The Rev Cunningham was minister for 21 years until he was deposed by Bishop Henry Lesley and he then then returned to Scotland in 1636. There was no minister in Holywood after the 1641 rebellion which saw a Scottish army of 10,000 men being sent to Ulster where they set up their head-quarters in Carrickfergus. The chaplains who came with them were Ministers of the Church of Scotland and they formed a Presbytery similar to their own in Scotland. The first meeting of the new presbytery was held in St Nicholas' Parish Church in Carrickfergus on June 10th 1642 and Holywood was united with Dundonald and this day is recognised as the first organised church meeting of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

The congregation worshipped in the Old Priory Church until 1661 when following the Act of Uniformity, Donald Richmond, the then minister, was ejected for non-conformity and the congregation finally vacated the parish church. They then worshipped in a 'meeting house' but there is no definite information as to where this wooden building was, although the general consensus is that it lay on the seaward side of the present railway embankment, but the site has long since disappeared as a result of sea erosion of the foreshore. (At this time only the Establishment had the right to use the term 'church', the Presbyterians met in 'meeting houses' and Roman Catholics in 'chapels'.)

18th Century - Times of change

Holywood congregation separated from Dundonald about 1704 when the Rev 

Thomas Cobham resigned from Dundonald and became minister of Holywood until he died in 1706.
In 1725 the next major event in the history of the congregation occurred when the Rev Michael Bruce did not subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith but became associated with the 'New Lights' or people who were 'non-subscribers' and they formed a Presbytery by themselves, the Antrim Presbytery.
Those of First Holywood Congregation who sided with Mr Bruce separated themselves from the Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and had to find a new meeting-house. They tended to be the poorer section of the congregation and had to content themselves with a thatched cottage in Strand Street (called Gospel Lane in derision by the Non-Subscribing Party). The new congregation, under the Rev Michael Bruce was called 'First Presbyterian' a name it still retains until today as seen on the noticeboard of its present building in High Street.
In 1729 a new minister, William Smith, was ordained in Second Holywood, as it was known at that time, with the princely salary of £17 per annum. In the late 1740's, under the leadership of the next minister, William Rodgers a new 'meeting house' was erected in Strand Street and this was used as the place of worship for almost 100 years.

19th Century - The move to the Bangor Road site

In 1841 the congregation moved to the present building on the Bangor Road opposite the old Priory which at that time was still used by the Parish Church.
The old meeting house in Strand Street then became a school and in the late 1870's and early 1880's used by the Church of Ireland as a mission hall. The new site for First Holywood had been acquired from William Patton, owner of a windmill, the ruins of which can still be seen beside Martello Terrace. In 1839 the lease for the present site of the church was made between William Patton of the one part and Samuel Patton, George Jackson, David McCutcheon and James Jackson of the other part as trustees.

This church was designed by the minister, the Rev William Blackwood, who also superintended its construction and was built at a cost of £1,500. It was built in 

the Gothic Revival style, then coming into fashion for public and private buildings, and at that time was cruciform in shape with a 70 feet high tower, forming part of the west gable and centrally positioned, echoing in appearance the old Priory Church.

with our congregation which lasted almost 60 years. When Mr Houston came in 1939, one of the gifts from his former congregation was a Jersey cow which was able to graze in the orchard of the Manse. This piece of land then became a tennis court which was used by the young people of the congregation and now is the site of the new manse! We are proud of the long record of Mr Houston in the church and he was loved by old and young in the congregation.
When Mr Houston retired in 1972 he was replaced by the Rev Arthur Clarke who ministered in Holywood until 1990. During Mr Clarke's time Bibles were placed in the pews, two services were broadcast from the church and women were elected to the session.

In 1991 Mr Clarke was replaced by the Rev Harry Robinson, who left in 1996 to take up an appointment at Union Theological College. During Mr Robinson's ministry the New International Version of the Bible was placed in the pews, Mission Praise was introduced into public worship, a deaconess was appointed to help with the pastoral work and a new amplification system installed.
The Rev Noble McNeely became the 23rd minister of First Holywood in September 1997.

