07 July 2020

The church and tower in
Shanagolden and links with
the Precentors of Limerick

The tower, erected in 1815, is all that survives of the former parish church in Shanagolden, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

On my way back to Askeaton from Ballybunion on Sunday afternoon [5 July 2020], having visited the former Church of Ireland parish church on the edges of Foynes, two of us went in search of the former parish church in neighbouring Shanagolden.

I had briefly visited this church back in 2017, while I was on my way from the morning service in Tarbert to an afternoon confirmation service in Rathkeale, but on this occasion I had a little more time to walk around the churchyard and to see the tower of the former churchyard.

Shanagolden is on the R521, between Foynes, Askeaton and Newcastle West. Shanagolden has a population of about 400, and the village was laid out during the 1580s as a plantation village after the defeat of the Munster Geraldines, but the story of the church and this area goes back many centuries earlier.

The area is mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters. Brian Ború’s elder brother, Mahon or Mathgamain mac Cennétig, King of Munster, defeated the Norsemen of Limerick and Waterford at Sengualainn in a ‘red slaughter’ in 968.

Turlogh O’Connor gathered a fleet together to cross the Shannon, and plundered the lands of the Uí Conaill at Foynes Island in 1124.

The church in Shanagolden was held by the Precentors of Limerick from the early 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Shanagolden had a church from at least the beginning of the 13th century, and Donat O’Brien, Bishop of Limerick (1203-1207), gave control of the church in Shanagolden to M O’Melinus, Chantor or Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, in 1207.

From the Middle Ages until the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the Precentors of Limerick were also the Rectors of Shangolden, but a full list of Vicars of Shangolden survives from ca 1422, and the parish also had a curate from the 1680s until the mid-19th century.

The nave of the church was re-roofed in 1815 and a tower was added while the Revd George Vincent was the Vicar of Shanagolden.

Canon David La Touche Whitty (1806-1885), who was the curate in Shanagolden in 1848, was assaulted and severely beaten near Foynes Island. The assault was widely reported as ‘a monstrous and almost unheard of outrage.’ Later, Whitty was the Rector of Ennistymon, Co Clare.

Whitty was related to two extraordinary Whitty sisters who spent part of their childhood in Limerick and Co Clare: Sophia Angel St John Whitty (1877-1924) was an Irish artist and woodcarver, named after her maternal grandmother, a daughter of Bishop Edward Stopford of Meath; Clare Emma Whitty (1883-1950), was an Anglican nun, Mother Mary Clare, who died a martyr’s death during the Korean War in 1950.

Shangolden was united with Loughill ca 1878. The last separate Vicar of Shangolden was the Revd Robert James Connolly (1839-1926), who was vicar in 1878-1919. Before coming to Shanagolden, he had served in a number of parishes, including Loughill (1864-1865) and Saint John’s Church in Sandymount, Dublin (1865-1866).

He retired at the age of 80 and died on 21 August 1926. Meanwhile, Shanagolden and Loughill were united with Askeaton from 1920.

The Langford family vault in the churchyard at Shanagolden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church was deconsecrated on 16 June 1956. When it was demolished, the tower was left standing. The church silver, which was given to Shanagolden by Catherine Greer in 1714, was given to Rathronan and was then given to the church in Foynes.

Among the graves and tombs in the churchyard is the Langford family vault.

The Spring-Rice cross and fountain below the former parish church in Shanagolden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Below the church tower, a large Celtic cross with a drinking fountain was erected and installed to the memory of Stephen Edmond Spring-Rice (1877-1920), who died in London, the eldest son of the local landlord, Lord Monteagle, who lived at Mount Trenchard in Foynes.

The inscription beneath and the cross and above the fountain reads: ‘To the glory of God and in memory of Stephen Edmond Spring-Rice, who died on the seventh day of April 1900 aged 22 years.’

The inscription on the Spring-Rice fountain, erected in Shanagolden in 1900 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Last weekend, the church tower looked forlorn and abandoned in the churchyard, standing above Shanagolden with its wide Main Street.

The shops are set well back on the Main Street, and the brick chimney-stack of the old creamery is a reminder of the past prosperity of Shanagolden.

