Our History

Bushmills is one of four congregations in the Presbytery of Route, all of which were founded in 1646, making it the joint-oldest in the Presbytery. It is a congregation with a rich and varied history: it has changed its name at least once, changed its location twice and had two of its ministers deposed for conducting improper marriages. As well as having the first native Irishman to be a Presbyterian minister in Ireland, the congregation can boast that one of its ministers became Principal of Assembly’s College.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

The early seventeenth century in Ireland has been described by the Presbyterian historian Scott Pearson as an era of “Prescopalianism”. The established church was legally-speaking Episcopalian but some of the Bishops and Ministers observed communion and offered public worship that was essentially Presbyterian in form. In the long-established Parish of Billy, approximately two miles south of the present-day town of Bushmills, this ecclesiastical-hybrid of the day had a further personal dynamic. The Rev Jeremiah O’Quin who was ordained there in 1646 was a Presbyterian in terms of theology, ministering in a denomination that was Episcopalian, having been born into a family who were Roman Catholic! In fact, Mr. O’Quin was the first Irish-born Presbyterian minister, all previous Presbyterian ministers in Ireland having been Scottish. His conversion to the Reformed Faith led him to study arts and theology at Glasgow University before he was licensed by the Army Presbytery which had been established in Ulster in 1642. Mr O’Quin was a controversial if well-loved pastor during turbulent times. After a Presbytery trial concerning his doctrine found him innocent, this fluent Irish-speaker faced further troubles in 1649 when he refused to read the Presbytery’s condemnation of the execution of King Charles I.

The ruins of the Parish Church at Billy where Mr O’Quin ministered are in the present old graveyard, where the Latin epitaph of Mr. O’Quin’s headstone still bears witness to the esteem in which he was held. The tombstone inscription may be translated thus:
‘The elegy of the Reverend Pastor, Jeremiah O’Quin. O’Quin, a gentle pastor, rests in this urn, but his soul is in heaven beholding the Divine nature. By the use of that Word he had soothed the lambs of Christ. Now he drinks water from the living stream. He died on the last day of January 1657.’

Sometime after the death of Mr. O’Quin, the Presbyterians left Billy Parish and moved west of the River Bush, to the location of the present-day Dunluce Presbyterian Church. There, in a meeting house with a thatched roof, a series of ministers served. The political and religious turbulence of the times is reflected in the fates of many of Mr. O’Quin’s successors, as a necessarily brief synopsis illustrates:

The Rev’d Gabriel Cornwall, 1657 to 1691
The Rev’d Adam White, 1692 to 1708
The Rev’d Robert Leckie, 1711
The Rev’d John Porter, 1713-1738
The Rev’d John Logue 1746-1756
The Rev’d Samuel Moore 1760-1776
The Rev’d Hugh Moore 1779-1780
The Rev’d William Douglass 1783-1794
The Rev’d Daniel McKee 1796-1820

All in all, those church leaders who kept the lamp of faith burning in the North Antrim area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries faced the most difficult and unsettled of times.

The Nineteenth Century

Following the uncertainties of the first hundred and fifty years of its existence, there followed a calmer period for the congregation, with settled ministries and sustained progress during the nineteenth century. Much of what is familiar in the Bushmills congregation of today can be traced back to this period. The Rev’d Mr. Hamill began the careful record of births and marriages which continue to be consulted by relatives and visitors, many from overseas.

In 1827 Mr. Hamill recorded in the minute book of the Church Committee that there were 262 families in the congregation who were seatholders and another 77 who were not seatholders but expected ministerial responsibilities. He also noted that:

‘The Meeting House being in that time in such a state that it must be rebuilt, or that a very large sum must be expended to repair and make it comfortable as a place of worship.’
It was unanimously decided to rebuild the church building and on 27th June 1829, at a cost of £560, a new meeting house was officially opened. Three months later the congregation had cleared their debts. It would, with some modification, continue as the congregation’s meeting house until the extensive renovations of 2005.

Not long after arriving in Bushmills, Mr. Hamill purchased a piece of land in the townland of Eagry (on what is today the Straid Road) of some nine acres upon which he built a dwelling house. Prior to this, there is no substantiated record of a Manse for the minister of Bushmills. Upon his death, Mr. Hamill’s widow enacted his long-held wish that the house and land at Eagry be made available for future ministers of Bushmills in perpetuity. You can read further details on the development of the Manse here.

With the Victorian era in full-swing, Bushmills town was enjoying considerable growth. Ordnance Survey Memoirs record that the population increased from 65 in 1821 to1,072 some 70 years later and that the number of houses grew accordingly from 15 to 251. The congregation also grew during this period, as Presbytery visitations suggest, to a peak of some 300 families in 1844.

It was during The Rev’d Mr. Boyle’s ministry that the present church hall was constructed. The hall, which is of impressive construction to the extent that it is often mistaken by visitors as being the church, was opened on 22nd August 1897, at a cost of £1,000. The piece of ground on the north side of the church on which the hall stands was purchased from Mr David McNeill at a cost of £155. Each stipend payer was asked, on average, to donate the equivalent of one year’s stipend. The congregation decided to name the hall “The Hamill Hall” in memory of Mr Boyle’s predecessor, the Rev’d Hugh Hamill. Portraits of both reverend gentlemen were hung in the new hall, of which only that of Mr Hamill now remains. The Hamill Hall was an ambitious project in its day and was to become the focus not only for church activities, but as the largest venue in the town, as a community resource for many years to come. Generations of children and adults have benefited from the hall’s facilities which continued to be updated throughout the twentieth century.