Another development in the history of the Presbyterian Church in Holywood occurred in 1855 when 52 families from Bangor Road congregation sought permission from the Belfast Presbytery to establish a second Presbyterian congregation in the town and in 1856 a new church started in a small mission hall, at the bottom of Downshire Road, which until recently has been used as the Golden Age Club. The present High Street church was opened in 1858 with the Rev J S Denham as minister.

The 20th Century

During the 20th century the congregation continued to enjoy the building erected in 1841. In 1939 the Rev Robert Houston came to First Holywood Church from Raffrey Congregation and this was the start of an association 

The New Millenium

The Worship Centre was opened in 2004 replacing the front of the Houston Halls. This has enabled many changes to take place in congregational activities.  The new facilities consist of a Welcome area, Minister's room, church office and additional small halls and have proved to be a useful addition to the church's amenities.  


TOTS R US, the Mother and Toddlers Group, is now well established. The Luncheon Club and Thursday Club are held monthly, and 'KIDZONE', the Junior Youth Club is held weekly during the winter months. The M5 group (Mature Mens Monthly Morning Meeting) meets on the last Friday of the month and attracts men not only from our own congregation but the other churches in the town. The WALKING GROUP ventures into the countryside on the last Saturday of the month.

The Youth Activities which include Bible Class, Sunday School, GLEEM, TotsRUs, Boys' Brigade, Girls' Brigade, Junior Youth Club, Youth Choir, Pitstop Youth Fellowship and Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme are attended not only by young people of the congregation but also by many from the Holywood Community.

The Youth Choir and Instrumental group/ Orchestra supplement the Praise Groups in the leading of the praise in our Sunday Worship. Special choirs lead the Worship at Easter Harvest and Christmas.
Womens Groups consist of Presbyterian Women (PW) and a Ladies' Morning Bible Study.
Small Groups meet for Bible Study and Fellowship either in homes or the church buildings.

Robert Cunningham 1615 - 1636

Donald Richmond 1652 - 1661

Gilbert Kennedy 1670 - 1678

Michael Bruce 1711 - 1726

William Rodgers 1743 - 1751

Thomas Kennedy 1778 - 1787

William Harrison 1816 - 1824 William Blackwood 1835 - 1844 Henry Halliday 1878 - 1907

James Woodburn 1916 - 1921 Robert Houston 1939 - 1972

Harry Robinson 1991 - 1996

Ministers of First Holywood

A memorial plaque in the church vestibule lists the names of the 23 ministers who have served 1st Holywood during its long history.


Thomas Peebles 1645 – 1651

Thomas Peebles 1661 – 1670 Thomas Cobham 1678 – 1706 William Smith 1729 – 1741

John King 1745 – 1777

Joseph Harrison 1788 – 1816

Henry Wallace 1826 – 1834

Henry Henderson 1844 – 1879

Samuel Chambers 1907 – 1916

John Kyle 1922 – 1939

Arthur Clarke 1972 – 1990

Noble McNeely 1997 –

Problems arose in the late 1890's when the question of the introduction of a new hymnary was suggested which would supplement the singing of psalms! The hymnary was finally allowed in 1903 with the understanding that the Psalms would still have their prominent place in Public Worship.
There was also dissension in 1912 when some people wished to have a Harmonium in the church for the Children's Day services. In 1913 the new precentor was required to be able to play a musical instrument and finally in 1917 the precentor was dispensed with and an organist was appointed!
The present pipe organ was installed in 1958 replacing the Hammond organ. Worship at the end of the 20th century combines the singing of psalms with modern hymns, songs and choruses. Congregational singing is lead by Praise Groups and assisted by the Youth Choir. Instrumentalists of all ages also augment the worship

Worship in Bangor Road

Public Worship in First Holywood has changed over the years but the importance of the Bible and also the singing of Psalms has remained from its early days in the 17th century.
Originally the music in the church would have been unaccompanied and the 'precentor' led the singing. When a new precentor was appointed by the congregation in 1886 it was agreed that: - 'he should be paid £15 per annum, he should be present and lead the praise at all the ordinary services in the church on the Lord's Day, be present at the Sabbath School,morning and evening and conduct the singing of the children, be present at the weekly meeting of the congregation and at any special meetings which may be arranged, be present at all the meetings of the Band of Hope, train the children of the sabbath school one hour each week in sacred music, train the choir one hour each week and to conduct a class, during the winter months for theory and practice of music, one evening per week' !


