Robin Bury’s recently-published Buried Lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland is, appropriately enough, something of a curate’s egg. However, the book provides a valuable account of the decline in Protestantism within this country, as testified by the numbers of people identifying themselves as such here. According to the 1911 census, there were some 327,000 Protestants living in the 26 counties, accounting for approximately ten per cent of the population: this figure excluded members of the British army stationed in Irish garrisons. A century later, the 2011 census indicated there were 137,000 Irish Protestants, accounting for three per cent of the population. Then as now the spread was uneven. The late R.B. McDowell’s Crisis and Decline: The Fate of the Southern Unionists (1997) reveals that at the start of the last century about a third of the total Protestant population in the 26 counties lived in Dublin and the adjacent counties of Wicklow and Kildare. In the prosperous south Dublin suburbs running from Rathmines/Rathgar out to Dalkey, over sixty per cent of the residents were Protestant. On the other hand, the further south and west one travelled, the fewer Protestants were to be found: in Munster they totalled six per cent of the population, in Connacht under four per cent. Inevitably as numbers started to drop from 1920s onwards, it was in these areas that church attendance, and subsequent closure, was most immediate and widespread.
St John’s in Ballymoe, County Galway is a typical example of the churches being constructed during the opening decades of the 19th century with support from the Board of First Fruits which in this instance provided a donation of £900. It dates from 1832 when already that organisation’s funds were in decline, not least thanks to the onset of the ‘Tithe War’ two years before which led to the majority of the Roman Catholic citizenry refusing to provide support for a minority faith, the Church of Ireland.
Built of cut limestone, St John’s has a four-bay nave and at the west end a three-stage bell tower which also accommodates the main entrance. The style is a customary loose interpretation of Gothic with pointed arch windows in some of which remain the original metal lattice work. The interior looks always to have been plain, an open hall leading to the altar table at the east end beyond which is a modest vestry. Although capable of accommodating around 200 people, the typical attendance was only one fifth that number.
Ballymoe features in a curious publication which appeared five years before the present church was built: the three-volume Dialogues on Prophecy written by a wealthy English evangelical Henry Drummond. Concerned at imminent legislation repealing the last hindrances to Roman Catholics playing a full role in public life, Drummond cited the tale of one Mary Anne Burke, a niece of the Catholic Bishop of Elphin who in 1827, having heard talks given in Ballymoe by the local rector sought to join the Church of Ireland only to find herself locked into a room with shuttered windows by relatives anxious she not convert. There she was held for four weeks, some of the time without food, in the expectation that she would recant. Instead she fled, first to Castlerea and then to Boyle, County Roscommon where, claiming the Catholic priest in Ballymoe had beaten her, she sought the protection of the local magistrates, ‘that she may be allowed to exercise the rights of conscience, and become a member of the Protestant Communion, which she believes to be alone agreeable to the Word of God.’ What became of Mary Anne Burke thereafter Mr Drummond does not relate.
The number of converts such as Mary Anne Burke being insufficient, a general decline in Protestant attendance led to St John’s being closed for worship over half a century ago, and as can be seen the church is now in a semi-ruinous condition. One curious feature to the rear of the surrounding graveyard is a table tomb with recumbent figure on top in full mediaeval armour. This is not, however, a remnant from the Middle Ages but an example of 19th century romanticism. The tomb celebrates a member of the Bagot family, whose name is recalled in Dublin by Baggot Street (where their property, Bagotrath Castle once stood). Settled in Ireland since the 13th century, the Bagots came to hold land in the Midland counties of Laois and Offaly. In 1775 one of their number, Captain John Lloyd Bagot (who had been A.D.C. to Lord Cornwallis during the American War of Independence) married the heiress Catherine Anne Cuffe and the couple’s descendants thereafter owned an estate in the Ballymoe area. There seems to be some confusion whether the table tomb commemorates Captain Bagot’s son, Thomas Neville Bagot (died 1863) or his grandson John Lloyd Neville Bagot (died 1890) and to complicate matters further the local Record of Protected Structures proposes a date of c.1830 for its erection. Whatever the truth, it appears the intention was to note the ancient pedigree of the Bagots. Despite their efforts, they have since departed the area, and the church in which they once worshipped, like so many others of its kind, has fallen into desuetude. An outcome Henry Drummond’s Dialogues on Prophecy did not predict.