In the wake of St Patrick’s successful mission, a monastic Church grew in Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries. Monasteries were powerful centres of religious life and worship, but also of culture and learning. A monastery was established at Dromore, on the river Lagan, in the early sixth century, sometime between 497 and 513. Its founder is believed to be Colman, who had been a noted student in a monastic school at Nendrum. This school was located on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough, Mahee being a version of Mochay, the master of the school, who, it is claimed, had been a disciple of Patrick himself.
The location at Dromore was approximately midway between Downpatrick and Armagh, both closely associated with Patrick. Probably the first Abbot of Dromore, Colman is revered as patron of the modern diocese. He and his successors would have been powerful ecclesiastical figures in their locality, sometimes assuming, in practice, the role and responsibilities of a local bishop or, alternatively, living alongside a bishop who would have had relatively limited powers in the region.
Other prominent figures from the early Christian period include St Dallan, a blind poet and devotee of St Columba. He is believed to have been murdered in 598, and is credited with founding the church in Clonallon. St MacErc, a brother of Colman’s teacher, Mochay, had charge of the church in Donaghmore in the fifth century. A fine tenth‑century Celtic cross in the parish, although of a later age, is named after this saint. Bronach is the most prominent woman saint in the Christian tradition of this area. She is reputed to have been abbess of a religious community in the sixth century based in a valley between the present-day villages of Hilltown and Rostrevor. A bell, associated with her foundation, was recovered early in the last century and is currently displayed in the parish church of Kilbroney.
The establishment of a Diocese of Dromore, comparable to what we have today, was a consequence of the reordering of the Irish Church by Rome in the twelfth century. The area that formed the small diocese coincided with the medieval baronies or territories of Upper and Lower Iveagh, what we might term today south and west Co Down. It also included a portion of O’Neill land, that part of Co Armagh which lies east of the river Bann, and a tiny piece of south-west Co Antrim.
The diocese corresponded closely to the territory of the Magentas family of Iveagh, a Gaelic clan in the medieval period who came to prominence in the later twelfth century. Perhaps it was their growing influence that led to the constitution of the diocese around this time. Remember, too, the Norman entry to Ulster in the later twelfth century. They had been successful in what we would today call north and east Down but didn’t really penetrate the south and west of the county. Another relevant factor may have been the apparent decline of the monastery at Dromore ‑ last recorded superior held office in 1159. A Cistercian monastery was established at Newry, dating from 1144. It was closely associated with the Magennis family and it continued prominently until the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
From the 1530s for almost three hundred years, Catholicism in Britain and Ireland suffered from the various political and religious upheavals that followed the Protestant Reformation. Monasteries and other religious centres were suppressed from 1536 and Catholic Church property was widely confiscated by the State. This came as a result of the Tudor King Henry VIII’s decision to break away from communion with the Roman Catholic Church and the consequent attempt to establish a national, English Church, under the authority of the Crown.
In time, the suppression of what was labelled ‘Popery’ throughout the Kingdom effectively meant the forcing underground of Catholic religious life and practice. Scattered throughout our diocese were Mass Rocks, where people secretly attended Mass. In this way they kept the Church alive in their locality, without public institutions or traditional structures. It is believed that there were many more of these Mass sites than we know of today, though some parishes have been able to locate them and have celebrated Mass there in recent years, e.g. Clonduff, Upper Drumgooland, Magheradroll, Newry, Saval and St Mary’s, Clonallon. A chalice used for the celebration of Mass at one such site is still in the possession of the Bishop of Dromore.
By the mid 1700s it was clear in Dromore as in the rest of the country, that Catholicism was far from extinguished. Catholicism began to reassert itself publicly and penal legislation was having, in practice, less and less force. The shifts in population that had occurred in the Reformation era were significant in Dromore as elsewhere. Plantations of English and Scottish settlers had ensured a Protestant majority within the area of the diocese. Roughly speaking, to this day Catholics form a minority in the northern and central parts of the diocese, while they find themselves the majority Church in the more southerly parishes. It is not surprising, therefore, that Newry became the modern ecclesiastical seat of the diocese, being the key centre of Catholic population in south Down by this time.
Bishop Anthony O’Garvey presided over the diocese from 1747 to 1766. Still fearing to live openly in Newry, he resided with his family at Aughnagon, close to Mayobridge. luring his time a number of Mass Houses were constructed and he is considered responsible for the constitution of his native parish of Clonallon and the neighbouring parish of Newry as the mensal or Episcopal parishes within the diocese.
Dr Matthew Lennon (1780‑1801) lived at Boat Street in Newry and he oversaw the construction of St.Mary’s Church in the town. It served as the Mother Church of the diocese for almost forty years. In 1823 the task of constructing the present cathedral in the centre of Newry began. It was opened in 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation. From then on we see a rapid development of Catholic public life in Dromore. Between 1830 and 1860, twenty‑five churches were built, thirtyeight schools and sixteen parochial houses. The diocesan college was firmly established on its present site at Violet Hill. Various religious orders were introduced ‑ Poor Clares in 1830, the Christian Brothers in 1851 and the Sisters of Mercy in 1855.
The Great Irish Famine, 1845-49, led to widespread suffering and a very considerable growth in the rate of emigration. That pattern of emigration would be part of the economic life of the diocese, in some way, for the next century, though not as severely felt as elsewhere. Dromore had approximately 80,000 Catholics prior to 1845, by 1860 it had around 60,000 and by 1910 around 45,000. Its current Catholic population is approximately 65,000.
The later nineteenth century and the early part of this century saw continued development throughout the diocese with the widespread building of national or primary schools and the construction of many of the parish churches in use today. Following Partition, Dromore found itself one of only two dioceses exclusively in the new Northern Ireland State, though the bishop of the day, Dr Edward Mulhern, had campaigned with fellow Catholics for an alternative arrangement. A Cathedral Chapter, or advisory council of the bishop, non‑existent since the Reformation, was reconstituted in 1918. The cathedral was recognised with the title of Sts Patrick and Colman in 1919, and a new bishop’s house built at Violet Hill in 1932. The Society of African Missions had established a house of studies at Dromantine in 1926.
Dr Eugene O’Doherty was bishop from 1944 to 1976. He attended the monumental Second Vatican Council 1962-65. In his period eighteen new schools were built as education was significantly reorganised by the Northern Ireland government. Two large churches were opened – St Paul’s, Lurgan (1966) and St Brigid’s, Newry (1970), reflecting post‑war urban growth in Dromore’s two largest parishes. A new parish of Moyraverty was founded in 1971 to cater for the ‘new city’ of Craigavon and its environs.
The episcopacy of Bishop Brooks (1976‑99) has coincided, largely, with the Northern troubles. These have brought pain and turmoil to many families and communities within the diocese, as they have done elsewhere. In terms of structural development, the period has seen the establishment of separate parishes within the traditional boundaries of Clonallon, centred on Warrenpoint, Burren and Mayobridge. Separate entities have also been recognised in Lurgan as St Peter’s and Paul’s, Shankill. New churches have been built at Craigavon, Banbridge, Drumnavaddy, Ballela and Warrenpoint. The majority of existing churches have been renovated and the cathedral sanctuary has been significantly reordered.