A Diligent Divine

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Those early Irish saints seem to have been an astonishingly sedulous lot. When not rushing from one side of the country to another so as to convert any remaining pagans to Christianity, they were founding monasteries which, almost without fail, soon attracted thousands of followers. Such apparently was the case with Máel Anfaid (Mael the Prophet), a son of Cathal MacHugh, King of Munster and disciple of St Carthage, who in the first quarter of the sixth century like so many of his ilk diligently established a religious house. In this instance the spot chosen was an island called Dair Inis (Isle of the Oak) in the river Blackwater, County Waterford. Naturally the enterprise flourished and by the early 8th century Molana, as the island had been renamed, was a centre for the Céili Dé (the Servants of God), a reforming group determined to improve standards in the Irish church. Around the year 720 Molana’s Abbot, Ruben Mac Connadh in conjunction with Cu-Chuimne of Iona, produced the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis. This work laid out the rules of Canon Law, drawing on earlier texts and regulations, and was widely circulated throughout the rest of Europe over following centuries. Molana is also believed to have housed the first proper library in Ireland, although none of the original manuscripts is known to have survived. As usual, the Vikings were at fault: on their way upriver towards Lismore and other rich settlements they regularly caused havoc on Molana. By the 11th century these despoliations, plus flooding caused by the Blackwater being tidal at this stretch, had effectively obliterated Máel Anfaid’s once-thriving monastery.

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The island’s circumstances improved around the time of the arrival of the Normans. Nearby a castle was erected at Templemichael, possibly by the Knights Templar who would take care the adjacent monastery was not subjected to further attacks. Then this part of the country came under the authority of one of Strongbow’s knights, Raymond ‘le Gros’ FitzGerald, described by Giraldus Cambrensis as “very stout, and a little above the middle height…and, although he was somewhat corpulent, he was so lively and active that the incumbrance was not a blemish or inconvenience.’ Around this time the island was given to the Augustinian Canons who would remain there until the 16th century watching over the tomb of Raymond who died around 1186. The buildings were extensively reconstructed in the 13th and 14th centuries and once more the community thrived. However, again as was common throughout the country, the 15th century brought trouble, with the abbot John McInery accused of simony, perjury and immorality: Pope Nicholas V deposed him in 1450. By By 1462 it was reported that although the Augustinian friars were caring for many poor and sick their buildings were in poor condition. Perhaps for this reason that same year Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to pilgrims visiting Molana on certain feast days and offering forgiveness of sins to all who contributed towards its repair and upkeep. Come the 1540s and the Reformation, a crown report on the establishment stated it comprised a church, cloister and all that was necessary for the operation of agriculture including 380 acres of land, three weirs for catching salmon and a water mill, the whole having a value of £26 and fifteen shillings. Initially ownership of the island was given to James FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond but following the family’s rebellion against the English authorities it was reclaimed by the English authorities.
Molana was initially leased to an English sea merchant called John Thickpenny but a few years after his death in 1583 Queen Elizabeth granted it to Sir Walter Raleigh who owned adjoining land in Youghal. He in turn consigned it to his confidant, the astronomer, mathematician and ethnographer Thomas Hariot who it is sometimes said spent some time living on the island in what remained of the old monastery and working on various scientific theories. In 1601 Raleigh sold his entire Irish estate to that great adventurer Richard Boyle, future first Earl of Cork. A decade later Boyle gifted Molana and adjacent mainland of Ballynatray to his brother-in-law Captain Richard Smyth whose family would remain in residence there for some 350 years.

