The exquisite church of St Patrick, Jordanstown, County Antrim, by William Henry Lynn, from the south-east, an accomplished essay in the Hiberno-Romanesque style (© A.C.W. Merrick in James Stevens Curl [2007]: Victorian Architecture: Diversity & Invention [Reading: Spire Books Ltd.], 231).

A wealth of Irish architecture

Editorial errors do not spoil a fine work of Irish architectural history


An Architectural History of the Church of Ireland
by Michael O’Neill 
(Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2023)
ISBN: 978-1-904884-89-7 (hardback)
394 pp., 369 col. & b&w plates, 40 figs.

North elevation of the church of St Paul and All Saints, Moyglare, County Meath (1864), by Edward McAllister (1836-66) (© Representative Church Body Library Drawings Portfolio 23).

I have on my shelves an 1818 edition of The Book of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, According to the Use of The United Church of England and Ireland. That unity was threatened by a series of enactments during the 19th century, starting with the Church Temporalities (Ireland) Act of 1833 (3&4 Will. IV, c.37), which reduced two of the existing four archbishoprics (Tuam and Cashel) to bishoprics, united 10 of the 20 existing bishoprics to adjacent sees, revoked the rights of churchwardens to levy church cess (an exaction) for the upkeep of ecclesiastical buildings, and permitted tenants on episcopal lands to purchase their holdings at a fixed annual rent. 

This caused outrage among Churchmen, and John Keble (1792-1866) was provoked to preach his sermon on “National Apostasy” from the University Pulpit at Oxford. This sparked the beginnings of the Oxford or Tractarian movement, which aimed to defend the Church against what became many hostile assaults, and stimulated leading Oxford Churchmen to begin a systematic campaign  to revive High Church principles and patristic theology (scholarship based on the doctrines, writings, and opinions of the Fathers of the Church). John Henry Newman (1801-90), in his Apologia pro vita sua (1864) was emphatic in his assertion that Keble was the “true and primary author” of the impressive and great revival of Anglicanism known as The Oxford Movement, which also prompted studies in Ecclesiology and the spectacular revival of Gothic architecture, among much else. 

Attacks on the Church of Ireland (Anglican), then, were catalysts for massive changes in the Church of England, but led to Disestablishment of the Irish Church under the Irish Church Act, 1869 (32 & 33 Vict., c.42), all part of the deluded attempts of William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) to ‘pacify Ireland’: they did nothing of the sort, of course, and merely encouraged the opposite tendency. That Act became effective on 1 January 1871. Disestablishment prompted a massive programme of church-building, almost as a statement of defiance, the most spectacular example of which was St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork (1863-1904), in a convincing French 13th-century Gothic style, with three stupendous spires and a noble, powerful, muscular interior, the whole ensemble stuffed full of Masonic allusions. The architect was a man of genius, the London-based William Burges (1827-81), a convinced Freemason, whose exquisite church of Christ the Consoler, Skelton-on-Ure, Yorkshire (1870-6), is perhaps his most perfect creation, and one that can bring the strongest of men to their knees. 

Church of St Mary, Leixlip, County Kildare, with late-mediæval western tower, the rest of the fabric largely late-Georgian (© Michael O’Neill).

This splendidly illustrated volume draws on the rich archival material held in the Representative Church Body Library of the Church of Ireland, augmented with many modern photographs. That Church possesses a considerable architectural legacy: it inherited many pre-Reformation buildings, of course, parts of which are sometimes rather wonderfully incorporated within later structures. Good examples include St Mary’s, Leixlip, County Kildare (with a late-mediæval western tower). The cathedrals at Clonfert, Cloyne, Kilfenora, Kilkenny, Killaloe, Leighlin, Limerick, Ross, and St Patrick’s in Dublin are all substantially mediæval, while those at Armagh, Downpatrick, Kildare, Limerick, Lismore, Tuam, and Christ Church, Dublin, although with some earlier fabric, have significant later interventions, some of which (at Armagh for example [1834-40], by Lewis Nockalls Cottingham [1787-1847]) virtually overwhelm surviving remains. As far as mediæval parish churches are concerned, probably the best are St Nicholas, Galway, St Nicholas, Carrickfergus (although the interior was treated horribly in the most cack-handed manner, especially the north transept, which contains the spectacular Jacobean monument commemorating Sir Arthur Chichester [1563-1625 — Baron Chichester of Belfast from 1613]), St Audoen, High Street, Dublin, and St Mary, Youghal, County Cork (which contains another splendid Renaissance monument, this time to Richard Boyle [1566-1643 — 1st Earl of Cork from 1620]). The Youghal church has an aisled nave, with, remarkably, a 13th-century timber roof, and a surviving stair (leading to what was a Rood loft) embedded in the southern pier of the chancel-arch. The chancel, which had been abandoned in the post-mediæval era, was restored to use in the 19th century.

