Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Saint George’s Church celebrates
200 years in the heart of Balbriggan

Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan ... celebrating its bicentenary this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was sorry I could not be in Saint George’s Church last night as it marked 200 years in Balbriggan with a special Service of Thanksgiving.

The foundation stone for Saint George’s Church was laid on 23 July 1813.

The bicentenary was recalled last night with Evening Prayer using the words of the Book of Common Prayer current in 1813. The service was led by Canon Cecil Hyland and Balbriggan Lay Reader Roy Hicks.

Afterwards, an exhibition of old Bibles and Prayer Books published since 1800 was on display for the first time in Balbriggan.

High on the west tower of the church, for the first time in living memory, the inscription has been restored by local craftsman, Michael Grimes, It reads: “Founded by Rev George Hamilton of Hampton on the 23rd day of July in the year of our Lord 1813.”

By the early 19th century, the parish church in Balrothery was in a dilapidated state. In addition, by then most of the parishioners were living in Balbriggan, and the Hamilton family planned a new parish church or chapel-of-ease in the town.

Those plans were frustrated by resisted by successive Rectors of Balrothery. Eventually, however, the Hamiltons realised their hopes in 1813 when the Revd George Hamilton was given permission to build the new church for the people of Balbriggan under an Act of Parliament, 11 and 12 George III, 6, and the “chapelry of Saint George” was founded.

The legislation provided for a perpetual curacy, with a grant of £25 a year from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners from Primate Boulter’s fund. Hamilton granted the land for the church and provided a substantial endowment to fund the stipend of a perpetual curate or vicar.

The foundation stone for the new church was laid on 23 July 1813, and the chapel was completed in 1816 at a cost of £3,018.2.2, of which £1,400 was given by the Board of First Fruits. £478.15.2 was raised from voluntary subscriptions by local people in Balbriggan, and £1,139.7.0 came from the Revd George Hamilton and his family.

When the church building was completed in 1816 it was described as “a handsome edifice with a square embattled tower.”

Saint George’s was consecrated on 20 October 1816. In his book, Churches of the Church of Ireland Dedicated to Saint George, Duncan Scarlett suggests the church was dedicated to Saint George in honour of King George III, who was then the reigning monarch. But the name may also have been chosen personally by George Hamilton.

The Revd George Hamilton was the proprietor of the village and the keeper of lighthouse– an interesting pursuit for a priest of the Church of Ireland. Hamilton and the Marquess of Lansdowne provided the funds for building the second pier in Balbriggan between 1826 and 1829, forming an inner harbour .

However, the church accidentally burned down in 1835, and another new church was built in the 1830s.

This original church, designed by an unknown architect, was a probably handsome edifice, although there are no surviving illustrations. We can imagine that it was a traditionally aligned three-bay hall, with a western tower. However, the church was accidentally burned on 22 December 1833. After the fire, the congregation used a schoolroom until their church was restored.

Saint George’s was rebuilt to a design by Frederick Darley, with a grant of £478 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and reopened for worship on 4 March 1838. Darley enlarged the church with transects in the third bay to give the building a cruciform shape. The original box pews, destroyed in the fire, were replaced with bench pews.

Saint George’s is built of random rubble with few decorative features other than the dressed stone surrounds, hood mouldings and reticulated tracery on the window openings, most of which have clear lattice glazing in the original metal frames.

The quoins are restricted to the corners on the south wall, which faces the street. The later vestry and organ extensions are hidden from public view on the north wall. Unlike many churches of its time, the north wall of Saint George’s has window openings, although one of these was built up in 1901 when the organ was installed on the nave wall.

Darley’s original plans show how he intended to decorate the south facade of Saint George’s by adding buttresses with gabled extensions, pinnacles and finials matching those of the tower. He also envisaged a battlemented parapet above the gable on the south-facing transept, surmounted by a finial in the shape of a decorated cross. However, the money for these decorations may have run out during the course of rebuilding.

