Donegal's Star of the Sea Church is a 'Little Piece of Heaven'

Desertegney's valuable social history in beautiful honoured by DVD

Star of the Sea Church in Desertegney

Star of the Sea Church which features on a new DVD

It is said, of all of the churches designed by celebrated Inishowen architect, Liam McCormick, Star of the Sea Church, Desertegney was his favourite.

According to Fr John R Walsh, who spoke about the Iconography of Star of the Sea on the beautiful new DVD 'A Little Piece of Heaven', it was because McCormick could view the church from his boat when he was sailing on the Swilly.

A “labour of love” on the part of videographer, Hugh Quirke, 'A Little Piece of Heaven' tells the story of Desertegney, which stretches along the banks of Lough Swilly between Buncrana and Dunree Head in West Inishowen.

Speaking to Donegal Now, Hugh described the DVD, the proceeds of which are going towards the restoration of the roof of Star of the Sea Church, as a “journey in time.”

He said: “'A Little Piece of Heaven' documents the ecclesiastical history of the Parish, from its early Christian settlements to the present day.

“It was produced to mark the Golden Jubilee of the architecturally iconic Star of the Sea Church and was an earthy story of people, place and belonging, a fusion of past and present, marking a profound and inspiring legacy.”

In his 'A Little Piece of Heaven' interview, Fr Walsh recalled Star of the Sea Church as being “the talk of the country” in 1964.

Fr Walsh said: “I was a boy in St Columb's [Derry] the day Star of the Sea Church opened. It was the talk of the country in 1964, this modern building out beyond Buncrana and was much talked about. It was modern but not too modern. It did not frighten traditionalists.

“The church was designed by Liam McCormick, who has made a name for himself as the premier church architect in Ireland in the last century.

“There are a lot of features of Star of the Sea Church that suggest Liam McCormick was interested in the sea and boats. We have the 'nave' of the church, which derives from the Latin word 'navis' meaning 'ship.' At the top, up in the sanctuary, you have got the prow shape. The back of the church, the Baptistery area and the gallery is also like a ship.

“The tower outside, people have likened to a lighthouse. McCormick spent much of his time in Greencastle, by the sea. He had a boat himself and they say, of all of his 30 churches, Star of the Sea, is the one he liked most because he could view it from his boat when he was out on the Swilly. I think Desertegney excited the maritime side of the architect,” said Fr Walsh.

Fr O'Brien, who was the Parish Priest at the time wanted the new church built on the site of the old church. However, Liam McCormick “successfully pushed a more elevated site, which was accepted ultimately.”

One of the most poignant contributions to 'A Little Piece of Heaven', which also features the full Golden Jubilee Mass of 2014, came from talented Dunree musician, Tracey McRory.

Tracey spoke movingly about her great uncle, Fr James McRory, who was from Desertegney and was a British army Chaplain during World War One.

Tracey said: “Fr James was born in 1881. He went to school locally [in the home of the late Hugh and Sarah Hegarty in Munagh, originally the old Boys' School.] He then went to St Columb's College, where he studied. He also he made quite a name for himself as a footballer and the College gave him a special dispensation to go off and play for Derry Celtic. Fr James remained there for a number of years and then was ordained in in Rome in 1901. Then he was posted to Glasgow where he served in a parish.

“In 1914 the First World War broke out. Fr James was moved enough to to sign up to travel to the battle fields of of the First World War, where he felt it was necessary to serve the men from the island of Ireland. He served in the Connaught Rangers and he also kept a diary of his time in the trenches.

“To read the war diary is an incredible thing. To find that and to have these images of what he describes in the trenches is really fascinating. The opening line in the diary reads: 'From the Shamrock dugout in the trenches where Ypres once was.'

“Fr James really goes on, through out the 600 or 700 pages of his diary, to detail high level inefficiency and the anger that he felt at seeing the terrible sights that he saw, through the eyes of the soldiers as well,” said Tracey.

Movingly, Tracey revealed Fr James' diary detailed one period of six weeks where he “could not lift his head above the parapet due to continuous shell fire.”

Tracey said: “Fr James felt he was also in the trenches to guide the soldiers and help them through this what was now, as we know, a terrible, terrible battle of four years and a terrible war.

“At home in Dunree, there were two vases that sat on our mantelpiece above the fire. The vases were given to Fr James by a German prisoner of war. Fr James brought the vases back home with him. They are what was called Trench Art The shell details are at the bottom of the vases and we know that they have been fired.”

Evidence Desertegney has nurtured vocations in the Twenty First Century also came in the 'A Little Piece of Heaven' reminiscences of Fr Malachy Brett from the Parish, who was interviewed via Skype from Nottingham.

Born in Dunree, Fr Brett now serves in the Parish of Our Lady of Lourdes, Mickleover in Derby.

He said: “My family came originally from Dunree, from Dunree Fort, where we lived in a house looking onto Lough Swilly. My Parents, Jack and Mary, are now buried in the graveyard of Desertegney Parish. They were married in the little chapel in Dunree Fort.

“I made my First Holy Communion there in the new church and we also had the First Communion breakfast in the Girls' School. I remember it was always drummed into us that you were never, ever late for Mass.

“I remember attending the Irish dancing classes in the dance hall and the local Boys' School, where I went to start my education. Master Michael Stafford was in charge there.

