top of page

Introduction

Comber lies at the north-west corner of Strangford Lough. The Lough got this name from the Vikings – the strang fjord. But the Celts knew it as Loch Cuan, the lake of harbours.

 

The Irish word Comar means a meeting place of the waters. This could apply to the confluence of the Enler and Glen Rivers which then form the Comber River. It could equally well be the confluence of the Comber River with Strangford Lough.

 

Nearby is Scrabo Hill, geologically known as a crag and tail formation, and crowned with its famous 19th century tower built as a monument to the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry. Scrabbagh would mean “the rough ground” while Scrath Bo is “the cow pasture”.

 

Comber Parish is made up of 45 townlands. This was the unit of local government. Another unit was the barony, and Comber lies within two baronies. All except two townlands are in Lower Castlereagh, the others being in Upper Castlereagh.

 

Typical scenery are small rounded hills called drumlins – “basket of eggs scenery”. These were laid down by the retreating ice at the end of the last great Ice Age, which came to an end around 12,000 BC.

Ancient Ulster (6000BC- 400AD)

Some of Comber’s earliest inhabitants lived at Island Hill. This was about 8,000 years ago in the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. Nomadic peoples looked across from Scotland or the Isle of Man and decided to make the short boat trip here.

 

Mesolithic man had a variety of tools and weapons, all created by hammering flakes off a suitable flint pebble. They were hunters and gatherers, surviving on a diet of fish, shellfish, berries and nuts, and small animals; with the Strangford Lough area abundant with food. Animals would have included wild cats, wolves (still found in Ireland until the 17th century) and bears. The remains of a Giant Irish Elk, with antlers up to 3 metres from tip to tip, were found on Scrabo. In 1936, Harvard University archaeologists conducted a major excavation at Island Hill, discovering a midden or refuse heap over 2 metres high containing flint tools, an ox tooth and a lot of shells.

 

Around 4000 BC there was another major colonisation of Ireland. This brings us to the Neolithic or New Stone Age. These new people were farmers, keeping animals, and tended the land growing crops. For farming, light soils were essential, as they had to open the ground using stakes and began to clear the wild forests in the area. People learnt to spin and weave, and to build better houses. These Neolithic farmers left behind great stone tombs known as megaliths and show paganistic belief in some form of afterlife. The dead person was believed to be going on a journey, with food and other necessities placed in the tomb to help them on their way. Locally, there are examples of these in the Ballgraffan area, Kempe Stone at Greengraves & the ‘Five Sisters’ on the Ballynichol Road.

 

The Bronze Age (c.2000-300 BC) was the age of the Beaker Folk, so called from the style of their pottery. Man discovered minerals in the earth, such as copper and tin and began the development of metalworking to create finer and hardier tools. A late Bronze Age settlement (900-300BC) can be found on Scrabo Golf Course. There are many ancient sites locally that date from the Bronze age; such as the Giant’s Ring, Shaws Bridge and the Longstone in the Miller’s Lane, Dundonald.

Mesolithic Spring.jpg

Mesolithic Spring - Taken from J. P. Mallory & T. E. McNeill The Archaeology of Ulster from Colonization to Plantation (Belfast, 1991)

Ballygraffan Tomb W. A. Green Photo NMNI 1900s.png
Five Sisters.jpg

Druid's Altar, Cromleac, Ballygraffan, Comber, W. A. Green [National Museums NI]

Five Sisters, Prehistoric Stone Circle, Comber, W. A. Green [National Museums NI]

Several Bronze Age graves, cists (walls of stone forming a box) and burial urns, have been found in the Comber area; these include the present ground of North Down Cricket Club (1850), Ballyloughan out the Belfast Road (1885), and in 1937 on the site of the new Comber Primary School.

