09 June 2021

Saint Colman’s Church, once
a ‘de facto’ cathedral and now
the library in Gort, Co Galway

Saint Colman’s Church in Gort, Co Galway, served as the ‘de facto’ cathedral of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh for most of the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

After visiting the ruins of the cathedral and monastic sits in Kilmacduagh, Co Galway, at the weekend, two of us returned to the town of Gort to see the former Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Colman’s.

For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, this church served as the de facto cathedral for the tiny Church of Ireland Diocese of Kilmacduagh, and the Rector of Gort was also known as the Dean of Kilmacduagh until 1892. Today, this church serves as the town’s public library.

Gort is ideally located for exploring the Burren, south Galway and north Clare. Sites nearby include Coole Park, once the home of Lady Gregory and cradle of the Irish literary revival; Thoor Ballylee, once the home of WB Yeats; as well as Kilmacduagh Cathedral, the monastic site and the round tower.

Inside Saint Colman’s Church in Gort stands on a site donated by the Prendergast family and their descendant, Lord Gort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Gort is a pretty market town between Galway City and Ennis, and has been designated a heritage town, with its traditional street-plan and shopfronts.

Gort (Gort Inse Guaire or An Gort) is just north of the border with Co Clare on the Galway-Limerick road. It is in the former territory of Uí Fiachrach Aidhne also known as Maigh Aidhne (‘the plain of Aidhne’), which was coextensive with the Diocese of Kilmacduagh.

The name means the meadow on the island of Guaire, referring to Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin, the sixth century King of Connacht and patron of Saint Colman MacDuagh of Kilmacduagh.

During the Middle Ages the chiefs of Cenél Áeda na hEchtge, the O’Shaughnessys (Ó Seachnasaigh) clan, had their principal stronghold in Gort, on a site that later became a cavalry barracks. The O’Shaughnessy lands were confiscated at the end of the 17th century, and granted to Sir Thomas Prendergast (1660-1709).

The former sanctuary of Saint Colman’s Church, now the town library in Gort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

His son, Sir Thomas Prendergast (1702-1760), MP for Clonmel, presented 294 acres in the Gort area to the Very Revd Joseph Bradshaw, Dean of Kilmacduagh, in 1738. Two years later, the first Church of Ireland parish church in the town, with a wooden spire, was built in 1740.

Prendergast also donated a house and farm to the Very Revd William Nethercote, Dean of Kilmacduagh, in 1749, along with 53 acres of land near Gort known as Horse Park.

The sites for the two parish churches in Gort, the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic parish churches in the town, both named Saint Colman’s, were donated by Prendergast’s son, John Prendergast-Smyth (1742-1817), 1st Lord Gort. Before being made a peer in 1810, Lord Gort was MP for Carlow (1776-1783) and Limerick (1785-1798); his paternal grandfather was Thomas Smyth, Bishop of Limerick, and his uncles included Arthur Smyth, Archbishop of Dublin.

The Deanery House on Church Street was built as the rectory in 1812, and a new Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Colman’s, was built in 1814.

The East Window is the work of Sibthorpe of Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

This church is attributed to the Limerick-based architect, James Pain (1779-1877), who also designed the neghbouring Roman Catholic parish church in Gort, also known as Saint Colman’s (see HERE).

Pain’s other churches include Saint Saviour’s Church (1816), Limerick, Chapel Russell Church (1822), Mungret Church (1822-1824), Co Limerick, Saint John’s Church (1814), Listowel, Co Kerry, Saint John’s Church (1826), Buttevant, Co Cork, Castletown Church (1830-1832), Kilcornan, Co Limerick, Saint Michael’s Church (1838-1844), Limerick, the Rectory in Askeaton (1826-1827), Pery Square, Co Limerick, and, perhaps, Saint Mary’s Church (1827), Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Pain’s other works include Thomond Bridge (1816), Athlunkard Bridge (1826-1830) and Baal’s Bridge (1830-1831), Limerick, Villiers Almshouse, Limerick (1826-1827), Tontine Terrace (1835-1838), Pery Square, Limerick, and the Courthouse (1843), Rathkeale, Co Limerick; rebuilding Saint Alibius Cathedral (1826-1827), Emly, Co Tipperary, and works on Saint Columba’s Church, Ennis, Co Clare, and alterations to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Saint Munchin’s Church, Limerick, All Saints’ Church, Stradbally, Co Limerick, Saint Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, Co Waterford, and Saint Brendan’s Church, Loughrea, Co Galway.

Pain also worked on Curraghchase House, Co Limerick, Elm Park, Clarina, Co Limerick, Glin Castle, Co Limerick, and the Erasmus Smith Grammar School, Tarbert, Co Kerry.

The surviving baptismal font in Saint Colman’s Church, Gort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Saint Colman’s Church in Gort was built with a loan of £1,400 by the Board of First Fruits, and it was repaired in 1828 with a further loan of £600. Queen Street was laid out in Gort after this church was built, to allow it to be viewed to its best advantage from the east.

