Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A mediaeval priory and modern parish in Kilkenny

1, Saint John’s ... a mediaeval monastic foundation in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Kilkenny earlier this week to preach at the Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist in Saint John’s Church in John Street on Sunday. The early morning journey down to Kilkenny brought me through beautiful countryside with the mist rising from the golden fields as the late summer sun started to break through.

Although I know many of the parishioners of Saint John’sand I have often seen and photographed this church from the outside, this was my first time inside Saint John’s Church.

As Vicar of the Kilkenny Cathedral group of parishes, the Revd Elaine Murray is the priest-in-charge of Saint John’s Church. The Harvest Eucharist was a beautiful moment to be in the church, and the parishioners were warmly welcoming and delighted to show me around the church and its grounds afterwards (for my sermon, see What hope can we offer to the children of Swaziland?).

I was particularly pleased to visit Saint John’s this year, as this year saw the 500th anniversary of the death of Bishop Edmund Comerford, who was Prior of Saint John’s at the same time as he was Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral and Bishop of Ferns (see Comerford Profiles 1: Edmund Comerford (d. 1509): the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns). Edmund Comerford probably lived at Saint John’s throughout this time until his death on Easter Day, 1509.

Mediaeval monastic foundation

2, Saint John’s Church in John Street, Kilkenny, on Sunday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Augustinians had settled on the east side of the river in Kilkenny before 1202 because in that year Bishop Felix O’Dulany granted a charter to Brother Osbert, the Prior of Saint John’s Hospital, giving the prior and his friars the tithes of Kilkenny Castle. The original priory probably stood immediately east of John’s Bridge in Kilkenny.

Then, about 1211, William Marshall the elder, Earl of Pembroke, granted a new charter to the Augustinians in which he assigned the new site of Saint John’s Abbey and Saint John’s Parish to the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine. The charter describes Saint John’s as parochiam ultra pontem de Kilkennia, versus orientem &; adjacentem eidem ponti or “the parish beyond the bridge of Kilkenny, to the east and adjoining the same bridge.”

The charter gave the Augustinians a new site for their priory on the present site in John Street, along with the three city parishes of Fennell, Kilmologga and Saint John’s itself, along with a fourth parish of Loughmerans. Other churches or parishes granted to Saint John’s later in the mediaeval period included Claragh, Jerpoint, Dromerthir (Kilmodum), Kilmelag, Dunfert, Tibretbreytaynm Kildreynagh, McCully, Castleconer and Scatheryk (Skirke).

3, The Eucharist was first celebrated in Saint John’s on the Feast of Saint John the Apostle in 1220 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Eucharist was celebrated in the new priory church for the first time at the High Altar in Saint John’s on the Feast of Saint John the Apostle in 1220. That year too, the community was also granted the lands identified today with Jenkinstown to the north of Kilkenny, and around 1227 the Augustinians of Saint John were granted the churches of Saint Evin and Saint Mary in New Ross by William Marshall junior, Earl of Pembroke.

Building work continued at Saint John’s, with a new Lady Chapel added at the end of the 13th century, so that the Mass was celebrated in the Lady Chapel of Saint John’s for the first time on 25 March 1290.

New houses and new buildings are recorded in 1325, although the campanile or bell tower of the Priory Church fell in 1329. Over the years, the Priory continued to expand, and we can imagine how at one stage the Priory was at least twice the length of the present building.

The Civic Records of Kilkenny record that the Prior and community of Saint John’s were jailed in 1331. A generation or more later – some time between 1361 and 1405 – the Prior of Saint John’s, Walter Walsh, was excommunicated and the Priory was placed under interdict by the Bishop of Ossory.

The Priory was suppressed, along with the other monastic foundations, during the reign of Henry VIII. The last Prior was Richard Cantwell, and on 21 March 1540 he surrendered the Priory, which then was granted to the Mayor and Citizens of Kilkenny. Richard Cantwell was then appointed Curate and Chaplain of the Parish Church of Saint John the Evangelist, while four canons of the Priory, Thomas Marshall, Robert Purcell, Robert Rothe and James Bycton, were granted pensions of £2 a year each.

During the Confederation of Kilkenny in the mid-17th century, part of the priory site was also occupied by the Capuchins. But at Cardinal Rinucinni’s prompting, Dean Thomas Rothe handed over Saint John’s to the Jesuits in 1645 for use as a college or seminary.

The Jesuits were driven out in 1650, but during the reign of James II, the Priory changed hands once again when it was handed over to the Capuchin Friars, who were already using a plot of ground that had been part of the original priory lands and had built an oratory there.

At the end of that century, after the Williamite Wars had ended, both the Jesuits and Capuchins were expelled from Kilkenny and much of the site at Saint John’s fell into ruin.

Around 1780, most of the nave of the main chapel of the friary was torn down, along with its two towers and other buildings on the site. Some of the remaining stones were salvaged and were used to build the first military barracks in Kilkenny.

