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).
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).
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.