Last July, one of Ireland’s major banks, AIB, announced plans to withdraw all cash services from 70 of its 170 branches. Although the company – in the face of near-universal outcry, not least from politicians in whose constituencies the threatened branches lay – quickly withdrew the proposed withdrawal, its original declaration of intent provided proof of what has long been evident throughout the country: the seemingly irreversible decline of regional towns. One by one, the staples of a thriving Irish urban settlement, whether it be the community hospital, the agricultural mart, the creamery, the post office, the bank and so forth, have packed up and left. For more and more of their needs, residents in smaller towns have been expected to head to a handful of bigger conurbations, where all the major services are congregated. Although this phenomenon is much discussed and analysed, one important aspect of the decline rarely appears in such discourse: the near-total disappearance over recent decades of Roman Catholic religious orders and the consequent abandonment of their buildings.
The Presentation Order (full title: the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was founded in Cork in 1775 by Honora ‘Nano’ Nagle, member of a wealthy Roman Catholic family. Within a few years of its establishment, Presentation nuns had begun to open and run schools for girls, first in Ireland and then elsewhere around the world. In its country of origin, the order soon came to have a presence in every town of significance: indeed, by the mid-19th century the presentation of a Presentation Convent and attached school could be seen as indicative of a town’s economic and social importance. There was, therefore, widespread delight when the first three nuns of this order arrived in Mitchelstown, County Cork in June 1853. As if to emphasise the significance of this event, the site they would occupy dominates the town: immediately adjacent to the Catholic church (built at the same time) on high ground to the east of New Square. A month after their arrival, the nuns opened a school and within a few weeks 637 children of all ages had enrolled there for classes. Thus matters continued for the next 150 years, during much of which time it must have seemed as though the Presentation order would long remain a notable presence in Mitchelstown. However, towards the end of the last century, the numbers of nuns declined and those remaining grew ever older. Twenty years ago, in 2002, the last of them left and the convent they had once occupied, along with the school they had run, became vacant.
The former Presentation Convent in Mitchelstown consists of a three-storey, five-bayed central block facing due west. Gable-ended wings on either side extend eastwards to the rear, making the entire building U-shaped. The north wing held the chapel, described by Frank Keohane in his Guide to the Buildings of Cork as ‘a charming if old-fashioned Gothick affair with a rib-vaulted ceiling with bosses and pendants, a gallery on clustered columns and tracery-like panelling to the E wall.’ Following the departure of its original residents, the entire site was sold to a development company, Irish and European Properties, which in 2007 received permission from the local authority to convert the existing buildings for ‘community and commercial use’, create an underground two-screen cinema complex with associated car park spaces and then cover much of the surrounding grounds with apartment blocks. The economic crash of the following years put that scheme on hold but in 2012 Cork County Council granted an extension to the developers’ plans. Nothing happened – except that the company went into receivership – and two years later, in 2014, the council announced plans to prosecute the owners of the former convent under the Derelict Sites Act. Although it seems some remedial works were then carried out on the building, little has since happened and so the place has fallen into a state of almost complete ruin. In the past, the claim was sometimes made that Ireland’s country houses suffered neglect and abandonment because the majority of the population felt no sense of association with them. That argument does not apply in this instance: the Presentation convent was an important part of Mitchelstown’s identity for some 150 years, representative of the town’s importance and a centre of education. There must be many local residents who attended school here, and who can remember how it once looked. Furthermore, it is not as though the convent has disappeared: these buildings still dominate Mitchelstown, but their present condition now tells a very different story, one of disuse and decay. This is not a problem unique to Mitchelstown. There are many other towns throughout Ireland with similarly dilapidated complexes previously occupied by religious orders. As much as the closure of banks and post offices, they demonstrate the ongoing decline of Ireland’s regional towns.