MY STORY OF THE COMBER ABBEY STONES
By ERSKINE WILLIS
This story for me began when I was thirteen years old and had just moved from Belfast to live in a large Georgian house in The Square, Comber. The name of the house was “Aureen”.
My father had bought the house without consulting my mother. He arrived home one day to say “I have bought you a garden”. This was his way of saying that the most important part of the purchase was the garden as my mother always craved a garden. The house in Belfast, although it was a large house, had only a small garden.
My Father, Mother and their six children moved into Aureen in November 1947.
I remember entering the house and being disappointed in its dark and old fashioned interior, but as soon as I entered the garden I was overcome with its size and sheer grandeur. It was a walled garden and was formally laid out with ornamental flowerbeds formed with boxwood hedges. The pathways were cinder; there were two large greenhouses, an orchard and a vegetable garden.
The garden was worked by two gardeners who came along with the house!
I spent a lot of my time in the garden and I particularly liked talking to Tom Campbell, the senior gardener, who was very old. His helper, Lawrence Roddy, was probably in his late teens.
On one of my days in the garden an incident happened which was to be very important to this story.
Old Tom was working at the bottom of the garden and when I joined him he told me the story of the old monument which we were standing beside at the time. This was of course the structure which was made up of what we now call the Comber Abbey Stones. He said that in 1931 he had been working in another garden in Comber and, because of an injury to his leg, he had to leave that employment and come to work in this garden to work for the Milling family. He said he brought with him the stones which he said were from the old abbey in Comber.
Where Tom Campbell had worked was the garden of an Andrews family house in Castle Street called “The Old House”. It was from this garden he had brought the stones to Aureen in 1931 where he built them into the form they were to stay in for the next 70 years.
The arrangement of the stones was not dictated by any archaeological plan or anything other than to keep the whole lot together in one place in a reasonable order and to show prominently the large carved stones including the spectacular head, shown above.
The stones were cemented together and the cement topping was inscribed with Tom’s name, the date and also the names of the three Milling children who lived in the house at that time. One can imagine the old gardener and three young children working together to plan and erect this monument.
That inscription reads:-
11th NOVEMBER 1931
(The names of the Milling children were; Jim, Flo and Joan.)
“The Monk” as we called it was not the only ornament in the garden. Close beside it there was a lion carved from Scrabo Stone, which, according to Tom Campbell, was carved in 1920 by a local man.
Both these were situated at the bottom of the large formal garden near the river wall. They were situated under three large beech trees which partially protected them from frost and rain.
Tom Campbell lived at 14 High Street and he was guardian (and perhaps uncle) to the smallest postman in Ireland, “Wee Willie” Brown. He died a few years after we moved in, aged about 86, having worked up to a week previously.
Through all the years “The Monk” stood and was treated as one of the family being used as a climbing frame and adorning the garden just like a giant gnome!
It was neglected, and perhaps damaged, but still it survived until I realised it had significance in the history of Comber. I then showed it to visitors and it became a talking point in my family.
It is one of my greatest regrets that I didn’t take the time to show Norman Nevin, Comber’s great historian, this piece of history which I know he would have appreciated more than most.
When I read Norman Nevin’s book “A Story of Comber” I realised the great importance it had. It was my intention to show the stones to him. Unfortunately it was not done.
In October 2002, shortly after I was aware of the formation of the new Historical Society in Comber, I decided that I would not make the same mistake and I sought out Desmond Rainey and told him of the existence of the Abbey Stones.
At the same time I wrote to The Comber Historical Society offering the stones to the people of Comber which I hoped would lead to their public display.
I got an enthusiastic reaction from Desmond. It turned out that the timing of my approach couldn’t have been more appropriate as he and Len Ball were just about to publish their history book “A Taste of Old Comber” and they could see that this story of the Abbey stones could be used to give the launch more publicity. They arranged to have a photo of the stones and a brief description included in the book.