“There was a priest there called Fr Henry O'Neill, who was a very popular priest, a very popular name in our house and the parish too. A priest called Fr Tom Doherty also made a huge impression on me. He was very kind and just lovely in many ways,” said Fr Brett.

'A Little Piece of Heaven' had its genesis in a chat between videographer and historian brothers-in-law, Hugh Quirke and John Hegarty respectively, about the churches in Desertegney.

Reared in Dunree Fort, Hugh, who is married to Anne (John's sister) was originally asked to film the celebration of Mass for the Golden Jubilee of Star of the Sea Church in 2014, by the Parish Priest of the time, Fr Welsh.

Hugh said: “Fr Bradley became the Parish Priest not long after the 50th Anniversary celebration, which was a lovely occasion on a beautiful day.

“I was chatting to John one day about the churches in Desertegney. Everybody would think Green Hill Church was the oldest church in the Parish but John Informed me that the first Church he knew about was Killard Church in Dunree, which dates back to 500 AD.

“We then decided to expand the DVD to include interviews with all the Parish Priests who had served in Desertegney; Fr Malachy Brett who came from Dunree; and Tracey McRory whose great Uncle Fr James McRory was born in the Parish. John [Hegarty] traced the ecclesiastical history of Desertegney and Fr R Walsh spoke about the Iconography of Star of the Sea Church.

“From humble beginnings, 'A Little Piece of Heaven' became a bigger project than I imagined. It became a labour of love to honour the generations of Desertegney people. I certainly appreciated the invaluable contribution of my friend, Danny Kelly, who helped me complete the project to such a high standard,” said Hugh.

Hugh included interviews with some of the workers involved in the construction of Star of the Sea Church in 'A Little Piece of Heaven.' Among these were, Mickey Hegarty and his father, Johnny was the contractor.

With an eye to posterity and reluctant to cut anything from the DVD, Hugh included 20 minutes of people going into Star of the Sea Church for the Golden Jubilee Mass.

Visibly moved, Hugh said: “It was really important to me to include all of the people present that day in 2014. Some people have since passed away and it will be sad for some people watching but it was important to me to honour those present for the celebrations.

“I would like to thank everyone, too many to mention, who contributed to this production. I would also like to remember in a special way all those who have passed away in the community since filming began in 2014, especially those who feature in or contributed to the making of 'A Little Piece of Heaven,'” said Hugh.

Historian, John Hegarty detailed the history of all the Desertegney churches in 'A Little Piece of Heaven.'

These included: Green Hill Church, Linsfort Church of Ireland Church and the Chapel in Fort Dunree.

A parishioner himself, John remembered making his Communion and becoming an altar boy in the “old parish church at Glebe.”

Smiling John said: “I had left the altar boys but they asked me back to bulk out the altar boys for the Bishop coming, that was in 1964. I was brought up near Dunree, at the Fort. I learned a lot from the older people in the area, especially a man called Hughie McGrory of the Greens, who would tell us lots of stories when we were coming home from school. I have never seen any of Hughie's stories written down in history books.

“One of the stories he told us about the Church at Dunree, which no-one had ever heard, was that back around 900 AD there was a big monastic settlement here, called Killard, which means the Church on the Height.

“At that time, the Vikings had been raiding into the Swilly. They had set up trading places or settlements in the Swilly. They came in there Port Ban, adjacent to Dunree, they traded away. At that time Dunree Fort was the Royal Fort of the McLaughlin's. However, the Vikings got greedy and they robbed the monastic settlement, stole the precious gold and silver from the monks, killed some of the monks and burnt the monastery. Hughie was the first person who ever told me about the Monastic settlement in Desertegney.

“The very name 'Desertegney' comes from the 'isolation place'. Deserts were actually Christian hermits and ascetics. It is a word that has come to Inishowen from North Africa, with Christianity. It came from the Coptic Egyptians and Greeks from North Africa and Alexandria. There were Christians in Ireland before St Patrick. Patrick was actually sent here to Romanise Ireland,” said John.

Getting onto the subject of the Reformation, John revealed that Catholics had had to use Mass Rocks.

However, in true ecumenical fashion, 'A Little Piece of Heaven' included a section on the Church of Ireland Church at Linsfort.

John again thanked the oral tradition in Inishowen for the knowledge he had on this Church.

He said: “I learned from the older people that Linsfort had been selected as a township, the same as Malin or Culdaff. It was part of the Plantation that the landlord had to build a town in every district. The big house would be there and the mill and the school would be there also and the church.

“From there, they would build up the whole town into a small town like Malin and Culdaff. However, it did not happen at Linsfort because they did not have enough Scottish Planters there. Apparently this was because Arthur Chichester would not tolerate any Scottish people around his home because, the McDonald's had killed his brother, John, up at Ballycastle in County Antrim.

“So, although Arthur Chichester was in Linsfort and picked the Catholics who could stay here, he would not allow any Scottish near him at all. He detested them. It is said, the McDonald's had actually cut his brother's head off and played a game of football with it,” said John.

'A Little Piece of Heaven' costs €20 and is available by phoning: 00353 74 93 61253 or contacting Buncrana Parish on Facebook or via the website: or by emailing:

The proceeds of the DVD are going to the restoration of the roof of Star of the Sea Church.

Hugh Quirke also thanked the DVD's sponsors: MAST Construction; T and D Doherty Construction; Elaine's Siopa Gruaige; Seamus Friel and Sons; and MR Concrete Ireland Limited.



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