The Rev’d Hugh Hamill, M.A. 1820-1864
The Rev’d James Boyle 1864-1902

The Twentieth Century

It seemed almost as if the long reign of Queen Victoria that came to an end in 1901 correlated historically with the ending of two long ministries in Bushmills. Between them, the Reverends Hamill and Boyle had served Bushmills for eighty-two years. The marble memorial plaques on either side of the windows in the present church continue to bear witness to a longevity of service that is unlikely ever to be repeated. In 1902 Mr. Boyle died. He was to be succeeded by men of no less calibre perhaps, but whose tenure would be considerably less.

The Rev’d Francis James Paul, M.A., D.D. 1902-1911
The Rev’d Joseph Fisher Anderson, B.A. 1912-1918
The Rev’d Samuel McCully, B.A. 1919-1928
The Rev’d David Maybin, B.A. 1928-1949
The Rev’d Samuel Eaton, M.A., H.C.F. 1950-1959
The Rev’d John William Patrick Lowry, B.A., B.D. 1959-1969
The Rev’d Hugh Barkley Wallace, M.A 1970-2000

Numerous enhancements were made to the church property during The Rev’d Hugh Barkley Wallace‘s, ministry. In 1977 considerable renovations took place involving the Hamill Hall, including the provision of a platform. In 1979 the Manse was extensively refurbished. In 1988 a new church kitchen was installed, provided by the ladies of the P.W.A. and in 1993 the Minor Hall was constructed, incorporating some of the buildings from the old stables adjoining the church.

During Mr Wallace’s ministry a number of special services were initiated which celebrated the Christian Year, all of which have continued to flourish. In 1971 a Good Friday service took place for the first time, which subsequently became a service incorporating the Lord’s Supper. In 1979 an early morning service was held for the first time at the Giant’s Causeway on Easter Sunday, followed by breakfast in the Hamill Hall. In 1991 the first Christmas Eve service took place. Evening communions, held in February and September, have been celebrated since 1977 and are appreciated by many who benefit from the quiet reverence of such occasions.

The First Bushmills Boys’ Brigade Company, affiliated with Bushmills and Dunluce congregations, closed down in 1997, following the similar disbanding in the 1980s of the Girls’ Auxiliary. In 1998, however, a Youth Fellowship was established. Originally meeting monthly, in later years the Youth Fellowship would flourish and develop into a weekly ministry for young people.

In 1996 the congregation celebrated its Three Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary, with special services to mark the occasion. Mr Wallace wrote a short history of the congregation, entitled Bushmills Presbyterian Church 1646-1996. It is a fine piece of work, to which the writer of this present concise history is greatly indebted.

The Twenty-First Century

During the ministry of The Rev’d Ronald David McDowell, B.Sc., B.D, music of a more contemporary nature was introduced to public worship and groups were established for young adults and for those seeking to know more about the Christian faith. The Sunday School met during the church service for the first time and Bushmills also had its own web-site, allowing members and visitors from all over the world to be informed and to be in touch. It was a time of rapid change.

During the vacancy and prior to Mr. McDowell’s arrival, the congregation undertook an extensive renovation of the Manse. The building was put in good order, completely rewired and equipped with a new central heating system. The outbuildings were renovated, a new kitchen and bathrooms provided and double-glazed windows installed. The total cost of the works amounted to almost £100,000. Not long after Ron McDowell arrived it became clear that considerable work was immediately necessary on the church building itself, which had originally been opened in 1829 and was now in a somewhat precarious condition.

Numerous options were considered, including knocking down and building a new church on the site. In the end, it was agreed to retain the façade of the building facing Main Street, to re-order completely the church interior and to extend the rear wall facing east by some 17 feet, allowing a much more open space for the choir and music group. The original windows were retained, as was the pulpit which was also extended. New pews, an impressive ceiling with exposed wooden beams, underfloor heating, and modern lighting were installed. A replacement Minister’s Room and toilet facilities were also provided. State-of-the-art audiovisual equipment was purchased, including a data projector to enable the use of PowerPoint during services. A closed-circuit-television camera provided those in the new glass-fronted gallery with good visibility. All these enhancements, creating a bright and modern space whilst retaining the best features of the historic meeting house, have been favourably commented upon by visitors and members alike. The beautiful building, which cost over £650,000, was officially re-opened and dedicated to the Glory of God by the Very Rev Dr. Ken Newell in January 2006.

The congregation of Bushmills in the first decade of the third millennium has much for which to be thankful. As Professor Lawrence Kirkpatrick points out in his recent work Presbyterians in Ireland: An Illustrated History (Booklink, 2006), Bushmills is one of the congregations of the Route Presbytery that has experienced the greatest growth in recent times. Mr Wallace’s history reveals that in 1963, the number of families stood at 185, in 1985 it was 225 and in 2006 it was 289. Many of these are long-established families, with surnames that have been closely associated with the congregation throughout its long history. Others are newcomers to the area, many of whom have retired to the scenic beauty of the North Coast. Both groups co-exist happily in Bushmills and contribute greatly to the life and witness of the congregation. The surrounding area is changing dramatically – for good and ill – with a slow but undeniable decline in farming alongside a mushrooming of increasingly expensive second homes and associated leisure and retail facilities. The population of Bushmills in the census of 2001 stood at 1,319 people in 570 households. Most members of the congregation live in the surrounding countryside areas. The opportunities of coming years will be for the congregation to continue to upgrade facilities (including the Hamill Hall), so that they might meet the needs of the community, alongside a call to greater commitment to Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. The hope and prayer of the Kirk Session is that Almighty God will bless them in the future as their forebears were so richly blessed in the congregation’s long and distinguished past.

The Rev’d Ronald David McDowell, B.Sc., B.D. 2001-2005
The Rev’d Philip Bolton Wilson, B.A., B.D., Th.M., Ph.D 2006-2014
The Rev’d Nancy Cubitt B.A. B.D., D. Min. 2015-2022