The two-stage tower at the west end of the church survived the fire of 1833 and was incorporated into the rebuilt church. This tower is of roughly-coursed rubble and offset buttresses of ashlar limestone. On the lower stage there are large windows on the west and north faces, and above the string course there are four openings with timbered louvers on the upper stage, which contain a bell by Thomas Mears of London, installed in 1840, and a carillon or peal of eight bells, installed in 1909 in memory of Warren St Ledger Woods of Whitestown House, who died the previous year. One lone operator on the peal can play simple hymn tunes and Christmas Carols, but the volume is not as great as the large cast-iron bells hanging in the belfry above the peal.

Surmounting the upper stage of the tower is a battlemented parapet of sandstone, extensions of the buttresses with gablets and pinnacles topped with decorated finials, two of which are now missing. The spire was built ca 1835 at the restoration of Saint George’s, and the parapet, buttress extensions and pinnacles may date from the same time. The tower was damaged during the Night of the Big Wind, on 6 and 7 January 1839.

Psalm 132, quoted on a plaque above the main door on the south side of tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The biblical text on a plaque above the main door on the south side of tower above reads:

I will not suffer mine eyes
to sleep nor mine eye-lids
to slumber • neither the
temples of my head to
take any rest;
Until I find out a place
for the temple of the Lord:, an habitation
for the mighty God of
Jacob.

– Psalm 132: 4-5.

The quotation may have been chosen to give thanks for the rebuilding of the church after the fire of 1833.

Inside the entrance porch, a memorial honours parishioners who died in World War I.

Inside Saint George’s, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ architects, William Joseph Welland and William Gillespie, added a staircase and the gallery at the west end of the church in 1861-1863. This gallery is supported on two quatrefoil iron columns on either side of the aisle.

Underneath the gallery, the baptistery is in the north-west corner, and was used after the Eucharist on Sunday morning for serving coffee and tea. The baptistery has an octagonal red marble font, supported on grey marble colonnettes rising from a plinth of matching red marble. The font, dated 25 December 1862, bears the name Amelia Fancourt Hamilton, and was a Christmas gift to Saint George’s Parish from the wealthiest woman in Balbriggan at that time. She also established an infant school in the town. The baptistery was tiled in 1904 as a memorial to the Revd Samuel Warren, who was the Rector of Balbriggan from 1865 until his death in 1902.

The oldest memorials in the church are in the north transept, many of them to the Hamilton family who had their family pew there. One of these memorials, to Baron George Hamilton, was originally in Balrothery Parish Church before being moved to Saint George’s. He died at the age of 63 years on 14 November 1793. There are monuments too to the memory of R. Hamilton Esq., and the Revd George Hamilton.

The elaborate memorial to George Alexander Hamilton, who died in 1871 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The most elaborate memorial recalls George Alexander Hamilton, who died on 17 September 1871. His wife Amelia Fancourt Hamilton is remembered on a similar memorial nearby. This memorial says: “Her clothing and coal clubs were for many years a great benefit to the poor of this neighbourhood.” It also mentions that she set up an infant school in 1836 at Hampton Gates.

There are other memorials recalling tragic deaths, including the death of Richard Lucas Baker who died aged 22 as a soldier in Guernsey in 1848, and the death of Desmond Maurice Macartney-Filgate of Lowtherstone, who was with the RAF in World War I and died in a plane crash in 1918.

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are two memorial stained glass windows in the south transept. One, depicting the Adoration of the Magi, was designed by William Francis Dixon and made by the internationally famous firm, Meyer and Company of Munich, in 1906. It recalls the drowning at sea of Desmond Filgate’s father, Charles Alexander Hume Macartney-Filgate, in 1906. Tryphena Elizabeth Seymour Macartney Filgate, who lost her husband and son in two tragedies, died in 1919.

The Presentation in the Temple ... a window by Catherine O’Brien of An Tur Glione in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The second window, designed by Catherine O’Brien of An Tur Glone in the Celtic Revival style in 1938, depicts the Presentation in the Temple, and is in memory of Richard Taylor Woods of Whitestown House.

The Resurrection ... an Easter sermon in glass in the East Window in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The three-light East Window behind the altar contains the oldest glass in the church, dating from 1883, and is a complete Easter sermon in itself. This window depicts the Resurrection and was also made by Meyer and Company of Munich. It was erected in memory of Thomas Edward Taylor (1811-1883) of Ardgillan Castle, near Balbriggan, who was MP for Co Dublin over 42 years and who is buried in a vault beneath the church.

