Saturday, 25 April 2020

All Saints’, Stradbally,
a Co Limerick church in
the Diocese of Killaloe

All Saints’ Church, Stradbally, Co Limerick … a Co Limerick church in the Diocese of Killaloe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)


Patrick Comerford

Before the lockdown brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic became so severe, and before I became semi-cocooned in the Rectory in Askeaton because of my pulmonary sarcoidosis, I spent a few hours on a Saturday afternoon in March by the banks of the River Shannon in Castleconnell and neighbouring Stradbally in Co Limerick.

This is one of the few, if not the only, Church of Ireland parish in Co Limerick that is in the Diocese of Killaloe – although the county and diocesan boundaries in Co Limerick are not always the same, so that some old parishes in Co Limerick are in the Diocese of Emly, and some old parishes in the Co Clare are in the Diocese of Limerick.

Castleconnell and Stradbally form one village and one parish on the banks of the River Shannon, and local lore claims a small church was built here as early as the sixth century. By the eighth century, however, Stradbally or Stráid Bháile (‘the town of one street’) was attacked by the Vikings, and the little church was looted and burned it in their wake.

The present church, All Saints’ Church, is a gable-fronted Board of First Fruits style church that was built in 1809, enlarged to the north in 1826 and 1844 by James Pain, with a chancel modified by Welland and Gillespie in 1863.

The church contains a number of interesting monuments, including one designed by Pain for Anne Fitzgibbon, Countess of Clare, and a burial vault designed by Pain for General Sir Richard Bourke of Thornfield House, Lisnagry.

The ruins of the 15th century church behind the present church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Behind the present church stand the walls of an older church that may date back to the church built in Stradbally ca 1400-1410, when Dermit O’Hanrachayn was living in the parish. However, he was forced to vacate the Vicarage of Stradbally in 1411 because he had not been ordained priest within a year, and he was followed by Donald O’Mulluyn, who remained there until ca 1436.

The church and the parish were ‘vacant’ in 1615. By 1618 the vicar was the Revd William Jannes who remained until 1621. The church was destroyed in the war of 1641 and was rebuilt. By 1765, however, the rector, churchwardens and parishioners agreed that the church had become unusable.

The Revd John Murray was the Vicar of Stradbally in 1777-1789. In 1787, the vestry notes record that ‘the Parish Church of Castleconnell is at present in so ruinous a situation that it is with danger the congregation do assemble to divine service.’

Murray, who was educated at Queen’s College, Cambridge, married Lady Elizabeth Murray, a daughter of William Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore. He became Dean of Killaloe in 1789, but died on 25 June 1790.

All Saints’ Church, Stradbally, was designed by the architect James Pain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The parish of All Saints’, Stradbally, was united to Killeenagarriff in 1803, forming part of the Union of Castleconnell in the Diocese of Killaloe. But by then the church was in such disrepair that it had been abandoned as a place of worship and the Revd Josiah Crampton held services in the ‘ballroom of the widow Mulloughny,’ the local ballroom at the Spa, later Hartigan’s Hall.

While Crampton was in the parish, the present All Saints’ Church was built beside the ruined old church. There is a memorial plaque to Crampton behind the pulpit, recalling that he lived in the parish until he died on 2 April 1842, although he is said to have antagonised some local families, including the Richardson, Graham, Frewen, and Benn families.

The church was built in 1809 with the aid of a grant of £250 from the Board of First Fruits. It was greatly enlarged in 1830, and by then had a cruciform shape and a ‘lofty octagonal spire.’ The Tudor-style house in the churchyard was built as the sexton’s lodge.

The door into All Saints’ Church, Stradbally (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

All Saints’ Church was designed by the architect James Pain (1779-1877), who was commissioned by the Board of First Fruits to design churches and glebe houses throughout Ireland. The church was consecrated in 1809 by the Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora, Robert Ponsonby Tottenham (previously Robert Ponsonby Loftus), a younger son of Charles Loftus, 1st Marquis of Ely.

Pain was responsible for enlarging the north transept and porch, converting the transept into the nave and re-siting the chancel in 1826. He was commissioned in 1844 to design a sarcophagus for Anne Fitzgibbon, Countess of Clare, and in 1855 he designed the vault for General Sir Richard Bourke of Thornfield, Lisnagry who died while he was at church.

The architects William Joseph Welland and William Gillespie carried out extensive works in the church around 1863, including re-siting the chancel at the east end of original nave and the reseating the entire church in 1863.

The panelling in the chancel came from Saint John’s Church, Newport, and was placed in All Saints’ Church by Canon James Pennefather.

The set of eight bells, from Saint Mary’s Church, Ovens, Co Cork, was cast by Barrington’s of Coventry.

The baptismal font is ‘in memory of Alice Mary Bourke born 1877 died 1880, of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ The pulpit is in memory of John Ulick Bourke of Thornfields, who died on 17 May 1910.

The stained-glass East Window, depicting the Ascension, was dedicated in 1877 to the memory of Crofton Moore Vandeleur.

