A fortnight ago the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kerry was widely reported as warning that a decline in numbers of clergy meant it would soon no longer be possible to provide services in all parishes. Here, as elsewhere in the country, there are now more churches than priests, with the consequence that many of the former will begin closing their doors. Some have long since done so, such as this building in Cahersiveen, County Kerry. Dating from the mid-18th century, it is a rare survival of a penal chapel, one of the backstreet centres of worship permitted to exist before legislation against Catholics was gradually abolished. When the naval surgeon Thomas Reid visited Cahersiveen in 1822 he reported that such was the throng attending mass here only about a third of the congregation could be accommodated inside the walls.
Much of the credit for the abolition of the old Penal Laws belongs to Daniel O’Connell, who was baptised in this building in 1775 (his parents are buried in a graveyard immediately opposite). One might therefore imagine that given that pedigree the chapel would be cherished and well-maintained. Such is not the case: it appears that only thanks to the strenuous efforts of a local man, chemist Geoffrey O’Connor who died three years ago does the chapel still stand at all. Its present condition is a premonition of what could yet become of many Catholic churches both in Kerry and elsewhere across Ireland.
Running to 222 feet, the church in Maynooth College, County Kildare contains the world’s largest choir chapel. Four tiered ranks of stalls ascend on either side of the nave, enough to accommodate 454 worshippers. The finials at the top of each section of seating are crowned with figures of saints, including those seen here. The entire choir is made of oak and was carved in the last quarter of the 19th century by a Dublin firm, Connolly’s of Dominick Street.
More on the church in Maynooth College in due course.
Cork city has long been renowned for its merchant princes, and Sir Mathew Deane was an early example of the breed. Believed to have been born in Bristol in 1623, he came to Ireland as a young man and settled in the south. Evidently he prospered, at different dates serving as mayor and sheriff of Cork; in 1691 he was appointed first master of the newly-established Society of Wholesale and Retayling Merchants. A year later he endowed an almshouse adjacent to St Peter’s church in the city, and in his will left instructions for the construction of a new building to serve the same purpose. Already knighted, he was created a baronet shortly before his death in 1710.
This splendid funerary monument to Sir Mathew and his wife, formerly to one side of the main altar, today occupies the wall of a small chapel on the north-east side of the former St Peter’s church. Flanked by marble columns with Corinthian columns, the figures kneel in prayer on either side of an altar. While it is possible to identify Sir Mathew with ease, his wife poses problems because he married three times. A notice in the chapel calls her ‘Lady Elizabeth’ but none of his spouses was so named, the first being Mary Wallis, the second Martha Boyle and the third Dorothy Ferrar, dowager Countess of Barrymore. St Peter’s is no longer used for services and today serves as an exhibition venue and cultural facility.
A monastery is said to have been established by Saint Mochua in Timahoe, County Laois during the seventh century. Not much is known about the site, except that the church here was burnt twice, in 919 and again in 1142, before the religious house was re-founded by the dominant family of the area, the O’Mores. Following the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries, parts of the site were converted into a church, the remains of which can be seen on the left: to the right is a 19th century former church of Ireland premises, now in use as a heritage centre. The most interesting feature here is the mid-12th century round tower, exceptionally well-preserved and rising almost 96 feet. The Romanesque doorway, more elaborately carved than is often the case with round towers, is sixteen feet above the ground.
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.
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.
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.’