As is still remembered, legislation collectively known as the Penal Laws meant that for much of the 18th century Roman Catholics under the authority of the British government found it hard to practice or express their faith publicly. It is worth pointing out that these laws were as much an affliction in England, Wales and Scotland as they were in Ireland, but the numbers of Catholics here were proportionately far greater than in those other countries. only in the late 1700s/early 1800s was the legislation gradually relaxed, ultimately leading up to the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 which created full emancipation for members of this faith. But even prior to that date, Catholics had begun to embark on the construction of what at the time were always called chapels, buildings in which they could gather to hold their services. The great age of Catholic church building came in the post-emancipation era, which makes these early buildings all the more precious since relatively few of them still survive. They tended to be simple in form and design, not least because the costs involved in putting them up were borne by the local population, few of whom would have been wealthy. Weekly collections among the faithful led to the creation of a fund which was then used to pay for construction costs: Thackeray’s account of visiting various chapels during his tour of Ireland in 1842 make plain that the majority of those in attendance were the poorest of the poor.
St Brigid’s in Portumna, County Galway dates from 1825, and was therefore constructed a few years before full Catholic Emancipation had been achieved. A basic T-plan in form, it has a three-bay nave leading up to a pair of wide single-bay transepts, this simple design being a reflection of the limited resources then available. In 1858 a three-bay wide and one-bay deep porch was added to the west end, rising two storeys before being topped by a square-plan tower drum. It may be around this time that the exterior of St Brigid’s received its neo-gothic ornamentation such as the crenellated parapets and towers, and corner buttresses, thereby dressing up the original structure. In this form it remained in use for the next century. However in the late 1950s a new St Brigid’s was built on the adjacent former market square, using stone from the Portumna Castle which had been built in the 1860s and gutted by fire in 1922: evidently the local community felt their old church was no longer good enough for services. The now redundant church was converted into a sports hall, and served as such for some time before being deemed unfit for that purpose also. Since then it would appear the building (transferred into private ownership) and an adjacent abandoned convent, has sat empty, a prey to the elements and to vandalism.
How, one wonders, might the generation which contributed often very tiny sums of money judge what has become of St Brigid’s church in our own age? Would they consider the shillings and pence they could scarcely have afforded to hand over well-spent on a building which their descendants seem willing to leave fall into dereliction? Would they be satisfied that this is how their legacy, the hard-earned – and hard-paid for – right to free and open expression of faith, should be treated in such a fashion? Asking these questions is not intended to offend or to criticise the burghers of Portumna. The present circumstances of St Brigid’s are by no means unique: they are replicated in towns right across the country and are symptomatic of a greater problem. Like so many other historic properties in Ireland, this one is listed by the local county council as being a ‘protected structure’ but one wonders what protection it is being offered. According to information provided by the Citizens Information Board, ‘A protected structure is a structure that a planning authority considers to be of special interest from an architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical point of view. If you are the owner or occupier of a protected structure, you are legally obliged to prevent it becoming endangered, whether through damage or neglect.’ That legal obligation is meant to be enforced by the relevant local authority: there is no evidence of enforcement here but again that is hardly unusual. Last week, after two months’ negotiation between political parties, this country finally got a new government. When the various ministerial portfolios were announced, there was no reference to anyone being responsible for the department of heritage: apparently it comes under the remit of the Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts & the Gaeltacht but is of so little consequence that the name wasn’t even judged worthy of inclusion in this long-winded title. Too often the excuse offered for neglect of the country’s architectural heritage is that it represents the interests or legacy of alien others: this is the explanation customarily proffered to explain the wasteful abandonment of our country houses, for example. Nothing could more truly be representative of the national narrative than St Brigid’s, raised by and for the local population to serve their needs and to express their beliefs. Its neglect, like the title of new government ministries and the manner in which legislation regarding protected structures fails to be enforced, accurately express Ireland’s attitude towards our heritage: we may pay lip service to the visible evidence of our past but really we don’t care what becomes of it.