10 February 2020

Listening to the bells of Shandon
that sound so grand on
the banks of the River Lee

Saint Anne’s Church, Shandon, was built in 1722-1726 on the site of the earlier Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The claim by the Unitarian Church on Prince’s Street to be the oldest church in Cork City may be rivalled by Saint Anne’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in the Shandon district.

Saint Anne’s has been described as ‘the most important ecclesiastical structure of any period, within the city of Cork and its immediate environs, it is also one of the most important early 18th century churches in Ireland and one of a small number which still retains their original 18th century bells.’

I visited Shandon last week during my search for the connections with Lisbon in one branch of the Comerford family, which lived until 1770 in Mallow Lane, later known as Shandon Street.

The name Shandon comes from the Irish Sean DĂșn (‘old fort’). Saint Mary’s, a mediaeval church, stood close to the site of the fort and is mentioned in the decretals of Pope Innocent III in 1199 as ‘Saint Mary on the Mountain.’ Saint Mary’s Church stood until the Williamite wars when it was destroyed during the Siege of Cork in 1690.

A new Saint Mary’s Church was built in 1693 at the bottom of Mallow Lane, modern-day Shandon Street. However, the population of Cork was growing quickly, and it was decided to build a new church on the site of the ancient church.

The present Saint Anne’s Church was built in 1722-1726 on a hill in Shandon overlooking the River Lee, as a chapel of ease to the former Saint Mary’s Church, meaning this has been a site of worship since before mediaeval times.

Saint Anne’s was designed in the Old English architectural style. The walls are 2 m (7 ft) thick and the height to the tower is 36.5 m (120 ft). This is extended a further 15 m (50 ft) for the ‘pepper pot’ adornment on the tower. The belfry, added in 1749 to accommodate the bells, is a noted landmark and symbol of the city, and the church bells were made popular in a 19th century song.

The church was built with two types of stone: red sandstone from the original Shandon Castle that stood nearby, and limestone from the ruins of the Franciscan Abbey on the North Mall.

Some sources draw a connection between the red and white materials and the red and white colours that represent Cork. The distinct colours are recorded in a rhyme collected by 19th century antiquary Thomas Crofton Croker, which he attributes to the 18th century Catholic priest and writer Father Arthur O’Leary:

Party-coloured, like the people,
Red and white stands Shandon Steeple

Saint Anne’s Church is noted for its eight bells, celebrated by Francis Mahony (Father Prout) in ‘The Bells of Shandon’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church is noted for its eight bells, rung through an Ellacombe. The largest bell weighs a little over 1.5 tons and was originally cast by Abel Rudhall of Gloucester. The bells of St Anne’s were cast in 1750 by Abel Rudhall of Gloucester. They weigh a total of six tons and were first rang on 7 December 1752.

Some of the bells have been recast over the years but they still bear their original inscriptions. To reduce vibration, they were placed in a fixed position. They first rang on 7 December 1752, for the wedding of Henry Harding and Catherine Dornan.

The bells were cast by Abel Rudhall of Gloucester in 1750, and have been recast twice since in 1869 and 1908. They first rang out on the occasion of on 7 December 1752. They still bear their original inscriptions, including the following:

The original inscriptions are on each bell:

When us you ring we’ll sweetly sing
God preserve the Church and King
Health and prosperity to all our benefactors
Peace and good neighbourhood
Prosperity to the city and trade thereof
We were all cast at Gloucester in England by Abel Rudhall 1750
Since generosity has opened our mouths our tongues shall sing aloud its praise
I to the Church the living call and to the grave do summon all

The clock is known to people in Cork as ‘The Four-Faced Liar’ because the time seldom seems to correspond on each face. This was the first four-faced clock until Big Ben was built in London.

There are four clock faces, one on each side, each 14 ft in diameter. The clocks were erected by Cork Corporation in 1847 and were supplied by James Mangan, who had a clock shop on Saint Patrick's Street until the 1980s. One clock face is inscribed ‘Passenger measure your time, for time is the measure of being.’

The clock continues to be maintained by Cork City Council. It was stopped for maintenance in 2013, was repaired and restarted on 2 September 2014.