Education and the Church

Education of the young has always been important in the life of the congregation. Sabbath Schools were started in the Shore Street Meeting House in 1826 and in the 19th century there were also three Day schools associated with the congregation, at Knocknagoney, Creighton's Green and Ballymiscaw. Sunday Schools were held in all of these buildings.

The Knocknagoney School was opened in 1811 and the original building was used until 1966 when it was rebuilt as the Knocknagoney Road was to be widened. The original school at Knocknagoney which had two classrooms, had the capacity for 70 pupils who each had to pay between 3d and 6d per week. In 1841 the school day began at 10.00am and finished at 3.00pm for 6 days per week although Saturday was a half day. All three schools were transferred to the Local Education 

Authorities in 1925 subject to the right to hold religious services. The Sunday School in Knocknagoney School closed in 1950 when Garnerville Church Extension was opened. The Bangor Road congregation still has an interest in Knocknagoney Primary School, as it is now called, with two members of session on the Board of Governors.
Creighton's Green School, which still bears a plaque saying that it was built by subscription in 1846, and Ballymiscaw have ceased to be used as schools and are now private residences. A Sunday School was held in Creightons Green until 1971 and Ballymiscaw School was finally sold in 1985.
At the present time Sunday School and Bible Classes are held weekly in the church at Bangor Road.

Church property

In 1878 it was decided to buy 'Glenside House' on Victoria Road for use as a manse for the minister of the church. The house, which remained in use as the manse until 1991, cost £600. In 1991 a new manse was built in the grounds of the old house at a cost of approximately £100,000.

The 1842 church building has remained virtually unaltered externally, except for 6 new windows in 1966, but the inside was completely gutted and modernised in 1976. The old box pews were donated to the Ulster-American Folk Park and can still be seen in the old Presbyterian church there. It is recorded that heating by 'coal and bogwood' was installed in the church in 1878. Electric lighting was installed in 1935 and a new oil fired heating system to replace the old coal fired system was installed when the church was modernised in 1976. At the rear of the church there was a school room on the original building as can be seen in early prints of the church. This was extended in 1857 and used for Sabbath School and other church activities.


It was demolished in 1967 and a new suite of halls opened by Mrs S Meharg and dedicated by the then Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Very Rev Dr William Boyd. In 2002 the congregation decided to build an addition to the Halls to bring the facilities provided by the church more in keeping with the changing needs of the 21st century. The Worship Centre along with a modern office, minister's room and an additional suite of smaller rooms was opened in January 2004 by the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland the Very Rev Dr William McKay.

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Information about the church and any of these activities can be obtained from Mary Robinson

Our History

First Holywood Presbyterian Church has a history dating back to the 17th century.

Although the site of the church building has changed several times there has been a Presbyterian witness in the town for almost 400 years. The following history gives some idea of how the church has developed and provides a record which reflects the way the congregation has sought to meet the changing needs of its people.

Founding of the Congregation in the 17th Century

First Holywood Presbyterian Church or 'Second Ireland' as it is sometimes called was founded in 1615 when the Rev Robert Cunningham, originally from Ayrshire and chaplain to the Duke of Buccleugh's Regiment in Holland was invited by Sir James Hamilton, who later became Lord Clandeboye, to preach in the church which had been rebuilt in the ruins of the old Norman Priory Church in Holywood. The first Presbyterian church in Ireland had been established in 1613 at Ballycarry, in County Antrim.