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The Smyths first built a castellated house but this was destroyed during the rebellion of 1641 and half a century later a Dutch-gabled building was erected on the same site. That was in turn replaced by the present house during the last decade of the 18th century. Designed by Alexander Dean of Cork the building is of eleven bays and two storeys over basement. Its situation with superlative views down river explain why at the start of the 19th century the Smyths decided to undertake work on Molana. First of all a causeway was constructed linking the island was to the mainland. This allowed ease of access to the picturesque ruins where certain structural changes were made, notably the insertion of a pointed arch entrance on the north side of the church. The building rightly dominates the site, measuring more than 55 feet with an undivided nave and chancel, the former being the oldest part of the building (12th century) and possibly incorporating an earlier church here. The 13th century chancel has ten large lancet windows, six to the south and four to the north, all almost thirteen feet high and concluding at the east end with a large window which still preserves fragments of the original decorated embrasure. To the immediate north is what remains of a two-story building, likely the prior’s residence, with a pointed doorway and spiral staircase. To the south-west lie the remains of the cloister at the centre of which a sculpture representing the monastery’s originator was erected. A plaque on the plinth below reads ‘This statue is erected to the memory of Saint Molanfidhe who founded this abbey for Canon Regular A.D. 501. He was the first Abbot and is here represented as habited according to the Order of Saint Augustine. This Cenotaph and Statue are erected by Mrs. Mary Broderick Smyth A.D. 1820.’ Elsewhere on the site and beneath a window another plaque was installed reading ‘Here lies the remains of Raymond le Gros, who died Anno Domini 1186.’ Old photographs show a funerary urn on the ledge above but this is no longer in place. Ballynatray – including Molana – has since changed hands on a couple of occasions but it is still possible to understand the place’s charm, not least when standing inside the house and looking upstream towards this romantic reminder of an ancient Irish saint’s sedulousness.

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Man Proposes, But…

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Reference was made here some weeks ago to the Board of First Fruits (see Made Better by Their Presents II, December 12th 2015). Although it had a considerable impact on the Irish landscape in the 18th and early 19th century, this organization is today little known. To reiterate briefly, the board was established in 1711 to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. First funded by a tax on clerical incomes from 1778 onwards it received grants given by the Irish Parliament, after 1785 this being a yearly sum of £5,000. Following the Act of Union, this country’s Anglican clergy became absorbed into the newly-formed United Church of England and Ireland and thereafter the amount of money made available to the Board of First Fruits rose: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808, soared to £60,000 between 1810-16 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. As a result of this money, the Church of Ireland was able to embark on a building spree: in the first quarter of the 19th century almost 700 churches were either newly constructed or renovated, along with 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. While the entire country benefitted from this programme, there were regional variations depending on the level of engagement by whoever was then in charge of a diocese. Among the most committed to the scheme was Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Bishop of Meath for a quarter-century (1798-1823). O’Beirne is a fascinating character. Born into a Roman Catholic family in County Longford, initially he studied for the Catholic priesthood at the Jesuit seminary in St Omer, France: his younger brother Denis was there at the same time and completed his studies (the siblings would later serve in the same parish of Templemichael, Longford, Thomas as rector and Denis as parish priest). A breakdown in health led Thomas to England where he converted to Anglicanism and attended Trinity College, Cambridge. Highly intelligent, industrious and devotedly loyal to the Church of Ireland, he was appointed first to the Diocese of Ossory in 1795 before being transferred to Meath three years later. During his long episcopate, he embarked on an improvement of both clergy and buildings in the diocese, a schedule of work which has been thoroughly investigated by Mary Caroline Gallagher in her 2009 doctoral thesis on the subject.

