12 September 2020

The Erasmus Smith School
in Cahir and the Ha Ha that
separates it from the church

The former Erasmus Smith School in Cahir, Co Tipperary … designed by the Regency architect John Nash (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Cahir yesterday to look at three buildings designed by the Regency architect John Nash (1752-1835) that I had noticed last week during part 2 of my late summer ‘Road Trip.’

Nash designed Saint Paul’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Cahir, in the Gothic Revival style, and he also designed the Erasmus Smith schoolhouse, beside Saint Paul’s Church, and the Swiss Cottage.

Cahir Castle, Saint Paul’s Church and the Swiss Cottage are the three main historical and architectural attractions in this Co Tipperary town.

Saint Paul’s Church and Nash’s schoolhouse stand side-by-side and complement each other, and with the Swiss Cottage, they illustrate the unique contribution of Nash to one provincial town in Ireland, and the role of a benevolent landlord in developing the aesthetic aspects of a town.

The Erasmus Smith schoolhouse was built for children of all denominations in Cahir, and was commissioned by the Earl of Glengall. It was completed in 1818 at a total cost of £1,034, making it the most costly school built in Co Tipperary at the time. The Erasmus Smith Trust provided £600 and Lord Glengall paid the balance.

The school is built of hewn limestone, with ornate embrasures and pinnacles. Each gable has a large blind Gothic window. The central part, designed as the teacher’s residence, consists of three floors and is flanked on either side by two large classrooms.

The teachers were William and Mary Wilde, a married couple, as was common at the time. In I824, the teachers had a combined annual salary of £60, as well as a house, garden and two acres of land. That year, the school had 131 children, of whom 90 were Roman Catholics and 41 from the Church of Ireland. Numbers continued to grow rapidly, and two extra classrooms were added by the 1830s.

In all, there were 17 or 18 Erasmus Smith Schools in Co Tipperary, and the best-known was probably Tipperary Grammar School.

Later in the 19th century, the building became the National School in Cahir ca 1860 and remained so until 1963. The building was later used as a sawmill and steelworks and fell into disrepair. It was thoroughly renovated in the late 1980s, and since then it has been used a museum, a school, and the South Tipperary County Council offices in Cahir.

The sites of the school and the church are separated by a curious ‘Ha-Ha’ or sunken stone-lined ditch or fence on the north side of the churchyard. It dates from 1812-1816, and was cut through the land when the site was being prepared to build church and the school.

The site chosen for the church and schoolhouse needed to be artificially elevated, because of the threat of flooding from the River Suir nearby. Two artificial hillsides were constructed, contained within a limestone wall and bisected by this stone-lined ditch or ‘Ha-Ha.’

On many large estates, a Ha-Ha served to prevent deer or cattle coming onto the lawns or into the formal gardens. In Cahir, however, the Ha-Ha probably kept schoolchildren out of the churchyard, although in the 19th century it was also used as a romantic walkway.

After many years of neglect, this central link in the Cahir Town Heritage Trail has been restored to part of its original purpose.

The Ha Ha in Cahir separates the sites of Saint Paul’s Church and the former Erasmus Smith School, both designed by John Nash (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Paul’s Church, Cahir,
a Regency Gothic church
designed by John Nash

Saint Paul’s Church, Cahir, Co Tipperary, is one of a handful of churches in Ireland designed by the Regency architect John Nash (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Cahir was such a beautiful place to visit last week on part 2 of this year’s ‘Road Trip’ that two of us decided to return there yesterday to walk along the banks of the River Suir and to visit some other important landmarks in the Co Tipperary town, including Saint Paul’s Church, the Swiss Cottage and the Erasmus Smith schoolhouse, all designed by John Nash.

Saint Paul’s Church, in the heart of Cahir, is one of the few churches in Ireland known to have been designed by the celebrated English architect, John Nash (1752-1835). It is acknowledged that, architecturally speaking, Saint Paul’s Church is the next most important building in the town, after Cahir Castle.

The church is just a few paces north of the Square in Cahir, in a picturesque location above the River Suir with Cahir Castle as its backdrop, and its dramatic spire has become a major landmark in the town.

