26 June 2021

Abbeystrewry, the church at
the heart of Skibbereen

Abbeystrewry Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Skibbereen, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

One of the most beautiful places in Skibbereen in West Cork is known locally as the Church Meadow, an oasis of tranquillity in the centre of the town. But this is not a meadow at all – this is the site of Abbeystrewry Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Skibbereen, and Parish Hall.

The name Abbeystrewry means the ‘Abbey on the Stream,’ and the parish takes its name from a Cistercian house that stood on the banks of the River Ilen a mile or so north of the town. The Cistercian house was attached to the larger abbey at Timoleague, but is now in ruins and its grounds are used as a cemetery.

There has been a church on the site on Bridge Street since 1827, and the present church, which I visited during last week’s ‘staycation’ or road trip in West Cork and Co Kerry, was built there in 1890.

Inside Abbeystrewry Church, facing the liturgical east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The earliest reference to the parish of Abbeystrewry is in 1634, according to the church historian William Maziere Brady, and there was a church in Abbeystrewry in the early 17th century.

Lionel Boyle (1671-1703), 3rd Earl of Orrery, leased the parish in 1699 to a Mr Goodkin, who allowed the curate £18 a year.

A key figure in shaping the parish in the early decades of the 19th century was the Revd Richard Boyle Townsend (1795-1850), a son of Commander John Townsend (1764-1849), Recorder of Clonakilty.

Townsend was ordained deacon in 1818 and priest in 1819, and was immediately appointed Vicar of Abbeystrewry in succession to the Revd William Robinson (1781-1819) and, before him, the Rev Horatio Townsend (1770-1781). He remained in Skibbereen for almost 32 years, until he died in 1850.

Inside Abbeystrewry Church, facing the liturgical west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

For his first few years in Skibbereen, Townsend held services in an old church on the quay on the River Ilen behind Bridge Street. But under his guidance the first church on the present site in the town centre was built in 1827. Townsend also built a new school in 1825 at his own expense.

Abbeystrewry Church cost almost £1,200 to build and was partly funded by a loan from the Board of First Fruits. It was described as a plain oblong building, in the old English style of architecture, with a tower or belfry, but without the spire that was to be added later when funds allowed.

The new church in Abbeystrewry was licenced for divine services on 11 April 1827. It was a substantial building that could seat 360 people, and the Church of Ireland population of the parish of was 246 in 1834.

Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) said Abbeystrewry Church was ‘a large edifice in the early English style of architecture, with a lofty square tower at the east end. It cost £1,181. 10s. 9d.’

But, in many ways, it was not a practical church building, and by 1842 it was unable to meet the needs of the parish. Townsend added a wing that provided extra accommodation, but this threw the church out of all architectural order. The addition made the church appear so ridiculous that Dean Madden described it as ‘a bundle of absurdities.’

Townsend also built a new rectory on a 15-acre site, spending a considerable amount of his own money. The Rectory on Baltimore Road remained in use until the early 1960s when it became unsuitable and a new rectory was bought on Cork Road.

The Baptistry in the transept or original east end of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Bishop of Cork and 77 clergy in the diocese, including Richard Townsend and his brother, the Revd Chambre Corker Townsend, signed a ‘Petition of the Protestant Clergy of the United Dioceses of Cork and Ross against Catholic Emancipation’ that which was submitted to the House of Commons on 2 March 1827.

Nevertheless, Richard Townsend is remembered as a saintly man who was devoted to the care of the poor, and he played a prominent role in Skibbereen during the Great Famine (1845-1852). He was a member of the Relief Committee and did heroic work to relieve the suffering of destitute people in the area.

He founded a temporary hospital in Skibbereen and spent much of his time personally caring for people with typhus.

Townsend travelled to London in December 1846 to meet government members to appeal for help for Skibbereen. He was disappointed with the reception he received in London, but his efforts led to setting up the British Relief Association, which raised £400,000 for Famine relief in Ireland.

The Famine memorial at Abbeystrewry Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

He reported that in one month there were 140 deaths in the Skibbereen workhouse. The people had entered the workhouse ‘that they might be able to die decently under a roof and be sure of a coffin.’ He recalled that at one time 14 funerals were waiting in his churchyard while the burial of a fifteenth body was being completed. In the next parish to his, there were nine funerals at once in the churchyard, and in two other adjoining ones there were six funerals together in each.

During one visit to the Workhouse in Skibbereen, Townsend contracted Famine Fever and died on 7 May 1850.

Richard Boyle Townsend married Elizabeth Hungerford of Glandore. They had no children and Eliza have moved into Zion Cottage shortly after he died. There is a plaque to his memory in Abbeystrewry Church.

He was succeeded in the parish by his brother, the Revd Horace Thomas Townsend, who remained there until 1867 – in all, Townsend or Townsend connections with the parish totalled 96 years.

The plaque in Abbeystrewry Church to the memory of the Revd Richard Boyle Townsend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Canon James Goodman was born in Ventry, near Dingle, Co Kerry, in 1828, into a clerical family. His father, the Revd Thomas Goodman, was Rector of Dingle (1824-1864), as was his grandfather, the Revd John Goodman (1787-1824), while his brother, the Revd John Goodman, was the curate in Ventry in the 1860s and 1880s.

James Goodman was educated at Trinity College Dublin. He was ordained priest in 1853 and was appointed to Creagh Parish, between Skibbereen. He was appointed curate of Killaconagh in the Beara peninsula in 1858. While living in Ardgroom, he compiled much of his great collection of Irish music. He became Rector of Abbeystrewry in 1866 and a canon of Ross in 1867.