This led to two Ulster Television interviews arranged and produced by Brian Black the famous presenter who specialises in archaeology. These programmes went out in November 2002 and featured Desi, Len and me. More importantly two archaeologists, Marion Meeks and Annie Given, were included in the second programme and gave their opinions on the stones.
This is what Marion Meeks said in that interview; “What you’ve got is a King with a Crown. He’s on top of a window. It’s certainly from a church. My first thought was that the Cistercians didn’t like having heads and that’s still true but this isn’t from the early period this is from the 15th Century and by the 15th Century they had relaxed a little bit, and so yes - this is 15th century, probably from a church, so why not Comber Abbey ?
It tells us about the quality of craftsmanship and life, big churches are rare in survival at all, largely because they were purposely thrown down in the 16th Century and so every piece is precious and in this case we have got a whole collection of pieces and all of them interesting.”
Also in the interview a layout was sketched by Marion Meeks showing the way the stones had originally been built, this is interesting to look back on as it predicts how they now look.
In April 2003 the Environment and Heritage Service (as it then was) dismantled the monument and took the stones, nineteen in number, from my garden to their Moira depot where they were cleaned and stored.
Other archaeologists including Malcolm Fry and others from EHS expressed their agreement that we had something very rare and which should be preserved and displayed in Comber.
My curiosity was raised by the interest others had in these stones so I started to investigate where the stones had come from, how important or unique they were and who were these Cistercians Marion Meekes spoke of?
Firstly I went to the headquarters of the EHS in Hill Street Belfast and found the staff, including Ken Neill and Robert Hadden very helpful.
I was given books to read and photocopies from them to take away. They suggested abbeys which I could visit and possible sites with similar carvings.
This information was to lead to me reading many books on the Cistercians and visiting many Cistercian and other abbeys, churches and friaries throughout Ireland.
My research included comparing the various historical descriptions of Comber abbey. These sometimes gave conflicting details and it was interesting for me, a non historian to decide which to believe.
Norman Nevin in his book “The story of Comber” gives a detailed description of Comber abbey in particular and Cistercian abbeys in general; however he doesn’t give his sources for that information (probably the reason he didn’t want his book published). It was part of my research to find those sources.
From the information I received from EHS in Hill Street I read extracts from articles by various scholars including Rev. P. Power writing in the Down and Connor Historical Society’s magazine Annual Report Vol.1 – 1928. This article contains much useful information but he gives two pieces of information which do not agree with most other scholars. Firstly he says that Comber abbey was built in 1200, others say 1199. Then he says that “subsequent to confiscation the Abbey property was granted to Sir James Hamilton....who used the materials to build a mansion at Mount Alexander” whereas others agree that it was Montgomery who built Mount Alexander.
The others I refer to are J O’Laverty, 1880, (Down and ConnorVol.2) and Reeves, 1847, (Eccles. Antiq.)
Nevin’s agrees with O’Laverty and Reeves conclusions on the above so I think they were probably his sources. I recommend the reading of Nevin to get a fuller story than I am telling here.
Other facts, such as what remains of the Comber Abbey, are not agreed. In most writings the only remaining pieces from the abbey are stones built into various walls around Comber including the churchyard of St Mary’s. There are references to a particular stone with a mason’s mark, this is a fact as it was built into a building beside the present church, removed, stored but subsequently lost!
One or two articles refer to a “fragment of a thirteenth century tomb slab” but there is no confirmation of this. Many articles state that there are no remains of Comber Abbey.
Most agree that the site of the Abbey was where St Mary’s is now and that it had been colonised by Monks from Whitland Carmarthenshire in 1199 and surrendered by the last Abbot in 1543.
I spent a lot of time visiting other Cistercian Abbeys. One reason for this was to see if there were any carvings similar to the Comber stones. I visited the local sites, Greyabbey and Inch (Iniscourcey).
In the south of Ireland I visited Boyle Abbey in Roscommon and Mellifont at Drogheda, the latter being the mother church of most Cistercian abbeys in Ireland (but not Comber).
