The so-called abbey in Mungret, County Limerick. There had been a monastery here, supposedly founded in the mid-sixth century by Saint Nessan, but due to frequent assault and despoliation over subsequent centuries, no trace of the original buildings survives. Instead, what can be found here dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1179 Donal Mór O Brien, King of Leinster granted the monastery and its lands to the Bishop of Limerick, and this subsequently became a parish church for Augustinian Canons Regular. The building is divided into three sections, the oldest part at the east end being the chancel, followed by the nave and then, at the west end, a square tower added in the 15th century and incorporating living quarters for a priest. Following the 16th century Reformation, the building continued to be used by the Church of Ireland until replaced by a new church designed by the Pain brothers in 1822 and located a short distance to the west of the older structure. The Pains’ work – which took the form of a Greek cross – did not survive long, since falling numbers of parishioners meant the new church at Mungret closed just 55 years later in 1877, before being unroofed in 1900, with much of the stone then reused to build a parochial house in nearby Raheen.
On high ground offering superlative views over the surrounding countryside, this is St Osnadh’s church, Kellistown, County Carlow. It dates from 1810 when built with assistance from the Board of First Fruits, replacing a mediaeval church, the remains of which stand behind the present structure. St Osnadh’s is small and plain, with no windows on the north or west sides and it seems never to have been supported by many parishioners; as early as 1891 an observer noted that it was ‘no longer alas used for Divine Service, and apparently since the demise of its Rector, Rev. Garret, has been more or less closed.’ (This is presumably a reference to the Rev James Perkins Garrett, who died in 1879). Meanwhile, by the same date ‘the burial-ground is being quietly grazed by two goats; a donkey, and occasionally a pig, is allowed to stretch its limbs in a wild chase.’ The grounds today are no longer home to sundry livestock, but the church is a roofless shell.
South-east and to the rear of Kilkea Castle, County Kildare are the remains of a 13th century church, once associated – as was the main building – with the FitzGeralds, Earls of Kildare (and later Dukes of Leinster). Only the east gable and the remains of a chapel to the north survive, along with fragments of monuments to this once-mighty family. Inserted into a wall, for example, is a carving of a chained and collared animal, which might be a dog or perhaps a monkey which featured on the FitzGerald arms. Aforementioned arms can also be found on another stone. Kilkea Castle is today an hotel.
This week marks the 150 Anniversary of the consecration of Holy Trinity in Westport, County Mayo, thought to be the last church to be built prior to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871, and therefore acting as a last hurrah of the old ecclesiastical order in this country. Designed by Thomas Newenham Deane and constructed on a site provided by the third Marquess of Sligo, the building replaced a late 18th century church (now ruinous) elsewhere on the estate. The work is thought to have cost more than £80,000, this high price explained by the exceptional craftsmanship evident throughout, not least the elaborate carvings around all doors and windows on the exterior; these were the work of one William Ridge, about whom it appears little else is known. The interior is just as generously decorated with stained glass provided by Alexander Gibbs and Company of London, the windows frames in mosaic supplied by another London firm, Clayton and Bell. But the most notable feature of the interior are the inlaid murals covering large areas of the walls. Mostly representing scenes from the Gospels (including a depiction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper over the west door), these are made from white marble with traced designs outlined in dark cement; the backgrounds are of gold leaf. These murals were made for the church by Samuel Poole of M.T. Bayne and Company of Westminster.
Tucked down a minor road north of Drogheda, this is St Nicholas’s church, Ballymakenny, County Louth. It was designed by Thomas Cooley for his patron, Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, whose country residence, Rokeby Hall, stands a few miles further still further north. Cooley died in 1784 before the work was executed and therefore the job passed to the young architect Francis Johnston, then just on the onset of his career. This charming little rural church is 18th century Irish Gothic at its best, a simple design with the tower at the west end flanked by modest vestries and then the main body of the building being a long, plain hall. The most notable feature of the exterior is above the entrance, the archiepiscopal insignia and Robinson’s arms in beautifully crisp limestone (just look at those ribbons ending in tassels). In recent years, the church has been used by a local Baptist group, although it is a pity that much of the glass on the north side (where the latticed windows are actually blind) has been broken and not repaired.
Not too far from Termonfeckin Castle, seen here earlier in the week, stands St Fechin’s church, alas now standing forlorn and neglected in the midst of a graveyard. Here can be found a sandstone High Cross, some nine feet tall and somewhat weathered but with an unbroken nimbus ring. Above a tapered shaft decorated on all four sides with abstract, interwoven patterns, the centre of the east face shows the Crucifixion, while the west face depicts Christ in glory.
The skeleton of a former parish church at Rathbarry, County Cork. It dates from 1825 when constructed at a cost of £1,900, of which £1,000 was provided by John Evans-Freke, sixth Baron Carbury who lived in nearby Castle Freke: the family mausoleum is immediately south of the church. The building is more elaborate than most such structures erected at the time with help from the Board of First Fruits, the three-storey buttressed tower finished with a slender pinnacle in each corner, and the main entrance on the west front being via a projecting narthex. Inside the chancel and below the east window are the surviving portions of late-19th century mosaic work provided by the ninth baron and his wife. The church ceased to be used for services in 1927, just over a century after it had been finished.