Nash was, perhaps, the foremost architect in Regency and Georgian Britain, and he designed many important buildings in the neoclassical and picturesque styles in London. His work was often financed by the Prince Regent (later George IV) and the property developer James Burton.

Nash’s best-known works include the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, which inspired the gate lodge in Dromana near Cappoquin, and Marble Arch and Buckingham Palace in London, as well as Regent Street, Regent’s Park and its terraces, and Carlton House Terrace.

The mediaeval ‘Old’ Saint Mary’s Church served as the parish church of Cahir until the 1820s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The list of vicars and rectors of Cahir dates back to the mid-16th century, and includes the travel writer and bishop Richard Pococke (1705-1765), who was Vicar of Cahir in 1730.

Until the 1820s, the parish church was the mediaeval ‘Old’ Saint Mary’s, north-east fringe of the square in the town. That church had a nave and chancel joined by a partly built-up arch. The masonry is of local limestone, and a small bell-cote springs from the apex of the gable.

The church is unusual in that is divided by a conspicuous ‘curtain wall’ that was used after the Reformation to allow both Anglicans and Roman Catholics to worship simultaneously under one roof.

To the right of the entrance door is an example of an iconographic headstone depicting scenes from the Passion. This headstone remembers the Jackson family, a prominent family in Cahir in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bishop Joseph Stock noted during his visitation to the parish in 1811 that some ‘principal parishioners’ had a ‘restless desire’ to replace the church, but he believed the church could be repaired easily and that these parishioners could be resisted easily.

Those restless parishioners included Lord and Lady Cahir, who lived at Cahir Castle. However, a year later, in 1812, the Butlers of Cahir Castle provided a site above the banks of the River Suir for a new church.

Inside Saint Paul’s Church, looking west towards the liturgical east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Lord Cahir was given the additional peerage titles of Viscount Cahir and Earl of Glengall in 1816. He then commissioned a new Church of Ireland parish church for Cahir, Saint Paul’s Church, and the Butler family vault would become an integral part of the church and churchyard.

John Nash built Saint Paul’s Church in 1816-1818 at a cost of £2,307 – at the time, far larger churches were built for less than half the sum. At the same time, he was working on the Swiss Cottage and the Erasmus Smith schoolhouse on commissions for the Butler family

The Revd John Wallace was the Vicar of Cahir and Grange (1803-1822) at the time Saint Paul’s Church was being built. But the consecration of the new church was delayed by the bishop’s objections, and it was no consecrated by Bishop Richard Bourke until 4 February 1810.

Wallace was succeeded as Vicar of Cahir in 1822 by the Hon Augustus Cavendish, a son of Richard Cavendish, 2nd Baron Waterpark, and he in turn was succeeded by his brother, the Hon Thomas Cavendish, who was vicar in 1825-1839.

Their elder brother of these two vicars, Henry Cavendish (1793-1863), 3rd Lord Waterpark, was MP for Lichfield (1854-1856). Their uncle, the Hon Augustus Cavendish Bradshaw (1768-1832), is still remembered for his role as co-respondent in the Westmeath divorce case of 1796 – but that’s a story for another day.

Inside Saint Paul’s Church, looking east towards the liturgical west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Paul’s Church is a Gothic Revival work and its dramatic spire is a major landmark in the town of Cahir. The decorative smaller spires and pinnacles emphasise the fine tower and spire by drawing the eye up at all points.

This is a cruciform-plan church with a five-bay nave, gable-fronts to all windows, and the external features include high-quality ashlar limestone walls, parapets and crenellations, as well as the hood mouldings and the variety of windows.

The church is oriented on a west-east axis rather than the traditional east-west liturgical axis, to allow easier access from Church Street instead of building steps up to the site from the Mall and the banks of the River Suir.

It is said that one past rector was so uncomfortable with this liturgical arrangement that he insisted on administering Holy Communion from the liturgical west end so that he was standing at the geographical east end of the church.

There are buttresses between the bays, and octagonal miniature tourelles at the corners of chancel and transepts supported on moulded corbels and topped with stepped conical pinnacles. There are engaged octagonal buttresses at corners topped by pinnacles similar to those of chancel and transepts, crenellated parapets and an octagonal spire with a finial.

