Crisis and Decline


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 19
th 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.

Last Vestiges


The granite portico of Oaklands, County Wexford. This late Georgian house is associated with the Tyndall family, the last of whom died in 1957: soon afterwards Oaklands was gutted by fire and pulled down. This is all that remains to indicate its appearance, although large blocks of cut stone litter the surrounding area. A bungalow has been built on the site.

A Tale of Two Towers


Lining the northern banks of the river Suir in County Tipperary are a series of tower houses built in the 15th and 16th centuries. That above is Dove Hill (or Duff Hill), originally built on land under the control of the O’Mores. In 1542 it was garrisoned by Sir Thomas Butler of Cahir, but a century later was noted in the Civil Survey as being ‘a small castle wanting repaire’. The description remains apposite. A few miles to the west stands Poulakerry, another building once associated with the Butlers. Unlike Dove Hill, it has been restored and is now occupied.

Out of Service


The former Church of Ireland church at Rathaspick, County Laois. There was an older structure on the site but the present one dates, as a stone over the entrance confirms, from 1813 when it was built with a grant of £553 from the Board of First Fruits. Unusually it is aligned on a north-south axis rather than the more liturgically correct east-west. The building remained in use for services until the 1950s when, like so many others, declining attendances caused its closure. A photograph of it taken some twenty years ago for the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage shows the unroofed church almost submerged in ivy but it has since been cleaned up, and the surrounding graveyard made more accessible.

A Truly Magnificent Structure

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Although only portions remain, enough of St Thomas’ Priory in Ballybeg, County Cork survives to give an idea of how important this religious house once was. Founded by Philip de Barry for the Canons Regular of St Augustine in 1229, the buildings included a church measuring 166 feet in length and 26 feet in width: today only the towering western end with its pair of lancet windows still stands. This fortified section dates from the late 14th/15th centuries, together with a similar tower further west (used for accommodation) and testifies to the uncertain state of the country during this period, when even ecclesiastical property was not safe from attack. In Monasticon Hibernicum, published in 1786, Mervyn Archdall wrote of Ballybeg Priory, ‘the traces of the foundation, with a high tower a considerable way to the south-west, prove it to have been a truly magnificent structure.’

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Pourquoi me reveiller

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Ah! Bien souvent mon rêve s’envole
Sur l’aile de ces vers,
Et c’est toi, cher poète
Qui, bien plutôt, était mon interprète.
Toute mon âme est là!

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Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Pourquoi me réveiller?
Sur mon front, je sens tes caresses
Et pourtant bien proche est le temps
Des orages et des tristesses.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?

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Demain dans le vallon viendra le voyageur,
Se souvenant de ma gloire première.
Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendor,
Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misère.
Hélas!
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?

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Piltown, County Meath: Built by Thomas Brodigan 1838, burnt by arsonists 2006.

On the Curve

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The entrance gates to the former Rockbrook estate in County Westmeath. Dating from c.1780 the adjacent lodge has a charming concave exterior wall, pedimented and with one arched window set off-centre. The building behind is ruinous, as is the main late 18th century house formerly occupied by the Isdell family.

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