Reference was made here some weeks ago to the Board of First Fruits (see Made Better by Their Presents II, December 12th 2015). Although it had a considerable impact on the Irish landscape in the 18th and early 19th century, this organization is today little known. To reiterate briefly, the board was established in 1711 to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. First funded by a tax on clerical incomes from 1778 onwards it received grants given by the Irish Parliament, after 1785 this being a yearly sum of £5,000. Following the Act of Union, this country’s Anglican clergy became absorbed into the newly-formed United Church of England and Ireland and thereafter the amount of money made available to the Board of First Fruits rose: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808, soared to £60,000 between 1810-16 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. As a result of this money, the Church of Ireland was able to embark on a building spree: in the first quarter of the 19th century almost 700 churches were either newly constructed or renovated, along with 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. While the entire country benefitted from this programme, there were regional variations depending on the level of engagement by whoever was then in charge of a diocese. Among the most committed to the scheme was Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Bishop of Meath for a quarter-century (1798-1823). O’Beirne is a fascinating character. Born into a Roman Catholic family in County Longford, initially he studied for the Catholic priesthood at the Jesuit seminary in St Omer, France: his younger brother Denis was there at the same time and completed his studies (the siblings would later serve in the same parish of Templemichael, Longford, Thomas as rector and Denis as parish priest). A breakdown in health led Thomas to England where he converted to Anglicanism and attended Trinity College, Cambridge. Highly intelligent, industrious and devotedly loyal to the Church of Ireland, he was appointed first to the Diocese of Ossory in 1795 before being transferred to Meath three years later. During his long episcopate, he embarked on an improvement of both clergy and buildings in the diocese, a schedule of work which has been thoroughly investigated by Mary Caroline Gallagher in her 2009 doctoral thesis on the subject.
Exhibiting the customary fervour of the convert, O’Beirne believed incumbents ought to be resident in their parishes (not something which had hitherto been universally the case) and services should be held in churches that were structurally sound and, appropriately designed and maintained. Hence his keen interest in improving both clergymen’s homes and places of worship. He was fortunate in his timing, his period as Bishop of Meath coinciding with the Board of First Fruits having most money to distribute, commonly through a mixture of grants and loans to parishes (which on occasion had the effect of saddling parishioners with long-term debt). Today we look at two Meath churches that underwent redevelopment in O’Beirne’s time. The first of these (top and above) is St Patrick’s at Castletown-Kilpatrick. There was a mediaeval church on this site and parts of it were incorporated into the newer building, in particular over the east window a portion of what is believed to be a 15th century tomb stone showing a woman in prayer. There are also two old arched windows on the second floor of the belltower and a stone head that projects from the wall of the church. These were presumably rescued by the man responsible for the building’s refurbishment, whose name features in a stone plaque over the doorcase (which also looks to be older than the main body of the church). The plaque reads ‘This Church was Rebuilt by Order of The Rigt. Honb. & Rt. Revd. Th. Lewis Lord Bishop of Meath. The Revd. Robt. Longfield Rector. Henry Owens Esqr. & Henry Liscoe, ChurchWardens. Robt. Wiggins Builder. A.D; 1820.’ The cost of the project was £467 and four years later a glebe house was also constructed to the immediate south at a cost of £1,107, this work financed by a Board of First Fruits loan. Declining numbers of worshippers meant that by the third quarter of the last century it had become difficult to sustain the church, which closed for services in the mid-1960s. The glebe house had already been sold and demolished around 1945.
Just a few miles south of Castletown-Kilpatrick stands St Sinch’s, Kilshine (above and below). According to legend St Abbán, whose father was a king of Leinster, founded a convent here and placed at its head a holy virgin called Sinche or Sineach, the church being called Cill-Sinche (thus the Anglicised name Kilshine). By the 18th century this building had fallen into poor repair and so a new church was built in 1815 at a cost of £1,600 with funds provided by the Board of First Fruits. As at St Patrick’s the occasion was commemorated with a plaque: ‘The rebuilding and restoring of this Parish Church, after it had laid in ruin for upwards of a century, were the effects of the pious exertions of that excellent Prelate, the Right Honourable and Most Reverend Father in God, Doctor Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Lord Bishop of Meath, who in the conscientious discharge of the functions of his high and important office not only caused many other churches in this Diocese to be rebuilt and restored, but procured for that most respectable Body, the Reverend the Parochial Clergy, residences and glebes within their respective Livings, suitable as far as it was possible to their situations, thereby enabling them duly to discharge the duties of Resident Protestant Clergymen, and to dispense to their parishioners of that persuasion the invaluable comforts of Our Blessed Religion. Aided by a pecuniary grant of 1,600 from the Board of First Fruits obtained through the intercession of His Lordship the Bishop of Meath.’ Let it not be thought the work of Bishop O’Beirne went unrecorded. But once more declining attendance numbers meant St Sinch’s had closed for services by 1958 after which its monuments were removed: today both here and St Patrick’s, Castletown-Kilpatrick are united with the church at Donoughpatrick where services continue to be held. Meanwhile tangible evidence of the efforts of Thomas Lewis O’Beirne and the Board of First Fruits to ensure the Church of Ireland had a long-term future looks to be irreparably vanishing. It seems only a matter of time before both these churches, and many more beside, vanish from the countryside altogether. Truly as Thomas à Kempis advised ‘Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.’