20 March 2017

Visiting the church JJ McCarthy
designed in Foynes – a church
that was never completed

Saint Senanus Church in Foynes, Co Limerick … designed by JJ McCarthy, but never completed according to his plans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I was through Glin and Foynes a number of times at the weekend, on my way between the churches in Askeaton and Tarbert.

Foynes is a small town in west Limerick, on the south bank of the Shannon Estuary, is best known for the Foynes Flying Boat Museum and as the place where Irish Coffee was first served 75 years ago by chef Joe Sheridan in 1942.

Although Foynes has a population of only 500 to 600, this is the second largest sea port in Ireland, and Foynes Island in the estuary helps to shape and shelter the natural deep-water harbour.

Although the importance of Foynes faded with the subsequent development of Shannon Airport on the other side of the estuary, there are still memories of Maureen O’Hara, Charles Lindbergh, the first flying boats and the world’s first duty-free shops established by Brendan O’Regan.

I wanted to see the ruins of Mount Trenchard Church, which is still part of my group of parishes, and the churchyard, which is associated with the O’Briens of Tarbert Island, and the Spring-Rice family of Mount Trenchard.

But, having recently visited Cahermoyle House, which was built by the great Gothic Revival architect James Jeremiah McCarthy for the Smith O’Brien family, and Saint Mary’s Church, Rathkeale, also designed by McCarthy, I decided at the weekend to visit McCarthy’s parish church in Foynes.

Saint Senanus Church stands on a site donated by Lord Monteagle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The church dedicated to Saint Senanus stands on a site given to the parishioners of Foynes by Thomas Spring-Rice (1849-1926), 2nd Lord Monteagle, who lived nearby at Mount Trenchard.

The church was designed by McCarthy, the original contractor was John Ryan & Son of Limerick and building work began in 1868.

However, McCarthy’s intended transepts, chancel and central tower were never built. Instead, when the church was completed by Ralph Henry Byrne in 1932, a fan-shaped nave was added alongside the south wall of the church, which Byrne then removed, so that the original nave became a re-orientated chancel.

Despite these additions to the rear, the church retains much of its simple form. The surviving original features include the rusticated walls, which contrast dramatically with the finely tooled limestone dressings.

The church has a gable-fronted porch to the north elevation facing the main street in Foynes, while the recent multiple-bay extension is to the south elevation. There is a pitched slate roof with fish-scale pattern, a limestone bracketed eaves course, copings and finial, cast-iron ridge crestings and finial.

The Lamb of God … a surviving detail inside in the East End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The walls are of rusticated snecked limestone and there are buttresses to the porch and the corners, with a canted buttress to the west elevation.

There are paired trefoil-headed lancet stained glass quarry glazed windows to the nave and to the east gable. They have chamfered limestone block-and-start surrounds and above there are quatrefoil stained-glass, quarry-glazed windows.

There are quatrefoil window openings to the east and west gable apexes and at the porch at the east and west elevations.

The oculus to the east gable has a multi-foil quarry glazed window. The rose window on the west gable has inset multi-foil and quatrefoil openings and a limestone surround. The oculi to the west gable have quatrefoil quarry-glazed windows, and there are trefoil window openings to the canted buttress.

Details from the Corinthian-style columns in the porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The pointed arch opening to the porch has a roll-moulded limestone surround, Corinthian-style columns with carved limestone caps, marble banded shafts and replacement glazed double-leaf doors.

Inside, there is a timber scissors-truss ceiling.

The shouldered-square-headed openings to the west wall have chamfered limestone surrounds. There is a cast-iron gate to the first-floor opening, and a timber battened door to the ground floor.

The church originally cost £1,864.13.9, and over 670 people contributed to its construction. The Munster News on 18 April 1874 gave Sir Stephen Edward de Vere most of the credit for building the church.

However, de Vere was generous in recognising the contributions of others, and wrote: ‘I cannot refrain from recording with gratitude that over £335 has been bestowed by our Protestant fellow Christians to the building of a Catholic church, and that a sum of £420 intended for the establishment of a Savings Bank in Foynes was, on the institution of the Post Office Savings Banks, transferred by a mixed board to the same object.’

A sketch of McCarthy’s original plan for the church in Foynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

McCarthy’s plans for a central tower, transepts, chancel and east end apse were never carried out, and it was estimated that another £2,500 to £3,000 was needed to complete these plans.

Byrne’s additions in 1932 involved removing the south wall of McCarthy’s church, adding a fan-shaped and converting the original nave into a re-orientated chancel.

After Vatican II, a decision was taken to renovate the church. The new work was designed by Sheahan Architects, the work was carried out by Michael Nash, contractors, and Bishop Jeremiah Newman blessed the renovated church and the new extension on 9 March 1975.

Inside the church in Foynes, with its recent renovations (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Sir Stephen Edward de Vere (1812-1904), who financed the building of the church, was a cousin of Lord Monteagle – the two were educated at Trinity College, Cambridge – and an elder brother of the poet Aubrey Thomas de Vere, who is buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, Askeaton.

As a student, de Vere was influenced by the Tractarian movement, and in 1847 he became a Roman Catholic. He was the Liberal MP for Co from 1854 to 1859, and in 1880 he inherited the family title of baronet. Before inheriting near Askeaton, de Vere built a house on Foynes Island in the 1850s. There he wrote poems, political pamphlets and translated the works of Horace.

When he died in 1904, he was buried beside the church he financed in Foynes. His title died out and most of his estates were inherited by his nephew Aubrey Vere O’Brien, while Foynes Island went to another nephew, Robert Vere O’Brien (1842-1913).

A detail at the west end of McCarthy’s church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Near the church and de Vere’s grave, a once-working fountain, topped with a Celtic cross, bears the inscription: ‘This fountain is erected in grateful recognition of the numerous benefits conferred on his native country, on the poor and on this neighbourhood by Sir Stephen Edward de Vere Bart, statesman, philanthropist, poet, through whose generous aid and zealous co-operation in conjunction with contributions from others the Catholic Church of Foynes was built. Died 10 November 1904 aged 92 years.’

Many of his relatives in the Spring-Rice and O’Brien families are buried nearby in the grounds of the former Church of Ireland church at Mount Trenchard.

The fountain in Foynes commemorating Sir Stephen Edward de Vere (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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