18 February 2019
Visiting the library that
tells the moving story of
a church in Ballybunion
Two years ago, for the first time, I visited Saint Augustine’s Church, the former Church of Ireland parish church in Ballybunion, Co Kerry, on a Saturday afternoon [19 February 2017]. It was my first time to visit the most westerly town and church in this group of parishes, although the church is now used as a library.
I have visited Ballybunion many times since that afternoon, but until this past weekend I never managed to see inside this church.
Three of us went for a walk on the beach in Ballybunion this Saturday afternoon [16 February 2019], and for the first time in two years I found the library was open and I was able to visit one of my former parish churches.
The library and former church stands at the corner of Sandhill Road in Ballybunion. This building that was once Saint Augustine’s parish church in the Church of Ireland. It is a single-storey Gothic Revival style church. The walls are of snecked limestone with Portland stone dressings. The entrance is through a projecting porch.
Saint Augustine’s Church was originally built at Rattoo, near Ballyduff, in 1877-1879. However, after the original Church of Ireland parish church in Ballybunion was demolished in the 1950s, it was decided to move Saint Augustine’s to Ballybunion.
From 1669 to 1882, the parish of Ballybunion was held by the Rectors of Aghavillan. Killehenny Church was built as the parish church in Ballybunion on a site donated by HB Harene, close to the cliffs, and was consecrated in 1858.
The parish was united with Rattoo in 1883, and the first rector of the new union was the Revd Cecil Richard Hoggins, a former naval chaplain. Hoggins was succeeded by the Revd Charles Edward Fry. Later, it was recalled, ‘the rector suffered terribly from shyness. His manner was painfully nervous.’
In 1922, the parish was joined with Listowel. By then, Killehenny Church and its clocktower had become familiar landmarks in Ballybunion.
But for almost a century, the church was battered by the weather and the elements. A local historian, Russell McMorran of Tralee, mused that it must have been an exciting experience going to church there on a stormy, winter’s day.
After almost 100 years, the decision was taken in 1957 to close the church and to demolish it.
Meanwhile, another Church of Ireland church in the neighbourhood had fallen into disuse. Saint Augustine’s Church was originally built at Rattoo, near Ballyduff, in 1877-1879, on a site ‘within the shadow of the ancient round tower.’ It was built by Wilson and Gertrude Gun for their family, friends, tenants and workers, and for the Staughton family, who were neighbouring landlords.
The church, dedicated to Saint Augustine of Hippo, was designed by the Kerry-born architect, James Franklin Fuller (1835-1924), an eccentric snob who also wrote high-Victorian melodramatic novels. He claimed to have ‘carried out professional work in every county in Ireland’ and the Dictionary of Irish Architects lists over 200 of his works.
Fuller undertook considerable work for the Guinness family and Lord Ardilaun, most notably Kylemore Abbey in Co Galway, the refurbishment of Farmleigh House, next to the Phoenix Park, in 1881-1884, the refurbishment of Iveagh House on Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, and the Superintendent’s Gate Lodge in Saint Stephen’s Green.
His other works include Saint Mary’s Church, Julianstown, Co Meath, the wonderful terracotta-decorated Gallaher building at the corner of D’Olier Street and Hawkins Street, Dublin, the former National Bank building on Arran Quay in Dublin, the now lost gate lodge for Cherryfield House in Firhouse, and the rectory at Saint Brigid’s Church, Stillorgan.
The foundation stone of Fuller’s new church at Rattoo was laid on 20 September 1877 by Wilson Gun, who paid the cost of the contract, excluding the tower and belfry. The church was consecrated in October 1879.
Fuller designed Saint Augustine’s as a single-storey Gothic Revival style church. This church, dated 1879, has a four-bay nave, a single-bay single-storey gabled projecting porch to the south-west, a single-bay single-storey lower chancel to the north gable end, and a single-bay single-storey gabled vestry projection to the north-west.
There is a steeply-pitched slate roof with a clay ridge comb, the gable parapets have Portland stone copings and there are profiled cast-iron gutters on a Portland stone corbel table.
There are rock-hewn snecked grey limestone walls with Portland stone quoins and springers, and buttresses with Portland stone dressings. The Portland stone plate-tracery windows have paired pointed lancets and cinquefoils over. There are triple lancets with trefoil heads to transept.
The Portland stone doorcase has a double-leaf boarded door and limestone steps. There are triple windows to the porch.
Inside, there are exposed timber trusses and white marble plaques on the west wall. The retaining timber door to the vestry is set in an arched niche. There is a snecked rubble wall to the street, with replacement concrete copings.
When the old church in Ballybunion was demolished, Saint Augustine’s was dismantled stone-by-stone by local builders Boyle and Harnett. The work involved numbering, cleaning and polishing each stone as the building was transported and reconstructed in its exact original state on the present site in Sandhill Road, Ballybunion. Wilson and Gertrude Gun were buried beneath the nave of the church in its new location.
The church was rededicated on Saint Augustine’s Day, 28 July 1957, by Bishop Hodges of Limerick. Radio Eireann broadcast the ceremony, and this was the national broadcaster’s first-ever outside broadcast event.
The Church of Ireland community in Ballybunion was strong until the end of the 1980s, and the decision was taken to close Saint Augustine’s in 1987. The church was deconsecrated on 1 June 1987, almost 30 years after it had been moved to this site.
The church was handed over to the Co Kerry Library Service and it opened to the public as a library on 20 December 1990. Ballybunion Library is open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
As well as lending books, the library hosts several successful events, including an Active Retirement Group’s Creative Writing Workshop and a Children's Book Festival.
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The North Kerry museum near Ballyduff has a collection of artefacts from St Augustine's, including its name plaque, the priest's vestments, the church bible and a portrait of Wilson Gun.
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