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.
John Livingstone wrote of Cunningham.
Mr Robert Cunningham was at first preacher for a while to the Earle of Buccleugh’s regiment in Holland but thereafter minister at Holywood, in the North of Ireland, where he had been some considerable time before Mr Blair came to Bangor. He was the one man to my discerning, of all I ever saw, who resembled most the meekness of Jesus Christ in all his whole carriage, and was so far reverenced by all, even the most wicked, that he was often troubled with that Scripture, ‘Wo to you when all men speak well of you’. Yea, Mr Blair, speaking one time to the Bishop of Doun said, ‘You may do to me and some others as you please, but if ever you meddle with Mr Cunningham, your cup will be full:’ and, indeed, he was longer spared than any of the rest: and when the rest were deposed almost every week, he preached in some of their kirks, and with so pains at home and abroad he wearied and wore out his body, which was not very strong. He was sometimes in public preaching, to his own sense, not so assisted as usually; but even then, the sweet convoy of the matter was such, that I thought these times as edifying and refreshing as any other; but ordinarily he was born through with a full gale, and had sometimes more sharp, piercing threatnings than any other. One time I went with him to visit a family of two gracious persons, whose young child was overlaid the night before, and I observed that, beyond his usual manner, he did not comfort them, but rather urged that the Lord was debating with them some secret controversy. When I enquired of him, after we were come out, how he came to do so, he answered, he knew no particular, but as he came to the house, he dealt with the Lord to direct him what to say, and he could get nothing else but what he said.
I was with him when he died at Irvine in the year 1637, at which time, beside many other gracious expressions, he said one time, ‘I see Christ standing over death’s head, and saying, Deal warily with my servant; loose now this pin, now that, for this tabernacle must be set up again’. When the ministers of the presbytery came to see him, he exhorted them earnestly to be faithful to God and to his people and to oppose the Service Book, which at that time was urged, and the office of Bishops. He said, ‘The Bishops have taken away from me my ministry, yea my life, for my ministry was dearer to me than my life’. A little before his death, his wife sitting on the side of the low bed whereon he lay, and her hand in his, he did by prayer recommend the whole Church, the work of God in Ireland, the parish of Holywood, his brethren in the ministry, his children; and in the end said, ‘And, last, O Lord, I recommend to thee this gentlewoman, who is no more my wife;’ and with that saying, he softly loosed his hand from hers, and gently thrust her hand a little from him, at which both she and some others presently burst out in weeping, which he by gracious expressions laboured to allay, but I have forgotten the particulars. One time when Mr Blair and I had been summoned before the Bishop to Baltephilips to be deposed, and had been the night before with Mr Cunningham, and taken our leave of him, the next day, when we were going into the church of Baltephilips, he comes to us, whereat we wondering, he said, ‘All this night I have gotten no rest when I thought of that place: At my first answer no man stood with me; therefore I am to stand by you’.