In St Mary’s graveyard, Dungarvan, County Waterford a gable wall some 30 foot high and 32 foot long is all that remains of the 13th century church. During the Confederate Wars, in 1642 this building was attacked by Catholic rebels and used as a stable and prison for local Protestants; it suffered further damage in the following decade when occupied by members of the English army. Nevertheless, the church was repaired and continued in use for services until the third decade of the 19th century when replaced by the present St Mary’s designed by James Pain. A curious feature of this wall are the oculi, two over three. These would seem to have been inserted for defensive purposes but, even allowing for the building’s turbulent history in the 17th century, are an unusual feature within a church context.
The gardens of Heywood, County Laois have been mentioned here more than once (see To Smooth the Lawn, To Decorate the Dale, May 12th 2014 and Happily Disposed in the Most Elegant Taste, August 27th 2018). Close by in the village of Ballinakill stands an early 19th century church associated with the families who lived at Heywood. All Saints was built in 1821 – most likely on the site of an earlier building – for the sum of £1,558, thanks to assistance from the Board of First Fruits. When Samuel Lewis visted Ballinakill in 1837 he wrote ‘The parish church, situated in the town, is a handsome edifice with a tower and spire; the east window, which is of stained glass and very handsome, was purchased on the Continent and presented by the late Francis Trench, Esq.’ More likely it was Michael Frederick Trench of Heywood who had acquired the glass, of which more below. He was succeeded by his son Major-General Sir Frederick William Trench who died in 1859. Having no direct male heir, the estate then passed to his nephew, Sir Charles Domville (eldest surviving son of the wonderfully named Sir Compton Pocklington Domville, who had married Trench’s sister Helena). In turn Sir Charles’ niece Mary Adelaide Domville would marry Lt.-Col. Sir William Hutchison-Poë, who at the start of the last century commissioned Lutyens to design the gardens at Heywood.
Much of the interior of All Saints, Ballinakill dates from the second half of the 19th century when the church was enlarged and redecorated by the Domvilles. According to the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette of March 1868, the building was then restored and beautified ‘chiefly through the bounty of W. Domville Esq., of Ballinakill’ with the installation of new pews, pulpit and reading desk, as well as the gift of an organ, carved stone font, ‘velvet uphostery, pew furniture, coronas & bracket lights.’ It appears that the chancel was added to the existing structure at this time. One of the notable features of the interior is that the walls retain their original stenciled decoration, beginning in the oval entrance lobby where the domed ceiling represents the celestial sky covered in gold stars. In the main body of the church the walls are likewise stenciled or painted with improving texts, each panel of the ceiling carrying the symbol of a different saint. Damp has caused some damage to the work but, thanks to a generous grant from the Heritage Council some years ago, the condition of the church has been stabilized and no further flaking of paint seems likely.
Samuel Lewis mentioned that the church’s east window contained glass ‘purchased on the continent’. When the Domvilles added a chancel, this glass was divided between new windows on the extension’s north and south sides. The windows are of interest since they feature examples of Netherlandish glass dating from between the late 15th and late 17th century. In an article published The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , Vol. 121 (1991), William Cole examines these pieces (and those in another three Irish churches) and explains how they came to be in this country. As he notes, at least in part due to the French Revolution, ‘there was a general air of unrest in northern Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. Churches were in a bad state financially and the sale of church furnishings and glass helped to remedy this state of affairs.’ Many such items were bought by wealthy landowners in Britain and Ireland to decorate churches on or adjacent to their estates, and this would appear to have been the case at Ballinakill. Originally made in profusion for chapels, cloisters and corridors and customarily in a round or oval shape, the glass was easily transported and helped give an air of antiquity to Irish churches rebuilt or renovated thanks to the support of the Board of First Fruits. In this instance, additional glass was provided in the 1880s by the firm of Cox, Sons, Buckley and Co, which having been established in London, around this time opened a branch in Youghal, County Cork to cater for demand here. Since that time, almost nothing has changed inside the church, which – lacking electric lighting – still sees candles used during services. All Saints is a rare surviving example of a High Victorian religious interior and for that reason particularly precious.
The remains of Tullaherin church and round tower, County Kilkenny. It is believed that a monastery was founded here by Saint Ciarán of Saigir. He died c.530 so presumably established a presence here at some date previous. Nothing survives of the original foundation, the present church being of two periods, the nave perhaps 10th century while the chancel is likely from the 15th century. In the aftermath of the Reformation, it continued to be used by members of the Established Church and was renovated in the early 17th century. However, by the 19th it had already fallen into ruin.
