02 October 2018

A former Church of Ireland
parish church lives on
as a library in Charleville

Saint James’s Church, Charleville, Co Cork … built in 1846, and converted into a library in the 1990s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Charleville Library is located in the former Church of Ireland parish church on Main Street, on the main road between Limerick and Cork.

Saint James’s Church was built as a Gothic Revival Church in 1845-1846 on the site of an earlier Church of Ireland parish church that had been built in 1663 by Roger Boyle (1621-1671), 1st Earl of Orrery and the founder of Charleville after the Restoration of Charles II.

Boyle had been a supporter of Oliver Cromwell during the Civil Wars of the 1650s, and just as the choice of Charleville as the name of his new planned town was a declaration of his new-found loyalty to Charles II, his choice of Saint James as the patron of the parish church was also a declaration of his loyalty to the restored House of Stuart: Charles II was a grandson of James I, and his brother and heir was James Stuart, Duke of York, who later succeeded as James II.

The Very Revd Jonathan Bruce (1681-1758), who was Vicar of Charleville and Prebendary of Ballyhea in Cloyne Cathedral from 1709 to 1758, was also Dean of Saint Fachan’s Cathedral, Kilfenora (1724-1758). He was descended from a Scottish family, and was a son of Saul Bruce, twice Provost (Mayor) of Bandon, Co Cork, in the 17th century.

Dean Bruce was the grandfather of George Evans Bruce, who founded the Bruce Bank, which traded in Limerick and Charleville, in 1806. He lived at the Hermitage, Castleconnell, and was High Sheriff of Co Limerick in 1800. The Bruce Bank closed after financial difficulties in 1820.

Canon William Dunn (1757-1834), who was Rector of Charleville in 1821, was also the Sovereign or Mayor of Charleville.

The 19th century church built as a successor to Boyle’s Caroline-era church, was consecrated in 1846. It is built of limestone ashlar and is a fine example of the Neo-Gothic style that was popular at the time. The ornate limestone dressings are finely carved, displaying quality work by 19th century craft workers.

The church had a five-bay nave with a shallow chancel projection at the north-east, a link bay, an elaborate, square-plan, three-stage, bell tower with a tall octagonal spire at south end of the main, east elevation, and a porch at the west gable of nave.

The tower and spire of the former Saint James’s Church in Charleville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Outside, the architectural features of this former church include limestone walls, buttresses, hood mouldings and carved stops. The tower has a clock, there is a three-light window in the chancel, lancets in the nave, and double lancet windows in the tower.

There are pointed arch door openings, a timber battened door, and inside the former church was altered in the 1990s, a century and a half after it was built, to accommodate the town library.

Some of the interior work in the 19th century was designed by the architects James Franklin Fuller and Charles William Harrison, including a Caen stone pulpit. A brass eagle lectern was presented by the Sanders family of Charleville Park in memory of Thomas Sanders.

The Bruce family tomb in the plaza between the former church and the Main Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The surrounding churchyard still retains many graves, with grassed over barrel-roofed burial vaults behind the church and a carved limestone tomb of the Bruce family, a prominent banking family in Charleville and Limerick, in the plaza area that has been created between the library and the Main Street.

The building breaks the street-line of the town because it is set back from the Main Street, and it provides a green space in the centre of Charleville.

The Paraguayan vice-minister for higher education, José Gabriel Arce Farina, visited Charleville Library last year [January 2017], with Professor Patricia Coughlan and Professor Nuala Finnegan of University College Cork, for the showing of a film and a short lecture on the life of the Paraguayan national heroine Eliza Lynch, ‘Queen of Paraguay,’ who was born in Charleville.

Saint James’s Church fell into disrepair after the Church of Ireland population in the town declined in the 1950s and the 1960s. But it was converted to a library by Cork County Council in the 1990s, and it retains much of its early character and form as a church.

Today, Charleville is incorporated in the Mallow group of parishes, where Canon Eithne Lynch is the rector. The former Saint James’s Church stands out as an example of how an historic church building in a vibrant provincial town can be put to an appropriate use again after years of neglect.

Many of the early graves in the churchyard can be seen behind the library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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