On the south wall of the chancel in a now ruinous late-medieval church in Ardrahan, County Galway can be found a monument to the Taylor family who for many centuries lived nearby in Castle Taylor, a house abandoned in the 1930s and now just a shell. The inscription reads: ‘This monument was erected by Capt. John Taylor and Walter Taylor Esq. for them and their posterities, 1747.’
Built close to the shoreline of the river Shannon 210 years ago in 1812, only the three-stage tower remains of a little Church of Ireland church at Mount Trenchard, County Limerick. In the immediate grounds are the graves of Mary Spring Rice, a daughter of the second Lord Monteagle, who was among the group responsible for bringing a large number of rifles for the Irish Volunteers from Germany on board the Asgard in July 1914. Also buried here is her cousin, Conor O’Brien, grandson of William Smith O’Brien: a keen sailor, he also helped bring arms to Ireland at that time and then in 1923-25 circumnavigated the world in his yacht Saoirse. A plaque on the gateway into this peaceful little site records their names and those of others from the area involved in gun-running activities during the same period.
Described by William Butler Yeats as ‘the drunken man of genius’, architect William Alphonsus Scott was mentioned here earlier this year, with regard to his designs for the model village of Talbot’s Inch, County Kilkenny (see An Act of Philanthropy « The Irish Aesthete). Born in 1871, Scott was the son of an architect who established his own practice in Drogheda, County Louth; after finishing at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, Scott worked for a time in his father’s office, and then in that of Thomas Newenham Deane (where his father had also once worked). He spent a further six years with his father and in 1897 the two men won a commission to design the new town hall in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Scott then moved to London for several years, where he absorbed the influences of the arts and crafts movement, being particularly inspired by the work of Philip Webb and Charles Voysey (the latter apparent in his houses at Talbot’s Inch). Returning to Ireland, he spent a further brief time with his father before establishing his own practice and in 1903 was asked to design a new country house, Killyhevlin on the outskirts of Enniskillen. It appears to have been in consequence of this that Edward Martyn, a key figure in the Irish literary revival, heard of Scott and so recommended him to Martin Morris, future second Lord Killanin, who was seeking an architect to design a new Roman Catholic church in Spiddal, County Galway.
In 1950 Martin Morris’s nephew, the third Lord Killanin, published a long article in The Furrow about St Enda’s church in Spiddal, where his family owned a property. Until the start of the last century, this little town overlooking Galway Bay was just an impoverished hamlet. Nevertheless, as elsewhere across the country, the local Catholic people were determined to have their own decent place of worship; by the 1990s, the existing church was not only too small but in a bad state of repair. The parish priest embarked on a fund-raising campaign, with some £2,725 coming from parishioners, another £1,160 from supporters in the United States and almost £1,300 from the Morris family. Work on the site began in 1904 and was completed three years later; the eventual cost of the building was just over £5,580. As Bridget Hourican has noted in her entry on Scott in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, the architect’s designs ‘were simple, sparing of decoration, boldly executed, and often had a heavy monumental quality.’ These features are certainly apparent in St Enda’s. Constructed from granite with limestone used for the window dressings, the church draws influence from the early Irish Romanesque style, as is especially apparent in the door and window openings, but it is influence not imitation: Scott has borrowed elements from the likes of Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel without copying them. As was noted in an obituary following his early death in 1921, his ambition was ‘to strike out for himself a fresh and original type of design.’
Unlike many other Irish Catholic churches subjected to needless alteration in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, St Enda’s still retains much of the appearance it had when first finished 115 years ago. Writing even before that date, Robert Elliott in Art in Ireland wrote of the building ‘Mr. Scott, with his knowledge of good work, took into consideration I fancy (for I have not cared to ask him), the landscape, the material and the type of the people who will worship in his church; who tell beads, and pray simply rather than desire garish light to read bulky manuals of devotion. Necessary walls with a roof and a tower for bells, and a gallery for singing…’ Like Loughrea Cathedral, County Galway, where Scott would design many of the furnishings, St Enda’s is a repository of early 20th century Irish craftsmanship, with the stained glass windows designed in An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower), the cooperative established by Sarah Purser in 1903. The finest of these is one dedicated to the memory of Col. the Hon George Morris (father of the third Lord Killanin), killed in France in 1914 while commanding the Irish Guards. The Stations of the Cross, unusually in opus sectile, were designed in 1915 by Ethel Mary Rhind, also of An Túr Gloine. Since the church is in a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) part of the country, the inscriptions beneath each station are in Irish.
It is likely that today the majority of visitors passing through Spiddal merely observe St Enda’s as another place of worship, such as are found in every town and village throughout Ireland. But it is something more than that: the church deserves to be seen and appreciated as one of the birthplaces of a new visual identity here, the manifestation of a wish to create a fresh and distinctive architectural language for the country. Whether that wish was ever completely fulfilled is a discussion for another time.