Like so many others around the country, the round tower at Tullaherin is missing its upper portion and capped roof: what remains rises almost 74 feet. Originally there were eight windows around the tower, the only other tower having so many being that at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly. The door is just over 12 feet above ground.
Today Athenry, County Galway is best known for featuring in a lachrymose ballad usually sung by performers somewhat worse for alcohol. However, the town was of significance from the Middle Ages onwards, as evidenced by large sections of the mediaeval walls that still survive, and a number of important buildings in the centre, not least a castle dating from c.1235. Originally guarding the crossing point over the river Clarin, it consists of a keep and the remains of a separating banqueting hall all enclosed within their own defences. The town subsequently developed around this castle, constructed by the Anglo-Norman knight Meyler de Bermingham whose descendants would become Barons Athenry and Earls of Louth. De Bermingham was also responsible for the other significant mediaeval remains in Athenry, the nearby Dominican Priory.
One of the Dominican order’s most important houses in Ireland, Athenry Priory of SS. Peter and Paul was founded by Meyler de Bermingham in 1241 when he purchased the land on which it stands for 160 marks and then provided the same amount for the construction of the church, as well as providing some of his men to help with the work: he would be buried inside its walls following his death in 1252. Many of his descendants were likewise interred here. Other local families, both Anglo-Norman and Gaelic assisted in the development of the site: Felim O’Conor built the refectory, Eugene O’Heyne the dormitory, Cornelius O’Kelly the chapter house, and others the cloister, infirmary, guesthouse and so forth: almost nothing of these domestic buildings survives. Alterations were made over successive generations. In the late 13th/early 14th century for example, rebuilding work took place on the west gable of the church, to which an aisle and transept were added on the north side. In the fourteenth century William de Burgh (forebear of the Earls and Marquesses of Clanricarde, with whom the priory would later be associated) left money to enlarge the church, adding some 20 feet to the choir, and building a new entrance at its west end (now largely lost after a handball alley was built on the exterior of the building in the last century). Meanwhile in 1408 Joanna de Ruffur left funds to construct a new east window. A fire destroyed much of the priory in 1423, after which indulgences were granted by Popes Martin V and Eugene IV to shoe who contributed to the buildings’ repair. During this period, a crossing tower was erected in the church, with a number of windows being replaced or blocked, and the aisle arcade being reduced.
In the 16th century, Athenry Priory initially escaped the dissolution that befell other such religious establishments. In a letter dated July 1541 Anthony St Leger, Lord Deputy of Irleand advised Henry VIII that as the priory ‘is situated amongst the Irishry … our saide sovereign lord shoulde have lyttle or no profit.’ However, the head of the priory Adam de Coppynger and his fellow friars agreed to abandon their religious habits and dress in secular clothing. In 1568 Elizabeth I directed that the Earl of Clanricarde could preserve the friary for a burial place but nine years later the priory and 30 acres of land in Athenry (plus more elsewhere) was granted to the town of Athenry: around the same time both town and priory were sacked by members of the Earl of Clanricarde’s family. Towards the end of the century the Dominicans reoccupied the priory but it suffered when the whole town was burnt in 1597. Still the Dominicans lingered on in the area, until the early 1650s when English soldiers wrecked the priory. Later the domestic buildings were largely demolished, and an army barracks built in their place. This remained in use until 1850. A late 18th century image shows the church without roof but the central tower still standing: it collapsed in 1845. Relatively little change has since occurred.
Despite quantities of damage inflicted on it over the centuries, the interior of the priory church retains much of interest. Of particular note are two large monuments in the choir. That tucked into the south-east corner was a mausoleum for the de Burgh family, who it will be remembered were permitted by Elizabeth I to use the building as a burial site. The monument in its present form dates from 1835 when repaired by Ulick de Burgh, first Marquess of Clanricarde. The upper portion (which looks as though designed to have something further on top of it) carries a peer’s coronet and the family coat of arms with its motto: Un Roy, Un Foy, Une Loy. A considerable portion of the choir is then taken up with a monumental tomb to Lady Matilda Bermingham, youngest daughter of the last Lord Athenry (also first, and last, Earl of Louth), who died in 1788 at the age of 20. Of cut limestone, the tomb was decorated with an abundance of Coade figures and stone panels, one of which bears the date 1791, and an urn which features the deceased’s profile. As an instance of contemporary misinformation, one frequently reads online that this tomb was badly damaged by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in search of treasure: since Lady Matilda Bermingham died over 130 years after these troops were in Ireland this seems somewhat improbable, and yet still the story circulates in the internet. The truth is more prosaic. In October 2002 vandals broke into the church, breached the tomb’s walls and pulled out the coffin: who needs to import despoilers when they can be found at home? It was reported at the time that repairs were being carried out on the monument, but these do not appear to have been very extensive and much of the Coade stone ornamentation has been forever lost.
