Book review By Caroline Smith
Duane Fitzsimons: Under the Shade of Our Lady’s Sweet Image; Clive Scoular,UK 2016
For more than a decade, Northern Ireland has been growing in stature as a tourist destination, in no small part due to its unique history. In particular The Troubles of modern times and its role in the building of the Titanic in Belfast.
More recently, the filming of TV series Game of Thrones has sparked interest in rural areas of the province, with scenes at Winterfell, The Dark Hedges and Iron Islands all being set here.
But with a heritage stretching back to the Vikings and Normans, and including the story of St Patrick, this region – known as the Lecale Peninsula – is also a jewel in historic terms, as local writer Duane Fitzsimons discovered.
Mr Fitzsimons – whose family name has been prominent in County Down since the Norman period – drew on this connection to research a particularly interesting angle of local history, its churches and parishes. His investigations focused specifically on the parish of Ardglass and Dunsford, but also looked at the context of Christianity in the area from the Norman period onwards.
This resulted in the publishing of his book, Under the Shade of Our Lady’s Sweet Image (Clive Scoular, 2016), which was launched in October 2016, which describes key moments in the history of the parish and the surrounding area. But Mr Fitzsimons said his research journey had begun six years earlier, when he came to the end of a university degree in architecture:
A bad recession had impacted the work experience available, so as a new graduate the first project which I worked on was a heritage trail between Strangford and Portaferry.
I became enthralled and consumed by the history of the area. At the same time I began to look into the family tree.
When I discovered that the family has been living at the same address since the mid-1700s I began the search for clues about who we were. In my search I found a unique collection of photographs of clerics, and some of the missions in the parish also.
While today Lecale is mostly known for farming, fishing and the beauty of its green coastline, its history is also written in the Norman tower houses that dot its landscape. These include Kilclief Castle, Dundrum Castle and Ardglass’ Jordan’s Castle, all of which were set up after 1177 when Norman knight John de Courcy settled the area. The region’s churches – often dating from the same time – held their own attractions and secrets, as Mr Fitzsimons discovered.
His story begins with the arrival of de Courcy, who sought to gain the lands for himself, but as a god-fearing man, also dedicated himself to setting up local abbeys. Downpatrick was put on the map in 1185 when at his encouragement the remains of Ireland’s patron saints, Patrick, Bridget and Colomba were rediscovered.
Another church was established at this time by a compatriot of de Courcy, Rogerus de Dunesford. It was dedicated to St Mary, with a statue – Our Lady of Dunsford – being carved a century later to reflect this.
The statue – which was later removed from the church during the Reformation, when the building was transferred to the Church of Ireland – held a unique significance as an example of medieval stonework in Ireland. Mr Fitzsimons writes:
When I studied the carving on the statue and the quarry it came from I realised something very important. Our Lady has always been a central figure in Christianity but it was during the Crusades that her importance rose as an intercessor for mercy.
This statue was more than likely carved around 1291 and would thus be a contemporary of all of the statues which adorned the streets of Europe’s oldest cities. Even more surprising is the sheer lack of such statues in Ireland.
A handful of wooden ones survive and are preserved in museums. Our Lady of Dunsford is the last stone one and is unique in that it is preserved in the parish in which it was put up 750 years ago.
Mr Fitzsimons added that his greatest surprise came at the end of his research journey, when he discovered evidence indicating a previously unknown status of the Ardglass and Dunsford parish within the Irish church of the medieval period: Mr Fitzsimons reports that:
he had drawn a map of the area to show the churches which were recorded in the area in the taxation of 1291, and when I showed the map to local priest Father Gerry McCloskey he had a eureka moment.
During a visit to the Vatican in the late 1980s, when the Raphaelo corridor was under renovation, the group he was with were granted exclusive access to it, and in one of the frescoes was a map of Ireland. On this map there were three ecclesiastic courts: Armagh, Dublin, and Ardglass.
With Fr McCloskey’s help, Mr Fitzimons was able to uncover the reason for Ardglass being mentioned:
At that time bishops could not travel through the diocese of another bishop to attend the ecclesiastic court. They instead had to go by boat, and the churches in the area lined the route from the ecclesiastic court to the bishop’s court.
While they were detached portions of neighbouring parishes who wanted land near the bisho, they were also there to impress international delegates.
All of this information had been lost for centuries due to the destruction of the Reformation. It is now thanks to modern technology that one of the most important areas of Ireland has been rediscovered.
In addition to his writing, Mr Fitzsimons also runs a website and Instagram account documenting interesting features of the region, and offers historical tours.
Under the Shade of Our Lady’s Sweet Image is available by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org