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Exhibiting the customary fervour of the convert, O’Beirne believed incumbents ought to be resident in their parishes (not something which had hitherto been universally the case) and services should be held in churches that were structurally sound and, appropriately designed and maintained. Hence his keen interest in improving both clergymen’s homes and places of worship. He was fortunate in his timing, his period as Bishop of Meath coinciding with the Board of First Fruits having most money to distribute, commonly through a mixture of grants and loans to parishes (which on occasion had the effect of saddling parishioners with long-term debt). Today we look at two Meath churches that underwent redevelopment in O’Beirne’s time. The first of these (top and above) is St Patrick’s at Castletown-Kilpatrick. There was a mediaeval church on this site and parts of it were incorporated into the newer building, in particular over the east window a portion of what is believed to be a 15th century tomb stone showing a woman in prayer. There are also two old arched windows on the second floor of the belltower and a stone head that projects from the wall of the church. These were presumably rescued by the man responsible for the building’s refurbishment, whose name features in a stone plaque over the doorcase (which also looks to be older than the main body of the church). The plaque reads ‘This Church was Rebuilt by Order of The Rigt. Honb. & Rt. Revd. Th. Lewis Lord Bishop of Meath. The Revd. Robt. Longfield Rector. Henry Owens Esqr. & Henry Liscoe, ChurchWardens. Robt. Wiggins Builder. A.D; 1820.’ The cost of the project was £467 and four years later a glebe house was also constructed to the immediate south at a cost of £1,107, this work financed by a Board of First Fruits loan. Declining numbers of worshippers meant that by the third quarter of the last century it had become difficult to sustain the church, which closed for services in the mid-1960s. The glebe house had already been sold and demolished around 1945.

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Just a few miles south of Castletown-Kilpatrick stands St Sinch’s, Kilshine (above and below). According to legend St Abbán, whose father was a king of Leinster, founded a convent here and placed at its head a holy virgin called Sinche or Sineach, the church being called Cill-Sinche (thus the Anglicised name Kilshine). By the 18th century this building had fallen into poor repair and so a new church was built in 1815 at a cost of £1,600 with funds provided by the Board of First Fruits. As at St Patrick’s the occasion was commemorated with a plaque: ‘The rebuilding and restoring of this Parish Church, after it had laid in ruin for upwards of a century, were the effects of the pious exertions of that excellent Prelate, the Right Honourable and Most Reverend Father in God, Doctor Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Lord Bishop of Meath, who in the conscientious discharge of the functions of his high and important office not only caused many other churches in this Diocese to be rebuilt and restored, but procured for that most respectable Body, the Reverend the Parochial Clergy, residences and glebes within their respective Livings, suitable as far as it was possible to their situations, thereby enabling them duly to discharge the duties of Resident Protestant Clergymen, and to dispense to their parishioners of that persuasion the invaluable comforts of Our Blessed Religion. Aided by a pecuniary grant of 1,600 from the Board of First Fruits obtained through the intercession of His Lordship the Bishop of Meath.’ Let it not be thought the work of Bishop O’Beirne went unrecorded. But once more declining attendance numbers meant St Sinch’s had closed for services by 1958 after which its monuments were removed: today both here and St Patrick’s, Castletown-Kilpatrick are united with the church at Donoughpatrick where services continue to be held. Meanwhile tangible evidence of the efforts of Thomas Lewis O’Beirne and the Board of First Fruits to ensure the Church of Ireland had a long-term future looks to be irreparably vanishing. It seems only a matter of time before both these churches, and many more beside, vanish from the countryside altogether. Truly as Thomas à Kempis advised ‘Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.’

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The Leaning Tower

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Do not attempt to adjust your screens: the tilt is real. This is the 10th century round tower in Kilmacduagh, County Galway, at some 111 feet the tallest such structure in the world. The conical cap, which unusually overhangs the drum, collapsed in 1858 and was rebuilt almost twenty years later. The tower has a circumference of fifty-six feet and walls six and a half feet thick. In addition, Kilmacduagh’s round tower has the greatest number of windows – eleven, all angle-headed – and a doorway almost twenty-three feet above the ground, leading to questions about how anyone ever gained access: the height is too great for a solid ladder and the alternative would be a rope ladder of exceptional length. But most extraordinary of all, the tower leans over a foot and a half to the south-west.

