The earliest mention of a Priority at Dungiven is in the calendar of the O'Clery 8th January 678 AD. In the Calendar we find: "Neachtain Neir from Dun Geimhin in the Ciannachta of Gleann Geimhin". "In the territory of the race of Cian in the glen of the skins AD 678". The Neachtain mentioned possibility came from Deeside, Aberdeen, Scotland in the 7th Century.
The Priory passes into the mists of time, until 1100 AD when an Augustinian Monastery was founded by Dermot O'Cathain Chief of the O'Cathain Sept. The site must have undergone major building works with both a Priory and an Abbey called St Mary's located side by side. It was famous for teaching and drew people, as far away has France and sons of Chiefs such the Macdonald's of the Isles.
Canon Ford writes:
'To the monastery of Dungiven were sent for education the youth of both sexes from the noblest families.'
Those who attended the priory were educated not only in academic subjects but also in the use of weaponry.
The Abbey also achieved recognition because here was compiled "The book of Dungiven", a record of earlier and contemporary events, a type of composition that only larger schools had the labour and scholarship to produce. This book has been lost, destroyed in one of the countless warfare that came upon the land and we would not have been aware of its existence but for a sentence in the Book of Lecan which mentions the "Book of Dungiven" and the "Book of Saul of Patrick".
The First Priors at Dungiven
The first Abbot, Paul O'Murray was installed in the year 1215 AD. The reason for such a delay in the placement seems to be due to the connate attacks by Viking raiders plundering and destroying all things Christian. Possibility due to one of these Viking raids and the shedding of blood the Archbishop, Calfou of Armagh, on his visitation to the parish in 1397 had to reconsecrate the Priory at Dungiven.
A few of the Priors at Dungiven are known;
Maolpoil O'Murray died in 1216 AD; Maol Peodair in 1253 AD; John O'Murray was succeeded in 1417 by Philip O'Murray who survived in the records because he brought an action in the archiepiscopal courts to defend the monastic lands against lay lords who had seized them in 1427 AD.
The early years of the Priory were stormy and due to this the priory appeared not to owe allegiance to any of the prominent Irish churches such as Armagh or Cashel. The prior of the Abbey church of Derry, who with Christian zeal, but perhaps with less worldly wisdom, interposed to make peace between The O'Cathain Chief who had seized the house of McLaughlin's son , was slain for his efforts.
During the early days of the Prior the monks lived the Augustinian life, celebrating the mass and chanting the Divine office in choir. But they also did pastoral work and had charge of the whole area around Dungiven from which they derived their livelihood. The Augustinian Priory was wealthy and with this it attracted the attention of men such as Rory O'Cathain. For in, 1440 AD, Prior Philip had to appeal for help to the Archbishop of Armagh against "Rory O'Cathain, Captain of his nation, his sons and his brother, who usurped the fruits of the said Prior and prevented him from receiving them".
During the Nine years war with England the area was over run by constant wars and eventually the abbey was abandoned and fell into ruin. An early writer in 17th century says he could see only dead bodies in the area and apparently of starvation rather than war.
The Priory Building
The Abbey was restored and rebuild for Protestant worship in 1613 AD after the plantation of Ulster had taken root. Again in 1622 AD the "Survey" says: The church at Dungiven was repaired by the Company of Stationers, London and its value in the king's books is VIII Li., which is about the fourth part of the clear value"
The building was used for about 100 years until a new church was built (1711-16 AD) at the head of the town. The last service was held about 1720 with burials of both Roman Catholic and Protestants continuing to 1939.
The structure of the Priory Church consisted only of a nave and chancel. The former 40' long and 20' wide, the latter twenty-two by eighteen. A lofty arch separated them. There was a tower at the Southwest corner, square to the crown of the roof, then round to the top. There would appear to have been more than one renovation as different styles of architecture show in the doorways and windows. The north wall is of ashlars and appears to have faced an ancient road, now part of the graveyard. The Nave is of later construction. The arches are semi-circular and the windows mere loopholes probably never gazed.