.   A Methodist militia fought with the Crown forces against Presbyterians and Catholics during the rebellion.

Donaghadee was at the centre of this agitation.  The manifesto of the United Irishmen was called the Donaghadee Resolutions, and its similarity to declarations of the French revolution suggests that leaders from Donaghadee had spent time in post-revolution Paris.  Donaghadee was held for a short time by the rebels against the Crown forces, and after the rebellion was over the town was punished with economic sanctions for several years.

The story then intertwines with the lives of three remarkable women.  Mary Carey, the daughter of a poor tenant farmer, who first walked into Belfast to attend services, then persuaded the preachers to come out to Donaghadee;  Mary Smith, the glamorous and wealthy cousin of the local landowner, Daniel Delacherois;  and her Lisburn friend Henrietta Gayer, who had been one of the "intimate friends" of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.

On his visits to Ireland Wesley regularly stayed at the Gayer house in Derriaghy, and was once nursed through a serious illness by Henrietta and her daughter.  When her husband died, Henrietta gave away to the church all the fortune she had inherited, and one of her last gifts was to Mary Smith to help her found a Methodist chapel in Donaghadee.

The story of the relationships between these women, and how Mary Smith changed from being a fun-loving, racy-novel-reading socialite to a pious, plain-dressed worker for the church, is more the stuff of a historical romance than of a church history.

But there is real history here, too:  the cholera epidemics of the 1830s and 1840s; the tragedy of the great famine; the conflict over Home Rule; the impact of the two World Wars; and finally, the Troubles.  And there are touching insights into social life over the two centuries:  the babies baptised at birth because they would die so soon, the orphans that were helped, and later the Sunday School outings and tea parties that must have meant such a lot to children in those days.

The question the book poses is, naturally, what next?  Where does the church go from here?  It has elderly buildings, largely dating from 1849.  Can it find the money to rebuild, and if so, should it be in the same place or on a site outside the town with more space for parking and recreational facilities?

Whatever the answers, the church is still in good heart, and as the postscript says, the future will not be like the past, but it will be good.