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At the start of the 7th century Colman MacDuagh who had hitherto been living as a hermit on the Burren, was persuaded by his cousin Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin, King of Connacht to establish a monastery in this part of the country. Legend has it that while Colman was walking through woods in the area seeking a spot for the new foundation, his girdle fell to the ground. Taking this as a divine omen he chose the place for his monastery. The girdle is said to have been studded with gems and kept for centuries by the O’Shaughnessys, descendants of King Guaire, and then by another branch of the family the O’Heynes. It has long since disappeared but an additional item associated with Colman, his supposed crozier (although likely of later manufacture) which was credited with the power to make a thief restore stolen items, is now in the National Museum of Ireland.

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The fame of Saint Colman (as he became after his death in 632) attracted many followers and the monastery at Kilmacduagh thrived for several centuries. Indeed such was its importance that in the 12th century Kilmacduagh became the centre of a new diocese (subsequently merged with Galway). However like so many such establishments in Ireland it was subject to frequent attacks. The buildings were plundered several times before finally being devastated at the start of the 13th century by the Norman knight William de Burgh during his conquest of Connacht. At some date before his death in 1253 Owen O’Heyne founded the nearby house of St Mary de Petra for Augustinian canons. They remained here until the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century after which the lands of Kilmacduagh were granted to the Richard Burke, second Earl of Clanricarde, a descendant of William de Burgh. Today the remains of sundry buildings from different dates can be found on the site including the cathedral, the friary of St Mary de Petra, churches dedicated to John the Baptist and the Virgin and the former glebe house as well as the world’s tallest, and only leaning, round tower.

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An Active Afterlife

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The west entrance to the 12th century church at Ullard, County Kilkenny, its much-weathered Romanesque doorway featuring the outline of human and animal heads. It was directly facing this entrance that Jeremy Williams was interred last Saturday following a service at nearby Duiske Abbey. Everyone interested in Ireland’s built heritage will have known Jeremy, architect, author and superlative draughtsman, a constant presence at meetings, outings and social gatherings. Always full of enthusiasm, always embarking on a fresh project, always determinedly encouraging others to share his current passion, there were no houses in Ireland where he was not assured of a welcome: and little of the country’s architectural patrimony that he hadn’t nimbly recorded with his pen. His sudden death on Christmas Eve has left a void impossible to fill. Impossible also to imagine Jeremy resting in peace: one imagines that already he is persuading the Almighty to cast an eye over freshly-drafted plans for the refurbishment of Heaven’s Gates.

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A Very Conspicuous Object

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In early February 1779 the church at Coolbanagher, County Laois, an old building of rough stone with straw-thatched roof, was maliciously set on fire and reduced to ruin. That same year the Hon John Dawson succeeded his father as second Viscount Carlow (he would be created first Earl of Portarlington in 1785). A man of considerable cultural interests, Lord Carlow played a key role in encouraging James Gandon to come to Ireland. When the English architect did so in 1781 he was duly invited to his patron’s country residence, Dawson Court which lay close by Coolbanagher: Lady Carlow’s correspondence records Gandon being with the family over Christmas 1781, together with the local rector, her brother-in-law the Rev. William Dawson. The following spring work began on a new church at Coolbanagher, designed by Gandon. Work progressed relatively slowly. In November 1783 Lord Carlow wrote to his wife, then in London, ‘The church has been neglected but now gets on apace, and I believe I shall have the whole body of it fit for roofing before the winter sets in. I shall not, however, put on the roof till spring.’ A month later, he advised her, ‘I have concluded my work at the church for this season. It will make a very conspicuous object to the new house and to the whole province of Leinster.’ Further time passed before Lady Carlow wrote in March 1785 to her sister, a regular correspondent, ‘We are going to have great doings here next week. The new church is to be consecrated on Tuesday; the Bishop and all the clergy in the neighbourhood are to attend, besides all the country, I suppose, and Lord Carlow will ask them all to dinner both on that day and on the next, as there are races within three miles of us. I own I am sorry to begin with this sort of work so soon, but there is no help for it.’ Shortly afterwards Gandon also designed a mausoleum for his patron and this lies to the immediate south of the building (see Preparing for the End last Wednesday, December 23rd).

