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.
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!
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.