This week’s ruined church can be found at Skirk, County Laois on a high site with wonderful views across the surrounding countryside. There seems to be some uncertainty about when it was constructed, since some writers propose a mid-18th century date. However, the usually reliable Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) says it was built in 1831 thanks to a loan of £500 from the Board of First Fruits. The latter option makes more sense since to the immediate south are the remains of an older, late medieval church, a section of which seemingly collapsed in the 1830s so that now only the east gable and a portion of one wall survive: it appears that this was used as a mausoleum, the blocked entrance to which can still be seen.
Long in ruins, this is Christ Church, otherwise Magourney parish church in Coachford, County Cork. In 1750 Charles Smith called it ‘new’ suggesting the building had likely been constructed in the first half of the 18th century. Thanks to funds provided by the ever-helpful Board of First Fruits, in 1818/19 it was extensively refurbished and the tower raised to its present level with blind lunettes and oculi; the little flanking pavilions, one of which held the vestry, the other a staircase, date from the same period. Just a few decades later, however, the parish embarked on building another new church, and this one was deconsecrated in the late 1850s.
The Irish countryside is replete with old graveyards, some of them better maintained than others. But oftentimes those left to fend for themselves are more appealing than well-ordered sites. That’s the case here, an old graveyard at a spot called Stone Cross in County Meath. Surrounded by fields and contained with the remains of a dry stone wall, the place holds a modest number of tombs, almost none of them upright, but instead looking as though they have been pitched about by high winds.
‘The Island of Devenish is undoubtedly one of the foremost and most interesting of the Lough Erne Archipelago. As the visitor sails down the lake from Enniskillen, after turning the point of Derrylinch, the Round Tower tops, with the rounded windows and the square Bell Tower of a more modern priory, appear over the Island’s highest ridge towards the south. On proceeding, wooded promontories throw their broad shadows across the still bays; the fair slopes and lawny knolls stand greenly out from the dark sylvan scenery; while the islands seem to be floating, as on a crystal sea, until the tourist reaches Devenish Island. The soil is exceedingly fertile and covered with the rankest and greenest grass. Over this the pilgrim, landing from his well-appointed pleasure-boat will be sure to turn his steps in the direction of various old buildings, lying in proximate position, and yet somewhat separated in some instances. The ruins, which yet remain in their insular situation, are of extraordinary antiquarian interest.’
From Lives of the Irish Saints by the Rev. John Canon O’Hanlon, Volume IX (1873)
‘One of the most interesting spots in the neighbourhood of Enniskillen, is Devenish Island, with its round tower and other ancient relics. It stands just where the lower lake expands; and is about two miles from Enniskillen. One may visit it either by boat from Enniskillen, or follow the road from the town, and make use of the ferry-boat. The island slopes gently from the water’s edge, in a fine green swell; but is entirely destitute of wood; and is said to contain upwards of seventy acres. The round tower of Devenish is said to be the most perfect in Ireland and, altogether, the finest specimen of these singular structures. The height of the tower is eighty-two feet; the thickness of its walls three feet, five inches; the circumference forty-nine feet; and the diameter, inside, nine feet, two inches. Twelve feet above the doorway there is a window, angularly pointed; and, higher up, another window nearly square. Still higher are the four windows, common in all these towers; and the key-stone above each is ornamented with a human head.’
From Ireland in 1834: A Journey throughout Ireland by Henry D Inglis (1835)
‘The lower church is dedicated to St. Molush, “who read the planets” we were told; and near it are the remains of an ancient building, called St Molush’s kitchen. In the vicinity is a coffin of hewn stone in which, if the saint found a resting place, he has long since been dispossessed of it, and superstition now ascribes to this stone-bed the power of removing pains in the back. Near the summit of the hill are the remains of the abbey. The centre of the building is an arch resting on four pillars, and supporting a belfry tower, with a winding staircase of good workmanship leading to the summit. An inscription records the date of the erection, and the name of the architect, etc. That which was apparently the northern aisle of the church, is now changed into a stall for cattle, a desecration much resented by the herdsman, a very superstitious and apparently a very devout Catholic who repeated with much zest an observation which had been made to him, that the author of this piece of barbarism would be found to be adorned with hoofs and horns in the next world!’
From The Island of Saints, or Ireland in 1855 by John Eliot Howard (1855)
What remains of St Anne’s church in Mallow, County Cork. It was built probably in the early 18th century to replace a predecessor which had been much damaged during the Williamite Wars but only lasted around 100 years before being in turn superseded by a newer building erected to the immediate west and designed by the Pain brothers. Now surrounded by decaying tombstones, the church retains a wonderfully slender belltower through which access was gained to the interior, the south side of which is distinguished by five large round-headed windows.
The remains of the early 18th church of the Holy Trinity in Castlerea, County Roscommon. This building, and surrounding graveyard, stand in what had been part of the demesne owned by the Sandfords, who owned much of the land in this part of the country. The church ruins are notable for an exceptionally fine limestone Venetian window set into the building’s east gable. The graveyard is the burial place of Oscar Wilde’s grandfather Dr Thomas Wills Wilde, who practised medicine in the town and whose father, Ralph Wilde, acted as land agent for Lord Mount Sandford. The church was abandoned in the early 19th century when a new one was built on higher ground in the town.
