31 July 2018

The loss of a unique
Art Deco cinema is a
lost opportunity in Lichfield

The Regal Cinema on Tamworth Street, Lichfield, by night earlier this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Work began last week on the demolition of the Regal Cinema on Tamworth Street in the centre of Lichfield. Machinery arrived at the rear of the building facing Cross Keys on Wednesday [25 July 2018], the site was fenced off, and the demolition work began on Thursday.

For some people in Lichfield, the former cinema has been an eyesore for years. But for others, the Regal Cinema this was an important part of their memories from childhood and teenage years.

The demolition comes as a surprise, if not a shock, to many, not only because of those cherished memories, but because the Regal Cinema has long been listed for its Art Deco frontage.

The developers promised last week that this façade will be saved and incorporated into the new building. Richard McGarry of PBM Contractors Ltd told the Lichfield Mercury: ‘The listed façade is staying but the rest of the building is coming down.

‘We will be on site conservatively for between four to six weeks.’

The Art Deco style cinema building in Tamworth Street has been lying empty for more than 10 years. During the past decade, the once-handsome frontage has deteriorated, vegetation has been growing from the windows and it has become increasingly shabby in appearance.

The Regal Cinema opened at 23-27 Tamworth Street 86 years ago, on 18 July 1932, and it operated for more than four decades until it closed in 1974.

The building reopened some years later as a KwikSave supermarket. But the supermarket closed in July 2007 when KwikSave went into administration. Since then, numerous development plans were put forward for the site, including hotels and restaurants, but none of these came to anything.

The latest plan, approved in February 2017, was for the demolition of the building, the retention of the 1930s façade and the construction of 38 apartments and a shop unit.

Five years ago, in a feature in the Lichfield Gazette [August 2013], I wrote how The Economist had published a news story about the Louxor Palais du Cinema, north-west of the Gare du Nord in Paris, which was once one of the jewels of Egyptian-inspired art deco. It opened in 1921, boasting pillars, papyrus motifs and pharaohs’ heads – and with an auditorium that could seat almost 1,200 people.

In its report The Economist recalled that this was the heyday of silent movies of the sort that The Artist brought back to life. However, after World War II, the cinema fell on hard times, and the Louxor screened its last movie in 1983 before Pathé sold the building to a retail firm that had plans for a store. However, those plans never saw the light of day because the Louxor’s exotic façade had been listed for preservation. From 1987 on, the building stood empty.

Two pressure groups were formed in 2001 to regenerate the Louxor and to raise the tone of the neighbourhood. Paris City Hall bought the site, work began on restoring the Louxor to its original glory, and three years and €25 million later, the Louxor re-opened with Grandmaster, a Chinese martial-arts movie, as its first showing.

At the time, I thought this news must surely offer hope and inspiration to people in Lichfield who were campaigning to save the Regal Cinema.

The Regal Cinema opened in Lichfield on 18 July 1932 with Maisie Gay in The Old Man and Shirley Dale in The Beggar Student. It was designed by the Birmingham-based architect Harold Seymour Scott (1883-1946), who was also a director of the independent operating company.

Scott designed many cinemas in the Midlands in the Art Deco style in the 1920s and 1930s, including the Oak in Sell Oak and the Piccadilly in Sparkhill. But most of these have been demolished or destroyed in fires in recent years, and until last week the Regal in Lichfield was one of the few still standing.

Like the Louxor in Paris, the external and internal styles of the Regal were described as a ‘delicate’ Egyptian, Art Deco style. There was seating in the auditorium for 1,300 people, with 1,000 people in the stalls and another 300 in the circle. The proscenium was 40 ft wide, and the cinema also had its own café.

By November 1932, the cinema had been leased to the County Cinemas chain. It was taken over briefly by the Oscar Deutsch chain of Odeon Theatres Ltd in September 1939, but it was back in the hands of the original independent owners by around 1941.

In August 1943, it was taken over by the Associated British Cinemas (ABC), and this chain operated the Regal Cinema until July 1969. The Star Cinemas chain then took over. Part-time bingo was introduced on several nights a week, and on 10 July 1974 the Regal Cinema screened its final film, Bruce Lee in The Big Boss. The Regal then became the Star Bingo Club.

The building was sold in the late 1970s, and became a KwikSave supermarket, with a snooker club in the former café area.

By 2008, the building was ‘For Sale’ or ‘To Let’ for leisure use. Proposals to demolish the auditorium and to build a hotel on the site, retaining the Regal Cinema’s façade as the entrance, were put forward in February 2010.

Planning consent was granted for the partial demolition and new build of the premises to create a bar and restaurant and a 104-bedroom hotel, with associated facilities. However, in the years since then, no work was carried out on the proposed hotel, and the vacant building continued to deteriorate.

In 2012, Anna Coley had started a Facebook page, ‘Restore the Regal Cinema, Lichfield!’ Around the same time, Adam Bradley organised a petition for the restoration of the Regal Cinema ‘to its former glory.’ By the time the petition closed, it had been signed by more than 80 people.

At the time, Lichfield District Council pointed out that ‘planning permission has been granted for a new cinema as part of the new Friarsgate Scheme, which should satisfy the demand for a cinema in the local area.’

However, the Friarsgate Scheme collapsed last month. Nor was the argument ever simply about the need for a cinema for Lichfield and the surrounding catchment area. It was also about the conservation of a unique and beautiful building that has been part of Lichfield’s architectural heritage for almost a century.

Despite uncertainty about the future of the Regal, it was included by the historian and journalist Joss Musgrove-Knibb, editor of CityLife Lichfield as No 21 in her indispensable book, Lichfield in 50 Buildings (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2016), with a photograph by her husband, Carl Knibb.

If this was a Tudor-era cinema in Bore Street, a Georgian-era cinema in Bird Street, or a Victorian-era cinema in Beacon Street, the case for its preservation would have been quite clear. Why is art deco architecture less valued because it only dates from the 1930s?

The blogger Brownhills Bob has pointed out that the Regal was the only Art Deco building left standing in Lichfield since the Robin Hood on the corner of Saint John Street and Frog Lane was demolished. It was also built in the 1930s, replacing an earlier pub dating back to the 1790s. In his book on The Old Pubs of Lichfield (2001/2007), John Shaw recalled the names changes it went through, including City Gate, City Frog and Funky Frog, before being demolished in October 2000 to make way for new apartments on the site.

Part of the Art Deco Burton building at 26 Market Street dates from about 1938, when the foundation stones were laid, but the ground floor has since been replaced with later shop-fronts.

Lichfield Film is the brainchild of Lucy Beth, who told the Lichfield People website: ‘The lack of cinema in Lichfield is something which is constantly discussed … Lichfield Film aims to bring a relaxed cinematic experience to the city.’

