Allison-Antrim Museum

The Laggan and its Presbyterianism

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In looking at a map of the County Donegal, it will be seen that the north- eastern part of the county, which is the most northerly part of Ireland, is a peninsula washed on the eastern side by the waters of Lough Foyle and on the western by Lough Swilly. This is Inishowen, a mountainous and, to a large extent, a barren country.


Immediately to the south of it is a fertile and comparatively flat country, lying between the river Foyle and the upper reaches of Lough Swilly, and extending in one direction from the City of Derry to Stranorlar, and in another from Lifford to Letterkenny. This is the district which in by­ gone times was well and widely known under the name of THE LAGGAN, and formed the most productive and desirable portion of the ancient territory of Tyrconnell. Never having been at any time a county or fiscal division of any kind, its boundaries were never accurately defined, but, roughly speaking, it might be said to correspond to the north Barony of Raphoe, running for a short distance at its southern end into the south Barony.


The name would appear to be a very old one. It has been conjectured, and not without good reason, that it is the place referred to by Ptolemy, a Greek writer who lived in the second century of the Christian era, and who wrote a description of the Western world, as the Logia, and which in aftertimes is called Locha by the ancient Irish, and Logan by the early


English writers. This conjecture is corroborated, and, indeed, made almost a certainty, by the fact that Ptolemy speaks of two large waters or rivers adjoining the Logia, which he calls the Argita and the Vidua, the former of which antiquaries and geographers of bygone times regarded as the Finn or river of Lough Foyle, and the latter as Lough Swilly.


Colgan, in his "Acta", describes the Laggan as "In Tir-conallia, inter due maris brachia, nempe inter sinum Loch Febhuil, et sinum de Suilech". ("In Tyrconnel, between two arms of the sea that is, be­tween the bay of Lough Foyle and the bay of Swilly". )


. . . . .  suffered for his cause, and that their only offence was refusing to appear before the Bishop's court, which was contrary to their principles, ordered their release.


At a meeting of the Laggan Presbytery, held on the 2nd of February, 1681, it was resolved that considering the providences of God towards His Church and people in Britain and Ireland, they judged it their duty to call the people under their inspection to humiliation, prayer, and fasting, and appointed the 17th of that month to be observed as a day of fasting and prayer, and drew up a paper called the Causes of the said Fast. Now this would not, in the eyes of most people, appear to be a very grievous offence. nevertheless for having the audacity to do so, four members of the Presbytery, viz., Messrs. John Hart, of Monreagh; William Trail, of Ballindrait; James Alexander, of Convoy; and Robert Campbell, of Ray, were summoned to appear before the Bench of Magistrates at St. Johnston, and afterwards at Raphoe, and were examined "anent the Causes of the Fast." But the matter did not end here. The Government seems to have looked upon this very inoffensive and, most people would think, commendable action on the part of the Presbytery as a very serious offence; for in the following June these four ministers were ordered to appear within eight days before the Lord Lieutenant and Council at Dublin. They did so, and after being closely questioned regarding the object they had in view in appointing this day of humiliation and prayer, they were bound over to appear and stand their trial at the next Assizes in Lifford. There they were found guilty of appointing and keeping a fast, and were fined in £20 each and ordered to give bail that they would not offend in a similar way in future !  This they refused to do, and were committed to gaol, where they were kept prisoners for upwards of eight months. They were not confined in the common prison, but like the Apostle Paul were permitted to dwell in their own hired house; and as the apostle did, they received all who came in unto them, for we are told they preached every Lord's Day in turn, but sometimes their hearers were driven away, and on one occasion a person who was going to hear them was apprehended by the officers of the town and bid go to church, and because he would not he was put into the stocks. At length, after sending several petitions to the council in Dublin, an order was given for their release, and the fines imposed at the Assizes reduced to twenty shillings each.


The authorities must have regarded these Laggan ministers as very dangerous and desperate men. Mr. Trail, in an account which he wrote of his examination before the council in Dublin, tells us that amongst other questions, he was asked if he was in the habit of riding through the country armed with a sword and pistols. Mr. Trail denied this charge and said there was neither sword nor gun about his house. He was also questioned about his attendance at an alleged unlawful assembly at Donoughmore, which continued from Thursday, June the 2nd, to Monday, June the 6th; but, as Mr. Trail explained, this great meeting was nothing but the week-day services usually held at the time of the keeping of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and that on this occasion he had preached.


It is sad to find that the early annals of Presbyterianism in this district are so largely made up of the oppression and afflictions to which those who adhered to it were subjected at the hand of men who should have befriended them. These Irishmen who came from Scotland were in general plain, inoffensive, industrious men, willing to endure hardship in reclaiming and cultivating the land that had fallen to their lot, and in promoting the welfare of their adopted country, and all that they asked for was to be permitted to do so in peace, and to hold to what they regarded as the truth. But the authorities both of Church and State seem to have been sadly lacking in understanding of the times, and to have thought it impossible for a man to be a Presbyterian and at the same time a useful citizen and loyal subject. Toleration and Christian charity were matters that received little consideration at the hands of the dignitaries of the only Church the law recognised or tolerated, and they appear to have regarded their Church as an instrument of government rather than a means of conveying Divine truth.


Viewed in the light of the present age, it must, I think, be admitted that these old Ulster Scots were in advance of the times in which they lived, and if the principles of civil and religious liberty for which they contended so stoutly and suffered so bitterly had been given free course, the state of our Northern Province from then up to the present would have been more pleasant and peaceable for all parties concerned than it has been, and brethren who never should have differed would have dwelt together in unity.


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