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The Story of Drumalis

It is said that when the rabbis met to decide which books would be chosen as the holy books of the Old Testament one of the tests they applied for holiness was that of “usage” - those that the people regarded as holy through their use were declared canonically to be so.  There is something in the place that is called Drumalis that possesses such a quality.  Drumalis -  a hill above the town of Larne that looks over The Irish Channel; Islandmagee; Larne Lough; MaghermoUrNe; The Scottish Coast; the high lands of Kilwaughter - has been regarded as a special, indeed a blessed, place for as long as we have records about it. 

The written records we possess concern the two substantial buildings that have occupied the site - a monastery in the Middle Ages where the monks of the Premonstratensian order offered rest and refuge to the sick and travellers and the beautiful house that still stands today, built in the 19th century as the family home of the great Presbyterian industrialist and philanthropist, Sir Hugh Smiley and which became, by the middle of the twentieth century, a building once again dedicated to offering refuge - a retreat centre run by the sisters of the Cross and Passion order.  The history of the place seen in its full sweep gives a sense of the transitory nature of its ownership - those who occupy it the custodians who pass it on to those who will write the next chapter of that history.

The first written record of the place comes from a sixteenth century calendar which lists lands “adjoining and belonging to the church of the friars called Clondumalis”.  The name referred in Irish to the meadow or religious house - Cluan; on the round hill - Drum;  with the circular mound of earth or embankment  - Lios. It was an institution too small to appear in the records of the dissolution of the monasteries but is believed to have functioned for three hundred years, a sister house of larger institutions at Glynn and Carrickfergus.  No record comes down to us of day-to-day life in the monastery but stories in the folk tradition of Larne tell of a priest or friar who continued to live on the hill years after the house was closed.  The same oral tradition believes  that the Mc Gillifoile chalice presented to the Parish Priest of Saint Mc Nissi’s in Larne in 1901 by Sir Hugh Smiley, who had bought it at auction in Christie’s in London in 1899, may have originated in the chapel on the hill at the time of the imposition of the penal laws.  The chalice is designed for flight - it unscews in three pieces so that a priest can more easily take it with him in times of persecution - and it is thought that Sir Hugh may have wanted to retrieve a piece of Drumalis history when he bought the piece.

Otherwise, archaeology has failed to find any palpable trace of the small monastic institution. When the bodies of six men were unearthed during the digging of a new road, at one of the gates of Drumalis house in June 1895, it was hoped that these might be the  remains of some of the members of the original Drumalis community.  Further excavation though, found that one of the figures was buried on a horse and in the uniform of an insurgent of 1798 and it is now thought these men fought in one of the local battles of the rebellion at Larne or Donegore before being attacked by militia men and buried where they fell.

Drumalis house

Later excavations for the building of the Smiley house in the 1870s were said to have uncovered an old coin known as “St Patrick’s Penny” as well as a “rude stone carving” possibly a sile-na-gig, a figure from a pre-Christian time which was often preserved by monks in an act of interpretation whose meaning is now lost to us. By that time certainly the only hint of the once holy nature of the site were “nine old ash trees, crooked and weather beaten, standing round an oblong hollow in the corner of a field on top of Drumalis.”

Of the long period between the end of the monastery and the building of the Smiley house we know that the place lost the monastic reference in its name - the Cluan or Clon was dropped and it became simply Drumalis.  However it retained its status in the lives of local people. Young people would assemble there to celebrate Bealtaine or May Day and Easter Monday - folk traditions which, with the finding of the sile-na-gig, point to the possibility of even more ancient usage of the hill. Gooseberry; raspberry and currant bushes found growing there in the nineteenth century suggest that it may also have been the site of more humble human habitation which left only its garden as a sign.