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Chapter 2 - Coleraine History


Naming Coleraine


Coleraine (Cuil Rathain) has been interpreted as either “the ferny corner” or “the rath at the bend of the waters”. Either interpretation suits the topography of Coleraine at the time. Mullin (1998) has suggested that the rath referred to was probably the earthen structure on which the Citadel was later built. This feature was located where Hanover Place now stands.


Coleraine Name Changes


County Londonderry was originally known as O’Cahan’s land. In 1584 Sir John Perrott the Lord Deputy relocated Coleraine town at Drumtarsey, now called Killowen and then in 1585 all of O’Cahan’s land, parts of Tyrone and Donegal became County Coleraine.

   The sloping ground of Drumtarsey and the sand bar at the mouth of the River Bann made Coleraine unsuitable for a major town location. Derry city had a better harbour facility and was then selected as the major town. The county name was changed to Londonderry in 1610. Coleraine town was then relocated in its former position in County Antrim.

   In 1610 the Londoners came to an agreement with Sir Randal MacDonnell, the lord of County Antrim. Coleraine town, the fisheries and an area with a three-mile radius around Coleraine on the east side of the Bann became part of Co Londonderry. That three-mile area was taken over and developed by The Honourable The Irish Society itself. This new territory was known as The Liberties.


Coleraine Town Plan


The plans for the layout of Coleraine town were drawn up by Sir John Perrott and were similar to the plans for Londonderry city. The Irish Society started building and developing Coleraine in 1610 and good progress was reported up to the year 1611. By 1612 the building programme was bedevilled with corruption and incompetence as those tasked with developing the town spent most of their time on stripping the countryside of the rich natural resources for their own gain.

   The fortifications of the town were five earthen ramparts with the sixth side faced the River Bann. The ramparts were six feet high and sixteen feet thick with twelve feet bulwarks inserted at irregular intervals. The bulwarks were too narrow to be used as artillery locations.

A four-foot wide and four-foot deep trench was dug outside the ramparts and in some places this was serviced by spring water to create an obstacle. The total distance around the town defences was 2,000 yards. This measurement shows that Coleraine town and defences were half the size of Derry.

   A drawbridge and gate was placed at each of the two entrances into the town. The King’s Gate was located at the end of the main road where St Patrick’s church ground ends. The Blind Gate was located centrally in the fourth rampart facing due south.  The only remaining vestige of these 400-year-old fortifications is the north rampart that drops down into Anderson Park behind St Patrick’s church.

   Construction of the town Citadel started in 1650. It was supposed to look like a miniature castle with high walls and ramparts. One of the few ever built in Ireland still exists in Limerick. By 1662 the Coleraine Citadel was only 10 to 12 foot high, the walls were unfinished and no ramparts had been added (Kerrigan, p101). In 1670 it was referred to as ‘the late demolished citadel’ (Mullin, p105).

The following map is a composite map showing the general layout of Coleraine town as it evolved between 1609 and 1850.







  1. North Palisade

  2. Customs House

  3. The Barracks

  4. The Abbey (Dominican monastery)

  5. The Shambles (Meat Market)

  6. The Citadel

  7. South Palisade

  8. North Ramparts

  9. St Patrick’s Church

  10. King’s Gate and Drawbridge

  11. Blind Gate and Drawbridge

  12. Drumtarsey Castle


The town remained fortified for 100 years until the early 1700s when the town started to expand beyond the boundaries of the ramparts. The town defences were never improved upon other than being repaired and strengthened for the 1798 Rebellion.


The Town Watch


The townspeople were responsible for manning the town watch. The records show that the watch was operating from October 1678 until April 1706.

Mullin (1979, p49) explains that in 1862 a superintendent and six watchmen operating from 9pm until 4am in the summer and 6am in the winter. Their main role was policing the town and fire watching. They were stood down when the constabulary were established in Newmarket Street in 1862.


