Hidden 13th century ‘face of Christ’ carving discovered in Ballymore
A stray ray of early-morning sunshine has revealed that what was previously thought to be a simple 13th century building stone in Ballymore is carved with what appears likely to be the face of Christ.
The discovery was made last week by local historian Seamus McDermott, who was out with his camera to photograph old headstones in the sort of early morning light that throws the carved inscriptions into relief.
“There was a survey done in the graveyard some years back, in the mid-1990s, and they found this store that was part of an ogee window of the 13th century church that was on the site,” says Seamus, explaining that the find was made in the grounds of the ruined St Owen’s Church of Ireland church in Ballymore.
An archaeologist who viewed the stone last year as part of a restoration effort being undertaken by a local committee at the St Owen’s site confirmed that the stone did indeed appear to be a remnant from a window of that early church.
Last week, while photographing the gravestones in the strong sunlight, Seamus decided to take a picture of the piece of window stone, which measures approximately 12 inches by 8 inches.
“I moved it out from where it was and I was taking photographs of it – and then, whatever way the sun suddenly caught the side of the stone, the face showed up,” he says.
“We’d looked at that stone numerous times before and the archaeologist looked at it last year as well, and nobody ever saw the face on it.”
Seamus believes the carving to be that of the face of Christ.
“It was an amazing find. As I say we looked at it dozens of times, and didn’t see it. Loads of people looked at and didn’t see the face at all and suddenly it just appeared there.”
The church from which the stone emanated is one of three known to have existed at one time or other on the St Owen’s site.
That 13th century church was recorded on old manuscripts. Originally dedicated to St Thomas, Ballymore, the church was re-dedicated to St Mary in 1428.
“We’re not so sure where it was exactly, but it was on that site somewhere, but there are no remains of it,” says Seamus.
“We did find that part of an old building on the west side of the existing church ruin, a very small building, which could have been an oratory.
“At that time, they probably hadn’t a church as we would know churches today, where people would go in and sit down or whatever, worship inside. They probably just had a little building for the priest and the people congregated outside.
“So this small enclosure that we found, had a semicircular doorway, if you like, just outside, so that was probably possibly the 13th century church.”
A later church – probably 16th century – shows up on the Down Survey maps; and the current ruin is of St Owen’s, built in 1827, built on the foundations of the 16th century building.
Fragments of a window of the 16th century church also exist.
According to Seamus, the oldest stone found in that graveyard is from the early 1600s, and of the 220 gravestones recorded, 190 appear to have been of deceased Catholics.
The restoration committee were delighted recently when their plans to carry out restoration works to the St Owen’s building received a fillip in the form of an €85,000 grant allocation.
“That’s the reason we had the archaeologists on site last year: we had to do a survey of the building,” Seamus said.
“The Heritage Council funded those surveys last year, and we had a conservation engineer out also, and a structural engineer, so from their findings, I was able to apply this year for funding to first of all do Phase One, which will be the restoration of the tower - the top is in very poor condition. The second phase then, if we get funding again next year, would be the restoration hopefully of the nave, and the third phase then three years’ time will be the restoration of the Magan mausoleum.”
While the priority is to stabilise the St Owen’s building, Seamus admits he would love if, down the line, the church could be re-roofed.
For the present, however, the focus will be on seeking tenders for the tower restoration. Under the terms of the grant the work has to be started in July and finished by November.