Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Finding the former parish church
above the beach in Ballybunion

Saint Augustine’s, the former Church of Ireland parish church in Ballybunion, Co Kerry, is now a local library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I am beginning to realise how large my parish is, and how expansive and extensive it is.

On Saturday afternoon [19 February 2017], after a work party had finished a heavy day’s work on repairing the boundary wall at the rectory, two of us set out from Askeaton for Ballybunion, hoping to catch the sunset.

The Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes embraces most of west Co Limerick and north Co Kerry. The road took us along the southern shores of the Shannon Estuary, through Foynes, Glin, Tarbert and Ballylongford, and on to Ballybunion on the west coast of Kerry. It was a journey of 60 km, and had we gone further I would still have been in my parish.

In the late afternoon sunshine, we enjoyed a stroll along the cliffs of Ballybunion, by the caves and along the beach. Despite the high waves and sharp temperatures at the end of winter and the beginning of spring, young people were enjoying a splash and a swim, some were surfboarding, and one sea angler was out in the waves and the water.

After climbing up the cliffs, and inspecting the ruins of Ballybunion Castle, we strolled through the town, imagining how it must be alive and abuzz at the height of the summer season.

Walking on the beach in Ballybunion, Co Kerry, on Saturday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

At the corner of Sandhill Road, we stopped to admire Ballybunion Library, a building that was once Saint Augustine’s parish church in the Church of Ireland. The library was built as a single-storey Gothic Revival style church. The walls are of snecked limestone with Portland stone dressings. The entrance is through a projecting porch.

Saint Augustine’s Church was originally built at Rattoo, near Ballyduff, in 1877-1879. However, after the original Church of Ireland parish church in Ballybunion was demolished in the 1950s, it was decided to move Saint Augustine’s to Ballybunion.

From 1669 to 1882, the parish of or Ballybunion was held by the Rectors of Aghavillan. Killehenny Church was built as the parish church in Ballybunion on a site donated by HB Harene, close to the cliffs, and was consecrated in 1858.

In 1883, the parish was united with Rattoo, and the first rector of the new union was the Revd Cecil Richard Hoggins, a former naval chaplain. Hoggins was succeeded by the Revd Charles Edward Fry. Later, it was recalled, ‘the rector suffered terribly from shyness. His manner was painfully nervous.’

In 1922, the parish was joined with Listowel. By then, Killehenny Church and its clocktower had become familiar landmarks in Ballybunion.

But for almost a century, the church was battered by the weather and the elements. A local historian, Russell McMorran of Tralee, mused that it must have been an exciting experience going to church there on a stormy, winter’s day.

After almost 100 years, the decision was taken in 1957 to close the church and to demolish it.

Meanwhile, another Church of Ireland church in the neighbourhood had fallen into disuse. Saint Augustine’s Church was originally built at Rattoo, near Ballyduff, in 1877-1879 on a site ‘within the shadow of the ancient round tower.’ It was built by Wilson Gun for his family, friends, tenants and workers, and for the Staughton family, who were neighbouring landlords.

The church was designed by the Kerry-born architect, James Franklin Fuller (1835-1924), an eccentric snob who also wrote high-Victorian melodramatic novels. He claimed to have ‘carried out professional work in every county in Ireland’ and the Dictionary of Irish Architects lists over 200 of his works.

Fuller undertook considerable work for the Guinness family and Lord Ardilaun, most notably Kylemore Abbey in Co Galway, the refurbishment of Farmleigh House, next to the Phoenix Park, in 1881-1884, the refurbishment of Iveagh House on Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, and the Superintendent’s Gate Lodge in Saint Stephen’s Green.

His other works include Saint Mary’s Church, Julianstown, Co Meath, the wonderful terracotta-decorated Gallaher building at the corner of D’Olier Street and Hawkins Street, Dublin, the former National Bank building on Arran Quay in Dublin, the now lost gate lodge for Cherryfield House in Firhouse, and the rectory at Saint Brigid’s Church, Stillorgan.

The foundation stone of Fuller’s new church at Rattoo was laid on 20 September 1877 by Wilson Gun, who paid the cost of the contract, excluding the tower and belfry. The church was consecrated in October 1879.

Fuller designed Saint Augustine’s as a single-storey Gothic Revival style church. This church, dated 1879, has a four-bay nave, a single-bay single-storey gabled projecting porch to the south-west, a single-bay single-storey lower chancel to the north gable end and a single-bay single-storey gabled vestry projection to the north-west.

There is a steeply-pitched slate roof with a clay ridge comb, the gable parapets have Portland stone copings and there are profiled cast-iron gutters on a Portland stone corbel table.

There are rock-hewn snecked grey limestone walls with Portland stone quoins and springers, and buttresses with Portland stone dressings. The Portland stone plate-tracery windows have paired pointed lancets and cinquefoils over. There are triple lancets with trefoil heads to transept.

The Portland stone doorcase has a double-leaf boarded door and limestone steps. There are triple windows to the porch.

Inside, there are exposed timber trusses and white marble plaques on the west wall. The retaining timber door to the vestry is set in an arched niche. There is a snecked rubble wall to the street, with replacement concrete copings.

When the old church in Ballybunion was demolished, Saint Augustine’s was dismantled stone-by-stone by local builders Boyle and Harnett. The work involved numbering, cleaning and polishing each stone as the building was transported and reconstructed in its exact original state on the present site in Sandhill Road, Ballybunion.

The church was rededicated on Saint Augustine’s Day, 28 July 1957, by Bishop Hodges of Limerick. Radio Eireann broadcast the ceremony, and this was the national broadcaster’s first-ever outside broadcast event.

The Church of Ireland community in Ballybunion was strong until the end of the 1980s, and the decision was taken to close Saint Augustine’s in 1987. The church was deconsecrated on 1 June 1987, almost 30 years after it had stood on this site.

The church was handed over to the Co Kerry Library Service and it opened to the public as a library on 20 December 1990. Ballybunion Library is open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 10 a.m.to 1.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

As well lending books, the library hosts several successful events, including an Active Retirement Group's Creative Writing Workshop and a Children's Book Festival.

The ruins of Ballybunion Castle above the beach in Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)