A Tale of Four Churches

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe is a magical place. The story of its four churches leads us from the dawn of Christianity in Ireland through turbulent times and many centuries when religious differences and sectarian strife marked all aspects of life in Ireland.

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church  2, Mass Rock 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church 4, Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church. 2, Mass Rock. 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church. 4. Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

We love going down to the Medieval church at Kilcoe or wandering the boreens along the Roaringwater River. Those boreens are now part of the Fastnet Trail Network and last weekend, at the Launch, we were treated to a talk about the locality from Fr Patrick Hickey, Parish Priest of Timoleague and a noted scholar of West Cork History. This blog post was inspired by that talk – thank you, Fr Hickey!

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Kilcoe gets its name from St Coch, a nun said to be a colleague of St Ciarán of Cape Clear, who preached Christianity in Ireland before St Patrick, in the 5th Century. It is possible she founded a church here, but what we do know is that one was built in Medieval times – a building that still exists although the ivy is doing its best to take it over.

It’s a beautiful and atmospheric place, on the water, overlooking Roaringwater Bay. Two castles are in view: Kilcoe and Rincolisky, a McCarthy and an O’Driscoll Castle respectively. Each has a fascinating history that deserves a post of its own sometime. Some special features remain in this ruined church – windows with carved ogees, a lovely arched doorway, a piscina (for washing vessels) or stoup (for washing hands), a recess for storing vessels and the remains of a possible altar.

We don’t know exactly when this church was built or by whom, but we do know it was in ruins by 1615. Perhaps it was destroyed by the same forces that laid siege to Kilcoe Castle after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 – a period that marked the end of the Old Gaelic Order in West Cork.

The Medieval church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background.

The Church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background

The rise of the Protestant Ascendancy class in the aftermath of that fateful battle privileged the Church of Ireland (transplanted Anglicanism) over the Catholic faith and a series of new laws, gradually getting harsher, were designed to suppress ‘Romanism’. This culminated in the enactment, in 1695, of the infamous Penal Laws. While attendance at mass was initially tolerated, churches could only be built from wood and away from roads. Eventually, priests were expelled from Ireland and after that mass had to be held in secret, with priests moving from hiding place to hiding place. At Roaringwater Pier Fr Hickey talked of the typical cargo of the smuggling ships that plied their trade from there: each ship to arrive from France would be carrying tobacco, brandy – and a priest!

From this period we find the Mass Rocks scattered around rural Ireland, identified on the basis of local tradition. The one at Ardura Beg is just up from a tiny pier that would have offered possibility of a quick escape. Many stories have come down of lookouts warning of the approach of the ‘red coats’ and the miraculous ways in which priests would make their escape. (See here and here for examples.)

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Places of worship must be located where they are accessible and the first two are close by the sea, which afforded the easiest travel routes in Ireland for most of its history. However, roads were constructed eventually and the next two churches were located along these new routes. The first one, we’ll call it the Old Church, was built along the new road that led from Skibbereen to the Beara Peninsula. After 1778 the anti-Catholic laws were gradually relaxed, although it was not until 1829 that full Catholic Emancipation was won by Daniel O’Connell. The Old Church was probably built around 1800 and was a simple ‘barn-style’ edifice which served an impoverished and famine-stricken populace for a hundred years.

Left, the Old Church near Roaringwater Pier. Right, an example of a simple ‘barn style’ church in West Cork

By the turn of the 20th Century it was deemed unfit for purpose. Nowadays it is a gentle green space, lovingly tended and in use as a grotto. Children were buried there – it was not a cillín, but a consecrated graveyard – and a memorial remembers them now.

Grotto and Chirdren Memorial. A place for contemplation

Grotto and Children’s Memorial. A place for contemplation

Catholic Emancipation ushered in a long period of church building by the newly-confident Catholic majority. The new road from Skibbereen to Ballydehob was constructed at the end of the 19th century and the New Church was built there in 1905, right beside the bridge over the Roaringwater River.

Kilcoe Church and Bridge

Bridge over Roaringwater River

The two styles of churches common at the time were Neo-Gothic, Influenced by continental cathedrals, and Hiberno-Romanesque which took its inspiration from the Early Medieval Romanesque style of Old Ireland and featured wonderful doorways and round towers. The Kilcoe New Church, the Church of the Most Holy Rosary, was built in the Neo-Gothic style, with a large rose window at the eastern end.

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Originally the side-aisles did not have seats – poorer people could stand there for mass, while those who could afford a penny would occupy the pews. As the church fund grew, thought was put into ornamentation and stained glass was commissioned for several windows. The rose window was executed by the Harry Clarke Studios in 1943 and shows scenes from the life of Christ and of Mary.

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Altar and side windows were the work of Sarah Purser’s Tower of Glass. The choice of stained glass – from Dublin-based Celtic Revival artists rather than the English or Continental firms that supplied most church glass at the time –  was a choice that demonstrates the nationalistic feelings that were rife in West Cork at the time.