Saint Paul’s Church was commissioned by the Earl of Glengall, who lived at Cahir Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Paul’s is one of the few Regency churches to retain most of its original interior layout. The surviving interior features include the exquisite plasterwork ceilings, the decoratively-carved pine pews, the timber galleries, the carved timber lecterns, eagle lectern, benches, pulpit and organ.

The timber panelled box pews have trefoil-headed side panels and individual doors. The three carved timber galleries have trefoil and quatrefoil details and Tudor arches below between clustered columns.

The carved heads to the stops of some hood mouldings are an unusual feature.

The organ is an 1896 two-manual instrument (Opus 896) by Peter Conacher and Sons of Huddersfield. It has ten speaking stops and a particularly sweet tonal quality.

The decorative plasterwork at the crossing in Saint Paul’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A plan to enlarge the church in 1835 was abandoned; it would have robbed the building of much of its character and proprortions.

When the original triple-decker pulpit was removed from the crossing, the vestry became the chancel or sanctuary area, and an East window was installed in memory of the Denny family.

A stained-glass window by Sir Ninian Comper depicting a knight in full armour was installed in 1930. Comper designed many windows in Westminster Abbey, but this is one of his few works in Ireland. The window is in memory of William Smith of Duneske, who died in 1926 in his 93rd year. Above the figure are the words Scior enim quod redemptor meus vivat (‘I know that my redeemer liverth’)

The church has a vast array of memorials including some from the Butler, Archer-Butler, Charteris, Denny, Franklin, Going, Grubb, Hutchinson, Jellicoe, McCraith, Pepper, Pnnefeather and Smith families.

The stained-glass window by Sir Ninian Comper depicting a knight in full armour was installed in 1930 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The only tomb in the churchyard is the mausoleum of the Glengall Butlers, who commissioned the church. The Glengall mausoleum and vault is made from a mix of marble and Aberdeen granite and was erected by Margaret Lauretta, Countess of Glengall, when her husband Richard Butler, 2nd Earl of Glengall, died in 1858. Her mother-in-law, Emily (Jefferyes) Butler, Dowager Countess of Glengall, had died in London some years earlier in 1836 and was brought back to be buried in Cahir.

Only four people are buried there, all in decorated coffins, including those of Margaret Lauretta and her youngest daughter, Lady Matilda Butler, who died at the age of 24.

Richard Butler Charteris, grandson of the 2nd Earl Glengall, continued to live at Cahir Castle until he died in 1961, ending a 600-year association between Cahir and the Butlers. He was buried in Kilcommon, outside Cahir.

The family mausoleum of the Earls of Glengall in Saint Paul’s Churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2000)

Some sources claim Saint Paul’s Church in Cahir is one of only two known churches designed by John Nash. However, other Nash churches in Ireland may include: Saint John’s Church, Kilmore, near Knightstown, Valentia Island (1815), although other sources say this was designed by his pupil James Pain; Saint John’s Church Caledon, Co Tyrone (1808); Saint Luran’s Church, Derryloran, Cookstown, Co Tyrone (1822); and Saint Beaidh’s Church, Ardcarne, Co Roscommon; as well as the Quaker Meeting House in Tramore, Co Waterford.

Most areas of the church and grounds are disabled friendly with disabled parking at the church gates. During normal times, tea, coffee and cakes are available with the guided tours.

Windows in one of the transepts in Saint Paul’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Cahir is part of the Clonmel Group of Parishes in the Diocese of Lismore. This group includes Old Saint Mary’s Church, Clonmel, Holy Trinity Church, Fethard, Tullameelan Church (Knocklofty), and Saint Patrick’s, Inislonagh. The rector is Canon Barbara Fryday, who generously gave tow of us time yesterday afternoonas she showed us around the church.

The Sunday service in Saint Paul’s Church, Cahir, tomorrow (13 September 2020) is Holy Communion with Harvest Thanksgiving.

Saint Paul’s Church, Cahir, seen from the Mall and the banks of the River Suir (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)