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Photo courtesy of Philip Kelly Down Recorder

Under the shade of

Our Lady's sweet image

The story of a unique coastal parish in the Diocese of Down and Connor

By Duane Fitzsimons

A history which has been lost for centuries rediscovered by Duane Fitzsimons in 2016.

In the medieval era there were eight churches in the area but why so many? 1600 miles away in the Raphaelo corridor in the Vatican is a fresco showing Ardglass as one of only three ecclesiastic courts in Ireland! The churches were built by neighbouring parishes to show the wealth of the diocese. After the arrival of John de Courcy in Lecale a reformation of religion took place. This seen the creation of a new Bishop's Court and ecclesiastic court in the Ardglass area. Due to the destruction of the Reformation this history was lost with only fragmentary hints at the rich medieval era. These fragments include Ardtole Church and Our Lady of Dunsford.

Ardtole Church was founded by Saint Patrick and is situated close to his well in Sheepland. This building was rebuilt in the 1300s. Its preservation as the only church of the eight to stand today goes back to a dark chapter in the area’s history. A local chieftain of the McCartan clan had fallen out with his people over the price of cattle. They insulted him by tying him to a thorn by his beard having found him in a drunken slumber. He was so enraged that he set out and massacred the assembled crowd at the Christmas Midnight Mass.

The building was excavated in 1914 by Francis Joseph Bigger. On clearing the ruins he came across the largest and oldest collection of stained glass ever found in Ireland! In addition to this he found a key, and a carved bishop’s hand giving a blessing.


Our Lady of Dunsford, which is the central story to the book, dates to about 1300. The statue is a contemporary of all those that adorn many cities, towns, and villages across Europe. Carved by monks at Greyabbey from Scrabo sandstone this statue was smashed up by a soldier in Oliver Cromwell’s army. Piously gathered together it was restored by Francis Joseph Bigger in 1907. Veneration of the Madonna and child was common as she was seen as an intercessor for mercy for crusading knights.


The book follows a timeline through the Reformation and the penal era. This remarkable era seen the birth of the Irish Methodist Church led by a resident preacher who was a confident of John Wesley. In addition to the cultural history of the area the book also provides short biographies of the notable inhabitants and clergy who came from and served in the parish. Much of this history can be discovered on the Sheepland cliffs walk.

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