The Plantation of County Londonderry and Coleraine Town


County Londonderry had to be settled differently from the other counties. Planters and undertakers had been ignoring the county despite it having the best land in Ulster. Their main concern was that Sir Donnell, the O’Cahan chief, would be released from the Tower of London and return with his ferocious clansmen to reclaim his lands (Falls, p176). In the end the king demanded that the London Companies should settle the county.


The Londoners’ Plantation


When the Plantation started many of the surviving native Irish lost their land and were ordered,


 “…to depart with their goods and chattels at or before the first of May next (1609) into what other part of the realm they pleased.” (Joyce para 525).


County Londonderry was then settled in what was known as The Londoners’ Plantation. The first grants were made to The Irish Society who was directly responsible for developing both London-Derry and Coleraine towns and the attached Liberties around both towns. The second grant was made to the twelve London Livery companies who acted as landlords.

   The third grant of twenty-five percent of the land went to the native Irish freeholders. Those who lost property in the redistribution such as Sir Thomas Phillips and finally, the Protestant Bishops were also granted land. Any map outlining this allocation of land in Co. Londonderry is represented by a patchwork of approximately 150 plots of land covering the whole county.

One of the best-known Livery Companies was the Clothworkers. They were granted the land on the west of the Bann where they were responsible for building the Clothworker’s building at the end of the Bann Bridge and developing the Killowen area. 


The Obligations of the Livery Companies


When the Livery Companies were allocated their portions of land they had to undertake certain obligations within the first three years to settle people on their plots of land for its cultivation. The Londoners failed to attract enough settlers to Ulster because the confiscated territory was ten times larger than the initial estimate. For that reason and counter to their obligations, many settlers retained the native Irish on their lands to ensure it was cultivated.

Those allocated 2000 acres had to build a stone castle and surround it with a stone enclosure (Bawn). One of these is still standing at Movanagher near Kilrea. Those allocated 1500 acres had to build a stone house and surround their immediate dwelling with a bawn. Those allocated 1000 acres also had to surround their immediate dwelling with a bawn.


Photo3. Movanagher Bawn



Each of the undertakers then had to bring in at least twenty-four Scottish or English Protestant tenants to live on each 1,000 acres allocated to them. They all had to be over the age of 18 years. These tenants were expected to build their family homes close together near the undertaker’s home so that there was a high degree of mutual protection. In some cases there was no requirement for the settlers to build their own homes.


“Irish houses from which the owners were to be turned adrift should be preserved for the use of the English settlers throughout……..” (Hill, p367)


The undertakers were further obliged to store and issue the arms necessary for the defence of their plots and parade their tenants every six months. This form of military service was similar to the militias used in England.

Churches and Abbeys


Many churches, monasteries and abbeys in the Coleraine area have been established and in turn plundered and destroyed during the town’s turbulent history. The dominant religion of the Coleraine area in its early history was the Celtic Christianity of St Patrick. Starting in AD 1172, this faith was steadily replaced by Roman Catholicism. When the Protestant Plantation started in 1610 the parish churches of St Patrick’s and St John the Baptist (Killowen) became Protestant churches.


St Patrick’s Church  



Legend has it that Coleraine was given its name by St Patrick. This happened in AD 432 when a local chieftain called Nadslua gave St Patrick some ground on the east bank of the Bann to build his monastery (O’Laverty, p161).  The grandson of Nadslua was to become the Bishop of Coleraine.

The monastery survived until 1213 when it was demolished along with all other stone edifices in the town but the church survived. Thomas de Galloway conducted this act of vandalism. It provided him with most of the material he needed to build a castle on the west bank of the Bann. There he destroyed the abbey founded by St Carbreus in 540 and built Coleraine castle on the foundations. The site was located just behind the grounds of the County Hall. Coleraine Castle was destroyed in 1221 and rebuilt in 1228. The church of St Patrick has thrived well in the middle of the town ever since.


