08 September 2018

Saint Cronan’s, a Famine-era church
on a Franciscan site in Roscrea

The remains of the Franciscan Friary on Abbey Street, Roscrea, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

On the way back from Kilkenny to Askeaton last week, two of us stopped in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, after visiting the parish church and castle in Ballragget, Co Kilkenny, and the monastic ruins in Aghaboe, Co Laois.

We wanted to see a number of ecclesiastical sites in Roscrea, including the two parishes churches, both named after Saint Cronan, the Romanesque remains, High Cross and round tower that have survived from the ancient monastic site, the ruins of the Franciscan friary, and Saint Joseph’s, the Cistercian abbey and school across the country boundary in Co Offaly, as well as Roscrea Castle and Damer House.

Roscrea’s two parish churches – Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic – are both named after Saint Cronan, stand close to the early and mediaeval monastic sites, and were easy to find although they stand some distance from each other.

Saint Cronan was said to have founded his monastery in the year 610, but the Franciscan Friary is a much later, mediaeval arrival in Roscrea.

A window in the friary ruins is partly blocked by a modern house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The ruins of the former Franciscan friary now forms a National Monument and stands on Abbey Street at the west end of Roscrea, on the north bank of the River Bunnow.

The friary was founded in the 15th century, sometime before 1477, by the Greyfriars or Franciscans of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual, with the patronage and support of Maolruanaidh Ó Cerbaill (Mulrooney O’Carroll, King of Ely O’Carroll, and his wife Bibiana (Dempsey).

The friars in the Roscrea revolted in 1477, and the friary was destroyed. A second friary was built on the ruins of the earlier foundation, and it was reformed around 1490 for the Order of Friars Minor, and the present buildings date from that period.

Two or three decades after the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation, the friary was dissolved around 1577-1579, the friars fled Roscrea and the buildings were destroyed. The friary lands were granted to Connor O’Brien, 3rd Earl of Thomond, who leased them to William Crow. Father Thady O’Daly, who escaped to Limerick, was captured and hanged there.

Some remains from the cloister have been cemented in the remains of the bell-tower and north wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Very little remains of the friary buildings except for friary buildings are the north and east walls and the central bell-tower. The bell-tower is two storeys high and is crenellated. It is carried on pointed arches that have a chamfered soffit order, on moulded corbels.

Fragments of carved stones and window tracery are now mounted on the walls, including a once beautiful pointed, mullioned and transomed, traceried window that has been partially blocked by a modern house that has been built onto the east gable.

The windows in the north wall are well made and are both twin-light ogee headed with hollow spandrels. Some remains from the cloister have been cemented in the remains of the bell-tower and north wall.

Saint Cronan’s Roman Catholic parish church was designed by William Deane Butler (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Some of the friary stone may have been used to build a new, cruciform Roman Catholic parish church, built in 1843-1855.

Saint Cronan’s Roman Catholic parish church was designed by William Deane Butler (ca 1794-1857), who was also the architect of Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, Saint Patrick’s Church, Ballyragget, and the parish churches in Castlecomer and Freshford while he was the resident architect for the Diocese of Ossory.

Work on building the church began around 1843 when the foundation stone was laid. But this work came to a halt during the Famine, and the church was not dedicated until 19 October 1855. Dean died in 1857, and the interior of the church was finished in 1860 by Butler’s son, John Sterling Butler. The total cost was £10,000, and the contractors were Hogan & Son.

Inside Saint Cronan’s Church, Roscrea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The architect John Sterling Butler was born ca 1816 and was apprenticed to his father. He was appointed Dublin City Architect on 1 October 1866, in place of Hugh Byrne, and was also architect to the Mendicity Institution (1867-1873). But he was forced to resign as City Architect in 1878 for a serious misdemeanour, although the details remain unclear. In his letter of resignation, he asked ‘the council to believe that, though sinning, I have been sinned against.’ When and where he died is not recorded.

The High Altar and screen in Saint Cronan’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The architect James Joseph McCarthy, often regarded as Pugin’s successor in Ireland, designed the three altars. These are the work of Earley & Powell of Dublin and were consecrated on 19 September 1869.

The stained-glass windows in the church are mainly the work of Mayer of Munich and Earley of Dublin.

The architects Ashlin and Coleman carried out renovations on the exterior in 1906, work on a new sacristy and decoration in 1915, when the contractor was Joseph Day of Roscrea, and fresh plastering in 1924. John Hardman & Co designed a stone and metal jubé screen.

Details in a window in Saint Cronan’s Church, Roscrea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This cruciform church has a gable-fronted, six-bay nave with side aisles, two-bay transepts, a single-bay chancel with bow-plan apse at the east and an L-plan sacristy at the south-east.

Outside, the architectural details of the church include a shallow, gable-fronted porch with a statue over it, polygonal turrets, crenellations, spirelets, stone cross finials, modillions, elegant buttresses, trefoil-headed and lancet windows, round and pointed-arch windows with hood-mouldings, and timber battened double-leaf doors with stone hood-mouldings.

Inside, the church has an arcade of polygonal columns supporting pointed arches, a roof of braced wooden trusses with decorative cast iron to the spandrels, an ornamental marble screen in the apse, and a carved stone reredos that forms a decorative focus for the church.

The church stands on a landscaped rising site, and the ruins of the mediaeval friary nearby add archaeological interest to this site.

The Lamb on the Throne (see Revelation 4) in the west window in Saint Cronan’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Mary’s Cathedral
celebrates 850 years
of life in Limerick

The west door of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick … celebrating 850 years this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, this afternoon to take part in a special Service of Thanksgiving marking the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

In the calendar of the Church of Ireland, today [8 September] is the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and so it is the patronal festival of Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

The Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the Very Revd Niall Sloane, told this week’s Limerick Leader that today’s Thanksgiving Service will be ‘the liturgical highlight of this year’s celebration.’