On top of the pepper pot, the weather vane is in the shape of a salmon. Some say it represents fishing of the River Lee, but the fish is an early Christian symbol. This gold-plated salmon weathervane, 11 ft 3 in long, was regilded in 2004. It is known to local people as the ‘goldie fish.’

Saint Anne’s Church became a full parish in 1772, and its first rector was the Revd Arthur Hyde, great-great-grandfather of Dr Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland.

Inside the church, the Baptismal font, dated 1629, has survived from Saint Mary’s Church, destroyed in the siege of Cork in 1690. The inscription reads, ‘Walter Elinton and William Ring made this pant at their charges.’ The word pant is an Anglo-Saxon word for font. The pewter bowl in the font is dated 1773.

A second survivor from the earlier church is the Piercy Memorial on the wall of the vestry. This once marked the burial place of George Piercy, who died in 1635.

Saint Anne’s also has a Victorian timber barrel vaulted ceiling and an early 18th century barley twist Communion rail. The memorials on the wall include one commemorating the Revd George Benson, a curate in the parish who died in 1832 during an outbreak of cholera, and one to the Downes family, recording the deaths of five sons in New York, London, the South Seas, Bombay and the Cape of Good Hope.

The 1914-1918 War memorial was designed by Caulfield Orpen in Dublin. The stained-glass windows include Hubert McGoldrick’s oval Saint Luke’s window.

Saint Anne’s Church was renovated in 2004.

The graves in the churchyard include Francis Mahony (Father Prout), author of ‘The Bells of Shandon.’ He was a grandson of Timothy Mahony, founder of Blarney Woollen Mills. Francis Mahony was ordained a priest in 1832, became chaplain in the North Infirmary, now the Maldron Hotel, and devoted himself to working with people during the outbreak of cholera.

He eventually left the priesthood to concentrate on writing. His pen-name Father Prout comes from the name of a learned but eccentric priest from Watergrasshill.

The graveyard to the right at the bottom of ‘Bob and Joan’s Walk’ is now called Dr Mary Hearn Park. Dr Hearn was the wife of the Revd Robert T Hearn, Rector of Saint Anne’s (1905-1939), and was known for her generosity to the poor.

Saint Anne’s Church seen behind the Firkin Crane Theatre in a plaza beside the Butter Museum Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

‘The Bells of Shandon’ by Francis Sylvester Mahony ‘Father Prout’ (1804-1866)

With deep affection and recollection
I oft times think of those Shandon bells
Whose sound so wild would In days of childhood
Fling round my cradle their magic spells,

On this I ponder, where’er I wander,
And thus grow fonder sweet Cork of thee
While thy bells of Shandon sound far more grand on
The pleasant waters of the river Lee.

I’ve heard bells chiming, full many a chime in,
Tolling sublime in cathedral shrine.
While at a glib rate brass tongues would vibrate.
But all their music spoke naught like thine.

For mem’ry dwelling on each proud swelling
Of thy belfry, knelling its bold notes free,
Made the bells of Shandon sound far more grand on
The pleasant waters of the river Lee.

I’ve heard bells tolling ‘Old Adrian’s Mole’ in,
Their thunders rolling from the Vatican,
With cymbals glorious, swinging uproarious,
In the gorgeous turrets of Notre Dame;

But thy sounds are sweeter than the dome of Peter
Flings o’er the Tiber, pealing solemnly –
Oh! the bells of Shandon sound far more grand on
The pleasant waters of the river Lee.

There’s a bell in Moscow, while on tower And kiosk O!
In Saint Sophia the Turkman gets,
And loud in air calls men to prayer,
From the tap’ring summit of tall minarets;

Such empty phantom I freely grant them,
But there’s an emblem more dear to me –
’Tis the bells of Shandon that sound so grand on
The pleasant waters of the river Lee.

The tower of Saint Anne’s Church seen from the west door of the Roman Catholic Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Methodist Church in
Cobh that closed and was
converted into a pub

The Methodist Church in Cobh, Co Cork, later became a pub known as the Pillars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

It is hard to imagine what the good, Victorian churchgoers in the Methodist Church in Queenstown, Co Cork, would have thought in the 1870s if they realised their elegant classical church was going to be converted into a pub over a century later.

