Although the second-largest town in County Kilkenny, Callan has a charmingly sleepy atmosphere, much of its centre blessedly free of contemporary intervention, or dereliction. Many of the shops still retain their original frontages, such as O’Brien’s, a delightful old-fashioned menswear business where visitors can borrow a key giving access to St Mary’s church on the other side of Green Street. The church, like the town in which it stands, is thought to have been founded by the Anglo-Norman knight William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, at the start of the 13th century (although other accounts attribute the construction of St Mary’s to Hugh de Mapilton, Bishop of Ossory in c.1250). The great square tower to the west is all that survives of that original building today.
Other than its tower, the older St Mary’s was demolished in the 15th century and the present church built in its place, consisting of a nave with aisles 15 feet wide each with four-arch arcades, and a long – almost 60 feet – rectangular chancel. Like all such buildings, it suffered badly during the religious and civil upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, passing back and forth between Roman Catholic and Established Church authorities until finally the latter gained the upper hand. Thereafter it served the local Church of Ireland community which here, as elsewhere, was not large enough to require such a substantial building, only the chancel being used for services. As a result, as early as 1731 the Bishop of Ossory noted that ‘Callan Church, next to St Canice’s, the largest in the diocese; west end needs repairing.’ By the end of the century, it was reported that the nave was ‘now a ruin, but the chancel is kept in repair and used as the parish church.’
Perhaps because the Callan Union was a relatively wealthy parish, no funds for the restoration or refurbishment of St Mary’s was provided by the Board of First Fruits (it may be that no financial assistance, either as grant or loan, was sought). However, in 1837 the board’s successor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, provided £393 for the restoration of the chancel, in particular the re-roofing of this portion of the building. Little then happened until almost the middle of the last century when the Office of Public Works assumed responsibility for the main body of the building. Once services were discontinued in the chancel in 1974, it too passed into the care of the same body which subsequently carried out various structural repairs, necessary because the nave had long been used as a burial site which resulted in subsidence. Many handsome tombs survive inside the church but regrettably this is not accessible, so only the exterior may be examined, its finest features being the limestone doorcases at the western end of the north and south aisles; both carry carvings of angels and other decorative designs (that on the north side features the head of a woman wearing an elaborate headdress).