04 September 2020
Old Saint Mary’s is
an 800-year-old fortified
church in Clonmel
On this week’s stopover in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, on the second phase of this year’s ‘Road Trip,’ I visited two of the landmark churches in the centre of the town – Old Saint Mary’s Church, which is the Church of Ireland parish church in the town centre, and the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the towering Roman Catholic church in the town centre.
The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, known locally as Old Saint Mary’s, is the oldest church in Clonmel and dates from ca 1204.
Saint Mary’s is part of the Clonmel Union of Parishes, with Canon Barbara Fryday as the rector. The union of parishes is based on Clonmel, but covers an area that includes Slievenamon and reaches to the Knockmealdown Mountains and the Nire Valley in the Comeragh Mountains.
These parishes reach from New Inn on the Dublin/Cork road to Kilbehenny, 7 km miles north of Mitchelstown, Co Cork. From east to west, it stretches from Kilsheelan to Cahir, Co Tipperary, and the River Suir divides the northern and southern reaches of the parish.
Saint Mary’s is believed to have been built by William de Burgo in 1204. It is the first building in the town to be referred to in documents, appearing in a letter dated August 1228.
The entire 13th century structure has now disappeared overground, although the remains of an armoured knight from that period were found in a vault under the south aisle in 1832.
A fortified church was built on the site later, and the church I saw this week took shape as a fortified church in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Although the tower house at the today’s vestry was destroyed during Cromwell’s attack on Clonmel, the rest of the Church escaped unscathed.
The main features of Saint Mary’s include a 27 ft square, 84 ft high octagonal bell tower, the eastern tower house, and the ornate 16th century east and west windows. Major renovations were undertaken on the church in 1805. Later additions were made in 1857 and 1864, and the later reconstruction is attributed to the church architect John Welland.
At one time, the tower had a wooden spire and belfry, but these were not been restored.
The church today incorporates much of the fabric of the mediaeval church. It has a six-bay nave with side aisles, a lower single-bay chancel with lower lean-to additions on the north side, a two-storey tower house attached to east, two-bay transept on the north side, and an octagonal four stage tower at the south wall of nave.
The surrounding churchyard is bounded on north and west sides by surviving parts of the mediaeval town wall with towers.
There are few early graves in the churchyard, and the oldest headstone that is readable, marking the grave of a Jesuit, Nicholas Leynagh, dates from 1625. There follows a gap until 1700, but from then on, the dates on the headstones are regularly spaced. The most recent burial was in 1958, in an existing grave, originally opened in 1855.
One sad story associated with the graves is that of Fredeick Close, a lieutenant in the 86th Foot. He fell in love with a local Quaker, Anna Grubb, in 1826, but because of his military profession her family disapproved of the match.
On the evening of 26 February 1826, Anna and Frederick arranged to meet by the Gashouse Bridge for a stroll along the banks of the River Suir. They were never again seen alive, and at first people thought they had eloped. However, those ideas were dispelled when their bodies were recovered from the river a month later.
Anna Grubb is buried in an unmarked grave in Friends’ Burial Ground in O’Neill Street; Frederick Close is buried in Old Saint Mary’s churchyard.