John Strain’s 40th anniversary as organist at Ballee

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In front of the organ after the service (Photo: Mary Stewart)

On Sunday, 30th June 2019  we celebrated John Strain’s 40 years as organist at Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. John discovered his talent as a musician at a young age and assumed the mantle of organist back in 1979. In all those years John has only missed a Sunday service on three occasions and is well-known for his wide knowledge of tunes and his willingness to find just the right hymn even at a moment’s notice. In that time John has played at many baptisms, weddings and funerals as well as at many other local churches including the local Church of Ireland for the last thirty years. Some years ago John released a record of his playing on the church’s organ made by Samuel Dalladay of Hastings in 1912 and in 2012 played for the congregation’s organ centenary twelve-hour hymnathon.

Ballee Presentation 30 June 2019

With Doreen Chambers and Sophia Cleland who both read lessons during the service (Photo: Mary Stewart)

This special service was built around six hymns chosen by John who also gave his reasons for choosing them. During the service readings were given by church members and John’s tremendous commitment, loyalty and achievement in the church was celebrated as a special presentation was made to him to mark this significant anniversary. The hymns John chose were ‘Morning has broken’, ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God’, ‘Go work in my vineyard’, ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’, ‘When I survey the wondrous Cross’, and ‘Great is Thy faithfulness’, all from Hymns of Faith and Freedom.

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With Jayne Caven, church secretary (Photo: Doreen Chambers)

An audio recording of the service is available.

You can read about Ballee’s Carnegie organ here

Inch Abbey, county Down

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Inch Abbey is located in what is a still remarkably peaceful and secluded setting. Founded by John de Courcy in the 1180s as his atonement for his destruction of Erenagh Abbey on the other side of Downpatrick, Cistercian monks were brought here to populate it from Furness Abbey in Lancashire. According to the tourist board it is (along with Grey Abbey on the Ards peninsula) “the earliest example of Gothic architecture in Ireland and finest example of Anglo-Norman Cistercian architecture in Ulster.” There was a monastery on this site before the present monastery, a timber church and ancillary buildings surrounded by an earth bank, founded as early as 800 AD. But this was plundered by the Vikings on at least two occasions and destroyed before its re-establishment under John de Courcy.

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The nave

The view across the Quoile to Downpatrick and its cathedral gives an idea of its location near to the main settlement but quite separate from it.

IA view to Cathedral

Looking across the Quoile to Down Cathedral

The cathedral was also originally established as a monastery by John de Courcy in the 1180s with Benedictine monks from St Werburgh’s monastery in Chester (see https://velvethummingbee.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/chester-cathedral-refectory/).

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Entrance to the chancel

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Base of column

The Cistercians followed a strict rule, with much silence, little music and a self-sufficiency that eschewed the use of meat. There would have been a plentiful supply of fish for them here, the site originally was an island.

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Chapter house

Around the ruins of the Abbey there are the remains of what have been identified as the kitchen, a bakehouse, a guest house, the infirmary and a well. The Abbey was dissolved in 1541.

IA Inch Abbey well

Abbey well

Pew Numbers

 

It is hard not to imagine that every feature of dissenting meeting-houses has been subject to some serious scrutiny at one time or another. The regular publication of surveys of non-conformist churches and the work of the Chapels Society are testimony to the ongoing interest that there is in these types of buildings. But I was led to reflect on one aspect of the history of old meeting-houses that may not have had too much attention over the years by the ‘discovery’ recently of a long discarded pew number in my church at Ballee.

It wasn’t really a discovery since I and many people knew it was there all along but, for the first time, I took a close look at it and realised that it is a work of art in its own right. When the Ballee meeting-house was refurbished in 1912 they replaced the old box pews with ‘modern’ open ones. They may have re-used the timber from the old pews to make the new ones, they certainly used the old pews to make partitions and features in the rooms they created in both ends of the long arm of the ‘T’ of the church.

This number 12 is in the inside of a cupboard in the vestry. When you look at it, a lot of the wood which was used there and in the library and in the store room at the other end of the church, must clearly have once formed the original box pews, probably dating back as far as the early eighteenth century. Much of it has been stained a very dark colour but in some places the original colouring can be seen and there are two places where the pew numbers are visible. One is a slightly faded number 22 but the other is this one inside the vestry cupboard.

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Inside the cupboard

It has been protected from the sun for over a hundred years and it is clear that at some point after it was painted on the door of the pew when in situ someone had carefully left it untouched when re-varnishing the rest of the door. An expert could probably date this number more or less exactly. I would guess it dates from the end of the eighteenth or the start of the nineteenth century. It is certainly very carefully done. It must have been an important project for the congregation at that time to see that their pews were so clearly labelled, and done in such an attractive manner.

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A panel high in the corner of a store room – number 22

For most types of dissenting congregations pew numbers and pew rents were a central feature of the finance and management of a church or chapel. Who owned which pew and who sat where were important questions so their clear numbering was an important thing. For the historian financial records of pew rents are an important source but I can’t remember much discussion of the way numbers were added to pews.

In the nineteenth century, and probably before, it was possible to buy ceramic or brass numbers to fix on pew ends or doors. But very often the numbers were painted on. The pews in Ballee today are all unnumbered, as they are in Clough. In Downpatrick, which still has its original box pews, the numbers have all been removed downstairs but they survive in the galleries. These are very neatly done and to me look like eighteenth-century adornments.

Some of the Downpatrick numbers

But the now almost completely vanished pew numbers from Ballee must have looked very impressive. I will look out for more examples of historical pew numbering from now on.

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Number 12