The former Cobh Methodist Church, which was the Pillars Bar in more recent decades, is now vacant and in danger of being neglected. But it is on the market for sale or to let.

The property stands in a high-profile position on Westbourne Place, overlooking the harbour and opposite the WatersEdge Hotel, where I was staying last week in Cobh, and close to the Sirius Art Centre, the Commodore Hotel, the Heritage Centre and the town centre.

The Preaching House Steps or Preacher Steps led up to the first Methodist chapel in Cobh in 1810 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Further west along the shore in Cobh, the Preaching House Steps or Preacher Steps mark the steep climb up to the first Methodist chapel built in the town in 1810.

John Wesley visited Cobh, and in time the town, which was Queenstown through most of the 19th century and until 1921, reached the height of its commercial prosperity as one of the most important ports and harbours for cross-Atlantic sea traffic.

The Methodist congregation outgrew the capacity of the early Wesleyan chapel and it sold the premises in 1873, and building a new church in 1873-1875 on Westbourne Place, closer to the centre of the town and opposite Ireland’s oldest yacht club.

Reports in 1873 said the new church was being built at a cost of £3,000.

Methodism grew in Queenstown as the port and the harbour expanded in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

It is, perhaps, no surprise then that this is a sophisticated building for a Methodist church. It was designed to look like a classical temple, and shows high quality stone carvings and the work of skilful Victorian craft workers. The succinct classical design includes balanced proportions and simple rhythm in the windows.

A flight of limestone steps leads up to entrance of this three-bay, three-storey former church, where the portico has rendered channel rusticated plinths, sandstone giant order Corinthian pilasters and columns that support an octagonal rendered entablature, a pediment and a cupola.

The rendered walls have quoins. The round-headed window openings have render surrounds and stained glass one-over-one pane timber sliding sash windows.

The square-headed openings on the first floor, on the east and west sides of the building, have brick surrounds and one-over-one pane timber sliding margin sash windows. The round-headed window openings on the second floor, on the east and west sides of the building, have brick surrounds and one-over-one pane timber sliding margin sash windows.

The round-headed window openings in the cupola have render surrounds and flanking, Corinthian-style engaged columns.

The pitched slate roof has a render cornice with dentils. There are cast-iron railings on the front of the building.

Thomas Robjohns Wonnacott was the architect of the former Methodist Church in Cobh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The architect of the church, Thomas Robjohns Wonnacott (1834-1918), was from Farnham, Surrey, and at an early stage in his life was a schoolteacher in Cornwall, becoming an architect when he was in his late 20s or early 30s. He was an active Methodist Lay Preacher and an artist.

The majority of his buildings were in the Farnham area of Surrey, and included 12 public buildings, such as non-conformist churches, schools and hotels, 10 houses and shops, and 20 houses or villas, including The Dell, a villa at Grays, Thurrock, Essex, built for Professor Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), a villa called Fernlands, and Chertsea, a concrete villa built in 1870 by Charles Drake, a pioneer builder in concrete.

Wonnacott’s only works in Ireland seem to be the Methodist church and manse in Cobh (1873) and a second Methodist church built at the Curragh Camp, Co Kildare, in 1876. The shape of the cupola recalls the octagonal design found in 18 Methodist chapels built in England at the time, including Wonnacott’s Rotunda in Aldershot, Hampshire, built as a Primitive Methodist Chapel in 1876 but demolished in the 1980s.

Wonnacott was living in Falmouth, Cornwall, in 1890. He retired in 1902, and died in 1918.

The contractor for the Methodist Church in Cobh was Francis Jackson of Cork.

However, Methodism was traditionally stronger in West Cork than in East cork. The church closed in the 1950s, the registers were moved to the Methodist Church in Cork, and the church was sold in 1958 for £800.

The property needs refurbishment, but the asking price is €100,000 and the floor space totals 557 sq metres (6,000 sq ft). Local estate agents say, ‘this is a rare opportunity to purchase a landmark property in the heart of the historic town of Cobh.’

The building remains an important landmark in Cobh, and is distinguished in the landscape by the elegant cupola that is part of the skyline on the harbour front.

The former Methodist Church remains an important landmark in Cobh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)