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One of a kind

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

Travelling around Europe it is not difficult to spot the numerous Marian shrines. Devotion to Saint Mary was a key part of life in medieval times. The main cause for this, were the crusading knights protecting the route to the Holy Land. In order to do this for the numerous pilgrims there were many great battles fought.

Indeed, when John de Courcy arrived in Lecale and captured Downpatrick, his army of three hundred killed many of the town's inhabitants. In fact, there was so much blood spilt that the waters of Strangford Lough which washed up around the town were red from it. The ground was even said to ooze blood when trodden on.

Three years later, in 1180, de Courcy had Inch Abbey enlarged with a brand new building. This building was in a brand new style brought by de Courcy from France. It was the first building of gothic architecture to be built in Ireland! It was dedicated to Saint Mary. De Courcy's thinking was along religious lines. As a God-fearing warrior his thoughts were that Saint Mary was there as an intercessor to plea for his place in Heaven.

Game of thrones location tour
When cultures clash. Inch Abbey now attracts numerous visitors in the form of Game of Thrones fans

In an attempt to win the hearts of the people, de Courcy set his sights on the impossible. About two hundred years previous the caretakers of the relics of Saints Patrick, Brigid, and Columba had buried them to protect them from the Viking raids. Unfortunately, the secret location was forgotten about. De Courcy insisted that Bishop Malachy was never to give up in his search for these.

Whatever his motives, when the relics were discovered Downpatrick was suddenly on the map for pilgrims. De Courcy, seeing that Downpatrick was a lowly residence for a bishop, set his mind to creating a new centre of religion. The Bishop's Court was removed five miles from the town and a new ecclesiastic court was established in Ardglass. In these times, Bishops had to apply for permission to travel to other another diocese and could only reach their destination by boat. For this reason, Ardglass proved an ideal location.

On the route from Ardglass to the Bishops seat were a number of churches. Six in a direct line - Ardglass, Ardtole, Ross, Tollumgrange, Dunsford, and the Bishop's own. A further church was located just beyond Bishop's Court at Ballyorgan. The shrine of Our Lady of Dunsford was established around 1300. The sculptor would appear to have resided among the monks of Grey Abbey, another piece of the de Courcy Legacy. At Grey Abbey are two Scrabo sandstone effigies. The one of a lady is said to be Affreca de Courcy, its founder.

The life size statue of the Dunsford Madonna and Child stood for almost two hundred and fifty years when it fell to the turmoil of Reformation. A soldier, said to have been in Cromwell's army, struck the statue with his sword breaking it to pieces. It lay in pieces at the site of Dunsford's Church of Ireland for the next two hundred years before the pious Rev. Megarry removed the main body of the work to his house half a mile away. When he died in 1763, the feet and torso were carried off to the Newark at Ardglass.

Ardglass as it was in the 1500s

The Newark seen on the left of the drawing was developed in 1789 to Ardglass Castle. It now serves as the Clubhouse for Ardglass Golf Club. Here, in the grounds at the front of the building, the statue stood as a folly of romanticised ruin. When the building was vacant at the end of the 1800s the folly was destroyed. The torso went missing and the feet were thrown to the sea.

In 1905 Joe Hamill, the green keeper was tasked with removing some steps. In the middle of the afternoon he overturned a piece of stone only to make an astonishing discovery. The underside was intricately carved and it was in fact the torso. Later that night he came back with his son and got the stone on to a wheelbarrow and brought it to his house in Castle Place. Placing it under the son's bed it stayed there for six weeks. With baited breath, they waited for the bang at the door.

Satisfied that they were not under any suspicion they set about the next task. Knowing exactly what it was, Joe thought that it should be given back to the people of Dunsford. His young son and he again got it onto a wheelbarrow. They wrapped the cast iron wheel in sacking to deaden the noise on the two mile walk under the cover of darkness. For a number of months the torso stood outside Saint Mary's Chapeltown.

On a trip to Lecale, the antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger seen the stone. Almost immediately its story spoke to him. He set about discovering the locations of the other fragments. The head had been discovered in 1791 and built into the gable of the church at Chapeltown. The feet were recovered from the waters of Lambs Lough beneath the first tee of the golf course. Finally in 1908, the restored six hundred year old statue was unveiled, albeit with some new heads.

Medieval statue of the Madonna and Child in Ireland
Our Lady of Dunsford overlooking the harbour at Ardglass

When Francis moved into Jordan's Castle at Ardglass, he built himself a new gate. In the arch above he placed the original head of Our Lady. Today, the statue is the oldest stone one of its kind on the island of Ireland. A unique survivor with hidden links to the past.

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