29 July 2012

A unique church doorway and a bishop’s forced departure

The sandstone Romanesque doorway in Saint Lachtain’s Church, Freshford, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

On the way road from Dublin to Cork yesterday, we took a break at Freshford in Co Kilkenny, to see a unique church door, and to visit a house associated with one of the most difficult Reformation bishops in the Church of Ireland.

The village green in Freshford, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The village of Freshford was the site of a monastery founded in the early seventh century by Saintt Lachtain.

In 836, Viking raiders burnt Saint Lachtain’s Church. The church was rebuilt in 1100, and the present Saint Lachtain’s was built in 1731.

All that survives of the 12th century church is the sandstone Romanesque doorway in Saint Lachtain’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Freshford. This is one of only two such portal designs remaining in Ireland. The other doorway is in Saint Brendan’s Cathedral in Clonfert, Co Galway.

The base of the Shee cross on the village green in Freshford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The church is close to the village green, The Square, which is in the shape of a triangle. An interesting feature on the green is the soft sandstone base of the Freshford Cross.

When Lucas Shee of Uppercourt Manor died in 1622, his widow Ellen Butler erected a cross in his memory at the back entrance to Uppercourt Manor. When Sir William Morris came to live in Uppercourt in 1790, he had the cross moved and re-erected on the green in Freshford.

The inscription at the base of the cross once read: “The noble Ellen Butler, wife of Lucas Shee Esq., got this monument made. Pray, traveller, that the souls of both may have eternal rest.”

Uppercourt Manior … once home of Bishop John Bale, the Shee and Morris families, and the Mill Hill Fathers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Uppercourt Manor is a short distance outside Freshford and stands on the site of the bishop’s palace built at Achadh Úr (Aghour) in 1225.

In 1553, the Reformation Bishop of Ossory, John Bale (1495-1563), came to Kilkenny and lived at Uppercourt Manor. Bale was such a quarrelsome controversialist that he became known as “bilious Bale.” His “morality” plays denounced the monastic system and its supporters in unrestrained language and coarse imagery, marked by their profane parody.

From the moment he arrived in Ireland, Bale was uncompromising in his theological views. When he was being ordained bishop in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 2 February 1553, he refused to be consecrated by the traditional rites used in the Church of Ireland., insisting that he was sworn to obey the laws of England.

Bale’s account of his time in Ossory, Vocacyon of John Bale to the Byshopperycke of Ossorie, shows how his zeal for the Reformation was never tempered by discretion. He quarrelled bitterly with the clergy and people of the diocese, and alienated his neighbours.

When Mary Tudor’s accession was proclaimed to great celebration in Kilkenny on 20 August, there was a Catholic procession through the streets. Bale managed to preach in Kilkenny that day on Romans 13 and on the duty of obedience and, remarkably, three of his 25 plays were performed at the Market Cross in Kilkenny on the day of Queen Mary’s coronation.

On Saint Bartholomew’s Day, he preached on the text: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” That evening, he dined with Robert Shee, the Mayor of Kilkenny.

By 31 August, the old services and rituals had been revived throughout the Diocese of Ossory. A week later, when Bale sent five of his workers into his fields in Freshford to make hay on Friday 8 September 1553, regarded as a holy day, they were attacked and killed, including three Englishmen and a 16-year-old girl, and the bishop’s horse was stolen.

The Mayor of Kilkenny, Robert Shee, came to Bale’s rescue, and gave him an armed escort from Uppercourt to Kilkenny. Within a week, though, Bale fled, never to return to Kilkenny. He died in Canterbury in November 1563 and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

The Shee family moved into Uppercourt Manor, and there for a century until the Cromwellian confiscations of 1653. The present house was built by Sir William Morris around 1790. Eventually, the Mill Hill Fathers bought the house in 1932 and turned into secondary school. The manor now stands on a stud farm owned by Dr Paul O’Byrne, who has restored the house.

Clomantagh Castle, near Freshford … seen through a ruined window of Clomantagh Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

On our way back onto the motorway, we stopped briefly to look at the ruined church and restored castle at Clomantagh.

Clomantagh Castle is part of a unique settlement of tower house, farmhouse and bawn. The tower house was built in the 1430s, and the adjoining farmhouse dates from the early 1800s. The castle has a “Sheela-na-gig” carved on one of the stones.

Although there are no gravestones in the church itself, there are about 40 stones standing in the graveyard around the church ruins, some dating from the 1760s.

On our way back from Cork to Dublin this afternoon, we travelled through Lismore and Cappoquin, visiting Lismore Cathedral, Lismore Castle, Cappoquin House, and my my grandmother’s former farmhouse near Mount Mellary, before driving on across the Knockmealdown Mountains, through “the Vee” and down into Golden Vale of Co Tipperary.

But they are visits to talk about on another day.

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