Two films – The Greatest Showman and Pretty Woman – are being screened at a pop-up, open-air cinema in Beacon Park next month [10 and 11 August 2018]. But, while the former Civic Hall frequently shows films and movies are occasionally billed as part of the Lichfield Festival, the city has remainedwithout a permanent cinema since the Regal closed.

The Abbey Convent in Adare
incorporates mediaeval work
and Pugin’s Gothic tradition

The north side of Our Lady’s Abbey, Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Between the Trinitarian Abbey in Adare and the former monastic dovecote, Our Lady’s Abbey Girls School dates back to the Victorian era, and is part of the cluster of interesting ecclesiastical buildings and foundations in this Co Limerick town.

The Abbey School was founded by the Sisters of Mercy on 20 April 1854. The nuns chose to name their convent Our Lady’s Abbey because the Trinitarian Abbey, which was then being restored at the expense of the Earls of Dunraven of Adare Manor, was once known as the White Abbey.

The Trinitarian Abbey had been in ruins up to 1811, but it was restored as the Roman Catholic parish church for Adare by Lord Dunraven. At the same time, and part of the abbey lands was given to the Sisters of Mercy to build a new house and to set up a new house.

The convent initially had accommodation for seven sisters, while the school itself consisted of two rooms until 1869, when another room was added. School records show that almost 200 pupils turned up to enrol on the first day.

Our Lady’s Abbey School incorporated part of the original cloister. The original gable-fronted two-storey former convent school, which was built in 1854, is attached to the mediaeval abbey to south. It has a box-bay window on the west elevation.

There is a two-bay north elevation and a lower single-bay, single-storey block to the east. The pitched slate roof has cut limestone copings, and there is a carved cross finial on the west gable, and cast-iron rainwater goods.

The convent was built with rubble stone walls, with cut limestone pilasters on the corners and a cut limestone stringcourse. There are paired trefoil-headed openings on the north side, and these are divided by mullions and transoms, with carved limestone surrounds.

There are trefoil-headed lancet openings on the west side, with stained glass windows and carved chamfered limestone surrounds.

The trefoil opening on the west gable have a carved chamfered limestone surround. There are square-headed openings at the box bay window with fixed pane windows and a carved limestone continuous sill course.

The school now forms part of an integrated ecclesiastical complex with the mediaeval abbey to the south and contributes greatly to the architectural heritage of Adare.

The multiple-phased construction of this complex is similar to that of the neighbouring church, with the obvious contrast between stonework and detailing. Artistic detailing is evident in the window surround, the cross finial and stained glass windows.

The south and west sides of Our Lady’s Abbey, Adare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The convent was designed by the English-born architect Philip Charles Hardwick (1822-1870) following his work on the adjacent abbey, at a time when he was also working on Adare Abbey, the home of the Earls of Dunraven.

Earlier, in 1846, AWN Pugin had designed the hall ceiling, great staircase, the gallery at the end of the hall, the fireplace and the doors, and Pugin’s influence on the Gothic revival can be seen in Hardwick’s work on the Abbey Convent in Adare.

Philip Charles Hardwick was born in Westminster , the son of the architect Philip Hardwick (1792-1870) and grandson of the architect Thomas Hardwick jnr (1752-1825). He trained as an architect with his father and Edward Blore, where he went on to become the leading architect of banking offices, mainly built in an Italianate manner. He designed five City banks, including Drummond’s in Trafalgar Square (1879-1881), and he was architect to the Bank of England from 1855 to 1883.

His best-known work is the Great Hall of Euston Station. It opened in 1849 but was demolished in 1962 to make way for building the present Euston Station.

His other works include the restoration of Saint Mary’s Church, Lambeth (1851-1852), the Great Western Royal Hotel, London, now the Hilton London Paddington (1851-1854) and Saint John’s Cathedral, Limerick (1856-1861).

Sunflowers in the gardens of Our Lady’s Abbey, Adare, last weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

30 July 2018

A reminder in Adare
of the eating habits in
mediaeval monasteries

The Dovecote in Adare, Co Limerick … a reminder of mediaeval monastic eating habits (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Behind the visitor centre, the car park and the former Convent of Mercy, the Dovecote almost goes unnoticed by the stream of tourists visiting Adare, Co Limerick, during the summer season.

The dovecote was rebuilt around 1850, but is probably 500 years older, dating back to the mid-14th century, which makes it almost contemporaneous with the great monastic foundations in Adare.

This dovecote or columbarium forms a group with the former Trinitarian Abbey to its south-east, which was founded in 1226. The dovecote is almost 700 years old, dating back to the mid-14th century, making it almost contemporaneous with the great monastic foundations in Adare.

The dovecote was used by the Trinitarian monks in the nearby abbey to house doves and pigeons that provided them with food.

The domed, circular, dovecote was rebuilt around 1850, but incorporates the original fabric of a much earlier building that dates from around the 1350s. It has a cut stone eaves course and rubble limestone walls. There is a camber-headed opening with cut-stone voussoirs and a cast-iron gate.

There are no windows in the building, but the birds could enter the dovecote through an opening in the roof, while the walls inside are lined with square-headed recesses or niches the provided them with nesting space. A door at ground-floor level was used as an entrance for the monks.

The circular plan enabled squabs (young doves or pigeons) to be collected from the nesting-boxes by a ladder attached to a revolving pole with arms, known as a potence.

For centuries, doves and pigeons were a valuable source of meat, manure and feathers for mattresses and pillows. In mediaeval Europe, the possession of a dovecote was a symbol of status and power. So, in the Middle Ages, only manorial lords could keep these birds, and the few remaining mediaeval dovecotes are connected with manor houses, castles, parsonages or former monastic sites.

Other mediaeval monasteries in Ireland known to have had dovecotes include Saint Mary’s, which had two, Mellifont, which had four, and Kilcooley, which had at least one.

I am told there is an unusual triangular-shaped red-brick dovecote with oval windows set in brick surrounds at the rear of No 96 O’Connell Street, Limerick, now the offices of Limerick Chamber of Commerce.

The laws relaxed after about 1600, so many later farms had dovecotes, until their use declined after the 18th century. Dovecotes ceased to be a matter of pride, and became socially unacceptable. Many were demolished, others were allowed to fall derelict. In some Dovecotes, the pigeon entrance was blocked and they were often converted for other purposes such as stables, granaries and cider houses.

The dovecote in Adare fell into disuse after the dissolution of the Trinitarian Abbey with other monastic houses at the Reformation in the 16th century.

