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Downpatrick

The town of Downpatrick (population about 10,000) is at the historic centre of County Down, near the estuary of the Quoile river where it enters the sea at Strangford Lough in north-east Ireland.  Its name reflects its history.  On a hill here was the great dun, or fort, which was the capital of this part of Ulster in the early centuries AD.  Probably because of this political significance St Patrick landed at the Quoile estuary in the fifth century to begin his Christian mission to Ireland.  Our traditions say that his first church was the gift of a barn, on the site of which a memorial church still stands at Saul – sabhall, a barn.

He seems then to have gone to the political capital of the region before heading further inland.  His success at Dun may be inferred by the subsequent succession of churches on the Hill of Down, presently represented by Down Cathedral.  Gradually the ecclesiastical city of Down developed, and in more recent centuries its association with Ireland’s patron saint was celebrated by an addition to its name, to give the modern name of Downpatrick.

Methodism came to the area in the 1770s, twenty years after John Wesley had first set foot in Ulster, in July 1756, when he preached to a large congregation in the town of Newry where a Methodist Society already existed.  Some years after this Methodism established centres further north, including at Lisburn and Downpatrick.

The first Methodist church in Downpatrick was built by Rev Edward Smyth.  Smyth was Anglican curate of Ballyculter and a nephew of the Archbishop of Dublin, and his wife Agnes was a niece of Mrs Gayer, of Derriaghy, near Lisburn, at whose home Wesley was nursed back from the edge of death in 1775.  The Smyths met Wesley at Derriaghy on this occasion and their subsequent adherence to the enthusiasm of Methodism led to Edward’s ejection from the incumbency of Ballyculter, and his building of a Methodist chapel in Scotch Street, Downpatrick, in 1777, on the site of the present church, which opened in 1955.

The original church at Downpatrick was therefore one of the few built in Ireland during Wesley’s lifetime. John Wesley paid the first of his four visits to Downpatrick in June 1778 when he preached both in the new preaching house, and in The Grove, beside the ruins of the Cathedral.

I took my stand in the middle of the grove; the people standing before me on the gradually rising ground, which formed a beautiful theatre; the sun just glimmered through the trees, but did not hinder me at all. It was a glorious opportunity: the whole congregation seemed to drink into one spirit.

Downpatrick first became the centre of a Circuit in 1789, the year of the French Revolution.  The preachers stationed here radiated out over a large part of County Down, from Comber in the north to Castlewellan in the south, and for a period around the turn of the eighteenth century Downpatrick was also the centre of a special mission to the Irish speaking parts of the county.  After many variations in Circuit boundaries the congregation is now part of the Newcastle, Dundrum and Downpatrick Circuit, which has one minister who lives in Newcastle.

Methodism has a long tradition in East Down but has never been as numerically strong as in other parts of Ireland, such as north Armagh or Fermanagh.  Circumstances in the twenty-first century are perhaps emphasising to all Christians the need for religion of the warmed heart, while at the same time increasing the barriers in its way.

Our small congregation has committed leadership and warm fellowship.  It welcomes all who seek for God, and we hope that those who come will find blessing and peace.

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