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During a visit to Ireland in 1792 the English judge George Hardinge visited this part of the country and observed that Lord Carlow ‘has just built a most beautiful Church for his Parish upon his own Architecture and Wyatt himself might own it with pride as a work of his.’ Despite this mis-attribution, the church of St John the Evangelist in Coolbanagher has long been judged Gandon’s work, not least because a number of preparatory sketches from his hand survive which appear to show the evolution of ideas for the building. The initial concept suggests the entire church was intended as a kind of mausoleum, with a sarcophagus altar at the east end. This scheme was abandoned (and the more modest Portarlington Mausoleum erected immediately outside the building) and instead one adopted not unlike the courthouse concourse Gandon had designed for Nottingham a decade earlier. Everything from vestibule to vestry is contained within a single compact space, with the nave measuring a neat thirty feet wide by sixty feet long. This chamber is divided into three compartments articulated by alternate piers and niches, the former being carried up and across the barrel vaulted ceiling. Light is provided by Diocletian windows on the upper walls, these flanked by draped medallions. An arched and bow-fronted gallery at the west end was supported on slender Doric columns while presumably the altar table stood below a similar arch to the east. As Edward McParland has commented, stripped of all superfluous ornament, ‘when Coolbanagher was consecrated in 1785, there was no more nobly simple nor any more calmly grand church in the country.’ A view of the interior attributed to James Malton shows the building as Gandon intended (see above, the three figures in the foreground are supposed to represent the architect, Lord Carlow and the Rev. William Dawson).

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Visitors to Coolbanagher church can still gain a sense of Gandon’s design, although this has since been the subject of some alteration. During the 19th century evangelical revival, the building must have seemed rather too pagan in character: more Roman bath (those Diocletian windows) than place of Christian worship. There also appear to have been problems with the roof, since it had to be repaired in 1822 and again in 1827. Radical alteration occurred in 1865 when, working on plans commissioned from Thomas Drew, a decision was taken by the rector and vestry to create an enlarged semi-circular chancel accessed by railings and containing a pulpit, reading desk and altar; the arch was given some gothic-spirited carvings presumably at the same date. Out too went the theatre-box gallery, and the old box pews, supposedly ‘to afford increased accommodation in the Church, so as to leave the aisle clear – which is at present inconveniently crowded.’ Finally the barrel ceiling went for good, replaced by the present pitched roof with exposed wood beams. More recently and reverting to the site’s original spirit, the late Major Cholmeley-Harrison commissioned urns (which were designed by Gandon but may never have been made) to be placed in the nave niches. Today the building represents a clash of cultures (not helped by the present colour scheme) in which Enlightenment idealism does battle with religious dogma, neither emerging victorious. Even so, Coolbanagher church remains, as Lord Carlow intended, a ‘very conspicuous object’ to the whole province of Leinster, if not to the entire country.

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Seasonal Greetings

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Looking across the river Boyne, a view of Donaghpatrick parish church, County Meath. On an ancient site (as the name implies, the original church is said to have been founded by St Patrick), the building was extensively reconstructed in the 1860s by architect James Franklin Fuller but still incorporates a mediaeval tower. To the right can be seen the charming parish hall of 1890.
The Irish Aesthete wishes all friends and followers a very Happy Christmas.

Preparing for the End

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On the south side of the chancel wall at the church of St John the Evangelist, Coolbanagher, County Laois: the Portarlington Mausoleum. Like the main building, this was designed by James Gandon for John Dawson, second Viscount Carlow, and from 1785 first Earl of Portarlington, a notable patron of the architect. The mausoleum carries the date 1788 but Lord Portarlington did not die until a decade later. An instance of being well prepared for when the end comes…
More on Coolbanagher and its church on Monday.