The ruins of the Trinitarian Abbey were given by Windham Henry Quin (1782-1850), 2nd Earl of Dunraven, as a gift to his Roman Catholic parishioners in 1824, when he initiated a programme of restoration that was continued by his son and successor, Edwin Richard Wyndham-Quin (1812-1871), 3rd Earl of Dunraven.

The English architect Philip Charles Hardwick (1822-1892), who worked on Adare Manor from 1850 to 1860 was employed to restore and enlarge the church while taking care to maintain the fabric of the historic building, and Holy Trinity Abbey Church became the Roman Catholic parish church in Adare.

As part of the restoration project, the Dovecote in Adare was rebuilt around 1850, and remains a reminder of the eating habits of mediaeval monks – a far call from the chocolates in the chocolate box covers that could easily be inspired by the thatched houses on the Main Street in Adare.

The Dovecote in Adare was rebuilt around 1850 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

For a visit to the dovecote built by Sir Richard Bulkeley of Beaumaris in 1600 at the monastic site in Penmon, Angelsey, see HERE; for the dovecote beside the Bottle Tower in Churchtown, Dublin, see HERE.

Chocolate box thatched
houses and wisteria are
part of our shared heritage

The last of the summer wisteria? … spotted in Adare at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

When I was in Cambridge earlier this month, I thought I had seen the last of the wisteria this summer in Chapel Court when I visited Sidney Sussex College.

There were just some shots of blue and light purple in the flowers and bright foliage dripping from the vines along the wall throughout Chapel Court, Hall Court and Cloister Court, and dangling over into Sidney Street.

I have a particular fondness for the wisteria in Sidney Sussex. In May and June, wisteria covers college walls, pretty cottages, terraced houses, and even appears on student accommodation throughout Cambridge. But I thought I had seen the last of wisteria this summer in Cambridge earlier this month on my way to and from the USPG conference in High Leigh in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire.

Then, during the weekend, as I strolled through the Town Park in Adare, Co Limerick, opposite the Heritage Centre on the Main Street, my eyes were drawn to some flowering wisteria that has survived into these final days of wisteria, I reminder of the promises of summer from six or seven weeks ago – and what a summer it has been.

The stones and the bridge at the Washing Pool in Adare, which dates back to the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The park has a number of beautiful walks and pathways, and a thatched gazebo that is attractive for families on summer weekends and that is probably a popular location too for pretty wedding photographs.

At one of the entrances to the park, the ‘Washing Pool’ or Linn Níocháin is formed by a tributary stream of the River Maigue, the Droichidin, as it flows under a two-arched bridge.

In the past, groups of women gathered here regularly to wash their clothes and talk about village life. Before the days of washing machines, washing powder and detergents, these women did their washing on spittle stones in the stream bed or by pounding the clothes with wooden washing bats or beetles.

The Washing Pool was also a watering place for horses.

The thatched wooden gazebo in the Town Park in Adare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The land for the town park and the thatched wooden gazebo were presented to the town of Adare by the Dunraven family of Adare Manor in 1975, and an avenue of chestnut trees that once led up to Adare Manor is now part of the park.

The pool, dating back over 200 years, was restored and the banks paved by Limerick County Council and the Adare Tidy Towns Association during European Architectural Year in 1975.

A thatched house with a wicker porch on the Main Street in Adare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

But it seems the tourists come to Adare mainly to see the thatched houses that line the south side of the Main Street. They are picturesque in a picture-postcard or chocolate-box type of way, and many of those tourists must think these are stereotypical Irish thatched cottages.

But, of course, few of these are cottages. Today, many of them are boutique shops and highly-recommended restaurants. But they were built as family homes, they are often two-storeyed, and as I walked along the Main Street at the weekend I imagined that most of these thatched houses would fit more perfectly in Grantchester or Trumpington than on a small-holding with subsistence farming in 19tth century remote, rural and poverty-stricken Ireland.

The original thatched houses in Adare were built in the 1820s as homes for people employed on the Earl of Dunraven’s estate, on the farm, in the Manor House or in the cigarette factory.

For a short time, tobacco was cultivated as a crop on the Adare estate as part of the economic plans of the 4th earl of Dunraven, who also built a factory, the Adare Cigarette Company, on his estate. The firm once employed about 70 people in grading the tobacco leaves in the factory in Adare.

So these thatched houses have an urban rather than a rural context for their story over the generations.

On Saturday [28 July 2018], the Guardian ran a feature on thatched houses in England. Readers were tantalised by the opportunity to get the ‘chocolate box’ look with traditional properties from Devon to Suffolk.

They ranged in price from £265,000 for a one-bedroom semi-detached cottage with an unusual thatched catslide roof is on the edge of a village three miles south-west of Andover, in Hampshire, or £295,000 Fleur De Ley, a former public house dating back to the 1700s and now a four-bedroom cottage in Clifton Hampden, a village near the market town of Abingdon, eight miles from Oxford.

£850,000 could buy Foxgloves in Longthorpe in Cambridgeshire, a village two miles from Peterborough. Foxgloves can genuinely claim to be a ‘chocolate box’ property – a photograph of the four-bedroom Grade II listed house actually graced some Cadbury’s chocolate boxes 40 years ago.

All of these houses could sit easily into Grantchester or Trumpington, as could any of the thatched houses in Adare. There is a deeper, shared culture that brings these two islands together than is expressed in the narrow nationalism of Brexiteers or those who wrap the green flag around themselves far too loudly.

Foxgloves in Longthorpe in Cambridgeshire is a ‘chocolate box’ property … it graced a Cadbury chocolate box 40 years ago (Photograph: Savills/The Guardian)

29 July 2018

Corcomroe Abbey: the
Cistercians’ fertile abbey
in the barren Burren

Corcomroe Abbey stands on the edge of the Burren, about 7 km east of Ballyvaughan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to the Burrren last weekend, my postings from Kilfenora Cathedral, Ballyvaughan and other places in Co Clare attracted strong recommendations that I should also visit Corcomroe Abbey.

I put the abbey on my to-do list, forgetting that I had visited Corcomroe four years ago. But during the past week I came across my notes from that visit, and the photographs I had taken.

Corcomroe Abbey stands on the edge of the Burren, at the end of a road about 800 meters east of the village of Bellharbour, in a valley about 7 km east of Ballyvaughan.

Corcomroe was founded for Cistercian monks between 1195 and 1210 as a daughter house of Inisloughnaght Abbey, Co Tipperary. It was once known as Sancta Maria de Petra Fertilis (Saint Mary of the Fertile Rock), a reference to the Burren rocks and soil. Although there was no stream at the site, several wells probably provided water to the monastery.

Evidence of earlier religious settlements is found nearby in the deserted churches at Oughtmana, suggesting a long history of church life in the valley.

