13 November 2020

Doneraile Church, part of
the steeplechase legend,
has a tower but no steeple

Saint Mary’s Church, Doneraile, Co Cork … first built in 1633 and rebuilt many times since (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

During my ‘road trip’ visit to Buttevant, Co Cork, in September, I saw a mural on the gable end of Moloney’s pub that boasts how the world’s first-ever Steeplechase was run from Buttevant and Doneraile in 1752.

The legend says that after a hunt, a local man, Edmund Blake, challenged his neighbour Cornelius O’Callaghan, to race across country from Buttevant church steeple to Doneraile church steeple, a distance of four miles away (6.4 km). And so, the Steeplechase passed into racing vocabulary and history.

I was surprised then, when I visited Doneraile later that day, to see that Saint Mary’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Doneraile, Co Cork, while it is of considerable charm and character, has no steeple.

Saint Mary’s Church was built and rebuilt in phases between 1633 and 1815-1816, and it is highly visible from numerous vantage points in Doneraile town and in the surrounding countryside.

The church is one of the first sights on arriving in Doneraile from the north, and it provides an interesting contrast to the Church of the Nativity, the Roman Catholic parish church at the south end of the town, and it offers am interesting introduction to the architectural heritage of Doneraile.

The first Saint Mary’s Church was built in 1633 by William St Leger, Lord President of Munster. It was repaired or rebuilt in 1726 by his grandson, Arthur St Leger, Viscount Doneraile. It was repaired again or rebuilt in 1815-1816, with a loan of £2,000 from the Board of First Fruits and probably through the patronage of Lord Doneraile.

The cohesive architectural details of the exterior, with a repeated ogee motif, are reflected inside the church, mimicking in the repeated ogee detailing of the timber panelling to the walls and doorway and in the altar area.

Saint Mary’s Church, Dineraile … the ogee motif is repeated outside and inside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Inside, the church has many points of historical and architectural interest, including the pulpit, pews and a wall monument to the St Leger family of Doneraile Court.

The church has a four-bay nave, square-plan three-stage tower at the west end, a limestone plaque dated 1726.

The stained-glass East Window, with tracery, dates from 1878. It displays high artistic merit and compliments the other windows in the nave. It is flanked by blind pointed arch niches with limestone sills, each window flanked by tapering limestone engaged columns with moulded bases, and capitals with sharp pointed pinnacles.
The church floor has geometric encaustic and marble tiles. There is a flattened king-post trussed roof, and painted rendered walls with ogee-headed timber panelling, an ornate marble monument to the St Leger family on the north wall and a decorative timber pulpit in the south-east. There is a carved timber altar, chairs and pews, a polished brass altar rail, and a polished red granite font, also at the west end.

The vestry has a Tudor arch doorway, and there are timber panelled doors at the west end, with ogee-headed panelling and fluted carved timber surrounds.

The church bell, preserved in the west lobby, is cracked but original and dates from the earlier phases of the church. It has a Latin inscription and date (1636) that state it was made for William St Leger, Viscount Doneraile, and his wife Gertrude, and repaired by their grandson Arthur when it was broken in 1700.

The peel of six bells is one of the few surviving in an Irish country parish church.

Other interesting details include the cast-iron boot scrapes, set into limestone blocks. The surrounding churchyard has some elaborate chest tombs and ornate gravestones.

The writer Elizabeth Bowen recalled almost 80 years ago, in 1942, how ‘in the great days of the Doneraile neighbourhood, the line of gentlemen’s carriages outside the church on Sundays, used (they say) to be a mile long …’

Saint Mary’s is part of the Mallow Union of Parishes in the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross. The Ven Meurig Williams, who currently Archdeacon of France and Monaco in Europe, has been appointed the new Rector of Mallow Union of Parishes.

Saint Mary’s Church, Doneraile … the surrounding churchyard has elaborate chest tombs and ornate gravestones (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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