 

From the Bronze we turn to the Iron Age (300BC- 400AD). In the 2nd century AD the geographer Ptolemy shows a tribe called the Darini occupying North Down, one of many small tribal kingdoms or tuaths in Ireland. The ancient kingdom of Ulaid had it’s capital at Navan Fort outside Armagh. There was an Iron Age fort on top of Scrabo where a cairn of stones once stood on top of the hill. When this was removed in 1855 to make way for the Tower, a burial chamber was discovered.

Pots found in Comber NMNI.png

'A view of fragment of Burial urns, Ballyrainey, Comber' W. A. Green [National Museums NI]

Medieval Comber (400-1500)

St Patrick is reputed to have landed near Saul in AD 432, where he began to convert the Irish to Christianity- including Comber where he established a patrician monastery.

 

“Conla, the son of Caelbadh, hearing with sorrow how uncivilly the man of God was treated by his brother Saran, went to venerate him, and consecrated himself and all his property to his service, offering to him in particular a remarkable field for the purpose of erecting thereon a church, on which he erected the monastery of Commer”. From the Tripartite Life.

 

The original monastery would have been no more than a group of primitive huts. But within a few years Comber had become part of a network of monasteries in the “land of saints and scholars” also including Bangor, Movilla and Nendrum, said to have been founded by St Mochaoi (Mahee) around 445-50 AD.


 

Land of Saints & Scholars (400-1177)

St-Patrick Adriaen Collaert (1560-1618), St Patrick, 1603. Photo © National Gallery of Ire

Scenes from the Life of St Patrick by Adriaen Collaert (1560-1618) National Gallery of Ireland

In the early medieval period Comber lay in a region known as Blathmac. This was a tuath or small kingdom encompassing much of the modern parishes of Dundonald, Holywood, Comber, Killinchy, Bangor and Newtownards. This was part of the larger kingdom of the Dal Fiatach, covering a large part of County Down, which in turn was a component of Uladh or Ulster. For much of the period the ruler of the Dal Fiatach was also king of Uladh. There was an inauguration site for the kings of Blathmac at somewhere called Magbile, the plain of the sacred tree.

 

The Patrician Abbey of Kill Combair, the church of Comber, was now under the control of the Augustinians, and had become known as the Black Abbey, due to the colour of habit worn by the monks. It was attacked by Viking marauders at least twice in both the 9th and 10th century;

 

AD 1031 The Annals of Lough Ce record: “A hosting by the son of Eochaidh into Ui-Echach, they burned Kill Combair with its oratory, and killed four clerics, and carried off thirty captives”.

 

AD 1121 The Annals of the Four Masters record: “Cormac, abbot of Comar, was killed”. This Patrician (later Augustinian) abbey fades from history, obscured by the later Norman Cistercian foundation.

 

 

In 1177 the Normans under John de Courcy invaded Ulster and established a Norman colony based on the English feudal system. He rewarded his followers with large estates. The Comber district went to Ralph de Rossal. Comber lay in the Norman bailiwick (county) of Blathewic.

 

An abbey was also built at Comber in 1199 by Brian Catha Dun. Similar mason’s marks at Greyabbey and Comber indicate the same workmen. Monks were brought over from Albalanda in Carmarthenshire, Wales to man the Comber abbey. They were Cistercians, known as White monks from the colour of their habit. The abbey stood roughly on the site today occupied by St Mary’s Church of Ireland. Comber Abbey would have been fairly important, and we read of the presence of Andrew, abbot of Cummor, at Bangor in 1251. However, in line with his religious policy elsewhere, it was closed down by Henry VIII in 1543 when the last abbot, John O’Mullegan, was deprived of 7 townlands – Ballymonaster (the land around the abbey), Carnesure, Cullintraw, Cattogs, Troopersfield, Ballynichol, and half Ballygowan.

 

Comber Abbey Monks Head.jpg

Comber Abbey 'Monks Head' donated by Esrkine Willis- Now in St Marys COI

Norman Invasion (1177-1500)

All visible traces of both Comber Abbeys have gone, with Father McCana, writing around 1644, stating that not even the ruins remained as the Scots settlers had removed the stones to build houses for themselves, some of which can still be recognised in later walls and buildings in the town.