Corcomroe Abbey was founded by the O’Briens of Thomond and was once known as ‘Sancta Maria de Petra Fertilis,’ ‘Saint Mary of the Fertile Rock’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some accounts say the abbey was founded by Donal Mór Ua Briain (Donald O’Brien), the patron of a number of other religious foundations in Thomond, who died in 1194. He was also involved in the foundation of other important churches in Thomond, including Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and Holy Cross Abbey, Co Tipperary.

Other accounts say Corcomore Abbey was founded by his successor Donough Cairbreach. Architectural evidence indicates the abbey was founded around 1205-1210.

Another local legend says the building was commissioned later by King Conor na Siudane Ua Briain, and that he executed the five masons who completed the abbey to prevent them from building a rival masterpiece elsewhere.

However, the documentary evidence for Corcomroe Abbey is scanty. Because the Cistercians did not engage in extensive pastoral work, few traditions relating to the abbey were maintained in local folklore.

The double sedilia in the chancel at Corcomroe Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church was built of local limestone in the early 13th century and consists of a nave with an aisle on the south side. There may have been plans to build a similar aisle on the north side of the nave, but this was never completed, perhaps because funds were insufficient. Nothing remains of the cloister arcade, but this abbey was once a magnificent example of the best architecture of its time.

Cistercians were traditionally divided into two parts, the chancel and the nave, separated by a screen. This church is cruciform in plan although the north and south transepts are quite short. There was a chapel in each transept, and a thick nearly-central wall topped by a small tower, built probably in the 14th to 16th century.

At the east end of the church, the chancel has a decorated ribbed vault in the Romanesque style and is lit by three tall lancet windows, with a single lancet window above

The tomb niche with the effigy of Conor O’Brien, King of Thomond, who died in 1268 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The chancel has a highly decorated double sedilia and a tomb niche with the effigy of Conor O’Brien, King of Thomond, who died in 1268, a descendant of the founders and benefactors of the abbey.

Conor O’Brien, or Conor na Siudane Ua Briain, King of Thomond, fought a battle at Siudáine, close to Corcomroe, in 1268. On the battlefield, he was surprised by Conor Carrach O’Loughlain and slain with many of his retainers. His body was retrieved and was buried at Corcomroe by the monks. His tomb is one of the few remaining examples of the tomb an Irish Chieftain. The effigy is believed to be a copy of the figure at Roscommon Friary of Felim O’Conor, who died in 1265.

Where the chancel and transepts meet, several crossing arches feature capitals with carvings of human masks and dragons’ heads and flowers, including poppies, lily-of-the valleys and lotus leaves.

The capitals at the crossing are with carved of human faces (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The west gable has two tall lancet windows over a pointed-arch door.

In 1226, a papal mandate addressed to the Bishop of Kilfenora and the Abbot of Corcomroe shows that the abbey was integrated into the Cistercian network at that time and that the abbot was an important functionary in the local church.

The relationship with the mother-house at Inislounaght came to an end in 1228, and Corcomroe became subject to Furness Abbey in Lancashire. This was part of a move among Cistercians to bring the order’s more remote houses in Ireland under closer control.

In 1227, 1280 and 1287 there were complaints that the abbot of Corcomroe had failed to appear at the Cistercian General Chapter at Citeaux for a long time.

The chancel has decorated ribbed vaulting in the Romanesque style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In another battle nearby in 1317, involving feuding between the O’Briens and their allies, the abbey was used as a barracks by Dermot O’Brien.

By the end of the 14th century, tis part of the Burren was held by a branch of the O’Cahans (O’Kane or Keane) from Derry, and they became stewards of the abbey lands.

Papal letters in the early 15th century refer to issues around appointments at Kilfenora and Killilagh, and John, the Abbot of Corcomore, became Bishop of Kilmacduagh in 1419.

A figure of a mediaeval bishop with mitre and crozier in the church ruins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Papal correspondence became more frequent after this time, dealing mainly with local abuses of order, rules notably the ban against marriage. Church dynasties had become quite common in Ireland at that time, and were also present at Corcomroe. Through the 15th century, the abbey and several parishes were controlled by the Tierney family.

The custom of hereditary abbots and the use of abbey resources and lands by powerful families brought about a decline in the fortunes of monasteries. The number of monks fell, monastic churches were reduced in size, and the church in Corcomroe was shortened by 13 meters in the 15th century. There is also evidence that suggests that at the time the monks' dormitory had fallen into disuse.

With the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation, Corcomore Abbey and its lands were granted in 1554 to Murrough O’Brien, Earl of Thomond. For some time, the monks tried to continue to tend the fields and to maintain their presence in the area.

Titular abbots continued to be appointed for almost a century after the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daniel O’Griffy of Dysert O’Dea was appointed the ‘commendatory abbot’ or titular abbot of Corcomroe in 1625. John O’Dea, a monk of Salamanca, was appointed the last titular abbot in 1628.

The property is last mentioned in the O’Brien family papers in 1702, when they were mortgaged by William O’Brien (1662-1719) to Donat O’Brien of Dromoland.

A late addition is the neo-classical tomb of ‘O’Loughlin King of the Burren Family Tomb,’ dating from the late 18th or early 19th century. It is in the floor in front of the niche with Conor O’Brien’s tomb.

The church is largely intact, but few traces remain of the domestic buildings. Parts of the high wall surrounding the five acre monastery precinct can still be seen.

Tthe Office of Public Works acquired the ruins in 1879, and today Corcomore Abbey is a popular place to visit on day tours through the Burren.

Corcomroe Abbey was brought back to life several years ago with a Dawn Mass on Easter morning initiated by the late John O’Donoghue, author of Anam Cara.

The lancet windows at the East End of the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

More are invited to the
banquet and the party
than we may ever imagine

‘Let us break bread together, we are one’ (Hymn 428) … bread in the window of Hindley’s Bakery and Café, Tamworth Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 July 2018,

The Ninth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IX).

11 a.m.:
United Group Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Rectory, Askeaton, Co Limerick (followed by Parish Barbecue).

Readings: II Samuel 11: 1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3: 14-21; John 6: 1-21;

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We all love parties and anniversaries.

Recently, we have been blessed in this group of parishes with a number of baptisms and weddings.

In recent weeks too, I have also enjoyed taking part in the events marking the 850th anniversary of the foundation of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.

And, this Sunday is the Fifth Sunday in a summer month, we are here together in this group parishes for our joint celebration of the Eucharist in the Rectory Garden, followed by the parish summer barbecue.

This all seems to add an extra context and relevance to this morning’s Gospel story of the feeding of the multitude.

