14 June 2021
Saint Brendan’s Church,
Loughrea, a former church
and now the town library
The former Church of Ireland parish church on Church Street in Loughrea, Co Galway – like the Roman Catholic Cathedral on Barrack Street – is named in honour of Saint Brendan, the patron saint of the Diocese of Clonfert.
The former parish church, now the town library, and the surrounding churchyard, stand on the site of the earlier pre-Reformation church in Loughrea.
In the early 14th century, the ‘church of Loghre’ is recorded in 1305. Two decorated grave slabs at the back of the church date from the 13th or 14th century, and are regarded as evidence of a mediaeval parish church on the site.
The Revd Walter Shirley (1726-1786), who was the Rector of Loughrea in the latter half of the 18th century, was a descendant of the Ferrers family of Tamworth Castle and was ordained in the Diocese of Lichfield. He is remembered as a Calvinist hymnwriter, a supporter of his cousin the Countess of Hungtingdon, a controversial and divisive figure in the Methodist movement, and for his constant conflicts with episcopal authority in the Church of Ireland.
The Shirley family was rocked in 1760 by one of the great society scandals of the day, when his eldest brother, Laurence Shirley (1720-1760), the fourth Earl Ferrers, was hanged at Tyburn for murdering his steward.
Although some of Walter Shirley’s children were born in Loughrea, he was often absent from his parish in Co Galway, mainly due to his activities as a revivalist preacher, which brought him repeatedly into conflict with his bishop and fellow clergy. He was also a chaplain to his cousin, the Countess of Huntingdon.
The Bishop of Clonfert, Walter Cope, censured Shirley in 1778 and advised him to abandon his Methodism, and some clergy in the Church of Ireland petitioned the Archbishop of Dublin, John Cradock, to reprimand him for preaching in the Bethesda Chapel and the Plunkett Street Chapel in Dublin.
The Revd Charles Robert Maturin (1780-1824), a former curate of Loughrea (1803), was born in Dublin of Huguenot ancestry, and published six novels. His best-known book, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) is a Gothic-style novel on the theme of the ‘Wandering Jew’ and influenced contemporary European writing.
The present church building is a Gothic revival church attributed to the Limerick-based architect James Pain (1779-1877), and was built in 1821-1825 with a loan of £1846.3.1 from the Board of First Fruits.
Originally, the church had a spire, but this was struck by lightning in 1832, two hours before the Advent service was due to begin, and collapsed. The tower and roof were rebuilt at a cost of £169.
The former parish church is a natural focal point in this part of the town. It has retained its original ecclesiastical character to the exterior and much to the interior, despite the change of use. It is enhanced by the finely carved masonry detailing, and the finials to the gables are somewhat unusual.
The church was designed as a cruciform-plan church, with a single-bay nave and transepts, a three-stage tower at the front, and a slightly recessed lower vestry and porch at the corners of the nave and chancel.
There are pitched slate roofs with carved corbelled pinnacles at the gables of the chancel and the transepts, carved limestone crenellations and corner pinnacles on the tower tower, and hipped slate roofs on the vestry and the porch.
The building has coursed squared snecked rubble limestone walls, with ashlar walls and stepped buttresses at the tower corners, and a stepped plinth course at the south side of the tower. There are double-light round-headed windows at the sides of the top stage of the tower, with tooled surrounds, hood-mouldings, and timber louvres.
The bottom stage of the tower has lancet window on the south side and a stunted lancet on the north side, with dressed surrounds, tooled hood-mouldings and leaded multiple-pane windows.
There is a triple-light round headed window at the front of middle stage of tower, with two oculi to spandrels, hood-moulding above, and latticed stained glass, with a dressed surround set in a shallow round-headed recess with a hood-moulding, crenellation detail at the base, and a tooled rectangular date plaque with an inscription on the apron.
The pointed arch windows in the nave have dressed surrounds, tooled hood-mouldings and timber windows. The Tudor arch doorway at the front of the tower has a stepped scalloped carved surround, a tooled hood-moulding, and a double-leaf timber battened door.
A Tudor arch former doorway on the north side of the tower, is now infilled to create window, and it has a tooled surround and timber window.
Inside, there are smooth rendered walls and ceiling, some white marble commemorative plaques and slabs, brass plaques, and a gallery.
The monuments and plaques that have remained in the church include ones that commemorate William Thomas Le Poer Trench (1803-1872), 3rd Earl of Clancarty, and his wife, Lady Sarah Juliana Butler; the Hon and Ven William O’Grady, Archdeacon of Kilmacduagh, a younger son of Standish O’Grady, 1st Viscount Guillamore, and his wife Isabella Sabina; and the Revd Eric Anderson, who died after 10 months as rector of the parish, but who initiated the restoration of the church in 1930-1931.
Two marble plaques inscribed with the Ten Commandments stand on either side of the chancel arch.
Churchgoers here in the past are said to have included Lady Gregory (1852-1932) of Coole Park, Gort, a founder of the Abbey Theatre, a patron of WB Yeats, and a key figure in the Irish literary revival.
Perhaps the most unusual burial in the churchyard is of Djiu Be Fiu, a Chinese circus performer, who died tragically in Loughrea Lake on 27 August 1936.
The church closed in 1990 and was leased to Galway County Council. Like Saint Colman’s Church in the neighbouring town of Gort, also designed by James Pain, Saint Brendan’s Church in Loughrea now serves as the town library.
When it closed, it was intended that occasional services would still be held in Saint Brendan’s Church.