‘The Cathedral is looking forward to this special event in which we will have an opportunity to give God thanks for 850 years of Christian witness within the City and Diocese of Limerick,’ he said.

He added, ‘I’m delighted that a number of former bishops of Limerick will be joining us for the service along with public and civic representatives.’

Saint Mary’s, which was gifted to the Church by Donal Mor O’Brien the last King of Thomond, has been a site of Christian worship since 1168 and it is one of the oldest buildings in Limerick City.

The Thanksgiving Service this afternoon is part of this year’s festivities, which have focused on celebrating and promoting the Cathedral within Limerick and beyond. The guest preacher is the Right Revd David Chillingworth, former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Limerick, Dr Brendan Leahy, and the Mayor of Limerick, Councillor James Collins, are also taking part in the service, along with representatives from various groups within city. I am here this afternoon as the Canon Precentor of the cathedral.

The Thanksgiving Service begins at 3.30 pm and all are welcome.

An ancient cathedral site
in Roscrea with its Round
Tower, High Cross and
Romanesque doorway

The Romanesque doorway at Saint Cronan’s Church, Roscrea, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Roscrea in Co Tipperary originally stood on the ancient road that ran in part from Tara to Cashel. This location may explain why Saint Cronan founded a monastery there in the early seventh century, and why the monastic site briefly served as the episcopal seat in the short-lived Diocese of Roscrea in the 12th century.

Today, the site monastic site includes a round tower, a much-worn High Cross, an isolated Romanesque door, and a 200-year-old Church of Ireland parish church.

Both the Church of Ireland parish church and the Roman Catholic parish church in Roscrea are named Saint Cronan’s Church, in honour of the founding saint of these ecclesiastical sites, which I visited last week on my back to Co Limerick from Kilkenny.

Saint Cronan, who died in 640, is seen as the abbot-bishop and patron of the short-lived Diocese of Roscrea, which was later incorporated into the Diocese of Killaloe.

Saint Cronan was born in the territory of Ely O'Carroll, Ireland. His father’s name was Odhran, and his mother came from west Clare. After spending his youth in Connacht, he founded a number of monastic houses before returning to his native area ca 610, when he founded a monastery and school in Roscrea or ‘the wood of Cré.’

The Annals of Tigernach and the Annals of Ulster describe Saint Cronan as ‘Bishop of Nendrum.’ The Acts of Saint Cronan abound in miracles, including the legend Dimma, one of his monks, transcribing the Four Gospels without rest in a period of 40 days and 40 nights.

Saint Cronan of Roscrea is said to have died in the year 640, and his east is celebrated on 28 April.

The High Cross at the site in Roscrea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In the confusion that followed the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, an attempt was made to establish an independent Diocese of Roscrea. However, there was no Bishop of Roscrea at the Synod of Kells and Mellifont in 1151, although it is later listed as one of the dioceses in the Province of the Archbishop of Cashel, probably incorporating areas that had previously been in the Diocese of Killaloe.

Isaac Ua Cuanáin, Bishop of Roscrea, died in 1161, and nNo more is heard of the Diocese of Roscrea after that. It was subsumed once again, along with the Diocese of Scattery into the Diocese of Killaloe, and the cathedral church became an Augustinian friary and later a parish church.

All that survives of the ancient monastic site are the Romanesque gable of the 12th century cathedral church, a high cross and a round tower.

The once beautiful sandstone gable is now very badly weathered from pollution and age. It includes a tangent gable, blind arcades, a doorway of three orders, with the figure of an abbot or bishop above, and rosettes. It has been compared with similar doorways in Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert.

The distinctive 12th century High Cross displays a figure of a ‘clothed’ Christ om one side and Saint Cronan on the other.

The round tower in Roscrea is first mentioned in 1131, when it was struck by lightning.

The remainder of the church or cathedral in Roscrea was demolished in 1812, and many of the stones were used to build a new Saint Cronan’s Church of Ireland parish church.

Saint Cronan’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Roscrea, was built in 1812 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Cronan’s is a single-cell, gable-fronted parish church, with five-bay side elevations to nave, a four-stage tower and porch at the south-west elevation, and a vestry at the south-east elevation. The original building was funded by the Board of First Fruits with a gift of £100 and a loan of £775.

This church is a fine example of early 19th-century church architecture. The features include crenellated parapets, stone pinnacles at the gable ends and on the porch, a tower with crenellations and pinnacles, diagonal buttresses, pointed-arch windows with stained glass, and a timber battened double-leaf door.

The church was designed by a Roscrea-born architect James Sheane, whose name is inscribed on a datestone in the tower. He was buried in the churchyard when he died in 1816. His other known churches and glebe houses are in Modreeny and Kilrushall, in the Diocese of Killaloe.

The porch was added around 1813 by John Bowden (d. 1822), and the church was restored in 1879 by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (1828-1899) of Woodward and Deane.

The grounds include a graveyard and a replica high cross, enclosed by a rubble stone wall, cast iron gate and railings.

The Round Tower in Roscrea is first mentioned in 1131 and was inhabited until 1815 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Meanwhile, the neighbouring round tower is said to have been inhabited as late as 1815.

Until the M7 motorway was built, the main road from Limerick to Dublin cut through this monastic site, between the Round Tower on one side and the Romanesque doorway and the High Cross on the other side.

Despite the motorway taking traffic out of the centre of Roscrea, this is still a busy road with a blind and sharp bend, and I felt I was taking my life into my hands twice last week as I tried to cross the road from the road tower to the site of the church.

The arch of the Romanesque doorway at Saint Cronan’s Church, Roscrea, is of three orders (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)