There were several churches erected at the time of the early 17th-century Plantation of Ulster following the Flight of the Earls in 1607: these sometimes including examples of Gothic Survival, notably in window-tracery, of which good examples survive in Benburb and Castlecaulfeild, both in County Tyrone. In the Benburb exemplar, work was carried out under Sir Richard Wingfield (c.1551-1634 — created Viscount Powerscourt in 1619), and at Castlecaulfeild the building was erected under the aegis of Sir Tobias (Toby) Caulfeild (1665-1627 — 1st Baron Charlemont from 1620), who was a Commissioner for escheated estates in Ulster as well as Master-General of the Ordnance. Caulfeild received 1,000 acres of lands formerly held by Hugh O’Neill (Aodh Ó Néill [c.1550-1616—2nd Earl of Tyrone 1587-95 and again 1603-7). Unfortunately, “feild” is not spelled correctly in this book, and there are other careless mistakes, such as an interior on page 244 being described as “looking east” when it clearly is looking west, and on page 235 the caption tells us that a drawing is of the south elevation, when it quite obviously is the north, and indeed is labelled so on the drawing illustrated. 

The extraordinary south porch of St Michael’s, the parish church of Donaghmore, at Castlecaulfeild, County Tyrone, of 1685. The traceried window on the right is earlier, c.1622, a charming reinterpretation of Gothic, surviving well into the 17th century (© Michael O’Neill).

There was one great building erected as a cathedral during the early years of the Plantation, and that was St Columb, Londonderry (1628-44), built at the expense of The Honourable The Irish Society of London, under the direction of Sir John Vaughan (fl.1599-1643) by the carpenter-mason William Parrott (fl.1625-42). However, could the design have originated in London? The name of Edmund Kinsman (fl.1604-43), who was Master of the Masons’ Company in 1635, occurs to mind: the Gothic style was at variance from the Palladianism favoured at Court, and the nave arcades are rather fine work.

A much smaller, simpler building is the Middle Church, Ballinderry, County Antrim (1664-8), a plain rectangular box, its chancel integrated within the overall volume, with echoes of Gothic still discernible in the treatment of the windows. It was erected under the ægis of  Jeremy Taylor (1613-67 — Bishop of Down and Connor from 1661), whose religious and devotional writings, with their emphases on prayer, ritual, and liturgy, were highly regarded among many of his contemporaries, and in more recent times his work has been re-examined in the light of its perceived modernity, œcumenism, and intellectual qualities, although the man himself was sometimes felt to have a “dangerous temper, apt to break out into extravangances”. This important little building was somewhat over-zealously restored under the direction of the antiquary, nationalist, and Celtic Revival polymath, Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926), and William John Fennell (fl.1865-1923).

Interior of St Columb’s cathedral, Londonderry, looking west towards the organ, photograph of c.1875 (from James Stevens Curl [2000]: The Honourable The Irish Society and the Plantation of Ulster, 1608-2000 [Chichester: Phillimore], 146).

In the 18th century, the Board of First Fruits was established to fund the repair of Anglican churches and glebe-houses in Ireland. First Fruits and Twentieth Parts were pre-Reformation papal dues, subsequently paid to the Crown, representing the first year’s income from a Cure, and annual payment of a twentieth part of that income. Although abolished in England in 1704, the Board in Ireland attracted substantial parliamentary grants which funded an ambitious programme of rebuilding, the results of which can be seen all over Ireland today. In 1833 the Board’s functions were taken over by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners under part of the draconian measures of the Church Temporalities (Ireland) Act, 1833. Churches erected under the Board’s ægis were simple, single-volume rectangular boxes, with either a bell-cote or a tower at the west end, sometimes with a nod to Gothic in the pointed windows. A book of designs for churches, mostly  by Thomas Cooley (c.1740-84), exists in the marvellous Library in Armagh City established by Richard Robinson (1709-94 — Archbishop of Armagh from 1765, and ex-officio Treasurer of the Board of First Fruits), who promoted the building of churches and glebe-houses throughout his diocese. A good example is St John’s, Lisnadill, County Armagh, based on Cooley’s design numbered 9 in the Robinson Library collection. This type of church continued to be built well into the 19th century: an example is the parish church at Tarmonbarry, County Roscommon (1813), by the then architect to the Board, John Bowden (fl.1798-1822).

South elevation of the parish church at Tarmonbarry, County Roscommon (1813), designed by John Bowden, a typical product of the Board of First Fruits, but owing much to the work of Cooley some forty years earlier (© Representative Church Body Library Drawings Portfolio 16).