Beneath the window and behind the altar stands a simple wooden Celtic cross, presented in 1995 by the family of Kathy Keenan. When the lights are on, this cross throws three shadows, evoking images of Calvary that are so appropriate in this Holy Week.

The crossing is occupied by a large chancel and an extension of the originally shallow sanctuary, which has an attractive, carved wooden altar. The altar frontal, and the pulpit and lectern falls were embroidered by Dorothy Whyte in memory of her son Alan White (24), who died on Christmas Day, 1936.

The wooden carved pulpit was donated in 1899 by Sarah Scriven, daughter of Henry Hamilton, originally from Tullylish, Co. Down. Sarah Scriven, a doctor’s wife, lived in Hampton Hall, and her son, the Revd Rowland Scriven (1859-1944), was a curate in the parish from 1898 to 1920, when he moved to England.

The Revd Samuel Percival Warren (1828-1902), who was the Rector of Balbriggan from 1865 until his death in 1902, was responsible for many later improvements to the church, including the installation of the organ in 1901. At the insistence of Gertrude Uhthoff Hamilton, the organ was located in its unusual place in the north wall.

One of the few graves in the churchyard is that of the Revd Daniel Henry Maunsell (1791-1834), “Curate of the Chapel of Balbriggan,” who is buried to the west of the tower. He died of cholera on 15 July 1834 at the age of 42, and it is said that the only man with the courage to touch his body was the son of Revd George Hamilton of Hampton Hall, T.C.G. Hamilton, who placed his body in a coffin and buried him.

Twenty years later, the row between the Rectors of Balrothery and the Hamiltons of Balbriggan erupted again in 1855 on a dispute over burial rights in the churchyard. A proposal by the Revd James Fitzgerald Gregg (1820-1905) to use the grounds for further burials was successfully opposed by the Rector of Balrothery, the Revd Francis Baker, who argued that the grounds should not be consecrated for burials because the church was “too close to the town for burials to be sanitary.”

The only exception was conceded for members of the Hamilton family, whose family vault lies beneath the east end of the church. Gertrude Uhthoff Hamilton and Alfred Ormsby Hamilton, who both died in 1935, are buried on the south side of the church.

The Benson Home Communion Set, passed through a long line of clergy for more than a century and a half (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When I was ordained priest 12 years ago, my good friend, the late Canon Norman Ruddock, then Rector of Wexford, presented me with a Home Communion set that had first belonged to the Revd Dr Charles William Benson (1836-1919), who was Rector of Balbriggan from 1903 until his death in 1919.

Dr Benson was known affectionately in the parish as “Daddy Benson,” and while he was Rector of Balbriggan a hundred years ago, he lived across the street from Saint George’s Church in Bedford House – now the privately-run Saint Anthony’s Nursing Home.

Dr Benson was a pioneering figure in education in the late 19th century and as headmaster of Rathmines School for over 40 years he was responsible for nurturing and encouraging the vocations of many leading bishops, priests and missionaries in the Church of Ireland. At the age of 67, he became the Rector of Saint George’s in 1903, and he was still the Rector of Balbriggan when he died at the age of 82 on 6 February 1919 in Bedford House in Church Street.

The Revd Dr Charles Benson, Rector of Balbriggan and the first owner of the home communion set

With that Home Communion set, Norrie included a hand-written list of all the priests who owned the paten and chalice and who – over the generations – passed it on to those they saw as their successors in the ministry and heirs to their vision, with my name at the very end. It is good to be reminded of the whole communion of saints.

Balbriggan became an independent parish in 1871. In 1960, Balbriggan and Balrothery were united with Holmpatrick (Skerries) and Kenure (Rush).

Trevor Sargent of Saint George’s has organised a number of events to mark the bicentenary of the foundation of Saint George’s Church.

Last Saturday saw a presentation in the church grounds of Pride and Prejudice by the Chapterhouse Theatre Group.

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