The Tudor-style house in the churchyard was built as the sexton’s lodge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The memorials and plaques on the walls remember many local families, including the Massy, Bourke, Fitzgibbon and Vandeleur families.

The Fitzgibbon family memorials include one recalling Anne Fitzgibbon, Countess of Clare, widow of John Fitzgibbon, 1st Earl of Clare, known as ‘Black Jack Fitzgibbon’; and John Fitzgibbon, 2nd Earl of Clare a Governor of Bombay.

The Fitzgibbon family lived at Mountshannon House in Lisnagry and Belmont House, now Rosary Hill Nursing Home. The title Earl of Clare became extinct at the death of Richard Fitzgibbon, 3rd Earl of Clare, in 1864. His only son and John Charles Henry Fitzgibbon (1829-1854), Viscount Fitzgibbon, was a lieutenant in the 8th Hussars, and died leading the charge of the light brigade at the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War on 25 October 1854. Mount Shannon was inherited by his daughter, Lady Louisa who owned an estate of over 10,000 acres in Co Limerick and over 3,000 acres in Co Tipperary.

However, although Fitzgibbon was reported ‘missing presumed dead,’ his body was never found and a story persisted that he had married Frances Murphy in 1854 in a clandestine marriage and that they had a posthumous son, William John Gerald FitzGibbon, born in 1855. One story claimed in 1877 that he had been taken prisoner, and that later, for an assault on a Russian officer, he had been sent to Siberia. The stories claimed he later returned to England, and visited Hounslow Barracks, where the 8th Hussars were stationed. There, it was said, he was identified by Colonel Mussenden and Quartermaster-Sergeant-Major Hefferon, who had been Fitzgibbon’s servant.

Mussenden and Hefferon later denied the reports. Despite appeals in newspapers, no-one came forward to claim the title of Earl of Clare which had died with his father over a decade earlier in 1864.

A similar story gained currency 25 years after the Charge of the Light Brigade. During the second Afghan War (1878-1880), Fitzgibbon’s regiment, the 8th Hussars, were stationed near the North-West frontier. One night a dishevelled looking man who spoke English, but seemed unaccustomed to doing so, was brought into the officers’ mess. He was invited to stay for dinner, where he surprised all by having an uncannily good knowledge of the regimental customs, indicating he was an ex-officer of the regiment. He was not asked to identify himself, but on examining the regimental records it was discovered that the only ex-officer whose whereabouts had not been positively accounted for was Viscount Fitzgibbon.

Rudyard Kipling was intrigued by the story and it provided the basis for his short story The Man Who Was (1888), in which a man arrested for gun-stealing and believed to be an Afghan turns out to be an ex-officer who has been a Russian prisoner for many years before escaping and finding his way back to his regiment.

There are several memorials in the church to members of the Bourke family, including General Sir Richard Bourke (1778-1855) of Thornfields, Governor of Cape Colony in South Africa and Governor of New South Wales, and a kinsman of Edmund Burke.

The Massy family once owned over 30,000 acres, including The Hermitage, Castleconnell. A succession of members of the Massy family sat as MPs in the Irish House of Commons in the 17th and 18th centuries.

John Thomas William Massy, 6th Baron Massy, was an Irish Representative Peer in the House of Lords. He led an extravagant lifestyle, was famous for shooting parties at Killakee and fishing parties at the Hermitage, barely paid his debts and left his heir penniless.

During his lavish parties at the Hermitage, Lord Massy brought his guests to church on Sunday. So that they would not be bored by long sermons, he erected a clock facing the pulpit so the rector would know when to stop. If the sermon went on, Massy would start to rattle his stick on the floor of the Lord’s Gallery.

After he died on 28 November 1915 at Killakee, Co Dublin, his body was brought by train from Dublin to Castleconnell for his funeral service in All Saints’ Church and burial in the Massy vault. The Massy Gallery is now boarded up but is still visible.

Other plaques and memorials remember Colonel John Vandeleur, who was present at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815; Arthur Gilley who served in the Indian Mutiny, at the Siege of Cawnpore and in the Crimean War; and the artist Edmund G Osborne, RHA, who was killed at the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan in 1880 during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

All Saints’ Church serves as a cultural venue for the wider community (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Stradbally today is part of the Killaloe group of parishes, which includes Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare, Saint Senan’s, Clonlara, Saint Caimin’s, Mountshannon, Co Clare, and Saint Cronan’s, Tuamgraney, which claims to be the oldest church in continuous use in Ireland. The Rector of Nenagh, Co Tipperary, the Very Revd Smyth, was recently installed as the Dean of Killaloe, and the Revd Paul Fitzpatrick is the Dean’s Vicar.

Today, All Saints’ Church is also a unique entertainment venue. It has been home to a range of concerts and events throughout the year, including the Autumn Concert Series in September, a Christmas Carol Service in December and the Saints and Singers Festival on May bank holiday weekends.

A disused Edwardian post box in the churchyard walls (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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