The word community is now much bandied about: it has become the easy-to-reach generic term whenever a group of people needs to be described collectively. And perhaps as a result, the concept behind community – the notion of a number of persons sharing not just the same space but also the same social values and sense of civic responsibility – can be overlooked. Today readers are offered an example of community spirit put into action, and an opportunity to participate in this.
St John’s Church in Clonmellon, County Westmeath dates from c.1790 when it was built with funds provided by Sir Benjamin Chapman who lived nearby in Killua Castle. (Note that the last Chapman baronet, Sir Thomas, was the father of T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’). Lying at the end of a long, tree-lined avenue off the main street of the village and in the middle of a graveyard, the building was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a neat structure with a handsome spire.’ Some two years earlier it had been repaired at a cost of £251 granted by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The spire admired by Lewis has long been lost but otherwise the church, at least externally, remains much as he would have seen it. The raised east end suggests the present structure may have been erected on the site of an earlier one, as was often the case. Designed in the simple hall style found throughout the country, the north side of its nave, which is first seen on approach, is completely plain whereas that on the south has three pointed-arch windows retaining remnants of latticed glass. So too does the east end triple-light window while at the west end smaller windows flank the tower in which a door provided access for parishioners. The castellated tower is of dressed limestone whereas the main body of the church was built of rubble formerly covered in render.
St John’s Church remained in active use for 200 years until taken out of service by the Church of Ireland in 1990 when most of its fittings were removed (the altar table was subsequently moved to the Church of Ireland in Ballee, County Down). St John’s and its surrounding land were sold in 1997 but the new owner seems to have done little work on the building which thereafter fell into disrepair. A few years ago the family which has long been engaged in restoring Killua Castle also bought St John’s and began work to ensure this key feature of the local heritage was not lost. At some date the exterior had been covered in cement render which did not allow the building to breathe and encouraged damp, as did the loss of slates from its roof. The entire roof has since been restored, using old slates, while the walls were stripped of their cement. Internally some of the plasterwork also had to be removed due to damage, and the ceiling has been repaired.
All this work was done from the family’s own funds, and using the same workmen they have employed at Killua Castle. Their motive was to save St John’s. But what of its future? The present owners propose to complete the task of restoration of the building both inside and out, as well as the surrounding graveyard. They will then offer it free of charge to people in the area for use as an exhibition gallery, meeting hall and any other purpose for which it might be needed, since no such venue currently exists in or near Clonmellon. This philanthropic gesture truly represents what is meant by community spirit, encapsulating civic engagement and an active wish to better the area in which one lives. The owners are committed to finishing what they have started but understandably would like others to share their spirit and have opened a kickstarter fund for this purpose. Anyone can contribute and in doing help to counter the prevailing notion that rural Ireland has no future. Now is the chance to demonstrate a full understanding of the word community.