S Alex Blair, The Banner of the Blue in Auld Garrydoo: A History of Garryduff Presbyterian Church Reviewed by Dr Eull Dunlop
NOT for the first time, we remark that the Presbyterian congregational history is one of the most usual of local productions.
In North Antrim, moreover, the writing of such chronicles, while being far from his sole literary activity, is very typical of the steady output of S Alex Blair MA. Indeed it may well be what he does best. Perhaps only a memoir would take precedence.
By my calculation, his latest book is the 17th work by the teacher retired from Dalriada who, over the decades, has valuably recorded various aspects of North Antrim's life.
He made his first substantive foray into Presbyterian history in his own Kilraughts, whose congregational story he is now updating for a forthcoming anniversary.
In time he also reviewed the development of the causes of Drumreagh, First Ballymoney and Dunloy, the last of which is nowadays linked with that in Garryduff. Of that last congregation he has now produced an illustrated 175-page account which, he admits, was written over 7 years in the face of a comparative paucity of material.
Still, published by the Congregational Committee at 15, between handsome covers designed in pleasingly rich blue by Nigel Johnston (Impact Printing), the volume offers a connected narrative of the Presbyterian cause whose meeting-house stands on the old coach road in the townland of 'the black bog' between Dunloy and Ballymoney.
A Foreword recognising the mutual challenge of church and society is contributed by the present incumbent, the Rev John Gilkinson, one of that younger band of ministers who have studied Reformed doctrine at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. Other trends are seen in the life-stories of his predecessors, with the congregation's aboriginal phase being particularly interesting to this editor (1987) of Buick's Ahoghill, a final tribute (1901) to the long-lived Seceder who ministered in what is now the village's Trinity congregation.
In a poor enough district south of Ballymoney, it was, quite characteristically, the Seceders rather than the Synod of Ulster who established a mission station (1838). Into that 'hitherto neglected place' the Secession Presbytery of Ahoghill inducted the Rev Robert Loughead, a man with a past whom readers may find an ironic variation on the most basic Seceding theme of congregational freedom; he was the son-in-law of the landlord, Stuart of Gracehill, Stranocum.
But, the tow big branches of presbyterianism having merged in the General Assembly, Loughead received a generally clean bill of theological and pastoral health (1843) when the new Route Presbytery dipped its inspectional stick.
See our author seek to evaluate his motives and his short but often altruistic ministry among a people far less privileged than his wife himself.
From small beginnings, Garryduff proceeded, under the Rev James B Gamble, to build a meeting-house in robust circumstances here well described according, we assume, to oral tradition.
In that same tradition there long was curiosity about the latter end of Gamble, a Kilrea man who had a distinctly social side and whom the Presbytery eventually deposed for immorality.
The Rev John Brown, namesake and nephew of the patriarch of Droghead, Aghadowey, had to steady the cause through earnest annual visitation, as he also had to channel energies in the Revival of 1859. And, in this congregational history which we rightly expected to be strong on rural, social context, we also see Brown, who himself had 25 acres, becoming involved with Tenant Right.
Less an ecclesiastical politician, he was a communal figurehead in Garryduff and later Culnady, recognised by plain folk as a civic consultant although then not described in any such jargon.
The Ballymena reader is naturally interested in the Rev Robert Boyle, a Cloughwater man who, like many from that side of the town, was educated at JP Wilson's classical school. Formerly minister of the short-lived Second Killymurris, he brought a classicist's precision to both visitation and record-keeping.
He also brought, as guest preacher in aid of the Manse Fund, Professor Francis Petticrew (not Pettigrew) of Magee College and Carncoagh, near Cloughwater.
The Rev William Keers, from Ringrashmore, Articlave, saw local Orangeism divide and thus give the district an Independent Orange Hall, long of social use to the congregation.
Among clergy at the installation of his successor, the Rev RJ Millar who had returned to the presbyterian heartlands from Cavananleck in the west, was a Rev David Tweed of Magherboy Upper, Kilraughts, who was then ministering in Ceylon with the Dutch Reformed Church.
He was altogether much more exotic than the Rev Andrew Falloon from the Vow, who had merely exchanged Cullybackey's Covenanters for English Presbyterians. Both cases, however remind us that Millar the keen horticulturalist eventually felt moved to transplant himself in faraway Canda.