Birthdays, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, retirements – we all enjoy a good party.

Parties affirm who we are, where we fit within the family, and mark the rhythm of life and the continuity of community.

It is not only the eating or the drinking. It is very difficult to sit beside someone at the same table after a funeral, or to stand beside someone at the bar at a wedding, and not to end up getting to know them and – as we say in Ireland – getting to know ‘their seed, breed and generation.’

Even though in our Epistle reading (Ephesians 3: 14-21) Saint Paul alludes to the fact that there are different families, he reminds us that there is a unique way in which we, as Christians, are members of the same family, a particular family, the Church, the family of God.

Families share names, share stories, share memories, share identities, share anniversaries. And that is not all in the past. These celebrations allow us to express and share our hopes for the future too ... is that not what baptisms and weddings are about in every family – hope for the future, hope for life itself?

Feeding the 5,000 … a modern Greek Orthodox icon

The stories of the feeding of the 5,000 and of Christ walking on the water are familiar to us from the other three gospels. But Saint John presents these stories in a slightly different way this morning (John 6: 1-21).

The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle – apart from the Resurrection – recorded in all four Gospels (see also Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10-17), with only minor variations on the place and the circumstances.

The story of the multiplication of the loaves as Saint John alone tells it has a number of key details, such as a Passover context, that are there to remind us of our feeding at the Eucharist and of Messianic hope for the future.

In this story, the disciples have failed to buy or produce enough bread for a meal. Christ responds not by sympathising but by demanding great generosity, so great that it would take six months’ wages to be so generous.

Barley loaves were the food of the poor, and so the boy’s offering symbolises the poverty of the people, while the disciples fail to offer from the riches of the kingdom.

Christ is going to tell the people he feeds, and the disciples too, that he is the bread of life, and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry, whoever believes in him will never be thirsty (see John 6: 35).

The feeding with the fish looks forward too to a later meal by the shores of Tiberias … that breakfast with the disciples when the Risen Christ feeds them with bread and fish. The fish is an early symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, ΙΧΘΥC) is the Greek word for fish, and can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of words spelling out ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr), ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.

Christ asks the disciples to make the people sit down – well, not so much to sit down as to recline. They are asked to recline on the grass as they would at a banquet or at a feast – just as Christ does with the disciples at the Last Supper.

And then, in a Eucharistic sequence, he takes the bread, blesses or gives thanks, breaks it and gives it. John here uses the word εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistisas, verse 11), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteo), ‘to give thanks,’ the very word from which we derive the word Eucharist in the liturgy.

Saint John alone tells us that Christ later tells the disciples to gather up the fragments lest they perish. Gathering is an act of reverential economy towards the gifts of God; but gathering also anticipates Christ gathering all to himself (John 6: 39; see also John 17: 12).

Look at the amount that is left over in the outpouring of God’s generosity. There are 12 baskets – one for each tribe of Israel and one for each of the 12 disciples. God’s party, the Eucharist, looks forward to the new Israel, not the sort of earthly kingdom that the people now want but the Kingdom of God.

Christ puts no questions of belief to the disciples or to the crowd when he feeds them on the mountainside. They do not believe in the Resurrection – it has yet to happen. But he feeds them, and he feeds them indiscriminately. The disciples want to send them away, but Christ wants to count them in. Christ invites more people to the banquet than we can fit into our churches.

When we invite people into the Church, we have so much to share – must more that the meagre amount people may think we have in our bags.

This morning, enjoy the feast, enjoy the banquet, enjoy the party. Let us be prepared to be open to more being brought in to enjoy the banquet and the party than our imagination allows us to imagine.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ (John 6: 5) … bread on sale in a bakery in Platanias near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 6: 1-21 (NRSV):

1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ 10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish’ (John 6: 9) … fish on a stall in the market in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: Green

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
In that new world where you reveal the fulness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share in the eternal banquet
of Jesus Christ our Lord.


294, Come down, O Love divine;

428, Let us break bread together;

587, Just as I am, without one plea.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

A variety of bread in a shopfront in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

28 July 2018

How an Irish nationalist
was arrested at the new
railway station in Thurles

The Victorian railway station in Thurles, Co Tipperary … typical of the Gothic Revival style of Sancton Wood (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

My day-week trip to Thurles, Co Tipperary, was by train and was made easy by the regular train link between Limerick and Limerick Junction that connects with the Cork-Dublin route.

I was surprised to learn there is no direct bus service between Limerick and Thurles, but the train journey also gave me time to appreciate the story and architecture of Thurles Railway Station, which was built 170 years ago, and which was an interesting link with the West Limerick nationalist leader William Smith O’Brien of Cahermoyle House.

The railway station and the footbridge in Thurles were built in 1848. The station is an asymmetrical multiple-bay single- and two-storey building. The entrance façade has three central bays, flanked by slightly projecting gabled bays with projecting bay windows, and with single recessed bays to the north and south.

There are pitched slate roofs, ashlar limestone chimneystacks and timber bargeboards.

The eastern elevation facing the railway tracks has two tall pointed arched openings flanking a lower central one, in turn flanked by a recessed three-bay waiting room and a toilet block to the south and a one-bay office to the north. There are snecked ashlar limestone walls with a plinth.

There are chamfered canted arch window openings and triple square-headed window openings with continuous hood mouldings to the entrance façade, with timber sash windows and some replacement timber windows.

The partly-blocked triangular-headed former door opening in the entrance façade is flanked by carved pilasters. A later ticket office has been inserted inside the trackside elevation.

A Victorian post box at the railway station in Thurles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This building was designed by the English-born architect Sancton Wood (1815-1886), who also designed Colbert Station in Limerick and Heuston Station and Kingsbridge, Dublin, as well as stations in Kilkenny and Portlaoise.

Sancton Wood was born in Hackney, the son of John Wood and Harriet Russell, a niece of the painter Richard Smirke (1778–1815). He first worked in the office of his cousin, the architect Sir Robert Smirke (1781–1867), who rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre in 1809 and who is best known for the General Post Office in St Martin’s-le-Grand and the British Museum.

Later Wood worked for Robert Smirke’s brother, Sir Sydney Smirke (1798–1877), who restored the Temple Church and the Savoy Chapel and completed the British Museum.

Wood studied in the Antique School at the Royal Academy before travelling on the Continent, where he spent much time in Spain and Portugal and made drawings of many significant buildings.

On his return to England, Wood set up his own practice, designing stations for the growing railway networks in British and Ireland. He also designed houses in London, including some at Lancaster Gate.

In 1844, Wood presented drawings for railway stations for the Great Southern and Western Railway Company in Ireland. A year later, in 1845, he won the company’s competition for designing Kingsbridge Station in Dublin. His design was selected unanimously by the company’s London committee, although the Dublin Committee had favoured the design of John Skipton Mulvany.