St Mary’s Dominican Abbey


In the mid 1200s the MacEvelins founded the Dominican monastery of St Mary’s in Coleraine on the east bank of the Bann (Carlisle, 1810). It was located in the southern limits of the present Diamond building. In 1556 the Dominicans abandoned St Mary’s and it was granted to Sir James Hamilton. He transferred the ownership to Sir Thomas Phillips in 1604.

   When Sir Thomas Phillips was developing Coleraine town as a private enterprise between 1605 and 1610, he fortified the abbey and used it for his private accommodation (Mullin1976, p29). Despite this interruption, St. Mary’s became the first university in Coleraine when the Dominican Order assigned it that status in the year 1644. The Dominican order may have been relocated in the Coleraine area because the last known Dominican from St Mary’s was called Father JD Cunningham who died in1843 (Coleman 1902, in Mullan & Donnelly, 1992, p93).


Killowen Church and Maconachie Hall


The name Killowen dates back to 1607 and it is derived from a misinterpretation of the Irish ‘Kill Eoghain’ or the Church of St Eugene. Before that date the area was known as Drumtarsey, ‘the ridge on the other side’.

The Roman Catholic Church of St Eugene, later called St John the Baptist (1609) was situated within the northern boundary of the present Killowen graveyard. It was built in 1248 by the Anglo-Normans to be used by the soldiers garrisoned at Drumtarsey Castle as well as the settlers of Drumtarsey (Machonachie, p6).


Photo 4 Killowen Church, St Johns and Maconachie Hall




At the start of the Plantation the Protestant settlers confiscated the church. It was restored in 1616 and renovated in 1690 and 1767. Also at the start of the Plantation, the Roman Catholic faith was outlawed to the extent that the Protestant Bishops inherited their land and no Roman Catholics or mere (pure) Irish were permitted to reside in Coleraine town. That restriction zone extended from the Irish Houses on the northwest side of the town at the top of the Cart Haul (Carthall) road, Laurel Hill on the south and Spittal Hill on the east (MacLaughlin, p8). Every day before sunset, all Roman Catholics and the mere Irish still inside the restricted zone were warned to leave the town by the ringing of the Curfew Bell.   

Location of the Curfew Bell

The James O’Hagan map (1845) refers to the location as the Old Church and then the Valuation Map (1858) refers to the location as the Parochial House.

   The present Protestant church at Killowen was then built in 1830. After that date the origional Roman Catholic church was used as a parochial school until the new school was built in Shuttle Hill. The old Roman Catholic church then became known as the Parochial Hall.

Martha Gamble was born in 1922 and recalls, ‘My mother died when I was three years old and I had to go and live with my grandmother on Kyle’s Brae in the house beside the upper chapel gate. The Reverend Abbot would visit my grandmother once every three months and give her £3 from the Protestant Orphan’s Fund. She would fold up a towel for him to kneel on when we prayed together. In 1927 I started school at the Killowen Public Elementary school. We had to bring our own aluminium cups to school with us and for the break we would go to the Parochial Hall for a cup of cocoa. Mrs McKay from Strand Terrace was there to ladle the cocoa out from a big boiler and I remember there was a photo of the Reverend Giles hanging on the wall’.

In 1938 the Ministry of Education School was built directly across the road. The Elementary School is now Killowen Orange Hall. The Parochial Hall remained in use until it was demolished in 1961 and Maconachie Hall was built on the foundations.


The Mass Walk and St Johns


The Roman Catholic parishioners displaced from St Eugene’s during the Protestant plantation started to attend open air mass on ‘The Mass Walk’ in the Somerset demesne lands (pronounced demean, meaning owned by a lord) (Mullan & Donnelly, p140). This was located on the Garrett Screen Road opposite the present Greenmount Estate.

   In the mid-18th Century the Roman Catholic population of Coleraine town started to increase. Many native Irish came to the town from the Limavady hills and Co Donegal; the places their ancestors had been banished to in the early years of the plantation (Mullan & Donnelly, p 155).