It was the somewhat controversial Rev Samuel Reid, formerly of Cushendall, who served Garryduff during the political heat before 1916, when he suddenly died young. His successor through the rest of the First World War and until 1929 was the Rev David Tynan, whose surname rightly points us towards Letterkenny, as that of his successor in turn points towards Claudy and Banagher congregation.
The Rev Henry James Eakin came to a Garryduff which had survived painfully strong pressure from Church House and the Convenor of the vacancy, the controversial Rev Samuel Wallace, to unite with the latter's congregation of Drumreagh.
In that tussle, graphically minuted, givings had been pointedly withheld and there was even talk of a move towards Methodism, but Eakin's tenure (1931 to 49) saw a corner well turned.
Following the town short ministries of the Rev Matthew CA Thompson and the Rev Thomas Alexander Houston, Garryduff briefly hosted the Rev John McFall, one of the most peripatetic Presbyterians ever to emerge from Ballymena.
Folk who might well have expected that he would soon move on were next treated to a settled ministry of two decades, with the Rev Gordon Elliot Lockhart, originally a Congregationalist pastor Amidst the various activities and care for both people and plant, he lost his wife ('Congregational life almost come to a standstill for a time') but after a sad season found a new helpmeet.
The 14th minister of Garrduff, who had Killymurris connections, was the Rev John Kirkpatrick, the san and grandson of ministers. During his very active incumbency (1987 to 93) there was much edification and not merely in the physical sense of erecting a splendid hall.
After his departure for Portrush, Garryduff which had so long valued its singularity eventually accepted the Presbytery's wish that it combine (1995/6) with Dunloy congregation, vacant after the long ministry of the Rev J Herman Brown. It was to that two-point charge that Mr Gilkinson was called.
Notwithstanding all these twists and turns, mere clerical roll-call is avowedly not the sum total of a congregation's life. Indeed, as we have seen, ministers are birds of passage, whereas the enduring membership, whose servants they are, are the church visible.
Theological considerations come first, but there are also the issues of financial and social cohesion. There being nothing we can teach S Alex Blair about people in their place, his latest volume will please readers at home and abroad, now and in days to come, for his assiduous inclusion of names and his evocation of historical circumstances.
On the other hand, recognising that the sole function of such work is not merely genealogical, we note the present minister's statement (p134) of pastoral priorities in an ever more demanding age.
Among the gallery of prominent characters of the district, listed in an exercise in which our author always delights, we find Bobbie Dunlop, father of this reviewer's student contemporaries.
A man of word and song, he was obviously an important source of the everyday information which is all to perishable. Inevitably, his surname and that theme of transience draw us to the book's final pages and a reason why many beyond the congregational bounds know Garryduff and its Presbyterian meeting-house.
Our word 'religion' has a Latin root which means zeal, a fair point to make in the present context. Because of a very particular and apparently self-perpetuating species of religiosity (in that secular sense of zeal) in a certain recreational sphere, Garryduff is a kent name to many from far and not so far who may know little or nothing of Presbyterian history.
The reviewer, here feeling almost burdened by his own surname, realises that the congregational historian's researches were overtaken by not one but two motor-cycling tragedies in which the last, sad, lap led to the meeting-house and burying-ground.
Always keen to highlight local folk who have made their wider mark, S Alex Blair closes this chronicle with profiles of the sporting, speeding brothers, the late Joey and Robert Dunlop. And he does so in a properly modest gear.
That is fitting, particularly when we consider the enigmatic and never overweening personality of Joey, the 'quate' man of privately philanthropic ways who would never have expected 'thar Garrydoo would see the next thing tae a State funeral'.
But, despite an immediate attendance of well over 50,000 and an innumerable broadcast audience, that service was conducted in all the deep strength of the plain Presbyterian style which recognises our common mortality.
Many a local history was longer in the making than this one, but Mr Blair is deeply grateful that his 'Garryduff', which was launched at a real big night of rural variety, was completed within the lifetime of the late Mr Finlay Kennedy.
Of a family associated with the congregation since Loughead's day, he, with Mrs Kennedy, gave the author exceptional assistance.
Their essential service has been warmly acknowledged in a cordial work which most certainly has taken this reader into Garrdoo.
The Banner of the Blue in Auld Garrydoo may be obtained from any member of the Garryduff congregation, from Wand J Walkers, Main Street, Ballymoney and from Ballymoney Town Hall at 15 per copy.