 

The Norman colony in Ulster had prospered for a while, but the 14th century saw a series of disasters, allowing North Down to pass into the hands of the Claneboye O’Neills during the 15th century. The chief of Claneboye had his seat at Castlereagh. The English were confined to a small area around Carrickfergus, the Upper Ards and south-east Down, the region known as Dufferin. This was the period of tower houses, defended homes whose design was based on the gatehouse of a Norman castle, e.g. Sketrick on the borders of Gaelic Clandeboye and Norman Dufferin. It was probably built by the Norman de Mandeville family, but in 1470 it was captured by Henry O’Neill.

Skettrick Castle Killinchy.jpg

Sketrick Castle, Killinchy

Greyabbey.png

Greyabbey by Robert John Welch (1859-1936) National Museums NI

Early Modern (1500-1800)

There are no records of a town at Comber in the year 1600, only the ruins of an ancient abbey. That was soon all to change with an influx of Scots settlers under James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery. The abbey was dismantled as they used its stones for building houses. They also erected a church on the site, the forerunner of the present St Mary’s.

 

Hamilton and Montgomery split Comber Parish between them. A map dated 1625 shows Hamilton’s settlement of New Comber on the Ballydrain Road. This village no longer exists. Montgomery got what is now the town of Comber. He built Mount Alexander Castle there as a wedding present for his son. His son, in turn, was created Earl of Mount Alexander, but the line became extinct in 1757. The native Irish resented the loss of their lands, and rebelled in 1641. Comber was threatened, but the Irish forces were defeated at Battletown (Drumreagh).

 

Thomas Raven 1625.jpg

Thomas Raven Map (1625) showing New Comber

James Gordon, a Presbyterian, was appointed to St Mary’s in 1645, and later became first minister of the new congregation of what in future years was to become First Comber. His successor fled at the time of the Williamite Wars when Comber was for a time occupied by the Jacobites. The Comber Letter from 1688 warning of a massacre of Protestants is well known. A map of 1722 shows a familiar layout to Comber town, with a market cross in the centre of the Square.

 

By this time the Andrews family was becoming prominent, with Thomas working the Upper Corn Mill at Laureldale. But it was his son John who transformed what was described as a “mean little village” into a hive of activity, taking over the Old Corn Mill on the bank of the Enler, establishing a linen wash mill and bleach green, a beetling mill, and in 1771 erected a large flour mill. Comber Whiskey was also making its first appearance, one of the earliest references relating to James Patterson who owned a malt kiln and distillery in what is now Killinchy Street. William Murdoch, an “eminent distiller of Comber” is buried at St Mary’s.

 

 

St Marys Tablet 1798.jpg

There was religious controversy among the Presbyterians in the 1720s with the minister John Orr adopting New Light principles, which led to his congregation locking him out of the meetinghouse. Further unrest followed when John Wesley, leader of the Methodists, visited Comber on three occasions between 1758 and 1762, and a Comber Society was formed.

 

Comber’s famous general, Sir Robert Rollo Gillespie, was born in The Square in 1766. Later he would be renowned for his exploits in the West Indies, India and Indonesia. Military activity was not confined to foreign shores, however. The Volunteers were formed in 1778 for defence against a possible French invasion, with two Companies in Comber. And in 1798 North Down was a centre of rebellion against the Crown. Comber largely supported the rebels, but three Government soldiers, killed at the Battle of Saintfield, are commemorated on a tablet in St Mary’s. The rector, Rev Robert Mortimer, also perished in the battle.

Mortimer Tablet in St Marys COI

Modern (1800- Present)

The 1800s and 1900s in Ireland, Ulster and Comber was a time of political, economic, and social upheaval and change. The Poor Law Act of 1838 set up a universal system of poor relief in Ireland in which local people were made responsible for the paupers in their area. The country was divided into Poor Law Unions, administered by the Poor law Guardians, and centred on a large town in which was situated the dreaded workhouse. The functions of the Comber House of Industry (Comber’s own poor house that had operated for 14 years) were taken over by the new workhouse erected in Newtownards in 1841 (where Ards hospital is today) and the building became a house.

