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The History of Tobar Mhuire

Mary's Well

The long history of Tobar Mhuire begins as good histories begin, with the story of a legend.

It is the legend of the ‘holy wells’ that are found throughout Ireland. Even before the advent of Christianity in Ireland, many ‘holy wells’ were to be found and were believed to be places of special power and life. This strong belief in the ‘sacredness of wells’ was deeply ingrained into Irish Christian thought. As legend has it, the well located to the left of the main avenue was one of these ancient holy wells. If legend was reality, this well would have been art of an ancient Christian chapel dating back as far as 583AD. This well became affectionately known as “Mary’s Well,” which is translated in Irish as Tobar Mhuire. Beside this beautiful legend though, both the grounds and the main house of Tobar Mhuire have a very solid story to tell.

Political Influences

This story begins in the 17th century when the Trotter family came to Downpatrick and accrued a small fortune through trading skins and wool. It is not known exactly when Edward Trotter bought the land, but we do know that he paid £6,000 for it. In 1777 when Edward Trotter passed away and his son, Edward Southwell Ruthven (also known as Trotter), inherited the townland of Crossgar as well as the land of Lissara, Caragh, and quarter Cormack. Out of all his inheritance, Ruthven choose to move to Crossgar, which at the time was known as Everogues Bridge. In 1813 he started to build on the land and he referred to his first home on this site as Crossgar House. Beside building his own home, he also built and rented out homes for very low rates all along the Glasswater River.


Ruthven was elected MP for Downpatrick in 1807, but lost his seat the following year. He served as MP once again in 1830, after which he spent the rest of his life in Dublin, which he represented in Parliament along with Daniel O’Connell, the Great Emancipator. While Ruthven experienced some success as a politician, it cost him dearly. During his political career, Ruthven accrued massive amounts of debt and as a result, had to sell off his properties one by one.


In 1832, Ruthven sold Crossgar House and the surrounding lands to William Thompson for £20,000. Thompson was a general merchant in Downpatrick and his letter, memoirs and account books have given historians a unique insight into early 19th Century trading. During his ownership of Crossgar House, his personal records indicate that he rented the house to a Mrs. Hamilton in 1836 and to a Rev Maguire in 1845. It is also believed that the house was used to store rum and tobacco.

James Cleland

In 1862 Thompson’s nephew, James Cleland inherited the house and townlands. Crossgar House was rebuilt at this time and three years later it was renamed Tobar Mhuire in honour of the legend of Mary’s Well. When James died in 1875 his son, also called James and only aged 13 at the time, became the estate’s ‘heir of law’ before officially becoming the landlord of Crossgar in 1882. He inherited an estimated 3.5% of the total land area of County Down and later became known as ‘the last landlord of Crossgar’.


Following the Second Irish Home Rule Bill in 1893, James became a founder member of the Ulster Defence Union and following civil disturbances in 1914, James allowed the UVF to use Tobar Mhuire for storing and distributing guns and ammunition they had smuggled into Larne.


James died at the relatively young age of 58 in June 1920 and is buried at Kilmore Church of Ireland. James’ mother continued to live in Tobar Mhuire until 1929 and it was subsequently sold to William McCulla (shipping agent) in 1930. McCulla’s death just a year later saw the start of the selling off of the house and the Crossgar estate and its role in village life in Crossgar began to fade. However, the names of the Cleland family remain visible in Crossgar with local streets bearing the names of James, John, William and Mary.

The War Years

Between 1942-45, the British and then the American armies occupied the house and nissen huts were erected in the grounds. After its brief military use, saw a number of owners, including Mr. McDowell and Lt Col Palmer.

The Passionists

On 21st August 1950, the Passionists bought Tobar Mhuire as the site for their juniorate which was then situated in Wheatfield House, Ardoyne. Wheatfield House had been the juniorate (boarding school) for young men who were hoping to become Passionists, but the building had been handed over to the parish to build St. Gabriel’s School for the young men of the parish. 


This was the age of young men choosing at an early age what their future career path would take, and this included the path to priesthood. The building was renovated into what was for all practical purposes a boarding school. The first term started in 1952 and at its height the juniorate catered for some 50 students. Changes in how studies for the priesthood were undertaken could be seen when by the 1970s reduced numbers of young men in Tobar Mhuire walked to school in St. Colmcille’s, Crossgar or were taken to school on board ‘Gemma’, a former public transport vehicle that had been adapted by the infamous Fr. Gabriel Mary C.P. and was a well-known and loved feature of life around County Down. St. Colmcille’s School had actually been built on a plot of land on the edge of Tobar Mhuire that had been donated by the Passionists for the education of young people from the area. A further piece of ground was given to Kilmore Rec. FC for a peppercorn rent that has enabled them to become a leading Amateur League football team.


The juniorate eventually closed its doors in 1980 and since then it has undergone a number of adaptations, mostly to facilitate retreats and opportunities for quiet reflection. Faced with possible closure recently, the Passionists undertook a £1.5 million renovation to create a purpose built retreat centre. The novitiate for the Passionist congregation is also hosted in Tobar Mhuire and recent years have seen a number of ordinations and new entrants to the Passionists. A 3km walking and heritage trail provides a much needed resource for the local community and for residents of the retreat centre. The future of Tobar Mhuire remains bright and we pray that it might remain a sacred space in the heart of County Down for many years to come.

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