That year, Wood was also appointed architect to the company. He designed the stations between Monasterevin and Limerick Junction, all in a gabled picturesque Gothic style. He was also architect to the Irish South Eastern Railway, which developed a line from Carlow to Kilkenny in 1848-1850.

The multiple gables and broken massing of his station in Thurles are typical of the Gothic Revival style. The variety of styles of openings is also typical of railway buildings, with his pointed arches, square-headed openings and chamfered openings.

His station in Thurles forms part of an interesting group with the other railway structures built by the Great Southern and Western Railway, including the footbridge, road bridge, workers’ houses, and waiting room.

The railway foot bridge in Thurles was also built in 1848 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The railway foot bridge, also built 1848, has a cast-iron depressed-arch with latticed parapets, and is supported on cast-iron columns with ornate foliate capitals. There are cast-iron staircases with latticed sides and decorative stair risers, cast-iron balusters and ball-topped newel posts. The steel girders of a later date support west staircase.

This foot bridge is of high artistic value, with its decorative foliate motifs on the balustrades and the foliate capitals to the cast-iron capitals.

Details on the cast-iron railway foot bridge in Thurles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Shortly after Wood’s station opened in Thurles, the Young Ireland leader, William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864), was arrested there at 8 p.m. on 5 August 1848 while he was trying to board a train after leading the failed insurrection in Ballingarry in South Tipperary.

Meanwhile, Wood’s work in Ireland seems to have come to an end by 1856, the same year William Smith O’Brien was pardoned and allowed to return to Ireland.

Smith O’Brien died in Bangor in North Wales on 16 June 1864; Sancton Wood, who had returned to live in London, died at his home at Putney Hill on 18 April 1886.

A plaque recalls the arrest of William Smith O’Brien on the station platform in Thurles in 1848 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Memories of childhood
days when stopping in
Thurles was a treat

Hayes Hotel in Thurles retains its claim to a special place in Irish history and culture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

During my childhood, the two main stopping places on the road between Cappoquin and Dublin were Cashel and Thurles.

It was a journey of perhaps 240 km journey, and although Cashel is only 52 km from Cappoquin and Thurles about 75 km, they seemed to mark the halfway mark. I have vivid memories of being brought through the ruins on the Rock of Cashel and picnics that seemed to mark the beginning and the end of summer.

Thurles was a very different place to break the journey. We usually stopped in the car, but I can recall occasional stops during long journeys. The treat on those days was being brought into Hayes Hotel on the main square in Thurles, and seated to lunch at an hotel table. These occasional stops were made to feel like true occasions.

I readily recall fair days in Thurles, with the cattle, the farmers, the dealers and the smells. For a boy in the 1950s and the early 1960s, a town like Thurles seemed to be nothing less than a bustling metropolis.

Walking through Liberty Square this week, it had lost none of its feelings of being a broad square surrounding by elegant Victorian and premises. The sounds and smells of market days came back to my mind, and I knew immediately where to look for Hayes Hotel – still pronounced by all as ‘Hayses Hotel’ – and the statue of Archbishop Croke and the 1798 Memorial.

But, truly, is it a change for the better that this square, planned as a broad open space, is now used as a car park that serves as a traffic island. Had I not known this town as a child, I imagine, it would have been difficult to appreciate the breadth and majesty of the hotel.

Hayes Hotel is a five-bay, three-storey hotel on the north side of the square, built around 1840. It has a pitched artificial slate roof with rendered chimneystacks, a moulded eaves course and a central pediment. There are rendered walls with quoins on the upper storeys. The ground floor had rusticated concrete block cladding and a black marble plinth, and there is a glazed cast-iron entrance canopy.

Hayes Hotel has a claim to a special place in Irish history and culture as the place where the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was founded by Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin at a meeting on 1 November 1884.

At the time, this was known as the Commercial Hotel. It remains the single most important building in Thurles today, and remains as a popular meeting place. Although the ground floor has been extensively remodelled in recent years, the upper storey retains many of its original ornamental features.

The Archbishop Thomas Croke Memorial is the work of the sculptor Francis Doyle Jones (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

At the west end of the square, the Archbishop Croke Memorial was erected in 1922 to commemorate Thomas Croke (1824-1902), Archbishop of Cashel (1875-1902).

Croke, who was born in Co Cork and educated in Paris and Rome, and was a professor of theology in Saint Patrick’s College, Carlow, and President of Saint Colman’s College, Fermoy, before becoming Bishop of Auckland in New Zealand.

On his return to Ireland, he became Archbishop of Cashel, and became known as a strong supporter of the Land League and the Home Rule politics of Charles Stewart Parnell. He also became a leading supporter of the new GAA after it was founded in Thurles in 1884, and Croke Park in Dublin was named in his honour. In honour of Croke, his successors as Archbishop of Cashel were invited to throw in the ball at the start of All-Ireland finals.

The high-quality, larger-than-life bronze statue of Archbishop Croke was cast by the sculptor Francis William Doyle Jones (1873-1932). Doyle Jones was born in Hartlepool in 1873, the eldest son of Francis Jones (1846-1918), a stonemason and sculptor from Co Monaghan.

Doyle Jones initially worked for his father and then studied in Paris and London in the 1890s. He worked principally as a sculptor of portraits, and also made a large number of war memorials. He died in Saint Luke’s Hospital, Chelsea, in 1932.

The façade of Devlin’s Medical Hall hides the fabric of an older structure (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A few steps east of Hayes Hotel, the Rexall Pharmacy or Devlin’s Medical Hall is a landmark with its elaborate Italianate façade, including the parapet with raised lettering, the plinth, arched window openings, paired pilasters, keystones and timber-framed plate glass windows. Inside, the shop retains many of its original features.

But the façade, which is dated 1889, hides the fabric of an older structure. The ornamental colonnade and arcade may have been influenced by the then new Cathedral of the Annunciation.

An unusual building whose design displays Dutch influences (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Across from Devlin’s, on the south side of the square, First Editions at No 19 is now closed and the building is on the market. This terraced, two-bay, three-storey former house was built around 1890.

The building has a pitched slate roof with rendered chimneystacks and a distinctive curvilinear gablet with a ball finial. The shopfront has a plate glass window flanked by recessed doorways that have timber panelled doors with overlights, flanked by carved timber pilasters.

This is an unusual building in Thurles, and its design seems to have been informed by Dutch influences. The decorative gablet and the brick detailing with the oversize keystones show a high degree of craftsmanship.

