Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Looking for Lily and Lolly in the churchyard below the Luas line

Saint Nahi’s Church on Upper Churchtown Road, Dublin, a familiar site to many commuters on the Luas line (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

On my way to work this morning, I got off the Luas at Dundrumm, and stopped to spend a little time looking at Saint Nahi’s Church and its surrounding graveyard on Upper Churchtown Road.

Although the churchyard slopes down to Dundrum Village, and the church is a landmark site for all who travel on the Luas, I wonder how many people stop to explore the story of this ancient Christian site.

Saint Nahi was not known for his buildings, teaching or preaching but for his piety, his sanctity and his desire to please God. Tradition says he established a monastic centre on the site of Saint Nahi’s Church in Dundrum in the seventh century. In his Lives of the Saints, Butler names him as Saint Nathy Cruimthir, that is, “the priest.” He was said to be a native of the Luighne district in Sligo. It is said he was sent to Achonry by Saint Finnian of Clonard, and Saint Crumnathy’s Cathedral in Achonry is named after him.

The circular shape of the road to the west and south-west of Saint Nahi’s Church shows the typical circular shape of early mediaeval monastic sites (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The name Taney may come from the Irish Teach Nahi or “Nahi’s house,” although other source say it comes from the Irish Tamhnach, a green field or arable place. Saint Nathy or Nahi is thought to have lived in a monastery at Churchtown about 600 AD. The circular shape of the road to the west and south-west of the church shows the typical circular shape of early mediaeval monastic sites, and archaeologists confirm that the site at Saint Nahi’s was protected by two circular structures.

The discovery of two Rathdown slabs in Saint Nahi’s Graveyard shows that Vikings settled in Dundrum, that Christians were buried at Saint Nahi’s at least 1,000 years ago, and that the hill on which the church stands was an ancient ecclesiastical centre.

Rathdown Slabs are unique to the Barony of Rathdown and feature a distinctive type of decoration not found in other parts of Christian Ireland. This first Rathdown Slab, discovered in 2002, features a cup mark and a saltire cross formed by elongated X-shaped lines. An incised line runs down the centre of the slab. A second Rathdown Slab was discovered in 2004. Both stones are now kept inside the church.

Saint Nahi’s Church has been was rebuilt several times – in the years 800, 950, 1650 and in 1750 – and the church built in 1750 was restored in 1910.

A report from the Papal Legate, Cardinal Giovanni Paparo, who presided at the Synod of Kells in 1152, shows that a church was standing on this site at that time. A Papal bull from Pope Alexander in 1179 refers to Saint Nahi’s and the bull in the Liber Niger of Archbishop Hugh Allen of Dublin from 1529 to 1534 also mentions the church.

In 1630, the church had fallen into disrepair and was in ruins. The present Saint Nahi’s Church was built in the mid-18th century through the efforts of Archdeacon Isaac Mann and his curate, the Revd Jeremy Walsh. It was consecrated on 8 June 1760 by Bishop Richard Robinson (1709-1794) of Ferns, who later became Archbishop of Armagh, and the church was used the following year by the Bishop of Limerick for the ordination of Priests.

Saint Nahi’s Church was designed as a simple rectangular box shape and its simplicity is part of its present attraction and charm. Because Saint Nahi’s was too small for the parishioners of Dundrum and Churchtown, the vestry decided in 1809 to build a new church nearby, and so Christ Church, Taney, was opened in June 1818. It appears the old church was closed for much of the remainder of the 19th century.

The gates into Saint Nahi’s are dedicated to Canon William Monk Gibbon (1864-1935), who was the Rector of Taney from 1901 until his death. Canon Monk Gibbon initiated the restoration of Saint Nahi’s Church and chose some of the beautiful stained glass windows in the church. He is buried near the entrance to the graveyard, with his family. His son, William Monk Gibbon, was a distinguished writer and poet and a friend of the Yeats sisters, Lily and Lolly, who are also buried here, who presented the beautiful embroideries illustrating the Last Supper behind the Altar.

The baptismal font, which was moved from the Saint Kevin’s Church in Camden Row in 1904, is the one at which the Duke of Wellington was baptised on 30 April 1769. The baptistery window, with a central panel illustrating the Annunciation, is by Evie Hone. The window was completed in 1926 but was placed in its present position only in 1933.

Other stained glass windows in Saint Nahi’s are of interest because most are the work of An Túr Gloine (the Tower of Glass) group of artists who along with Harry Clarke produced much highly esteemed stained glass work in Ireland during the period 1903-1963.

The other artists who worked on the windows in Saint Nahi’s include: Alfred Ernest Child (1875-1939), the Sermon on the Mount (1929, South Wall); Catherine O’Brien (1881-1963), I am the Resurrection and the Life (1914, East Wall), the Disciples at Emmaus (1919, East Wall), the Miraculous Draft of Fishes (1919, East Wall), After the Transfiguration (1936, North Wall), and Christ Blessing little Children (1947, South Wall); and Ethel Rhind (1879-1952), Praise the Lord (1916, South Wall).

Saint Nahi's Graveyard has over 1,200 graves, and the names of 800 of those buried here are known (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Saint Nahi’s Graveyard, the old churchyard surrounding this church, has over 1,200 graves, and the names of 800 of those buried here are known.

Among those buried here are the artists Susan Mary (‘Lily’) and Elizabeth Corbett (‘Lolly’), sisters of the poet WB Yeats and the artist Jack B Yeats. The Yeats family lived at Gurteen Dhas on Lower Churchtown Road, opposite the ‘Bottle Tower’ pub. Lily and Lolly were involved in the Dun Emer Industries in Dundrum, founded by Evelyn Gleeson in 1902, and which produced weaving, embroidery, printing and other crafts. Lolly was the first woman to run a private printing press in Ireland, and Lily and Lolly are buried with their father, John Butler Yeats.

The grave of Patrick Bride, a prominent 18th century pharmacist, banker and politician (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Bride of Saint Stephen’s Green, who has an impressive if crumbling grave in the churchyard, died on 29 September 1808 aged 88. He was an eminent pharmacist, was High Sheriff of Dublin in 1780, and was a director and governor of the Bank of Ireland.

Also buried in the churchyard are James Burke, one of the spectators shot dead in Croke Park on ‘Bloody Sunday,’ 21 November 1920; Patrick Doyle from Milltown, who was killed at Clanwilliam House during the Easter Rising in 1916, and who gave his name to Patrick Doyle Road in the Windy Arbour and Milltown area nearby; and his son, Patrick Doyle, who was killed in action in the Irish Civil War at Crooksling, Co Dublin, on 7 July 1922.

Taney Parish is the largest Church of Ireland Parish in Ireland. In recent years, Saint Nahi’s Church has enjoyed a revival and is now very much at the heart of the worshipping community in the 21st century.