I found several stones with leaf carvings similar to the Comber stones but the only keystone I could find which was even vaguely similar to our keystone was at St Mary’s church on Devenish Island, Lough Erne, County Fermanagh.
From the above it is obvious that the nineteen stones we now have are unique and extremely valuable.
The importance of them to the people of Comber is that it will remind them of the existence of the monastery which was a major step in the development of Christianity in Comber. The mother church of all the large number of Christian churches now in Comber.
The obvious place to seek to display the Comber Abbey Stones was in St Mary’s Parish Church. This church is believed to be on the site where the Cistercian abbey was built in 1199.
The Environment and Heritage Service stated in April 2003 that they could not, because of financial restraints, undertake the work of installing the stones in Comber; so negotiations commenced with the Rector of St Mary’s Jonathan Barry to raise money and build the display in the church.
I will draw a veil over the long story of the negotiations with the Rector and the church which stretched over five years.
I simply quote from a letter dated 3rd. July 2008 I received from Malcolm Fry of NIEA(as the EHS had now become) in which he said:-
“The Built Heritage Division of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency is concerned to learn that you are still encountering trouble finding a place indoors to display the stone remains of the Abbey retrieved some years ago. When we undertook to clean and temporarily house these in sealed crates for you at our Central Works Depot at Moira it was firmly on the understanding that they are now antiquities, and cannot be treated any longer as though they are just common or garden building materials. I know that you fully approve of our stance on this matter. It is a matter of much regret that there appear to be others who are loathe to make the vital distinction, and whose offers of help do not meet the essential criteria that we attach to these important remains of Comber’s cultural past.
Were the stones to be put outdoors, what is there to prevent them from being attacked by agents in the atmosphere which will simply re-start the degradation that bringing them out of the ground stopped? Even putting them under shelter outdoors – as, for example, in a cloister – to my mind is equally unsatisfactory a place for them, since moisture, wind-blown matter, frost, and goodness knows what else would still be able to get to them by some means. And none of them is in any fit condition to offer much resistance to what would amount to renewed weathering.
Clearly, the only solution that is acceptable both on ethical and practical grounds is for a home to be granted to the stones inside a closed structure that allows no contact with the weather or the atmosphere. Built Heritage stands by its promise to help mount the stones, in a suitable cement-free mortar, should the homing issue become resolved. In the meantime, you and ourselves have the stones in our possession; and neither of us is going to release them to bodies or individuals who do not satisfy us that they will treat them properly.
Finally, it goes without saying that all the stones must be kept together, wherever they end up. There are few enough of them as it is. It would not be acceptable that the better pieces should be selected for prominence and the rest left to fester. We have already discussed and experimented with how a display could be mounted which incorporates most if not all of the pieces, and to my mind there is no satisfactory alternative plan”.
Following receipt of this letter I wrote the Rector on the 7th of July 2008 enclosing a copy and withdrawing my offer of the stones to St Mary’s.
I then opened negotiations with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and set up a meeting in my house on 7th August 2008 with John O’Keeffe, Director of Heritage Built and his colleagues Maybelline Gormley and Robert Noade.
At this meeting the Director said that Heritage Built would take the project in hand and schedule the completion of installation in Comber within the 2009/1010 year. It was agreed that the prime site should be St Mary’s and that negotiations for the project with the church would be conducted by NIEA and all work done by them.
I agreed to hand over the ownership of the stones to NIEA and they would draw up an agreement with St Mary’s to display them on a permanent loan basis.
In June 2009 the Comber Abbey Stones were placed within the church of St Mary’s in the Square Comber. The collection of stones is displayed in the newly built south transept and, appropriately, close to a large “Cistercian” stained glass window.
The Abbey stones are some 600 years old according to historians but according to geologists the actual material of the rocks is sandstone from Scrabo and is 350 million years old! ......... I have had that proved to my satisfaction.
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