05 October 2020

Saint Michael’s Church,
Sneem, a Hardwick church
on the Ring of Kerry

Saint Michael’s Church, Sneem, Co Kerry, designed by Philip Charles Hardwick and built in 1861-1865 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

On my visit to Sneem on the Ring of Kerry earlier this summer, I had visited the Church of Ireland parish church, the Church of the Transfiguration, on the west bank of the River Sneem, on the road from Kenmare to Waterville.

When I visited Sneem last week, I also stopped to visit the Roman Catholic parish church, Saint Michael’s Church, on the east bank of the river, with spectacular views of the River Sneem as it falls below the below the bridge and opens out on its way into Kenmare Bay.

The first known Roman Catholic church in Sneem was built on the site in the early 19th century. There has been a church in Kilcrohane or Sneem since at least the 14th century, and the first Roman Catholic parish church and the Church of Ireland parish church, the Church of the Transfiguration, may have been at the same time, ca 1810.

This early church was small, with a mud floor and no pews, and was unable to meet the needs of the village.

Saint Michael’s Church stands above the east bank of the River Sneem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Edwin Richard Wyndham-Quin (1812-1871), 3rd Earl of Dunraven, who had become a Roman Catholic in 1855. He lived at Adare Manor, and was renting a holiday home near Sneem on Garnish Island, from the Bland family. He was appalled by the condition of the small church in Sneem, and in 1855 he resolved to build a fitting place for divine worship at his own expense.

He commissioned a leading London architect, Philip Charles Hardwick (1822-1892), who was then working on rebuilding Adare Manor, to build a new church in Sneem. Hardwick’s other works included the Bank of England, Saint John’s Cathedral, Limerick, the Redemptorist church at Mount Saint Alphonsus in Limerick, and the parish churches in Adare, Co Limerick.

The design for the new church in Sneem was cruciform, and in the Italian style, with the length from the chancel to nave 100 ft, and the breadth across the transepts 74 feet. The cost of the project was estimated at £3,000 in the Dublin Builder on 15 September 1863. But it had soared 33 per cent by 4 August 1865, when the Dublin Builder reported that Lord Dunraven had spent the ‘princely sum of £4,000.’

The round-headed main door has sandstone surrounds and limestone steps (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The demolition of the old church began in 1861, and Denis William Murphy (1799-1863), from Bantry, Co Cork, was the building contractor. But Murphy died suddenly before the foundation stone was laid. His eldest son William Martin Murphy (1845-1919), then a mere 19-year-old, took over the business and completed the building.

William Martin Murphy had laid the foundations for the fortune who built on by building railways and tram-tracks in England, Scotland and Argentina. He established the Irish Independent, was manager of the Dublin United Tramways Company, and played a controversial and antagonistic role in the workers’ strike and lockout in Dublin of 1913. He became the most hated man in Ireland before the outbreak of World War I.

The Bishop of Kerry, David Moriarty, blessed the foundation stone of the church in Sneem on 3 September 1863. He wrote in his diary that day: ‘Blessed the first stone on the new church in Sneem in honorem Sanctissimae Trinitatis et Sancti Michaelis Archangeli. Lord Dunraven, who donated the money for the church, was present. Dominus conservet eum et beatus faciat illium in terra! Father Michael Walsh, the most venerable of Irish priests PP, and Father Davis CC. A joyous day, bonfire and illuminations at night: I preached in English, and Archdeacon O’Sullivan in Irish. Lord Dunraven gave a very appropriate speech.’

Inside Saint Michael’s Church, Sneem, facing the liturgical east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Parish Priest of Sneem, Father Michael Walsh, was the subject of ‘Father O’Flynn,’ a celebrated ballad by the poet and songwriter, Arthur Perceval Graves (1846-1931). Graves was a son of Charles Graves (1812-1899), who had a summer residence home nearby at Parknasilla and who became Bishop of Limerick (1866-1899).

Local people packed the village for the ceremony that began at 1 p.m. The bishop and several clergy assembled on the Fair Green. The bishop led a procession to the site, and there they met the Earl of Dunraven. After the bishop preached, he blessed the foundation stone. Archdeacon O’Sullivan, from Kenmare, then stood on the foundation stone and spoke in Irish.

