The history of Benburb is intimately involved with its proximity to the river Blackwater (An Abhainn Mór) which runs roughly parallel to the village. It is reasonable to speculate that due to the importance of this river and the ford over it at this point some type of settlement, perhaps a trading post, was located on the high ground in prehistoric times.
Early Christian period
In the early Christian period, there is evidence to suggest that a religious settlement was based at Benburb central to the Parish of Clonfeacle. It is referred to as the “old” church or the church of the priests (Cill Na Sagart). This venerable heritage is referred to in a document of 1531 in the calendar of state papers when the dissolution of the monasteries was underway.
This castle has been at Benburb, in different forms, from approximately the 1550s. Known locally as Shane’s Castle, Shane O’Neill wrote letters from Benburb in and around 1561 and went to meet Queen Elizabeth of England from Benburb. What is now Benburb Castle was said to be his main residence, and this can be verified by the Bodley maps.
In the early 1600s at the time of the Ulster Plantation, Sir Richard Wingfield, later Viscount Powerscourt, was granted 9000 acres of land in and around Benburb, including the village itself, in recognition of his services to the British Crown. The Wingfield/Powerscourt family were also granted another estate near Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, where they lived mainly and where the Powerscourt Estate still exists, though the house itself was destroyed by fire in the 1970s.
Castle Renewed by the Wingfield Family
In 1611, as part of the terms of the grant of land in Benburb, Wingfield/Powerscourt built an updated castle and bawn at Benburb, which is still in existence within the Priory grounds, and is now under the care of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland (Historical Monuments). It houses an interpretation centre in the restored west keep.
The Battle of Benburb
The estate is situated one mile from the site of the ‘Battle of Benburb’ which took place in 1646, and was one of the most significant battles during the Irish revolt of 1641-1652. The rebel Ulster army led by Owen Roe O’Neill defeated the Scottish Covenanter army led by Col. Robert Monro.
A New Addition for Benburb Castle
The house inside the bawn walls was a later addition, built by one of the Powerscourt family in the 1700s.
In 1877, James Bruce, a wealthy distiller from Belfast and a partner in the firm of Dunville & Co., bought the Benburb Estate in its entirety from the then Viscount Powerscourt, and set about establishing a country home in Benburb. Bruce made many changes. In order to build his new manor house (now the Servite Priory), he relocated all inhabitants on the south side of the village street, knocked down the houses, and built on the cleared site. He built a new Police Station in the village, the Post Office and a number of houses, one of which is the present Church of Ireland rectory.
The Estate Changes Hands
James Bruce died in 1917 at the age of eighty-two. The estate passed to his brother Samuel who lived in London, who sold the entire estate. After that it passed through a series of owners without anyone taking residence until 1940 when the War Office requisitioned the manor for use as a military hospital.
Benburb Priory's Wartime History
In March 1942, Royal Army Medical Corps established a 166-bed hospital in the Manor house. The largest number of beds occupied on a single day during the period was 139.
The British left the Manor house in the autumn of 1943. In October 1943, the seventh field hospital of the United States army arrived in Northern Ireland. A short time afterwards the first hospitalisation unit moved into the Manor house and was used until they relocated to England.
Later, in August 1945 the Manor house was put up for sale. The advertisement for the property noted that it offered many and varied post-war opportunities. These possibilities included the school, nursing home, institution, Rd house or as factory premises.
At the beginning of 1946 the Manor house and 37 acres of land were brought by the Catholic parish of Clonfeacle for 12,000 pounds. On 5th of June 1946 on the 300th anniversary of the battle of Benburb, a major event attended by 10,000 people was held to celebrate the purchase of the Manor house.
The Estate is Purchased for the Servite Friars
The army left the manor in 1946 and Fr. Peter Moore C.C., supported by Fr. Thomas Soraghan P.P. of the parish of Clonfeacle, purchased the estate. Thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Fr James Keane of Chicago, the Servites took over Benburb Priory from the local parish in 1949.
Benburb Sunday and the Best of Irish Music
Benburb Priory was a significant date on the local and national calendar for nearly seventy years. Many of the leading lights of Irish traditional music and the arts showcased their talent on Benburb’s prized day.
From 1949 onward, Benburb Sunday attracted people from all over Ireland and even further afield. The tradition of the greatest musicians and leading figures in our society coming to Benburb Sunday continued over the decades. During its heyday, and long before the advent of social media, Benburb Sunday attracted figures such as The Dubliners and similar artists of world renown.
Seamus Heaney and Benburb Priory's Literary Renaissance
Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1995 was one of the greatest poets of the modern era. In the 1960s he was a part time lecturer in English Studies at Benburb Priory. Between 1968 and 1974 the Priory published a cultural and religious review, Everyman Magazine. Heaney was one of several figures associated with the magazine who went on to world renown. The list even included another Nobel Laureate, John Hume.
Later renamed Aquarius, the contributors included some of the biggest names in the Irish art scene, including Brian Friel, Heaney, and several others. Copies of the magazine are still available for purchase at the Benburb Priory Museum, today.
Official Opening of Benburb Priory Library and Museum
The Benburb Priory Library and Museum was opened officially by the two Archbishops of Armagh, Most Rev Eamon Martin and Most Rev Richard Clarke.
The £1.4 million development, was the result of detailed planning and fundraising over an 8-year period. Celebrating over 1,000 years of local history, the Library and Museum houses a number of unique collections including Servite, Marian and O’Neill collections and archives.
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