A modern parish church

The Lady Chapel of Saint John’s, which was left standing, was known for the large number of windows in its wall: there were five triple lancets lighting the south side alone, so that the Lady Chapel was once known as the “Lantern of Ireland.”

4, When Saint John’s was rebuilt in 1817, many of the once-celebrated lancet windows were filled in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1817, the Lady Chapel it was re-roofed and consecrated as the Church of Ireland Parish Church of Saint John’s. As part of the rebuilding, many of the once-celebrated lancet windows were filled in, although the east window probably dates back to around 1300.

Meanwhile, the building to the west of the priory ruins had ceased being used as a barracks by 1818. It was bought by the Evans Trust, set up under the terms of the will of Joseph Evans of Belevan, who died in 1818, and the old barracks became the Evans Poor House or Asylum. Today, the building is derelict and crumbling, but there are interesting plans to restore it as a library.

Robertson, who supervised the transformation of Evans Poor House, may also have been the architect for the restoration of the Lady Chapel as Saint John’s Parish Church.

Mediaeval ruins and monuments

A small opening at the west end of Saint John’s Church brought me into the roofless remains of the chancel of the old priory church. The lean-to vestry of the church does not manage to fully detract from the impact of the majestic seven-light East Window, which dates from about 1250. Inside the ruins, some late mediaeval tombs are still worth seeing. The oldest tomb, dating from the 14th century, is in the north wall of the chancel, and is also the burial place of John Langton and Beale Archer his wife, who both died in 1571, their son Richard Langton, who died in 1566 and his wife Anastasia Phelan, and their son, Edward Langton.

5, The Purcell tomb in the north-east corner of the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Beside this monument is the altar tomb of a Purcell couple in the north-east corner of the chancel, dating from 1500 and with carvings of the Crucifixion and the Apostles. The head and feet of the effigy of the knight have been broken off; the lady beside him has a long flowing robe and a horned headdress.

Other old Kilkenny family names can be seen on the monuments and tombs, including Cowley, Rothe, Langton and Shee. Michael Cowley was one of the first aldermen of Kilkenny under the new charter of 1609, and was Mayor of Kilkenny in 1626.

Inside Saint John’s, on the floor of the former Lady Chapel is the stone covering the vault of the Langton family. Those buried there include Silvester Langton (died 1749) of the Butterslip, Kilkenny, his first wife Anne Langton (died 1719), his second wife Mary Sexton Tobin (died 1755), as well as his daughters Mary Fitzpatrick (died 1746) and Jane Langton (died 1801) and his son Joseph Langton (died 1760). Silvester and Mary Langton were the parents of Anne Langton, wife of James Comerford (1720-1809)) of the Butterslip, Kilkenny (see 4: Comerford of Ballybur Castle and Kilkenny City).

6, Nos 5 and 6 John’s Quay ... also known as Prior’s Orchard ... has an interesting pair of double doors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The area between Saint John’s Church and John’s Quay is known as known as Prior’s Orchard, a name that is also given to Nos 5 and 6 John’s Quay, a three-storey, four-bay Georgian building, where the two entrance doors share an excellent portico. This pedimented portico has three pilasters, each with a band of fluting, and is probably the work of the Colles family. Above the cornice is a small stepped parapet in a style that has been described as “Kilkenny Egyptian Revival.”

I missed mentioning this interesting building earlier this year when I blogged about the double doors of Kilkenny (see The double doors of Kilkenny).

Some Comerford signs and shops

After lunch in the Zuni Hotel on Patrick Street, I went in search of some more signs of the Comerford presence, past and present, in Kilkenny and the surrounding area.

7, Park Villa, with the Comerford coat-of-arms on the welcome sign (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Heading out on the Castlecomer Road, “Park Villa” is a family-run Bed and Breakfast guesthouse just opposite the Newpark Hotel (see http://www.kilkennybedandbreakfast.com/index.html). Outside, the welcome sign includes an interpretation of the Comerford coat-of-arms.

9, The Comerford shop in Barrack Street, Castlecomer, is boarded up and crumbling, but has an important architectural feature (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

North of Kilkenny, in Castlecomer, I stopped in The Square and walked up Barrack Street to see the unique Comerford shop-front on a building that that is blocked up and beginning to crumble.

9, The Comerford shopfront is a unique feature in the architecture of Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The shop-front dates from about 1900, although the house was probably built about 1825. According to An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of County Kilkenny (Dublin, 2006), archival photography dating to the beginning of the last century indicates that Castlecomer once had “a shopfront genre particular to the town.” This style was identified by a cornice brought forward as a canopy.

Although the Comerford shop in Barrack Street is no longer in use, “this last surviving shopfront of this type in Barrack Street retains most, if not all, of the original detailing, including traditional painted lettering.”

10, Late summer sunshine and flowers in a Comerford shopfront garden outside Castlecomer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

North of Castlecomer, the late summer sunshine continued to shine on the flowers that were still in full bloom in the small garden outside another small Comerford shop. It was a beautiful day, and so you can easily understand how they still have to peel me out of Kilkenny every time I visit it if I am to get back to home and work in Dublin.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.