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History and Heritage near Mill Village Self Catering Cottage

Downpatrick, inhabited from stone age times has a fascinating history. The area around Downpatrick is rich in megalith tombs, stone circles and hill forts. Amongst the most famous prehistoric sites are:

Struell Wells

Outskirts of Downpatrick 1 mile from Mill Cottage.

Pilgrims flocked here from the 16th until the 19th century. Originally believed to have been a place of Pagan ritual, St Patrick is said to have dedicated the wells to Christianity. The waters are said to have mysterious healing powers. Remains of ancient stone bath houses remain intact.

Legananny Dolmen

This ancient burial site is located on the southern fringe of the Slieve Croob mountain range. The structure consists of two portal stones to the south and a long capstone, giving the structure its distinctive tripod appearance.

Ballynoe Stone Circle

Some 5 miles (8 kms) south of Downpatrick, signposted off the Downpatrick - Rathmullan road

Double circle of standing stones surrounding an oval mound which housed two graves. Outer ring, some 35 metres in diameter, has stones standing 6ft (1.8 m). Neolithic or early Bronze Age. Purpose uncertain, possibly ritual, astronomical or memorial.

The Mound of Down Downpatrick, by the Down County Museum and Courthouse.

Also known as the English Mound and Rathkeltair, the Mound is one of the major earthworks of Ulster, and which was already in existence by the year 800. Thought by some to have been the Palace of the Kings of Ulster. Used by the Norman knight, de Courcey.

Audleystown Cairn Near Audley's Castle

4 miles outside Strangford on the Downpatrick road. A small wedge-shaped cairn of stones marks this Neolithic burial site. Remains of 34 people were found here, together with decorated pottery, flints and tools. These graves like the the other example of the dual form found at Milltown, near Carlinford were build by early farming communities in the Neolithic period (New Stone Age ) in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC.

History

More than 9000 years ago the first settlers arrived on the shores of Strangford Lough. These Mesolithic peoples lived well on the plentiful supplies of fish, shellfish, birds, seals and wildfowl. When the Celts arrived they moved inland, burning the forests to form pasture and tillage, living in crude farmsteads and tiny settlements on the low hilltops. Their traces can still be seen today as 'Raths' - circular earthen banks with inner ditches which enclosed hilltop farms, providing defence against war band or cattle raid. Larger earth forts were known as 'Duns'.

St Patrick, world renowned for bringing Christianity to Ireland - and banishing the island's snakes, is said to have waded ashore at the mouth of the Slaney river, near Strangford Lough's entrance in AD432. Nearby he found twin hill forts (duns) protecting a small settlement now known as Downpatrick.

Patrick, formed alliances with the local chieftain and soon converted him to Christianity. It was from the Downpartick and Strangford Lough area that Celtic monks spread Christianity throughout Ireland and many parts of Europe.

Saul Church

2 miles (3.2 kms) from Downpatrick Replica of an ancient Celtic church, built on the site of the stone barn used by St Patrick as the first Christian meeting place in Ireland.

Down Cathedral Downpatrick has a turbulent history.

Destroyed by earthquake, pillaged by the Vikings, burnt by the Scots, destroyed again by the English, it lay in ruins for more than 200 years before being restored in the early part of this century. A stone believed to mark the site of St. Patrick's grave can be seen in the grounds.

Raholpe Church

Approx 4 miles (6.4 kms) east of Downpatrick on the Strangford road

Ruined church c. 500 AD, one of the earliest Christian buildings in Ireland. Associated with St Tassach who, according to tradition, administered the last communion to the dying St Patrick on 17th March 461 AD. Other saints and scholars include St Mochaoi who founded Nendrum Monastery in the 4th century with the blessing of St Patrick. It is a magical place, on beautiful Mahee Island, reached by a causeway. Stone enclosures, church, remains of a round tower. Museum on-site. Turnoff is approximately 4 miles (6.4 kms) south of Comber on the Comber to Killyleagh road.

Inch Abbey

Very beautiful remains, reached by a causeway through the Quoile Marshes, Downpatrick too, was founded in this period The 9th and 10th centuries were the era of Viking raids. Crossing the narrow Irish Sea from their strongholds in Scotland and the Western Isles in their fearsome longboats, the Norsemen sacked churches, abbeys including Inch Abbey , monasteries, looted farms and villages. Some, however, settled in the area. In 1177, John de Courcey, a Norman knight invaded and conquered the counties of Down and Antrim. De Courcey was created Earl of Ulster and the long era of Norman influence in Ireland had begun.

The Normans ringed Strangford Lough with defensive towers and castles, some of which can be seen today - including Killyleagh Castle, the site of a tower originally built by de Courcey. Early Norman forts were built as 'Motte & Bailey' - the motte, a flat-topped cone of earth surmounted by an outer palisade of wood with a high inner tower built of wood. The Bailey was a fighting platform surrounded by a ditch, lower than the motte but joined to it by a bridge or drawbridge. Later towers were built of stone and many still remain. A fine example is Audley's Castle, near Strangford village. Between 1400-1700 the Lough was ringed with tower houses and castles, many of which can still be seen - including Killyleagh castle (above) Ireland's oldest inhabited castle. Birthplace of Hans Sloan, 17th century founder of the British Museum and Kew Gardens.

There are several fine examples of 'great' houses surrounding the Lough. Mount Stewart, close to Greyabbey, was home to the Londonderry family and has magnificent gardens and rooms open to the public. Castle Ward, an elegant fortified house built in 1760, overlooks the Lough near Strangford village and has become the venue for a Summer festival of opera.

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