In the face of already significant destitution, potato blight arrived in Ireland in 1845. Many were faced with starvation in what became known as the Great Famine. In August 1846, the Newtownards Board of Guardians described the crop as a total failure. Many landlords announced general rent reductions to try and alleviate the situation. However, Comber’s landlord Lord Londonderry, opposed rent reductions as ‘dangerous and fatal’. A soup kitchen was set up on 4th February 1847, supplying 230 families daily with free bread and soup, and selling soup to another 100 families at a halfpenny a quart. By Spring 1848, the situation had improved, although many had emigrated or died from the effects of famine.

The Industrial Revolution made its way to Comber with the opening of the Belfast and Country Down Railway (BCDR) from Belfast to Comber and Newtownards on 6th May 1850. The ever-industrialising linen industry also planted firm roots in the town with the establishment of John Andrews & Sons Flax Spinning Mill in 1864 which remained open until 1997.

In June 1897, the people of Comber celebrated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, with the town decorated with flags, Chinese lanterns, flowers, and candles. Bonfires were lit on Maxwell Court Hill, in the Square and near the railway station. A torchlight procession paraded the town accompanied by the Spinning Mill Brass Band and followed by a large crowd. Proceedings concluded in The Square with a short speech by Mr Thomas Andrews and the National Anthem.

 

Tragedy struck at the heart of Comber town when the RMS Titanic sank on the morning of 15th April 1912 after hitting an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland on her maiden voyage. Around 1,500 people were drowned, including the head of the ship’s design team, Thomas Andrews Junior of Comber. Accounts tell how he was a hero to the end, directing women and children to the lifeboats, throwing deckchairs and other floatable objects to those struggling in the water.

 

On 28 July 1914, the world was at war. On 1st July 1916, many Comber men were killed in action at the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest offences of the Great War. Among them were three brothers, who enlisted and died together, from the Coach Road Ballyloughan, Comber, County Down, Samuel (21) James (23) and John Donaldson (26). The brothers have no known graves and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Another victim was Lieut.-Col. Lawrence Arthur Hind, who had married Nina Andrews in 1906. The war would rage until November 1918.

Fast-paced excitement arrived in Comber with the first Ards TT Race on 18th August 1928. The course consisted of 30 gruelling laps over a 13½ mile circuit, starting at Quarry Corner, Dundonald, passing through Newtownards and Comber, then back to Dundonald. The Butcher’s Shop Corner in Comber (corner of Castle Street and High Street) would become an infamous black spot on the course. The race was won by Kaye Don in a Lea-Francis.

However, the joy of the interwar period was short lived as in September 1939, the world once again was plunged into war. A siren was installed at Comber Air Raid Precaution centre to warn of the approach of enemy aircraft, and a test took place 1st September. Throughout the war period, Comber residents fundraised for the war effort and held a number of events such as ‘Salute the Soldier’ week, officially opening on 11th June 1944. VE Day was celebrated on 8th May 1945. The day began in Comber with a united thanksgiving service conducted by the local clergy in the Andrews Memorial Hall. Bands paraded the town, and after dark the Square was flood-lit and a huge bonfire was set alight on Maryborough Hill.

1950 saw the closure of the Belfast and County Down Railway, apart from the section between Belfast and Bangor. There was a final protest in the Andrews Hall on 6th April to try and prevent closure of the line, but the last train ran from Donaghadee to Belfast on Saturday 22nd April. At Queen’s Quay Station in Belfast a mock funeral was held for the BCDR with a coffin carried in procession, followed by its cremation. The return train to Donaghadee left to the accompaniment of cheers and exploding fog signals, and this was repeated at each of the stations along the route where large crowds had gathered.

bottom of page