Canon Goodman was appointed Professor of Irish in Trinity College Dublin in 1879. He would spend six months in Dublin and six months in Skibbereen with curates to help in Skibbereen. His students at TCD included the future President Douglas Hyde and the playwright John Millington Synge.

Canon Goodman decided to build a new parish church in Skibbereen. The old building of 1827 was taken down, with the exception of the tower, and a church was built on a present north-south axis. The new church opened on 18 December 1890.

£3,500 had been spent on the new church by 1891, yet by September that year the debt had been completely wiped out. The final fundraising effort was a Church Bazaar on 26, 27 and 28 August that raised £308, allowing the outstanding balance to be cleared.

The church was designed by the Cork architect William Henry Hill (1837-1911). It was built on a limited budget, and cleverly retains the older simpler church, incorporated as the transepts of the new church. A coherence between the two phases of the building has been maintained with the use of similar stonework and the repetition of decorative motifs and finishes.

The attention to detailing and skilled workmanship evident on the exterior continues through to the interior, notably in the carpentry of the roof bracing and carved timber reredos.

The Resurrection window above the porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The church has a four-bay nave elevation, side aisles, a projecting chancel at the south-west and a gable-fronted porch at the north-east. It incorporates the Board of First Fruits church built in 1827, which is integrated as the transepts.

Two weeks after Canon Goodman announced that the debt on the church had been cleared, the roof was badly damaged. The ‘Cutting’ in Skibbereen was being cut to allow for the expansion of the Skibbereen to Baltimore railway line. Some houses were also damaged by the blasting to clear the rock. After this, it was deemed too dangerous to continue using explosives to clear the rock and much of the ‘Cutting’ was cleared by manual labour.

Canon Goodman was devoted to Irish music. He played the flute and uillean pipes, and was one of the great collectors of Irish music. He married Charlotte King and their three children were born at Creagh.

Canon James Goodman died at Abbeystrewry Rectory, Baltimore Road, on 18 January 1896 and is buried at Creagh churchyard. The Irish Times noted, ‘The death of this popular, esteemed and well-known clergyman will be received with feelings of deep and sincere regret far outside the limits of West Cork, where he was so well known and universally respected by all creeds and classes of society.’

The Skibbereen Eagle reported: ‘The funeral … was of enormous dimensions, the procession, composed of all classes and creeds in the community, being a singularly sad and imposing one. Signs of universal grief were everywhere observable, all the shops being shut and shuttered, as a mark of respect to the memory of the venerated deceased, who had endeared himself to all by his charity, humanity and kind disposition.’

The ornamental archway over the entrance to Abbeystrewry Church from Bridge Street is dedicated to Canon Goodman. A statue of him was unveiled inside the gates in 2006.

The ornamental archway over the entrance to Abbeystrewry Church from Bridge Street is dedicated to Canon Goodman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Revd Horace Webb Townsend, who was the Rector of Abbeystrewry in 1896-1915, extended the Glebe House.

A Famine memorial plaque dating from 1847 is fixed to the exterior wall of the church. This plaque was erected by ‘British munificence … in token of their gratitude of His Divine and Sparing Mercy for their rescue from the horrors and sufferings of the Famine and Pestilence.’

However, the Famine continued to take its toll, with people dying of hunger and disease in Skibbereen until 1852.

The pulpit in Abbeystrewry is dedicated to the memory of John Francis Levis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The pulpit in Abbeystrewry is dedicated to the memory of John Francis Levis, the man who saved the name of Skibbereen.

Timothy McCarthy Downing (1814-1879) of Prospect House, Skibbereen, was MP for Co Cork and chair of Skibbereen Town Council. He proposed in 1876 that the name of Skibbereen should be changed to Ilenmore or Ilentown.

Initially, it appeared that no one was going to go against his wishes. However, John Francis Levis for the old name ‘Skibbereen’ to be retained. After an acrimonious debate, McCarthy Downing relented and John Francis Levis was successful in saving the name of ‘Skibbereen.’

The parish hall in the grounds of Abbeystrewry Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

A major programme of restoration work was carried out at Abbeystrewry in the early 2000s. This included substantial work on the three-stage bell tower and casting a new ring of six bells.

Initially, it was hoped to house the eight bells from Saint Nicholas’s Church in Cork city when that church was de-consecrated. However, the bells were too big, and a new peal was cast by Whitechapel in July 2002. These were hung by Matthew Higby, church bellhangers, in November 2002 and a first 1/4 peal was rung on 8 November 2002.

There are four churches in Abbeystrewry Union: Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen; Saint Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend, Castlehaven; and Saint Matthew’s Church, Tullagh (Baltimore).

Recent Rectors of Abbeystrewry have included the Ven Vivian William Darling (1951), Archdeacon of Cloyne and father of Bishop Edward Darling of Limerick; Oliver AP Peare (1963); Terence McKenna (1972); John Neill (1974), later Archbishop of Dublin; the Ven Robin Bantry White (1979), later Archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne and Ross; Richard Henderson (1989), later Bishop of Tuam; Canon Trevor Lester (1996); and Bruce Hayes (2004), now Rector of Dalkey. Since 2013, the Revd John Ardis has been the rector of Abbeystrewry.

The statue of Canon James Goodman was unveiled in 2006 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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