Presbyterianism in Letterkenny
Owing to the predominantly Scottish nature of the new town of Letterkenny in the 17th century, the arrival of Presbyterianism was to be expected. By 1640, a presbytery was set up in the town with Rev. Andrew Semple appointed Presbyterian minister for Letterkenny in 1642. He was succeeded by Rev. William Semple who was ordained to Letterkenny Presbytery in 1647. Not long after this though, he was forced to leave Ireland for his opposition to the Puritans and he ministered in Scotland until his return to Letterkenny in 1654.
Laws had been passed against Presbyterians throughout the 1640s that restricted their freedom to worship in England and Ireland. As such, it was more politically advantageous to be a member of the Established Church (Church of Ireland) and so the Presbyterian Rev. William Semple, was appointed rector for Conwal Parish Church. Following the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, a government act of 1661 declared that all clergymen in the Established Church were now to hold an Episcopal ordination and, refusing to conform to this, Rev. William Semple was removed from his position in the Church. He continued to exercise his Presbyterian ministry in the local area but was arrested for this in 1664 by Bishop Leslie of Raphoe and held in Lifford gaol for six years. He was released in 1670 and returned to his ministry but due to prolonged ill-health, he died in October 1674.
Rev. William Liston, who arrived in the town in 1675, replaced Rev. Semple as Presbyterian minister in Letterkenny. By now there was a regular Meeting House in the town, which would have been a large thatched barn with an earthen floor and no fixed furnishings. People brought their own benches and stools and sat in areas according to what part of the district they came from. Rev. Liston ministered in both Letterkenny and Ramelton until his death in 1695.
There was an interval of twelve years before the next minister that we know of was ordained to Letterkenny. Rev. Samuel Dunlop’s ministry began in August 1707 and lasted for fifty-five years, until he died in 1762 aged eighty-two. A new meetinghouse was erected on the Main Street around 1763 by Rev. Joseph Lyttle as the roof of the building had collapsed immediately following a meeting.
At this time Reformed Presbyterians or Covenanters, were established at Gortlee and built a Meeting House there. Robert Young from Scotland came to Donegal in 1779 and linked up with like-minded reformers in the Rathmelton and Laggan areas, establishing a ministry at Gortlee in 1785. He was succeeded as minister at Gortlee first by William Gamble (1788-1839), followed by William Henry (1842-1852), John Robinson (1859-1866) and Joseph Moffett (1874-1907).
On the Main Street, Rev. Lyttle retired in 1803 and died on 7th January 1805. His nephew, also called Rev. Joseph Lyttle, succeeded him, being ordained in May 1803. He retired in 1839 and died in 1852.
In 1820, there was a split in Mr. Lyttle’s ministry, with the Seceders establishing a congregation on the Port Road at Barkhall and becoming known as ‘Second Letterkenny’, with the original congregation now known as ‘First Letterkenny’. Rev. Dr. Andrew Spratt was ordained in this new ministry in August 1821. He died in July 1858 and following his death, the difficulty of continuing an independent congregation became too much and so was dissolved. Barkhall Meeting House then became a school for Presbyterian children from 1860.
A further split occurred within ‘First Letterkenny’ in 1840 and a new Meeting House was built in 1841 next to Conwal Parish Church. This congregation became known as ‘Third Letterkenny’, ministered by Rev. Oliver Leitch until his death in 1893. Following the death of Dr. Spratt in 1858, this ‘Third’ congregation at first adopted the name of ‘Second Letterkenny’ but rather than being confused with the previous church at Barkhall, and also because they didn’t want to be seen as ‘second’ to anybody else, they changed their name to ‘Trinity Church’. In 1894 Rev. Ross Millar was installed as minister of this congregation and remained there until he retired in 1925.
At First Letterkenny on the Main Street, Rev. Moses Houston succeeded Rev. Lyttle in 1841 and within four years, the Meeting House was extensively repaired. Following his resignation in 1847, Rev. John Kinnear, became minister of First Letterkenny in 1848 and served his parish until his retirement in 1899 and his death in 1909. He was elected Liberal MP for Donegal in 1880 and his active work as a politician in Tenant Rights is still celebrated. In 1870, the Meeting-house was nearly burned down due to an accidental fire and full renovations of the church interior took place five years later.
Rev. James Millar Craig succeeded Dr. Kinnear in 1900 and ministered for three years in First Letterkenny, being succeeded by Rev. William John Logan in 1904. In 1909 during Rev. Logan’s ministry, the Meeting House was completely rebuilt but on 31stAugust 1921 it was burned down. Immediately after this fire, the meeting hall of Trinity Church was used to shelter this homeless congregation, bringing the two separate groups closer together and paving the way for a complete union three years later. From April 1922 until the union, Rev. Logan and Rev. Ross Millar exercised a joint ministry over the combined Letterkenny congregations.
By 1925, under the ministry of Rev. Alfred McAlpine Dodds, the union of First, Trinity and Gortlee Reformed Presbyterian congregations formally took place under the united name of Trinity Church with its rebuilt Meetinghouse on the Main Street from 1927. Rev. Dodds was then succeeded as minister of Trinity Presbyterian Church by Rev. Samuel James Park (1931-1942), Rev. John Charles Pedlow (1942-1952), Rev. Andrew John Weir (1952-1962), Rev. Frank Russell (1963 – 1974), Rev. William Ivor Hunter (1976-1979), Rev. Joseph Kerr McCormick (1981 – 1997), Rev. William Alexander McCully (1998-2010), and Rev. Thomas John Bruce (2011 – present). Today, the Presbyterian congregation of Letterkenny consists of approximately 225 families.