22 April 2019

Christ Church, Fermoy, is
over 200 years old, but
recalls an earlier abbey

Christ Church, Fermoy, Co Cork … designed by Abraham Addison Hargrave (1755-1808) and built in 1802-1809 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Fermoy in Co Cork, on a recent Sunday afternoon for the institution of the Revd Gary Paulsen as the Rector of Fermoy. Christ Church, Fermoy, is prominently sited on a hill to the north of Fermoy Bridge, and is a notable feature in the townscape.

Saint Finnchua founded a monastery at Fermoy in the 7th century. A Cistercian Abbey was founded in 1170 was known as the Abbey of Sancta Maria de Castro Dei (‘Saint Mary of the Field of God’).

The Irish name of the town, Mainistir Fhear Maí, meaning ‘Monastery of the Welcome Plain,’ refers to the 12th century Cistercian abbey and the ford on the Blackwater around which the town grew up. However, another legend says Fermoy takes its name from a powerful blind druid, Mogh Roith, who was awarded this area for protecting the King of Munster by defeating the druids of the High King of Ireland in a magical battle.

The monks built the first weir on the Blackwater at Fermoy, somewhere by Ashe Quay and Abbey Street.

A sculpture at the south side of Christ Church, Fermoy, remembering the monks who founded the Cistercian Abbey of Sancta Maria de Castro Dei in 1170 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey lands in Fermoy were granted to Sir Richard Grenville, a cousin of Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1591.

As a town, Fermoy is of comparatively recent origin, dating from only 1791, when John Anderson, a Scotsman, bought the Fermoy estate. Anderson was a very successful business man and established the Mail Coach system between Cork and Dublin in 1789. He was a visionary who also recognised the need for churches in his new town and provided financial assistance for building both a Church of Ireland and a Roman Catholic parish church in Fermoy.

Until then, Fermoy had no Anglican parish church, Litter Church at Castle Hyde was in a state of disrepair, and parishioners attended either Kilworth Church or services conducted by the Revd Dr William Adair either in rooms in private houses or in the open air.

Adair applied to the Board of First Fruits to build a new church in Fermoy, Arthur Baylor donated a site on the north side of the bridge crossing the River Blackwater, on the site of the Cistercian abbey.

Inside Christ Church, Fermoy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The new church was built at a cost of £3,282, borne by Sir John Anderson of Fermoy and John Hyde of the nearby Castle Hyde estate.

Christ Church, which was built in 1802-1809, was designed by Abraham Addison Hargrave (1755-1808), one of Cork’s distinguished architects.

Hargrave was born near Horsforth, Leeds, in 1755. He worked in Lancashire before moving to Ireland in 1791 to supervise the erection of Saint Patrick’s Bridge in Cork, which he designed with Patrick Shanahan.

Hargrave worked extensively in Cork and was employed on several projects in Fermoy by the town’s enlightened proprietor, John Anderson. His other works in the Fermoy area included the East Barracks, Castle Hyde, bridges at Castle Hyde and Ballyhooly, widening the bridge at Fermoy.

Before his church in Fermoy was completed, Hargreave died at Camden Place, Cork, on 20 March 1808 aged 53. He is commemorated by a monument in Saint Anne’s Church, Shandon.

Christ Church was completed the following year and was consecrated on 22 October 1809 by William Bennett, Bishop of Cloyne. The formal dedication was ‘To Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.’ We can estimate the size of the parish at the time because there were 150 communicants the following Christmas Day.

The stairs in the tower at Christ Church, Fermoy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Hargreave’s church was built of Portland stone with a tower and spire. It was designed to accommodate the parishioners of Fermoy and also the large number of military personnel at the nearby barracks, also designed by Hargreave.

The church was built with a two-stage entrance tower at the west with a spire, three-bay nave elevations, a bowed chancel at the east, and a two-bay single-storey vestry at the north-west.

The tall entrance was made to admit, without dipping, the colours carried on military church parades. The largest number of troops stationed in Fermoy was probably before the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The Duke of Wellington visited the barracks at that time, and it was from Fermoy Barracks that a very contingent of the troops left fight Napoleon.

Another unusual feature by Hargreave was placing the entrance on the south side of the tower as opposed to the west.

The north transept of Christ Church was demolished in 1962-1963 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The spire was added to the tower in the 1820s to replace the original. The pitched slate roofs have a carved limestone eaves course at the main block, and a moulded bracket course and copings with carved kneelers at the transept.

Lewis notes that by 1837 the spire had been removed. The steeple was replaced by Joseph Welland by 1858, the south transept was built in 1859-1860, the north transept was added and the chancel was enlarged in 1873-1874, and the first stained-glass windows were installed in 1875.

Following storm damage in 1950 and a fire in the roof in 1952, the church was refurbished and rearranged in 1954-1955 and again in 1962-1963. The second stage of refurbishment included the demolition of the north transept.

The church walls are of rubble sandstone, partly rendered at the apse, with a moulded limestone string course at the impost level and above the bottom stage of tower.

There are rubble sandstone buttresses at the corners of the transept, with dressed limestone quoins. There are oval recessed panels at the tower, east and south walls, and square-headed panels at the south and east walls, all with moulded limestone surrounds.

There are round-headed windows throughout the church, grouped in threes on the side walls of the transept, and stained-glass, triple-light in the gable of the transept and in the former north transept arch. The nave windows are two-light and traceried with carved limestone surrounds and sills and with quarry glazing.

The chancel has a round-headed traceried triple-light, stained-glass window, where the surround comprises rendered engaged Ionic columns supported by carved limestone console brackets and with a carved limestone archivolt.

The vestry has square-headed double-light and single-light round-headed windows. The tower has an oval window on the west side and a round-headed entrance on the south side, approached by limestone steps.

The marble pulpit, with carved faces of the 12 Apostles, was erected in memory of Canon Arundel Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Inside, Christ Church retains many of its original features, including the finely carved reredos and the pulpit. The marble pulpit, with carved faces of the 12 Apostles, was erected in memory of Canon Arundel Hill. Tradition says it was originally designed for an English cathedral, but was never installed there.

The timber gallery and the stained-glass windows are of artistic interest. The gallery is supported on timber Ionic columns. The font incorporates a bowl from the Cistercian abbey.

The Saint James window in the south transept of Christ Church, Fermoy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The east window in the south transept is by Watson and Son of Youghal and depicts Saint James the Apostle. This window commemorates the Revd Frank Stonham (1850-1899), Principal of Fermoy College and a curate in Fermoy Parish 1892-1899.

The stained-glass windows in the south transept also include a three-lancet window by William Wailes (1808-1881) of Newcastle-upon-Tyne depicting Christ the Good Shepherd in the centre, with Saint John the Baptist (left) and Saint Paul (right). It was inserted in 1875 by Lady Abercromby and her son Sir Robert John Abercromby in memory of Sir George Samuel Abercromby (1824-1872).

Wailes ran one of the largest and most prolific stained-glass workshops in Victorian England. He had studied with Mayer of Munich and later worked closely with AWN Pugin. His other works include the windows of Gloucester Cathedral, the East Window in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, the Transfiguration East Window in Saint Saviour’s Dominican Church in Limerick, and windows in Saint Mary’s Church, Killarney.

The Good Shepherd window, with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Paul, in the south transept of Christ Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Further reading:

David J Butler and Hazel Baylor, Christ Church, Fermoy, ‘A commanding silhouette’ (Fermoy, 2009).

Niall Brunicardi, Christ Church, Fermoy (Fermoy, 1984).

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