The doors flanking the plate glass window are reminders of the days when shopkeepers lived over the shop – the days when I was a boy on the road between Cappoquin and Dublin, and when we stopped in Thurles to be treated to a fine lunch in Hayes Hotel.

The fading front of a once-colourful pub is a reminder of days gone by in Thurles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

27 July 2018

Newman’s visit means
Thurles never became
the Oxford of Ireland

Saint Patrick’s College, Thurles … established with a legacy from Archbishop Patrick Everard of Cashel, who died in 1821 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

From the steps of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Thurles, two gate piers surmounted by eagles enclose the vista along a 300-yard long avenue that leads up to Saint Patrick’s College.

The college was once proposed as the location for John Henry Newman’s Catholic University, and there were dreams of Thurles in Co Tipperary becoming the Oxford of Ireland. Today, after almost two centuries of educational excellence, the college is in a new relationship with the University of Limerick.

Saint Patrick’s College was founded by Patrick Everard, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly. When he died in 1821, he left £10,000 from his portion of the Everard family fortune to establish a college to offer a liberal education for young Catholic men preparing for the priesthood and for professional business careers.

The college was built on glebe land or church land bought from a local Church of Ireland minister, and the site is believed to have been part of the lands of the mediaeval Carmelite friary in Thurles.

The first stone was laid by Archbishop Robert Laffan of Cashel, on 6 July 1829, in the presence of Daniel O’Connell. This was the year of Catholic Emancipation, and to mark the occasion the college adopted the Latin motto Renovabitur sicut aquilae Juventus tua, ‘Your youth will be renewed like the eagle’ (Psalm 103: 5).

The architect Charles Frederick Anderson (1802-1869) won the competition to design the college, and he supervised building work between 1830 and 1831, while Denis Leahy was the engineer.

At the time, Anderson was a member of the Church of Ireland and had already worked for the Limerick-based architect brothers, James Pain and George Richard Pain, who had placed him in charge of building Saint Alibius Cathedral, the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Emly. He later became a Roman Catholic, and emigrated to the US where he died.

Saint Patrick’s College, Thurles was designed by the architect Charles Frederick Anderson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The plans were to open the college in 1834, but the project was delayed when Archbishop Everard’s legacy ran out. The building was still incomplete when the college opened its doors in September 1837.

The main building is a detached, 21-bay, three-storey former seminary, with a central three-bay pedimented breakfront and two slightly projecting three-bay terminating blocks. The breakfront blocks, recessed windows arches on the ground floor and the pediment are interesting architectural features that are representative of Georgian-style architecture.

At first, Saint Patrick’s enrolled day students and boarders, offering second-level education in the humanities, with a limited contribution from the sciences. These first students were preparing for careers in business and the professions.

A Philosophy Department opened in 1842, when some students became candidates for the priesthood for the first time. Archbishop Michael Slattery of Cashel established a foreign mission department in the college that year, and in time many graduates went to the US, Australia and New Zealand.

But poverty and the effects of the Famine set back the development of Saint Patrick’s College.

From 1849, the University of London allowed Thurles to offer degrees in arts and laws, following an similar arrangement with Saint Patrick’s College, Carlow, and Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny.

The Cathedral of the Assumption seen from Saint Patrick’s College … the Synod of Thurles met here in 1850 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In August 1850, a synod of Roman Catholic bishops met in Thurles, the first such synod since the Synod of Cashel in 1172. It is said that the two eagles surmounting the central gate piers – which may have been inspired by the college motto – were put in place at the college entrance in 1850 to mark the Synod of Thurles.

The Synod appointed a Catholic University Committee and at the time Saint Patrick’s was considered as a site for the Catholic University proposed by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman paid his first visit to Ireland in October 1851, coming directly to Thurles, where he stayed in the college and where he caught a severe cold.

Although Newman reported that Saint Patrick’s was ‘a large fine building,’ he reported it was set ‘on a forlorn waste, without a tree, in a forlorn country, and a squalid town.’ Thurles is hardly a ‘squalid town,’ but the vision of Thurles as the Oxford of Ireland had come to an end.

The eagles on the gate piers commemorate the Synod of Thurles in 1850 and recall the college motto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Regardless of Newman’s dismissive opinions, the college had developed into a major seminary by the mid-1860s, with the addition of a full theology faculty.

The relationship with the University of London continued for over 20 years. In 1875, the college was linked to the Catholic University of Ireland, and then with the Royal University of Ireland in the 1900s, and later with the Pontifical University in Maynooth. Lay students continued to attend until 1907.

After a gap of 81 years, lay students were readmitted in 1988. But Saint Patrick’s ceased to function as a seminary in 2002. By then, the college had ordained over 1,500 priests.

In 2004, Saint Patrick’s started offering degrees in education through the Tipperary Institute. From 2011, the programmes at Saint Patrick’s were accredited by the University of Limerick. The college celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2012, when the first students graduated with degrees from the University of Limerick.

A new agreement was signed with Mary Immaculate College Limerick in 2016, and the college is now known as MIC Saint Patrick’s Campus, Thurles.

Today MIC Thurles offers degrees from the University of Limerick in theology, business studies, Irish, religious studies and education, as well as some certificates in pastoral care. And, despite Newman’s first impression of ‘a forlorn waste, without a tree, in a forlorn country, and a squalid town,’ there is an abundance of trees in the grounds and lining the avenue in this pretty and attractive town in Co Tpperary.

Saint Patrick’s College, Thurles … now linked with the University of Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In search of the castle
that was the Thurles
home of Lady Thurles

Bridge Castle in Thurles, Co Tipperary, built in 1453 by the Earl of Ormond … was this the 17th century home of Lady Thurles? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Thurles earlier this week [25 July 2018], I went looking for the castle in Thurles that was home for over six decades to Elizabeth Butler, Dowager Lady Thurles, and one of the leading women to engage in politics in Ireland in the 17th century.

Elizabeth Poyntz (1587-1673) was a daughter of Sir John Poyntz of Iron Acton in Gloucestershire. She became Lady Thurles in 1608 when she married Thomas Butler (1586-1619), Viscount Thurles, son and heir of Walter Butler (1559-1632), 11th Earl of Ormond.

Apparently, her father-in-law opposed the marriage, perhaps because her father was notoriously debt ridden, and he would die penniless.

Some sources say Elizabeth lived in Thurles Castle for 65 years, from the time she married in 1608 until she died in 1673, apart for a short period at the end of the Cromwellian era (1658-1660).

Thomas and Elizabeth Butler, Lord and Lady Thurles, were the parents of sons and four daughters before he drowned on 15 December 1619, His father, the Earl of Ormond, was beginning a long prison sentence in the Fleet Prison in London, and Thomas was on his way to answer charges of treason for having garrisoned Kilkenny, when the ship taking him to England was wrecked off the Skerries.

