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The Church : The Story Behind it

 

approach through bell towerSome confusion exists as to the exact date and foundation of the Church. It was almost certainly built by John De Courcy who founded Carrickfergus in 1182. De Courcy was a well known builder of Churches and Abbeys. The confusion arises because of the existence of two Abbeys in the area. Saint Mary's Abbey, Goodburn (or Woodburn), was founded by John De Courcy for the Premonstratensian Order of monks, the White Canons. The building was dedicated to the Holy Cross. (Carrickfergus Industrial Centre at present occupies this site). The other monastery was for the Franciscans or Grey Friars, founded probably by De Lacy, Earl of Ulster in 1232. It stood in the Joymount area of the town to the east.

The problem is: to which monastery was Saint Nicholas' Church attached?

Various authorities said the Franciscan Friary. They referred to a widely reported tradition that a secret tunnel linked the two and entered the Church below the present sanctuary. But when excavations were made beneath this area it was discovered that the archway was only a tomb and some bones were found in it. It seems probable that a subterraneous passage exists, but its position has not been located and future excavations may tell us more.

The claims of Saint Mary's Abbey, Woodburn, seem to be the stronger, for in the Calendar of Documents, Ireland, about the year 1224, it is stated that a parish clergyman, Audvenus Bruis, had taken possession of the Church of Saint Nicholas, Carrickfergus, and other Churches conferred on the Canons of the Premonstration Order by John De Courcy. "As De Courcy became Earl of Ulster in 1181, and forfeited his titles in 1203, we come very near the period of the founding of this Church." (Samuel McSkimin).

The Church looked very different then than now in several ways. The Chancel is much longer than it was originally, having been built by Robert le Mercer in 1305-6. The roof was lower. The floor is at present about three feet higher than originally, due to various roof collapses, the burning of the Church by the rebels and the several reconstructions throughout its history.

Originally the body of the Church was much wider. The massive Norman arches opened out on both sides of the nave, revealing side aisles. Sir Thomas Drew, the Architect, in his report dated 1872, says: "opposite the two east ward arches on each side would appear to have been lateral chapels, two on the south and two on the north, which occupied very nearly the area of the present transepts." The position of these chapels would have been about the east walls of the present A Norman Church with Arches transepts. opening on to side aisles

These all disappeared in the reconstruction carried out for Sir Arthur Chichester by one Thomas Paps, "Free-mason" in 1614. The Norman pillars were encased in the present walls and did not come to light until 1907 when they were uncovered.

The visitor to the Church will be surprised to see the crooked aisle. This "skew," as it has been called, was not due to an architectural mistake, but was done deliberately. It was said that when our Lord died upon the Cross His head fell to the right. The present Church with its cruciform shape symbolizes this in the crookedness of the aisle. The only other example of this in Ulster is that of Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh.

Another unique feature is the fact that the chancel is longer than the nave. Below the crossing at the transepts the nave is 41 feet; beyond the crossing the chancel extends 74 feet.

 

 
St Nicholas Sketch