The wide Main Street in Shanagolden, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Finding a short-lived,
pretty parish church
on the edge of Foynes

The small former Church of Ireland parish church, on the southern edges of Foynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

When I first came to the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes over three years ago, some kind parishioners brought me to see the former church in Foynes. However, I lost my way there when I tried to find it water, and I decided to look for it again on Sunday, on my way back from Sunday’s services in Askeaton and Tarbert and a walk on the beaches in Ballybunion.

Although Foynes is a major port in Co Limerick it is a small town, with a population of about 550, and a relatively young or new town by Irish historical measurements.

The town stands on the edge of hilly land on the south bank of the Shannon Estuary, and is less than two centuries old.

The port of Foynes was first surveyed by JF Burgoynes, Harry D Jones, and Richard Griffith. In a report to Parliament in 1837 on improving the River Shannon, they pinpointed what would become Foynes proper and made detailed recommendations for its development.

The cost of carrying out their plans was estimated at £8,500. Foynes port was soon built, and a new village was developed afterwards.

The Spring-Rice family of Mount Trenchard, who held the title of Lord Monteagle, tried to develop the estates they owned at the small port town of Foynes and, to a lesser degree, Foynes as a town.

Around 1900, Lord Monteagle commissioned an ambitious plan for Foynes, which he thought would eventually replace Limerick City as a port and harbour. He had a vision of transforming Foynes into an urban centre that would be at the centre of the social and economic life of the port and the surrounding agricultural hinterland.

Monteagle commissioned Francis Inigo Jones (1866-1950), a fashionable architect, artist and garden designer, to designed a planned town and bring his vision to daylight. Inigo Thomas was a nephew of Broderick Thomas (1811-1898), one of the principal landscape garden designers in the latter half of the 19th century.

Later parts of the planned village were designed by William Clifford Smith, although the complete vision and plans never saw the full light of day., and it was not until well into the 20th century that a Church of Ireland church was built in Foynes.

Foynes was without a Church of Ireland parish church until well into the 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Senan’s Roman Catholic Church in Foynes stands on a site given to the parishioners by Thomas Spring-Rice (1849-1926), 2nd Lord Monteagle, who lived nearby at Mount Trenchard. The church was designed by McCarthy, the original contractor was John Ryan & Son of Limerick and building work began in 1868. The church originally cost £1,864.13.9, and in 1874 The Munster News gave Sir Stephen Edward de Vere most of the credit for building the church.

However, de Vere was generous in recognising the contributions of others, and wrote: ‘I cannot refrain from recording with gratitude that over £335 has been bestowed by our Protestant fellow Christians to the building of a Catholic church, and that a sum of £420 intended for the establishment of a Savings Bank in Foynes was, on the institution of the Post Office Savings Banks, transferred by a mixed board to the same object.’

For the Church of Ireland parishioners living in the town, Foynes was within the parish of Castlerobert, or Gore and the church at Mount Trenchard was too far away.

From the early 17th century, the rectors and vicars of Castlerobert usually held the parish in conjunction with neighbouring parishes, particularly Shangolden and Kilfergus (Glin), and for over 120 years, from 1747 to 1869, there were just three vicars: three members of the Graves family.

The Revd James Graves (1710-1784), who came to the parish in 1747, was the son-in-law of his predecessor, the Revd Thomas Ryder, and was a well-known writer. He was succeeded at his death by his son, the Revd John Graves (1751-1820). He, in turn, was succeeded in turn by his son, the Revd James William Graves (1784-1869), the last Vicar of Castlerobert and a first cousin of Charles Graves (1812-1899), Bishop of Limerick.

The new church was built in 1926 on a narrow, steep road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

By the time Foynes was being developed at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the church at Robertstown was in ruins, perhaps for centuries, Mount Trenchard was too distant, and the clergy lived in either Shanagolden or Askeaton.

For some decades, a schoolhouse was used for Church of Ireland services in Foynes, until a new church was built in 1926 on southern edges of the village, on a narrow, steep road.

The parish was later joined to Askeaton. But the congregation had always been small and the church was finally sold in 1995.

As for Foynes, its importance faded with the development of Shannon Airport on the other side of the estuary, although there are still memories of Maureen O’Hara, Charles Lindbergh, the first flying boats and the world’s first duty-free shops established by Brendan O’Regan. The town is known today for the Foynes Flying Boat Museum and as the place where Irish Coffee was first served almost 80 years ago by chef Joe Sheridan in 1942.

The church was finally sold in 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)