Thursday, 2 March 2017

Exploring the ancient church site
and the churchyard in Rathkeale

Wandering around the churchyard at Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Rathkeale a few mornings this week, and apart from time in Holy Trinity Church and Rathkeale No 2 National School, which adjoins the church, I had time to walk around the churchyard, to learn more about the story of the church, the churchyard and the burials there, and to enjoy some of the architectural heritage of this town, which often goes unappreciated.

Holy Trinity Church was built at the west end of Rathkeale in 1831, but it may incorporate parts of a church that was standing here in 1825, almost 200 years ago. This church is said to stand on the site of an earlier church, and that this has been a place of worship for more than 700 years, so this is perhaps the third church on the site.

A comprehensive list of Rectors of Rathkeale survives from the mid-15th century, when Dennis O’Farrelly (Offeralye) was Rector from 1459 to 1471.

It is believed that the church was designed by the Limerick-based Pain brothers, James Pain (1779-1877), whose other works in this group of parishes include Castletown Church and the former Rectory in Askeaton, and George Pain (1792-1838).

Holy Trinity Church stands on a raised site, and is approached by flight of cut limestone steps. The impact of the church is heightened by its raised site and the tall pinnacled tower, which make it a prominent feature in Rathkeale, even from a distance.

The simple and regular form of the nave and its design in the form of a single-cell with a tower are characteristic of churches of the era. The fine stonework and tall tower are features of significance and have a positive impact on Rathkeale’s townscape. The variety of window openings adds interest to the building, with their mixture of Tudor and Gothic Revival styles.

The church is a very attractive building, with a lofty square tower, set in well-kept grounds. Samuel Lewis wrote in 1837: ‘The church is a very handsome edifice, in the early English style, with a lofty square tower, embattled and crowned with crocketed pinnacles: it was erected in 1831, near the site of the former church, and is built of black marble raised from a quarry on the river’s bank near the town …’

The east end of Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, with the vestry on the south side (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

This is a Board of First Fruits church, with a four-bay nave, a single-bay single-storey vestry to the south elevation, and a square-plan three-stage entrance tower to the west. Funds were raised in 1877 for a new chancel, so the church is a composite of work carried out throughout the 19th century.

The nave has a pitched slate roof, with carved limestone copings to the gables and cast-iron rainwater goods. The vestry has a hipped slate roof with cast-iron rainwater goods.

The church tower has a carved eaves course and a crenellated parapet, with carved pinnacles to the corners and to the centre of each elevation. There are snecked cut limestone walls with a plinth course. There are carved stringcourses dividing the stages to the tower, and cut limestone buttresses to the corners of the tower.

There are pointed arch openings to the east, north and south of the nave, with carved limestone hood-mouldings, chamfered dressed limestone surrounds and voussoirs and stained glass windows with pointed arch tracery.

There are lancet openings to the west gable of the nave and to the second stage of the tower, with carved limestone hood-mouldings and dressed chamfered limestone surrounds, those to the nave having pointed arch timber sash windows, while those to the tower have leaded windows or are blocked.

There are paired lancet openings to the third stage of the tower with carved limestone hood-mouldings, chamfered dressed limestone surrounds and voussoirs and timber louvers.

There is a four-centred arch to the west elevation of the tower and to the south elevation of the vestry, with chamfered dressed limestone block-and-start surrounds, carved hood-mouldings and bipartite lancet timber sash windows.

The four-centred arched opening to the west elevation of the vestry has a dressed limestone block-and-start surround, a carved limestone hood-moulding, a timber battened door and cut limestone steps.

The pointed arch opening to the west elevation of the tower has a carved limestone square-headed surround incorporating a roll moulding surround to the pointed arch opening and carved motifs to the spandrels, a carved limestone label moulding and a timber battened double-leaf door approached by cut limestone steps.

Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, with its tower and lofty pinnacles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In a posting on Monday, I described the stained glass east window depicting the Parable of the Sower (1931) and the double lancet window in the south nave depicting Saint Paul and Saint Luke (1937), both by Catherine O’Brien.

Outside, the cemetery to the east and south of the church is the burial place for many Palatine families who moved to this area in the early 18th century. The site of the graveyard has a rubble stone retaining wall and cut-stone steps. The rendered boundary wall to the west has cut stone copings surmounted by cast-iron railings.

The impact of Holy Trinity Church on Rathkeale and the surrounding countryside is enhanced by its raised site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A pair of square-profile cut limestone piers at the entrance flank the cast-iron double-leaf gate, which is approached by cut limestone steps.

In 1709, Thomas Southwell, whose family inherited some of the old Billingsley and Dowdall estate in the Rathkeale area. In all about 120 families were introduced, and the names of the Palatine families buried here include Bovenizer, Teskey, Shier and Sparling. Many of the weather-worn memorials and gravestone are now difficult to read but they tell unique stories that are part of the heritage of this part of west Limerick.

The Massy vault or mausoleum in the churchyard at Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

But the most imposing memorial is the Massy Vault, built about 1800 by James FitzG Massy and restored by Lucy Massy in 1907. It comprises mounded earth with a surrounding plinth wall and a carved limestone decorative screen wall to the east.

The screen wall includes an altar with an inscribed square-headed tablet above incorporating a carved heraldic plaque with decorative carving in relief (Arms: on a chevron between three lozenges a lion passant; crest: out of a ducal coronet, a bull’s head armed; motto: Libertate). There is a carved architrave surround., and a stepped parapet above with an urn finial. There is a square-headed recess to the threshold, with a cut limestone plinth wall, a retaining wall and surround and cut limestone steps.

The screen wall displays a high level of skill and artistic design and is a pleasant in the church grounds. The plaque reads:

This Monument was Erected by Jas FitzG Massy Esq of Stoneville, Cloughnarold. And now Lord what is my hope? Truly my hope is ever in thee. AD 1800 to perpetuate the memory of his family from generation to generation. Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord. Restored by Lucy Massy 1907.

William Massy bought Stoneville, near Rathkeale, from Henry Southwell in 1751, and died in 1773. His son Hugh Massy was the father of James FitzGerald Massy, who lived at Stoneville, and who erected this monument.

His children included the Revd Henry Hickman Massy (1779-1808), Rector of Nantenan, who was killed when he fell from a horse. Another son was also named James FitzGerald Massy (1780-1858), and indeed in the next generation there was a third James FitzGerald Massy (1811-1861), making the family tree difficult to disentangle.

This third James FitzGerald Massy (1811-1861), of Stoneville, Rathkeale, married Elizabeth Preston, daughter of the Very Revd Arthur Preston, Dean of Limerick. Their eldest son, Major Hugh Ingoldsby Massy (1853-1901), married Lucy Justice, and she restored this Massy mausoleum in Rathkeale churchyard.

Beside Holy Trinity Church stands Rathkeale Number 2 School, where many children from Irish Palatine families have gone to scool. It was built almost 200 years ago, at about the same time as the church.

From the school, I made my way on down Church Street and Main Street, searching for the site of the original castle on the banks of the River Deel and the house that was once at the heart of the Southwell manor and estate. On my way, I noted many of the Regency and pre-Victorian houses and shop fronts that once gave an elegant air to Rathkeale, once the largest town in Co Limerick.

But they all provide interesting tales for other days.

Rathkeale No 2 National School stands beside Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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