13 December 2019
Can conservation efforts
save the ruined church
at Castletown Conyers?
I was at a funeral earlier this week in Castletown Conyers, 5 km south of Ballingarry, on the road from Rathkeale to Charleville.
The church ruins in the graveyard at Castletown Conyers are all that survive of the mediaeval parish church of Corcomohide. But the history of this unique mediaeval settlement is being uncovered slowly and revealed as part of an effort to preserve the remains of the building known locally as ‘the Abbey.’
‘The Abbey’ was, in fact, a parish church, and with a neighbouring motte and a castle or manor house it formed the centre of a mediaeval borough of up to 300 people that dates back to the 13th century.
Castletown or Corcomhide was the ancestral or tribal area of the Mac Eniry family, and was known as Baile Caisleáin Mhic an Oighre or the town of Mac Eniry’s castle. The Mac Eniry remained a force in this area until the late 17th century.
Castletown became the site of a mediaeval borough, with a church, a motte, and a castle or manor house. The manor of Corkemoyd was granted by Maurice FitzMaurice to his son-in-law Thomas de Clare and his wife Juliana, who in turn granted the church, in 1276, to the Cathedral of Limerick.
The manor was holding a weekly market by 1284, but it was destroyed by war in 1302, and the early church was destroyed that year too.
An inquisition of 1321 suggested that about 290 people were living there. Lewis suggests the Castle at Castletown was built by the chieftain of the Mac Eniry family in 1349, and says the Mac Eniry family founded an abbey.br />
There are a number of references to the castle during the 14th century, when it was held by the de Cliffords, amongst others.
The later church, built in the late 14th or early 15th century, was dedicated to the Purification of the Virgin Mary on 2 February 1402 or 1410.
After the Reformation, the church served for some time as a Church of Ireland parish church and some alterations to the church were made in the 16th century.
The Book of Survey and Distribution in the 1660s referred to the area as Castleinenry.
Castletown Conyers acquired its present name when the estate was bought by Captain George Conyers in 1703, although Lewis said the parish of Castletown Conyers was granted to George Conyers by William III.
There are some early 18th century headstones in the churchyard, the earliest marking the grave of Cornelius Ryan, who died in 1737 at the age of 34.
There is a still a reference in 1763 to ‘Castletown McEnyry.’
The Conyers vault was inserted in the west end of the church in the late 18th or early 19th century, although it is likely that the church was a ruin at this point.
Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, noted that Corcomohide was an ecclesiastical union, including the civil parishes of Castletown Conyers, Drumcolloher, and Kilmeedy, and had 10,742 inhabitants.
The tithes totalled to £900, of which £570 was payable to the Countess of Ormonde, as lessee under the Vicars Choral of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and £330 to the incumbent.
There were two public schools, supported by Mr Stevelly and Colonel White, and 12 private schools.
The church was certainly a ruin by the time of the first Ordnance Survey in the 1830s and 1840s, there was neither glebe nor glebe house, and the vicarage was united with the vicarages of Kilmeedy and Dromcolloher.
In the mid-19th century, the Conyers estate was mainly in the Parish of Kilcolman, Barony of Shanid, but also in the Parish of Corcomohide, Barony of Connello Upper, Co Limerick.
Castletown Conyers, the seat of the Conyers family was the home of Charles Conyers (1758-1837) in the early 19th century, and he was succeeded by his son, the Revd Edward Fitzgerald Conyers (1787-1854). By the time of Griffith’s Valuation, the house was in use as an auxiliary workhouse, held by the Croom Guardians from Dr William Bailey, medical doctor, and valued at £25.
Members of the Conyers family still held considerable estates in the area in the 1870s, when Charles Conyers of Castletown Conyers owned 2,425 acres, Grady FitzGerald Conyers of Liskennet owned 1,023 acres and Edward Conyers of Liskennet owned 95 acres.
The Revd Edward Fitzgerald Conyers (1787-1854) and his wife Catherine Blennerhassett were the parents of the Revd Charles Conyers, who died in 1872. He was married twice – to Agnes Graham, and Margaret Drew. Castletown Conyers was the residence of Charles Conyers in 1894.
Major Charles Conyers (1867-1915) of the Royal Munster Fusiliers was wounded at the Battle of Ypres in 1915 and is buried at Bradhoek Military Cemetery in Belgium. There is a memorial tablet with his name in Limerick Cathedral. The family Conyers family appears to have continued to live at Castletown Conyers until the 1920s.
Major Conyers had married Dorothea Blood-Smith (1869-1947) of Fedamore, Co Limerick, in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on 2 February 1892. She was the author of 54 novels and one autobiographical work of sporting reminiscences, published between 1900 and 1948.
The widowed Dorothea Conyers married Captain John Joseph White of Nantinan, Co Limerick, in University Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, on 25 February 1917. When Captain White died at Nantinan on 14 April 1940, he was buried at Cappagh Church. Dorothea died on 26 May 1949 and was buried at Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
Today, trees are growing within the walls of the church, and in recent years a number of large stones have fallen from a height. Indeed, in places, the roots of trees and the ivy clinging to the walls appear to be the only things holding the fabric of the church together.
The archaeologist Sarah McCutcheon, who has carried out some investigations on the site, has told Norma Prendiville of the Limerick Leader that the work to stabilise the building would need to be done in several phases.
The first phase involves cutting back the trees and then drilling and treating the boles and roots. Later phases would involve repairing the cavities left by the roots, removing other vegetation, consolidating the south-east corner and north wall chancel and capping the walls. Some work on clearing the trees and ivy has been carried out under the direction of Ms McCutcheon and the north wall has been propped up.
The conservation works on the church ruins have been promoted by the Castletown Conyers Development Association and Limerick City and County Council.
A nearby holy well, known locally as Lady’s Well, is still visited regularly, and large numbers of people attend an annual Mass at the well on 15 August.
Another well, Saint Gobnait’s Well, also known as Saint Debora’s Well or Saint Deriola’s Well, was the venue for an annual pattern on 11 February, but this came to an end around 1870. The site of this well was in a high field, north of Ballagran to the left of the road to Castletown, and has long dried up.