   In 1760 the Wayside Chapel was built close to the Mass Walk at Burnside. It had a thatched roof and was 50 feet long and 14 feet wide. At that time many Roman Catholics continued to exercise their right to be buried in the Protestant Graveyard (MacLaughlin, p6) where their Roman Catholic ancestors were buried.

   The Wayside Chapel was vacated when the new Roman Catholic Church was built in 1806. This building was unsafe and had to be demolished. The present Roman Catholic Church of St John the Evangelist, Killowen, replaced it. By the year 1835 it was almost complete but another 20 years would pass before a wooden floor replaced the earthen floor.

   The Wayside Chapel was then converted into four labourers’ cottages. One of the last occupants was a character called Constable Hemmingway. All that remains of the Wayside Chapel today is the base of the north wall close to the modern cottage that was built inside the old foundations.


Photo 5. Former Location of the Wayside Chapel






Coleraine Castle


In 1213 Thomas de Galloway dismantled the Abbey of St Carbreus and erected Coleraine Castle on the same ground (Lewis, p18). The castle was destroyed in 1221 by Hugh de Lacy and Hugh O’Neill and was then rebuilt in 1228 (Mullin p13).

   When King James I granted a lease for the property to the Clothworker’s Company in 1609 there was a cottage located on the castle foundations. Later on William Jackson demolished the cottage and built Jackson Hall. It finally became known as the Manor House and was demolished to form part of the car park at the rear of the County Hall.


Drumtarsey Castle


There was only one castle located in Coleraine town at the time of the Plantation, Drumtarsey Castle. This castle and the first Bann Bridge were built in 1248 by the Anglo-Normans. Both were located close to the present Clothworker’s Bridge. O’Neill rebuilt Drumtarsey castle in 1564 and it was still there in a ruined state in 1608 (Mullin, p27). In 1619 Sir Robert McClelland built a castle of lime and stone behind the present location of the Clothworker’s building. It was 54 feet long, 34 feet wide and 28 feet high.  


Bridge Street, Bridge and Captain Street in the distance. Drumtarsey Castle was located behind the large building at the far side of the bridge on the right.





Two artefacts presented to Coleraine Corporation by the Honourable The Irish Society have survived Coleraines tumultuous past, the Sword and the Mace.


The Sword


Andrea Ferrara was a legendary sword smith from Spain. He was forced to flee to Scotland during the reign of James V after murdering one of his apprentices for spying on his manufacturing processes.  He established himself in Scotland as a sword smith and his Basket Hilt Broadsword as well as his Claymore (great sword) became known as a ‘Ferrara’.

   On 27 July 1616 Alderman Probyn and Mathias Springham were visiting the town on The Irish Society’s business when they presented the Corporation of Coleraine with a Ferrara. This was a gilded double-edged weapon with an overall length of 48 inches. The makers name and mark are engraved on the blade. The scabbard is still intact and is covered with crimson velvet. It has survived intact to the present day even though it has been reputed to have the flexibility of all Ferrara swords in that the blade can be bent until the tip touches the hilt.


The Mace


Eighty-six years later, during the reign of Queen Anne in 1702, the Irish Society presented the Corporation of Coleraine with a ceremonial mace. The head bears the Royal Arms and the side has a harp surmounted by the crown, shamrock, thistle and rose and the initials AR (Anne Regina).


There are also two inscriptions on the mace. The first one states,


“This mace was given to the Corporation of Coleraine in the year 1702 by the honourable the trustees appointed by Act of Parliament made in Scotland for ye sale of ye forfeited and other estates and interests in Ireland”.


The second inscription is more recent and states,


“To commemorate the signing of the Peace, 28 June 1919 after the Great War, 1914–1918, this mace was gilded at the cost of the Hon. The Irish Society, Sir Alfred J Newton, Bart, Governor”.



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