Irish History is written large on her landscape. In this one small area – these sites are within a couple of kilometres of each other – we see encapsulated sixteen hundred years of history, starting with St Coch and ending with the latest incarnation of a church at Kilcoe. Their beauty and their peaceful settings have been hard won. They should serve to remind us that peace and tolerance must always be cherished and safeguarded.

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church

The Love Which He Bare Her

Nothing beats a romantic walk in a graveyard

Nothing beats a romantic walk in a graveyard

In honour of the upcoming St Valentine’s Day, and of course because it’s now officially spring, my thoughts have turned to love. As we travel, here in West Cork, and in Ireland generally, we have a habit of dropping into churches. I’ve been struck by the eloquence – the purple prose – of memorial inscriptions in many Church of Ireland  (Protestant) churches, dating from the 18th and 19th Centuries. Why only in those churches? There weren’t many Catholic churches in Ireland until after the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. In the wave of Catholic church building that followed that Act there are few examples of individual memorial tablets on the walls: instead, the walls are filled with Catholic iconography, such as the Stations of the Cross and statues of saints.

Although most memorial tablets commemorate men (particularly ministers, soldiers and noblemen) here and there you can find memorials to couples, or to beloved women, erected by their ‘disconsolate husbands’ or by a grateful parish. The first two below are from the ruined Muckross Abbey in Killarney. Here we found a stone erected by Stephen Coppinger of Cork, recounting the many virtues of his cherished Helen. The Coppingers were a Catholic family, one of whose members was the infamous Walter Coppinger of Coppinger’s Court.  Another, Elizabeth Coppinger of Barryscourt, in 1760 in defiance of the Penal Laws joined with Nano Nagle and five other Cork ladies in founding a Convent of the Ursuline order in Cork.

Helen Coppinger's memorial tablet

Helen Coppinger’s memorial tablet

Erected by Stephen Coppinger of the City of Cork in Memory of his late Wife HELEN Whose Accomplishments and Goodness of Disposition were her lowest Recommendations. Her solid Understanding, her diffusive, tho. judicious Charity, and strict Adherence to every Principle of the Christian Religion, the Duties of which she never ceased to perform, her Patience and Resignation during a lingering and tedious course of Sufferings, rendered her an Object of Admiration to all who had the Happiness of knowing her. She lived beloved and died lamented the 9th of August 1802. Aged 49 Years.

Also in Muckross Abbey we found this stone to Lucy Gallwey – so generally esteemed that the inhabitants of Killarney erected the memorial. A little sleuthing on my part discovered that Lucy was born Lucinda Grehan in Dublin, and that she and Christopher Gallwey had nine children.

Lucy Gallwey

Lucy Gallwey

Lucy

Wife of Christopher Gallwey of Killarney, Esq. This monument was erected By the inhabitants of Killarney and its neighbourhood to testify The deep sense of those amongst whom she lived And the Exemplary fidelity With which she discharged the relative duties of wife mother and friend as well as to perpetuate the recollections of the many benefits she conferred upon society and to hold up to the emulations of posterity her active useful yet unostentatious exercise of the most ardent charity directed by a singularly sound and well regulated understanding. She died the 14th of December 1829 aged 57

In St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin we came across this lovely plaque for Elizabeth, Viscountess Doneraile. (In the same Cathedral is an enormous memorial to the Boyle family built by Elizabeth’s great-grandfather Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork – but that’s a whole story in itself.) I love the wording of this one – not just that he loved her, but sincerely respected her.

Elizabeth, Viscountess Doneraile

Elizabeth, Viscountess Doneraile

      ELIZABETH, VISCOUNTESS DONERAILE

Wife of the Right Hon Hayes Sentleger, Lord Viscount Doneraile, Daughter of the Right Hon Joseph Dean, Lord chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer in 1715, and of Margaret Boyle, Daughter of the Hon. Roger Boyle, of Castlemartyr, in the County of Cork, Esq. She departed this life on the 3rd day of Dec, 1761, in the 59th Year of her age. She lived universally esteemed & died universally lamented. Her disconsolate husband, with whom she lived in perfect harmony forty Years, hath caused this Monument to be erected in testimony of the Love which he bare her, and as a memorial of his sincere respect for her many great & amiable Virtues.

Here’s one from Cloyne. And what a lovely thought – to have years of uninterrupted conjugal affection and then to “gently fall asleep.”

James and Lucinda Hingston

James and Lucinda Hingston

The final one is also from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin and it’s for Stella, whose real name was Esther Johnson, lifelong friend and companion of Dean Swift. At his request, he was buried alongside her.

Stella

Stella

Dear Reader, do you have a favourite memorial tablet erected by a disconsolate husband, or extolling conjugal affection? If you do, post them to our Facebook page – we’d love to see more of these.

Stella - Swift's Beloved

Portrait of Stella

I’m now busy composing a suitable epitaph for myself…let me see, er, amiable accomplishments Well regulated mind joined with admirable charity. The kindness of her disposition was matched only by the elevation of her thoughts. Natural perfections. Guess I’ll keep working on it. The emulations of posterity can wait a while.