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Review of the year, 2003/4

This year was a particularly important one for the Society, witnessing as it did the fruition of two major objectives: the expansion of membership and the design and production of our new journal, the Lecale Review. The success of this rejuvenation was reflected in the attendance at our events (which initially alarmed the Committee when it threatened to outgrow our accommodation! ) and by the lively discussions which followed afterwards.

Professor Ronnie Buchanan started our season off in September with 'A Portrait of Lecale'. His overview of the landscape and of the geographical factors which have influenced its development, in both human and physical terms, provided a valuable context within which members could better see their own particular interests. Professor Buchanan s chapter on Lecale in the Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape is highly recommended.

In October Dr. Brian Turner addressed the important issue of `Our townlands: old names with a modern purpose'. These ancient and distinctive boundaries of our countryside, so rich in lore and tradition, have acted for centuries as a focus for identity. Their names give a priceless insight into the past. People have a fond remembrance of their local townlands but largely as a result of unthinking, rather than malevolent, governmental policies in the last thirty to forty years that remembrance is fading fast. In most parts of Ireland townland names are still used widely in local conversation and in addresses, but County Down and of course Lecale has suffered badly in this respect. Dr Turner has been a powerful advocate of the importance of retaining townlands as part of our common inheritance. The Society shares his concern and has made the issue of townlands one of its central themes.

November saw the launch of the first issue of the Society's new journal, the Lecale Review, by Professor Buchanan. It has been very well-received by a wide audience, continuing the success of the Lecale Miscellany. The Society's thanks go also to Down District Council for its continuing financial support of the journal, and to the Ulster Local History Trust whose grant made the re-design possible.

With Christmas drawing near, members were treated to a Santa-perspective view of the countryside by Noel Mitchel, formerly of the Geography Department at Queen's. His talk entitled 'Down from the air: aerial photography with special reference to Lecale' allowed us to see not only the beauty of our historic landscape but also those features, hidden from ground-view, that are so clearly delineated from above.

The Society was delighted to welcome back Monsignor Ambrose Macaulay as our speaker in January. Mgr Macaulay outlined the very significant contribution made to the development of religious life by those with local connections in his talk on 'Bishops and churches of lecale in the nineteenth century'. Notable among these was Archbishop William Crolly to whom the Ulster History Circle unveiled a plaque at St. Malachy's Church, Ballykilbeg, in June.

Christopher Napier's talk on 'The place-names of Roman Britain: language as a key to history' gave members an intriguing view of the origins and meanings of local place-names and also put them into a much wider historical and geographical perspective. The lasting linguistic impact of several millennia of population movements, such as that of the Celts from eastern Europe and of the expansion of the Roman Empire, was made evident.

At the St Patrick's Festival lecture in March Fr Hugh Kennedy gave an illuminating talk on `Churches - house of God, house of the People?: buildings as sacred spaces and places of worship'. Reviewing the complex inter-relationship between architectural form and ecclesiastical function Fr Kennedy provided a fascinating account of the changes in both, and the enduring legacy that this has bequeathed us in a wide variety of church buildings. The support of Down District Council for this lecture is appreciated.

My photographic journey `Rambles round Lecale' in April was an opportunity to show a small portion of the sights and scenes that make our area one of the most beautiful and historically interesting to be found in a similarly-sized place anywhere. A small example of historical continuity is provided by the fact that one building I illustrated at the Downshire Hospital, which was built from stones reclaimed from the New Gaol will , in its turn, have the stones reclaimed and re-used on the site when it is demolished as part of the new Down Hospital scheme.

At the Annual General Meeting in May, Fred Rankin retired as President and Jimmy Hawthorne, our former Chairman, was elected to succeed him. A new executive Committee was elected. Conac Hanna, Patricia McCullough and myself stood down from the Committee. Conac, Pat and Fred have made a huge contribution to the success of the Society over many years and its continuing rude health stands as a testimony to their work. Fred's last duty as President was one which delighted the whole Society - the conferring of Honorary Life Membership on Pat McCullough who had served as secretary for many years.

All our events were held at the Down County Museum and the Society records its thanks to the Curator and all the staff of the museum who have made the running of our programme there so straightforward and efficient. The final event of the year was a visit to Myra Castle, near Strangford, on Midsummer Day. The rain cleared up right on schedule and forty or so members had a delightful tour of the demesne. We visited Walshestown Castle, a late fifteenth century tower house in the grounds, and saw the interior and some lovely thirteenth century Anglo-Norman grave slabs that had been found in nearby farmland where there was once a church. The model mid-nineteenth century farmyard was of exceptional interest as were the grounds around Myra Castle itself with the astonishing Moghul mini-pagoda and the pony-walk where a pony circled endlessly providing motive power for the churning of butter . This was a truly enchanting evening and our warmest thanks go to Mr David Good who was most a knowledgeable guide and a charming host.

Colm Rooney

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