The widowed Lady Thurles married again, about 1620. Her second husband was Captain George Mathew of Radyr and Llandaff in Glamorganshire, Wales, and they had two more sons and one more daughter.

George Mathew died at Tenby in Wales in 1636. His widow continued to call herself Lady Thurles and lived for a further 37 years. When she died in Thurles in May 1673, she was buried in Saint Mary’s Church of Ireland parish church.

But which castle in Thurles was the life-long home of Lady Thurles, and how did she manage to return there in 1660?

Samuel Lewis wrote 200 years ago that during the parliamentary war in the mid-17th century, Thurles Castle was garrisoned by the supporters of King Charles I. It was later taken by the parliamentarian forces, who demolished the castle.

Did Lady Thurles return to a newer building at the site of a castle that may also have been called Thurles Castle? The historians Francis Grose (1791) and Ella Armitage (1912) imply a building called Thurles Castle was still standing in their lifetimes.

So, which castle did Lady Thurles live in?

Bridge Castle, overlooking the River Suir, dominated the Thurles skyline from 1453, when it was built by James Butler, 4th Earl or Ormond, who built two castles at Thurles that year.

The River Suir below Bridge Castle and Barry’s Bridge in Thurles, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This castle is a mediaeval tower house, similar to many castles of this type built across Ireland in the mid-15th century, and a small fragment of the east gate of the town wall is still attached to the north wall of the castle. The castle was built to control the river crossing at the River Suir, to collect tolls and if necessary to defend the river crossing against attacks.

Bridge Castle is a small three-storey tower with a vault over the first floor. The original doorway may have been set in the west wall and a spiral stairway rises in the north-west corner, giving access to all the upper floors.

A small fragment of the original east facing arched gateway of the walled town protrudes today and is still attached to the north wall of the castle. Small garrisons of armed soldiers were housed in these buildings, and the small, pointed arch doorway on the north wall may have provided the small garrison immediate access from the tower to the river crossing.

The castle was leased on 17 June 1617 by Thomas Butler, Lord Thurles, for 21 years to Richard Power, Donat O’Haly and R[ichar]d Wale. The lease included ‘all that castle called Bridge Castle with its appurtenances, parcel of the Manor and Lands of Thurles.’

The castle lost its strategic significance when Barry’s Bridge, beside the castle, was first built ca 1650, and the bridge has since been rebuilt ca 1820.

The River Suir below Barry’s Bridge in Thurles, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford], 2018)

The Down Survey (1655-1656), carried out by Sir William Petty, lists James Butler, (1610-1688), Earl of Ormond and future Duke of Ormonde, and his mother Elizabeth Butler (1615-1685), Dowager Lady Thurles, as the proprietors of Bridge Castle.

The Civil Survey refers to a ‘a faire house wherein the Lady of Thurles liveth with a castle and severall Turrets upon the Bawne.’

So, perhaps, Lady Thurles returned after the Cromwellian era to live at Bridge Castle in Thurles, while her son James Butler, who had succeeded as Earl of Ormond and later became Duke of Ormonde, returned to live in Kilkenny Castle.

Ormonde was a first cousin once removed of Grany Kavanagh who married John Comerford of Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny, and Edward Comerford was a witness to his marriage settlement when James Butler married Lady Elizabeth Preston in 1629.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Lady Thurles wrote to her son in 1661, recommending Edward Comerford’s son, Thomas Comerford, for service and for the restoration of his father’s confiscated lands.

Ormonde was also a half-brother of Toby Mathew of Thurles and Annfield. Ormonde gave Toby Mathew the manor, castle and town of Thurles and a vast estate. A century later, the Bridge Castle was lit up, along with the bridge and the market house, in celebration when Toby Mathew’s descendant, Frances Mathew (1738-1806), was elected MP for Co Tipperary.

Francis Mathew later received the titles of Baron Llandaff (1783), Viscount Llandaff (1793) and Earl of Llandaff (1797) was elected Tipperary Member of Parliament, a position he held from 1768 to 1783.

Francis Mathew lived at Thomastown Castle, Co Tipperary, where the temperance campaigner Father Theobald Mathew was born in 1790. Thomastown Castle fell into ruin by the late 19th century. Apart from the external walls, none of the original fabric remains, the castle is suffering from structural problems that could lead to full or partial collapse, and there is an immediate threat of further deterioration.

But Thomastown Castle is half-way between Cashel and Tipperary Town, and so could not be the Thurles Castle where Lady Thurles lived for most of her life.

However, there is one other castle in Thurles that claims to be her former residence. The Black Castle, which was sold on the open market last year [2017] along with a commercial building that links it directly to Liberty Square, the main square in Thurles. When the Black Castle was put on the market by Kenny family, the vendors claimed the castle had been the home of Elizabeth Poyntz and her husband Thomas Butler, Viscount Thurles, in the 17th century.

The Black Castle is a 15th-to-16th century tower house built beside another castle and motte. The present remains include a four-storey tower house with a parapet built with roughly coursed limestone rubble and with a pronounced base-batter.

There is a barrel vault over the ground floor, a pointed vault over the second floor and wooden floors elsewhere. The original entrance, which is now blocked, was in the south end of the east wall with two other entrances inserted at a later date.

The main entrance gave access to two lobbies protected by overhead murder-holes and a cruciform gun loop. The walls and floor at ground-floor level have been concreted and a plastic barrel-shaped panel roof inserted to accommodate its last function as an abattoir.

There are mural stairs in the west and north walls that give access to the upper floors. The windows at first-floor level have been blocked up or modified.

Very little is left of the parapet wall, but a portion of it survives on the south and west sides with evidence of a bartizan at the south angle, and there are remains of spouts at the base of the parapet wall. Substantial corbels projecting out of the west face, three above the first and the same above the second-floor level.

Only fragmentary remains of the bawn survive, the north wall of which was levelled in recent years. A 17th century house may have been built against the west face of the tower house but has not survived.

But if this was the site of the Thurles Castle that was home to Lady Thurles in the 17th century, it would explain the names of Castle Lane, Castle Park and Moate Lane nearby, as well as Castle Meadows a little further away.

The former Black Castle, west of Liberty Square, was bought by a local financier and business figure, Timothy Maher, who said at the time he is budgeting to spend €2 million to restore the castle.

There is no direct access to this castle site, so I did not get to see the Black Castle during my visit to Thurles earlier this week. But I plan to return and it promises to be interesting to see how the new owners develop the castle.

A plaque at Saint Mary’s Church recalls Lady Thurles was buried here in 1673 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)