Lord Dunraven said he had travelled all over Ireland before deciding that Sneem was the place to build his holiday retreat. He recalled first going to Mass in the old church, and that while he was having his house built with every comfort, the House of God was ‘left desolate and in ruin.’ He praised the Bland family for leasing the site for the church, more land to plant the grounds, and refusing to take rent for the land. The original lease was for 91 years from Saint Michael’s Day, 29 September 1864, at a rent of one shilling a year.

Inside Saint Michael’s Church, Sneem, facing the liturgical west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The contractors completed their work in less than two years. Bishop Moriarty returned to Sneem to open the new church on 27 July 1865 and to confirm 271 children.

In his diary on that date he wrote: ‘Blessed the church of Sneem sub invocatione SS Trinitatis et S Michaelis Archangeli. Doctor Butler celebrated High Mass. I preached. Lord Dunraven, the founder, was present, with Mr Maunsell and Mr S de Vere, Father Michael Walsh PP, Father Thomas Davis CC. Great festivities that evening in the village; confirmed 271. Well prepared.’

Dr George Butler (1815-1866) was the Bishop of Limerick (1864-1866); Maunsell was Dunraven’s brother-in-law, William Monsell (1812-1894) MP for Limerick (1847-1874) and later Lord Emly (1874); and Sir Stephen Edward de Vere (1812-1904) of Curraghchase, who was MP for Co Limerick (1854-1859), had become a Roman Catholic in 1847 and was a brother of the poet Aubrey de Vere (1814-1902), who is buried in Saint Mary’s churchyard in Askeaton.

Saint Michael’s Church, Sneem, has an open-truss roof and round arches in the transepts on circular columns (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Father Walsh entertained the guests to dinner in his presbytery. To cope with the numbers, he borrowed cutlery and crockery from his friend Dean Charles Graves of Parknasilla, then Dean of the Chapel Royal, Dublin, and of Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, and about to become Church of Ireland Bishop of Limerick in 1865. Dean Graves was a guest too at the celebrations that night. Whenever Father Walsh entertained his own bishop, it is said, he would borrow the quality tableware from the Graves household, but never let the bishop know he was dining off ‘Protestant plates.’

Press reports said Lord Dunraven and the other dignitaries left at 11 p.m. But the parishioners continued the festivities until the next morning. One account said that during the whole night there was not the least sign of disorder, and not a single man was to be seen with the signs of liquor on him.

Father Walsh died a year after the new church was completed and after a 37-year ministry in Sneem.

A stained-glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Sneem, depicts the life of Saint Brendan the Navigator (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Michael’s Church is a listed building. It is a cruciform-plan double-height Italianate style church, and it is oriented on a west-east axis rather that the traditional east-west liturgical axis. There is a three-bay double-height chancel at the west end, a three-bay double-height nave, single-bay double-height transepts, and a single-bay, three-stage tower that was renovated 1892.

The rubble stone walls have their original buttered mortar joints, and sandstone quoins with cement replacements at the lower levels. There are round-headed lancet windows with sandstone surrounds, including paired lancets in the nave. The round-headed doorways have sandstone surrounds and limestone steps.

Inside, the church has an open-truss roof, round arches in the transepts on circular columns, stained-glass windows and a marble font.

Saint Michael and two whales depicted in the Saint Brendant window in Sneem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Major work was carried out on the roof in the early 1950s, and the church was reordered following the liturgical changes introduced by Vatican II, including the removal of the altar rails in the 1970s. Further restoration work was carried out in the 1980s.

The parish priest, Father Pat Murphy, launched an appeal in 2009 to raise €1 million for major renovation works.

The roof was insulated and re-slated, underfloor insulation and modern heating were installed, the floor was renewed – uncovering a Victorian mosaic – and the joints in the external walls were repointed. The lighting and sound systems were upgraded, wheelchair and vehicular access were provided, and the former ‘Nuns’ Chapel’ or ‘small church’ as it was known, was transformed into the sacristy. A new spacious entrance now faces the village. These recent renovations cost €1.2 million in total.

Father Pat Murphy became ill in December 2012, and the present parish priest is Father Liam O’Brien.

A whale depicted in the Saint Brendan window in Saint Michael’s Church, Sneem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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