Remains of an old church built on the site of an earlier castle overlooking Strangford Lough.
Situated in the townland of Kirkistown and the Parish of Ardkeen (meaning ‘pleasant height’), are the remains of an old church built on the site of an even earlier castle overlooking Strangford Lough.
The appropriately named Castle Hill stands at 140 feet above sea level and was crowned by a motte 20 feet high, 90 feet in diameter and surrounded on three sides by the dangerous waters of Lough Cuan, now known as Strangford Lough. Although neglected and perhaps unheard of by many, Castle Hill holds much historical interest due to its centuries of existence.
It was the site of an ancient Celtic rath and had been inhabited for thousands of years. It is thought that followers of St. Patrick were responsible for an ancient church on the side of the hill. In 1180 William Savage, one of John De Courcy’s knights built the castle on Ardkeen Hill and this was the stronghold and ancestral home of the Savages for many centuries (until 1575). T he castle keep was built on the very summit of the hill and traces of it can still be seen today.
Within the precincts of the castle on the southern slopes of the hill there is an ancient church, Santa Maria, now known as St Mary’s, dating back to the 1300s and modified in the 18th century. There are no stones prior to 1865 in the graveyard. All the church registers dating from 1745 have survived history.
The present church building probably dates from the late thirteenth century, soon after the Savage family arrived. The ambry and the lancet windows in the north wall are probably original but the walls were heightened and a west door and south and east windows added, during the eighteenth century.
An Anglo-Norman coffin lid with cross and sword was found during clearing in 1898 and are erected in the chancel. A portion of an ancient stone cross has also been set up under a thorn-tree to the southwest of the church.
Following the English Reformation St Mary’s, Ardkeen became a place of worship of the established Church
The church was in ruins in 1621 and was not fully restored until 1761 when it became a private chapel of the Savage family. A bell exists bearing the inscription, "Henry Savage, Esq., Rock Savage AD 1784," which was probably donated in that year. The church registers date from 1745 and all have survived. A storm in 1839 unroofed the building and another soon after led to the abandonment of the site for another in the townland of Kirkistown.
The new church was consecrated in 1847 and the memorials on the walls transferred. The door and windows of the old church were built up but the ruin was in a chaotic state by 1884 when G F Savage-Armstrong had it tidied. Since then, the church has again returned to its untidy as well as derelict condition. The gravestones are widely scattered throughout with few burials in recent times. The Savage slabs are in the chancel of the church or immediately outside the building. The graveyard as well as the church is now in an untended condition.
Today there is nothing left of the castle but a small portion of the keep on the summit of the hill. The only trace of the dwelling house is one half-demolished wall. The house was ransacked by the Rev. Bullick in his search to find hidden treasure. However all he found was a bottle of wine in the cellar.