At some date in the future, research will probably be undertaken into the consequences of the near-wholesale disappearance of Roman Catholic religious orders from Ireland during the late 20th/early 21st centuries. For more than 100 years, they had been a dominant presence across the country, every town of any consequence having at least one, more often several, large building complexes occupied by various orders who would have been responsible for the area’s education and, as we have discovered of late, other less savoury activities. By and large, the persons responsible for running those institutions have disappeared, primarily due to the fact that since the 1970s fewer and fewer individuals have been prepared to become nuns or monks and so forth. But the buildings remain, still dominating many a neighbourhood, even though their intended residents have departed. Sometimes the properties have found a new purpose, more often they now stand empty, their decaying presence serving as testament to an authority that once erroneously believed itself invincible. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, they proclaim ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.’ So, aside from the physical manifestations, what have been the consequences of this ebbing of a once-powerful tide? What effect has it, will it have, on the national psyche? That remains to be investigated, but when such work begins, perhaps those responsible might like to consider how we have been here before, that we went through a similar experience back in the second half of the 16th century.
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Ballindoon Priory, County Sligo was a late-comer to the company of Ireland’s religious houses. A Dominican foundation, it was established on the banks of Lough Arrow in 1507 by one Thomas O’Farrell under the patronage of the McDonaghs, who were then the most powerful family in the area. The interior of the church is dominated by a remarkable two-storey, triple-vaulted archway. The arches on the ground floor are all the same height but only the centre one provides access from nave to chancel, those on either side probably once holding altars (that to the south has since been blocked). The central arch above is much higher than its neighbours and may once have contained a cross or crucifix although it also has a hole in the ceiling to allow the suspension of a bell rope from further up the tower. This floor, effectively a gallery, is lit by exceptionally tall, narrow windows set into the north and south walls. Reached by an unusual external staircase, the top of the tower is thought once to have contained accommodation for whoever lived on the site, since no domestic ranges were ever constructed around the church (the land to the immediate south of the church drops steeply down to the lakeshore). Both the east and west ends of the church have splendid traceried windows
Ballindoon Priory was almost the last such religious house to be established in Ireland, although Eóghan O’Rourke and his wife Margaret O’Brien founded a Franciscan friary at Creevelea, County Leitrim a year later, in 1508. At the time both these buildings were erected, it must have seemed as though little would change, that the Roman Catholic church would continue to have a dominant presence throughout the country, and its properties enjoy a secure future. Just a few decades later, Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the church in his dominions, which included Ireland, and ordered the dissolution of all religious houses. One by one, they were closed down, their occupants sent away, their possessions confiscated and frequently granted or sold to supporters of the English crown. An entire way of life disappeared, leaving the Irish countryside littered with the decaying remains of what had once seemed an immutable authority. This must have been a unsettling experience for the entire population, who over the space of some 50 years witnessed the loss of the familiar and with it the sense of comforting security. Sound familiar? History has an uneasy way of repeating itself.
Another abandoned Church of Ireland church, this one in Affane, County Waterford. Set in the midst of a substantial graveyard, the building dates from 1819 when erected at a cost of £500 with the usual support from the Board of First Fruits. This was a period when considerable numbers of such churches were being either built or restored across the country as part of an effort by the Church of Ireland to provide better facilities for worshippers and, it was hoped, increase the number of persons attending services: Affane church could accommodate 200 people although it is unlikely it did so very often. Already by 1874 the parish had been united with that of Cappoquin and by the condition of the building – today a relic from the Anglican Church’s age of improvement – it looks to have been long out of use.
‘Probably there is not in the kingdom a demesne so entirely lovely as that of Muckross, the property of W.H. Herbert Esq., one of the members for the county. And now let us visit the renowned “Abbey”; it is in the demesne and close to the old entrance from the main road. It was built for Franciscan monks, according to Archdall, in 1440; but the Annals of the Four Masters give its date a century earlier: both, however, ascribe its foundation to one of the MacCarthys, Princes of Desmond. It was several times repaired, and once subsequently to the Reformation…’
‘…The cloister, which consists of twenty-two arches, ten of them semi-circular, and twelve pointed, is the best preserved portion of the Abbey. In the centre grows a magnificent yew-tree, which covers, as a roof, the whole area; its circumference is thirteen feet and its height in proportion. It is more than probably that this tree is coeval with the Abbey; that it was planted by the hands of the monks who built the sacred edifice three centuries ago…’
‘…The building consists of two principal parts – the convent and the church The church is about one hundred feet in length, and twenty-four in breadth; the steeple, which stands between the nave and the chancel, rests on four high and slender pointed arches. The dormitories, the kitchen, the refectory, the cellars, the infirmary and other chambers are still in a state of comparative preservation; the upper rooms are unroofed.’
Attached to the south side of the now-ruinous medieval parish church in Stamullen, County Meath is a chantry chapel dedicated to St Christopher. Dating from c.1458, this chapel was erected by the Prestons, Viscounts Gormanston who until the middle of the last century lived nearby at Gormanston Castle. Inside are two remarkable tombs, the first featuring effigies of William Preston the second viscount (died 1532) and his second wife Eleanor Dowdall, he depicted in ‘white armour’ (fully covering the body in steel plate without the use of chain mail) with a sword at his side, she wearing a jewelled cap with veil, both their heads resting on pillows and their hands clasped in prayer.
Directly behind the Prestons, can be seen one of the oldest cadaver tombs in Ireland, this one believed to date from the mid-15th century. It shows the skeleton of an unidentified young woman, her shroud pulled back to expose vermin feasting on the remains: such funerary sculptures had become common throughout Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death.