27 June 2017
I was in Rathkeale this morning for an end-of-school-year service in Holy Trinity Church, a flag-raising ceremony in the school, and a committee meeting in the afternoon.
The former rectory is across the street from both the school and the church, all located on the appropriately-named Church Street. But a little further west along Church Street is the interestingly-named Glebe Castle.
This castle is in the townland of Castlematrix, and about 300 metres from Castle Matrix itself, but should not be confused with its more lofty neighbour, which was once the seat of the Southwell family.
The name of Glebe Castle makes we wonder whether this was once the residence of the rectors and clergy of Rathkeale parish.
This 40 ft, four-storey tower dwarfs the modern house that it stands behind, but is easier to see from the opposite bank of the River Deel during my regular walks along the riverside. Like Ballybur Castle, the Comerford ancestral home near Callan, Co Kilkenny, Glebe Castle is more like a watch tower than a castle.
The castle once had three complete storeys, and in 1840 the walls were about 13 metres high in 1840 and three metres thick. There are parapets on the east and west walls, with chimney stacks flush with the gables rising from the north and south end walls.
Samuel Lewis noted in the 1830s that Rathkeale Glebe amounted to 10 acres, and was divided into two portions, one near the church on which Glebe Castle stood, and the other a mile distant on which the glebe house stood. The Revd CT Coghlan, rector of the neighbouring parish of Kilscannel, lived in Glebe Castle, while Glebe House was the residence of Archdeacon Charles Warburton (1781-1854), who was Rector of Rathkeale (1813-1855) and Chancellor of Limerick throughout the first half of the 19th century.
By 1846, the Revd James Boucher was living in what was described as Castle Glebe. An interesting contemporary of his was the Revd John Boucher (1819-1878), from Moneyrea near Belfast. He had been a Unitarian minister in Southport, Lancashire, and then in Glasgow (1844-1846) and at the New Gravel Pit Chapel, Hackney (1847-1852). But he changed his views, resigned his pulpit and entered Saint John’s College, Cambridge, in 1853 to prepare for ordination in the Church of England. He graduated with a BA in philosophy in Cambridge in 1857, but owing to ill-health, retired to Chesterton, Cambridge. He died in Chesterton in 1878.
Today, Glebe Castle is the home of the Coleman family, and as I looked across at it from the church this morning I wondered when it ceased to be the residence of local clergy.
The Chinaman is missing in Rathkeale.
I have looked for him in vain. He is gone, and people in Rathkeale worry that he may be lost forever.
All that remains of the Chinaman is a large mark on the first floor of the façade of what was once Fitzgibbon’s pub at the east end of the Main Street.
For almost 200 years, the Chinaman had been one of the most celebrated residents of Rathkeale, and was a listed artefact.
His story is one of piracy, drama and adventure on the high seas. According to one version of the legend, a cargo of tea arrived from China in Foynes – or in Tarbert – in the early 19th century – some versions of legend proffer a much earlier date of 1736, although the pub was built 90 years later in 1826.
The Mikado was in port for about a fortnight as the cargo was being unloaded. Meanwhile, the captain, Wongyil, and his crew spent their time in Fitzgibbon’s public house in Rathkeale.
However, word came from Tarbert that a pirate ship had arrived and that the pirates were plundering the town and district.
Captain Wongyil hastily gathered about 100 men from Rathkeale and Foynes and marched on Tarbert where they captured the pirate ship. In the battle, they killed most of the pirate crew, including the captain, known throughout Europe as ‘The Serpent.’
One story says Wongyil was so grateful he donated money to the people of Rathkeale for helping him fight off pirates. Another version says the people of Rathkeale, Tarbert and Foynes were so grateful to him for fending off the raiding pirates that they had a wooden image made of Wongyil made and erected it over the door of Fitzgibbon’s pub.
Until the pub was repainted in recent weeks, the facia of the pub retained the date 1826, and a large mark on the the first floor indicates where the Chinaman stood for almost 200 years. He was a protected statue, although at one time he was missing an arm and his hat was badly weathered. But he stood the test of time – and weather – for the best part of two centuries.
During the Tostal celebrations in 1953, a postcard was issued by the Chinaman Bar.
In 1992, when the pub was known as Foley’s, a ceremony celebrated Rathkeale’s links with China. The First Secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Dublin, Wang Jiashou, unveiled the restored statue of the Chinaman at Foley’s Bar watched by Joe Dunleavy, chairman of Rathkeale Community Council. Outside, Rathkeale Brass Band entertained everybody; inside, Theresa Foley and her family entertained a large number of guests. Later, Wang Jiashou and his wife were entertained to lunch in Castlematrix Castle before visiting Desmond Creations Jewellery Factory and the Shannon Meats factory.
In a limited-edition print in 2010, Austin Bovenizer celebrated the ‘Rathkeale Streetscape’ bringing together images from the streetscape and buildings of Main Street, Rathkeale. With artistic licence, he reintroduced old landmarks, including the People’s Bakery, Sparling’s shop and the Chinaman, to his digital montage and collage.
But by then, the Chinaman had disappeared from the Main Street. My first photograph shows the fading Fitzgibbon name on the fascia of the former pub this month [June 2017]. Despite being repainted in recent weeks, the mark on the façade continues to indicate where the statue of the Chinaman once stood facing the street.
Some people in Rathkeale believe the Chinaman had been moved to the back of the premises, either to save him from the weather while he awaited conservation, or to prevent him from being stolen.
Two years ago, in February 2015, Joe Dunleavy asked in the Rathkeale Newsletter: ‘Where is the statue of the Chinaman at the present time?’ It would be an occasion to celebrate in Rathkeale if the statue was put back in the place that had been his home for such a long time.