Of course there were also churches built at the expense of local landowners, and these sometimes displayed more architectural grandeur than did the run-of-the-mill Board buildings. A good example is the very handsome Classical church of The Holy Trinity, Ballycastle, County Antrim (1752-6), which may have been designed by Christopher Myers (1717-89), but was definitely paid for by Hugh Boyd (1690-1765), who also developed the town’s harbour, glassworks, and coal-mines.

An interest in national antiquities sparked a revival of Romanesque architecture, and one of the most distinguished examples of the Hiberno-Romanesque revival style can be found in the small but exquisite church of St Patrick, Jordanstown, County Antrim (1865-8), built just before Disestablishment, to designs by one of the best architects working in Ulster at the time, W.H. Lynn, although nominally the work was by Lanyon, Lynn, & Lanyon (Charles Lanyon [1813-89], William Henry Lynn [1829-1915], and John Lanyon [1839-1900]). Faced with white sandstone relieved with red banding, its masterly composition (suggested, perhaps, by the 12th-century exemplar of St Finghan, Clonmacnoise, County Offaly) includes a semicircular apse, round tower with conical cap, south porch, lean-to aisle, and transept, and was described as the “First Attempt in Modern Times to revive the Ancient Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland”. St Patrick’s is an assured and imaginative creation, rather than a stodgy assemblage of parts culled from several sources. The lovely interior is faced with red and black bricks, with stone dressings: capitals of the southern nave-arcade are beautifully carved.

Interior of St Patrick’s, Jordanstown, looking east towards the apsidal chancel and into the south aisle (© A.C.W. Merrick in James Stevens Curl [2007]: Victorian Architecture: Diversity & Invention [Reading: Spire Books Ltd.], 233).
Church of the Ascension, Rathdaire, Ballybrittas, County Laois, western doorway in an accomplished Hiberno-Romanesque style (1885), designed by James Franklin Fuller (© Representative Church Body photograph by David Lawrence).

Another essay in Hiberno-Romanesque can be found at the church of the Ascension, Rathdaire, Ballybrittas, County Laois, of the 1880s (and therefore post-Disestablishment), designed by James Franklin Fuller (1835-1924): the west elevation has a doorway of four Orders set under a steeply pitched element elaborately carved with interlacing ornament and a large Celtic cross, a composition perhaps suggested by the 12th-century west front of St Cronan’s, Roscrea, County Tipperary. The interior of the Ascension, a somewhat pedestrian type of mechanical Romanesque, is not in the same league as Lynn’s masterpiece at Jordanstown: it is unloveable. 

One of the most extraordinary of all Anglican churches erected in Ireland is that of the Good Shepherd, Sion Mills, County Tyrone, consecrated in 1909. It owes hardly anything to Hiberno-Romanesque, but everything to the Romanesque of Italy: the architect was William Frederick Unsworth (1851-1912), and the force behind the erection of the building was Brigadier-General Ambrose St Quentin Ricardo (1866-1923), who had married into the Herdman family, owners of Sion Mills. Pistoia is usually named as the source for this amazing Italianate design, but I detect more influences from Lombardy. Unsworth’s church is very coherent and sophisticated: it has two campanili on either side of a semicircular apse at the east end, and the entrance-front has an apse-like projection in which is a stair leading to the internal gallery (this is flanked by two lean-to porches). The interior is mainly illuminated by large semi-circular-headed windows set high in the side walls.

This, in so many ways admirable publication, illustrates a wealth of architectural drawings given an airing for the first time. There are many designs on show, not only for churches, but for sundry parsonages, many of which are pleasing, reticent, late-Georgian houses, with handsome fanlights, but otherwise very plain and understated. Some 20th-century designs for rectories and glebe-houses by Harold Fellowes Prynne (1892-1984), who was active in the diocese of Tuam in the early 1960s are interesting: a proposed new rectory for Oughterard County Galway (1962), for example, is illustrated, but there are some depressingly undistinguished designs as well, such as the proposed new rectory for St Jude’s parish, Kilmainham (1964), by McDonnell & Dixon (founded by Laurence Aloysius McDonnell [1867-1925] and William Albert Dixon [1892-1978]), of Dublin, who on the actual ecclesiastical front (e.g. St Mary’s, Crumlin, Dublin (1941), could really produce the goods.  

Extraordinary Church of the Good Shepherd, Sion Mills, County Tyrone, in an Italian Romanesque style, consecrated 1909, designed by W.F. Unsworth (© Michael O’Neill).

However, apart from some dodgy captioning, confusing north and south, east and west, there are too many very poor modern photographs, with grossly distorted converging verticals, which, to be blunt, should not have been used at all, and ought to have been replaced with more professional shots: Plates 24, 58, 124, 128, 185, 189, 198, and 217 are real stinkers in that regard. But in spite of these reservations, and some curious lacunæ, the book is to be warmly welcomed for its wealth of valuable material, revealing architectural history previously obscured within archives rarely exposed to view.

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