History of the Old Church Centre
Cushendun Old Church is not actually the oldest church in Cushendun (that distinction probably belongs, by a whisker, to St Patrick’s, the Catholic parish church situated in Craigagh, Glendun) but it has stood in Church Lane, visible through the trees as you look north from Main Street, since around 1840. It is also ‘old’ in the sense of being disused for it ceased to be a religious building when it was deconsecrated by the Church of Ireland in 2003.
The construction of a Church of Ireland church in Cushendun came about because a number of ‘gentlemen’s families’ felt the need to establish place of worship for themselves and their households. These families had homes described as ‘bathing lodges’ in the area in the early to mid 19th century. They included the Smyths at Cushendun House (the old McNeill house which was burned to the ground in the 1920s), the Harrisons at Glenmona, the Higginsons, then at Glendun Lodge, and the O’Neills at Rockport. The central figure seems to have been Ballycastle-born Harrison, who practised as an attorney in Ballymena. Harrison’s second wife was a McNeill (Rosetta, a great aunt of the man who was to become Lord Cushendun) and the couple had leased Glenmona House and considerably enlarged it.
In 1837 Harrison was responsible for the transfer of 16 townlands from Culfeightrin Church of Ireland parish and a number from Layde parish to form the ‘Perpetual Cure of Cushendun’. The following year, work began on the construction of the small gabled hall-and-tower church on land that had been part of the Glenmona grounds. Its position is somewhat isolated from the village itself, but it is possible that some of the same group of gentlemen, who were the local landowners, had plans to extend Cushendun Main Street. This was, after all, a time when Cushendun was an important port, linking the Glens with Scotland, and Nicholas Crommelin of Cave House had been pushing for expansion of the harbour.
The church was built in locally quarried red sandstone and is similar in style to Layde Parish Church in Cushendall but with a distinctive tower crowned by tapering corner pinnacles. The east window bears the cost of arms of the O’Neills, an unusual motif for a church, and was probably donated by General O’Neill.
Michael Harrison died in 1846 and his widow erected a memorial tablet to him which is still in place on the interior north wall of the Old Church.
Over the following 160 years or so the building changed little, apart from a small extension to the vestry, the replacement of the flagstones in the seating area with a wooden floor and a facelift in the early 20th century, when the original pews were replaced by chairs. Congregations were always small, though swelled in summer by holidaymakers. Resident and visiting literary figures including Moira O’Neill (Nesta Higginson of Rockport), John Masefield and Louis McNeice worshipped there in their day. Other remarkable parishioners were Ronald McNeill (Lord Cushendun), a Unionist law lord and UK cabinet minister, and his cousin, Ada McNeill, still remembered locally as ‘Miss Ada’ of Glendun Lodge, an active proponent of the Gaelic Revival, friend of Roger Casement and one of the founders of the Glens Feis.
As congregation numbers dwindled, the parish of Cushendun was amalgamated with Layde and ultimately the Cushendun church was closed. There is in existence a deed dated 1842 which stipulates that if divine worship ceased to be held regularly there, then the property would revert to the families who originally granted the land on which the church was built, namely the Antrims (McDonells of Glenarm), Whites (now represented by the Englishes) and McNeills (now represented by the McNeill Mosses). However, interpretation of the document proved complex, and in 2006 a group of people concerned about the Old Church formed Cushendun Building Preservation Trust, which has now leased the building from the Church of Ireland and is working to secure its use as an arts centre for the benefit of the whole community.