Old Meeting House Antrim

Earlier this week I was pleased to get a look inside the Old Meeting-House at Antrim in the company of Rev Dr John Nelson and architect Dara O’Malley. This is the original Presbyterian meeting-house in the town which became Non-Subscribing under the leadership of Rev John Abernethy, the ‘father of Non-Subscription’ in Ireland.

Antrim June 1913

The meeting-house in 1913

Not a very large building but the home of an active and important congregation for a long time. In the 1970s the congregation was faced with a struggle to maintain the building and it was transferred to the local Council which was then Antrim Borough Council. From 1980 it was let out as a boxing club which closed some years ago and this year the meeting-house was returned to the church. As the photos show the building has faced some years of neglect but this point marks the beginning of the restoration of the meeting-house and the renewal of the congregation’s witness in the town.

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The interior in 2018

It is quite a prominent building as you come into the town and nearby a large three-storey building is the original manse. I wrote about the story of the manse a couple of years ago, the post can be read here:

https://velvethummingbee.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/a-vestige-of-protestant-dissent-in-antrim-town/

Antrim Exterior front including manse

View of the meeting-house, the old manse is on the extreme right of the picture

Most of the graveyard is now managed by the Council and this includes some interesting grave stones including the tombstone of the family of Rev William Bryson, minister at Antrim from 1764 to 1810. He was married to a granddaughter of John Abernethy and whilst holding a very radical theology was less radical in the political upheavals of the 1790s.

Antrim Bryson family tombstone

Bryson family tombstone

Inside there is little obvious reminder of the building’s life as a church although a memorial to John Carley, a barrister at law and the son of the Rev John Carley (minister 1811-1861) , can be found, as well as the outline of the decorative moulding around the long vanished pulpit and the place where the sounding board was once attached.

Antrim John Carley memorial

Memorial to John Carley

Antrim pulpit moulding

Moulding above the site of the pulpit of 1891

The interior was ‘turned’ in 1891, that is the location of the pulpit was moved from the centre of the long wall to the short wall at one end and the pews re-arranged accordingly. All those fittings are long gone but there is now tremendous potential for this survival from 1700.

Antrim Datestone

Datestone

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A Vestige of Protestant Dissent – in Antrim town

Lots of towns now have heritage trails and in many places in Northern Ireland Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches feature on the itinerary. Not so long ago I was interested to pick up a copy of the Antrim Town Heritage Trail published by Antrim Borough Council. Here I found a reference to the original Antrim congregation. Although the building closed for worship in the 1970s it dates back to the year 1700 and so it was no surprise to see it featuring as part of the town’s heritage. What was surprising though was the building that featured next to it on the list. You could be forgiven for overlooking this because it is known locally, and named in the text, as ‘Castle Puff’. Yet this was apparently, at one time at least, the manse for the NSP church. The blurb went on:

 

This is an imposing three-storey building which was built as the manse for the nearby Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. Guests who were not quite elegant enough to stay at Antrim Castle were lodged at the manse. In the opinion of the townsfolk, they were sufficiently puffed-up to lodge at the ostentatious Castle Puff.

 

Castle Puff Antrim 01

There was no picture in the printed trail and so I went to have a look at the building. It certainly is one of the most imposing buildings in the whole area. But despite being the only three storey building in the locality it is still quite easy to miss because of the horrendous modern frontages that occupy street level. It is also unusual because it is not often that you see a manse that is actually bigger than the church but this building towers over the low rise meeting house. What one is to make of the claim that surplus guests at Antrim Castle were housed in the manse is anyone’s guess. It is not obvious why Lord Masserene should need to use the manse, even for the most pretentious of his potential house guests, nor why the unfortunate minister should be saddled with them! But it is fascinating to think of such a place being home to the minister and his family.

 

I don’t know when it was built or when it ceased to be used as the manse. A bit of searching on the internet reveals an undated but probably late nineteenth-century picture of the house being used for commercial purposes. The main entrance was situated under a porch supported by two substantial columns. These seem to have gone now but if you peer through the door of the taxi office you can see through to a light and airy hall and a substantial staircase.

 

The building has fallen on hard times now. The glory has long since departed. But here, once upon a time, erudite sermons were penned by the thoughtful minister in his well-stocked study; the staircase clattered with the sounds of the children of the manse; respectful servants moved about the building doing the bidding of the minister and his lady and – apparently – pretentious but insufficiently elegant surplus guests from Antrim Castle turned up for the weekend from time to time. If you are so minded you can still hear echoes of a Non-Subscribing past when you go in search of them.

Castle Puff Antrim 02