On a hill to the north of Moydrum Castle, County Westmeath and now surrounded by woodland, the rusticated exterior of a church once serving the Handcock family. The present building dates from the 1840s when built by Richard Handcock, third Viscount Castlemaine to provide relief work during the Great Famine. It replaced an earlier church on or near the same site also constructed by the family in 1740, and was in turn further altered in the 1860s by the addition of a gabled porch on the west end.
Second the remains of St Columcille’s church at Skryne, County Meath. Intended for Anglican worship, this was built in the early 19th century: in 1809 the Board of First Fruits provided £500 towards its construction costs. At the time there were some 67 souls who worshipped here but, as was the case across the country, numbers declined during the last century and the church closed in the 1960s. Today only the squat tower with its diagonal buttresses remains on the site.
First the remains of St Columba’s church at Skryne, County Meath. The place name derives from Scrín Choluim Chille (Colmcille’s Shrine): in the ninth century the relics of St Columba, otherwise Columcille, were brought here from England for safe keeping and a monastery established. The ruins likely date from a 15th century church built on the site of the earlier foundation, and consist of sections of the former nave and a massive tower at the west end.
The graveyard of Grey Abbey, County Down. A Cistercian monastery was founded here in 1193 by Affreca, wife of John de Courcy and daughter of Godred Olafsson, King of the Isles after she had vowed to create such a house if given a safe passage across the Irish Sea. The abbey was closed down in 1541 and then the buildings burnt some thirty years later by the O’Neills to stop English colonists using them. On land directly behind the east end of the church the graveyard, where once monks had been buried, continued in use and is accordingly packed with tombstones tumbling one over the other. Particularly poignant is this stone erected to commemorate Isabella Green who died in December 1816 aged ten months.
The name Ballinskelligs derives from Baile an Sceilg meaning ‘Place of the craggy rock’ and refers to a coastal village on the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry. On the western fringe of Europe, this has always been a remote and none-too affluent part of the country, which is likely why early Christian monks, in search of solitude settled on Skellig Michael, one of two islands some miles off the coast, where they lived in bleak isolation: some of their beehive huts and oratories can still be seen by visitors prepared to make the boat journey. Eventually in the late 12th or early 13th century, the monks moved to the mainland and took up residence in Ballinskelligs, where evidence of their buildings remains, along with another historic property.
Ballinskelligs Castle is one of the many tower houses that can be found throughout Ireland. As so often, it is impossible to date the building precisely but the consensus seems to be that it was constructed in the 16th century by the dominant MacCarthy family, ancient Kings of Desmond. The tower stands on an isthmus at the western end of the bay but much of the surrounding land has been eroded over time and it is most easily accessible at low tide. Presumably it was built as an observation post for all vessels coming into this part of the coast and to keep an eye on the arrival of potential pirates. Originally of three storeys, the tower has lost its upper section but corbels to support a floor survive. Following the dissolution of the Kingdom of Desmond at the end of the 16th century, and the loss of the MacCarthys’ authority, the building passed to the Sigerson family but later in the 17th century was reduced to being used as a pilchard-curing station as part of Sir William Petty’s fisheries enterprise.
Ballinskelligs Priory, at the other end of the long beach, was an Augustinian house likely established after the abandonment of Skellig Michael as a religious settlement: certainly the priory retained control of the island until it was in turn shut down during the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries. The present collection of remains dates from the 15th century and has been extensively – and perhaps rather too rigorously – conserved in recent years: a certain sterility now pervades the site. But, as with Ballinskelligs Castle, the views are outstanding. In the case of the priory, it is better to be inside looking out rather than outside looking in.
All that survives of the former Church of Ireland church in Rathconrath, County Westmeath. According to Samuel Lewis writing in 1837 the building had been erected eighteen years earlier ‘almost on the site of the ancient church’ at the cost of £738, the entire sum being provided by the Board of First Fruits. At that time the living was in the patronage of Brinsley Butler, fourth Earl of Lanesborough who had inherited large estates in this part of the country through his grandmother Jane Rochfort, a daughter of the first Earl of Belvedere, notorious for having locked up his wife for over thirty years after he suspected she was having an affair with his younger brother (who he sued for criminal conversation).