06 July 2019
The church at Lough Gur
where blind harpers
and poets are buried
On my way to Lough Gur in east Co Limerick two weeks ago, I stopped to visit the ruins of the ‘New Church.’
Despite its name, the ‘New Church’ dates from 1679, when it was built to replace an older church built in the 15th century. The estates of the Earls of Desmond were confiscated in the 1580s and their estate at Lough Gur became the property of the Bourchier family, Earls of Bath.
The church built by the Earls of Desmond was listed as a ruin by 1642, but it was restored by Rachael Bourchier (1613-1680), Countess of Bath, in 1679, a year before her death, and became known as the ‘New Church.’ The formidable Lady Bath had inherited Bourchier’s Castle and her husband’s large estates at Lough Gur when Henry Bourchier, 5th Earl of Bath died in 1654, and she ensured they were inherited by her favourite nephew, Sir Henry Fane (1650-1706), as his guardian.
The present structure is a simple rectangular building. When it was built, it was endowed with a chalice and patten with the inscription, ‘The guift of the Right Honourable Rachael Countess Dowager of Bath to her chapel-of-ease Logh Guir, Ireland 1679.’
The church served as a Church of Ireland parish church, a belfry was added, and Lady Bath also presented vestments, a pulpit cloth, a Bible and copies of the Book of Common Prayer, and she provided an endowment of £20 a year for a chaplain.
The famed blind poet, bard, harper and composer, Thomas O’Connellan from Co Sligo, died in Bourchier’s Castle in 1698 while he was a staying there as a guest. There is a local tradition that he is buried at the churchyard in an unmarked grave near the north east gable.
The church was a ruin once again in the 19th century, but was conserved in 1900 by Sir John Francis Charles de Salis (1864-1939), 7th Count de Salis, who had inherited a large part of the Bourchier or Bath estates at Lough Gur 1871.
The Count de Salis had a long, distinguished career as a British diplomat, serving in Brussels, Madrid, Cairo, Berlin, Athens, Montenegro and at the Vatican as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary on a special mission to the Holy See in 1916–1923. He was also a Justice of the Peace for Limerick and Armagh, and Deputy Lieutenant for Co Limerick.
The church ruins are quite plain but the church has a picturesque setting on the shores of Lough Gur. It is a simple rectangular plan church measuring 17 metres by 6.4 metres internally, with a two-light, pointed arched window in the east gable.
On the south wall, close to the east gable, there is a pointed single light window with an external hood mould. There are two much larger 17th century window openings in the south wall on either side of the door.
On the north wall there are traces of a second building, probably a vestry or sacristy, with a door leading from the chancel of the church.
The differences in stonework indicate the different phases of restoration and repair. Parts of masonry, including pieces of a shattered double arched window, are scattered throughout the graveyard.
The local poet and historian Owen Bresnan (1847-1912), who composed Teampall Nua and Sweet Lough Gur side, is also buried in the churchyard. Both he and Thomas O’Connellan are commemorated in a plaque erected on the church wall in 1991.