Fine craftsmanship can be seen throughout this building, particularly in the stone carving at the pinnacles, the crenellations and string courses.

This church has a two-bay nave, a three-stage tower at the west gable, full-height transepts, and a lower chancel at the east end. There is a crenellated canted porch at the north re-entrant corner of the chancel and the nave, and a similar annex at the south.

There is a pointed arch stained-glass three-light window in the east gable with a cut limestone block-and-start surround. This remaining stained-glass window is the work of Sibthorpe of Dublin and was a gift from a Mrs Lahiff.

There are pointed arch windows in the rest of the church, with replacement windows. The pointed arch door openings at the porch and the south side of the tower have chamfered limestone block-and-start surrounds. There are timber battened doors with cut limestone steps.

The gallery in the north transept was once allocated to the Gregory family of Coole Park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The gallery in the north transept of the church was allocated to the Gregory family of Coole Park, and the gallery in the south transept was reserved for the family of Viscount Gort.

The church has pitched slate roofs with cut-stone copings, and a tower with a spire and crenellations. There are crenellations also at the porch and annex, cut-stone finials and cross finials at the gables, and corner pinnacles.

The dressed walls have stepped corner buttresses, and there are cut-stone string courses on the tower. The top stage of the tower has pointed arch louvered openings.

The monument to John Prendergast Vereker (1790-1865), 3rd Viscount Gort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The walls have interesting wall plaques commemorating former, distinguished parishioners, including the Ven Henry Varian Daly, who was Archdeacon of Clonfert and Rector of Gort for 31 years (although his plaque says 51 years) until he died in 1925 at the age of 87.

Archdeacon Daly is said to have saved the town of Gort from being burned by the Black and Tans in 1921.

Another monument commemorates John Prendergast Vereker (1790-1865), 3rd Viscount Gort. He was MP for Limerick (1817-1820) and Mayor of Limerick (1831-1832). His children named on this memorial include a son who died in Yangon (Rangoon) in Myanmar (Burma), and a son who died in Yokohama in Japan.

The memorial to the diolomat Hugh Gough (1849-1919), 3rd Viscount Gough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Hugh Gough (1849-1919), 3rd Viscount Gough, was a grandson of Field Marshal Hugh Gough (1779-1869), 1st Viscount Gough, who had bought Lough Cutra Castle near Gort in 1852.

The Gough family was descended from the Revd Hugh Gough, Rector of All Cannings, near Devizes, Wiltshire, whose three sons moved to Ireland and became Chancellor of Limerick, Archdeacon of Ardfert and Bishop of Limerick.

The 3rd Viscount Gough was a career diplomat from 1873 to 1909, serving as the British Minister Resident at the Court of the Kingdom of Saxony and the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and chargé d’affaires at the Court of Principality of Waldeck in the years immediately before World War I.

A brass memorial recalls his brother, Colonel George Hugh Gough (1852-1900), who was the private secretary to Viscount Wolseley and who died when during the Boer War in South Africa in 1900.

A brass memorial recalls Colonel George Hugh Goug, who died in South Africa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Sir William Henry Gregory (1817-1892) of Coole Park, near Gort, was MP for Dublin (1842-1847) and Co Galway (1857-1872), and Governor of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka (1872-1877). He also paid for the restoration and recapping of the Round Tower nearby at Kilmacduagh, the tallest round tower in Ireland.

Gregory was also an advocate of the cause of Greece and sympathetic to the Philhellenes. In a speech deliverd on 18 March 1864, he called for the restoration of the Ionian Islands and Crete to the modern Greek state.

‘If there was one spot,’ he said, ‘in all Europe where the name of England was cherished before, it was in these Ionian Islands. Now there are few places where it is regarded with greater distrust and dislike. Had these islands belonged to us, and had we ceded them, or parted company with them in any way, it would have been an evil thing to destroy their fortifications; but we are actually blowing up now that which never belonged to us, and against the destruction of which the owners protest.

‘These islands were always independent, even when under our protection. The rights of the lonians to their fortresses were recognised in the sixth article of the Congress of Vienna.

‘When Lord Malmesbury made a proposal on 16 April 1863 that these islands should be neutralised, and their fortresses destroyed, Lord Russell reprimanded him, saying that the Ionian Islands were independent states, and that if they were united to Greece it would be for them to decide whether the fortresses of Corfu were to be kept up.

‘They have kept up these fortresses by heavy taxation since 1825, though I am quite ready to admit that they have not paid up the full amount of necessary contributions. The lonians were altogether ignorant of the terms of the treaty of 1863, by which their fortresses were to be destroyed. The whole affair arose from Austrian misgivings lest these islands should be seized by the Italians, and used as a basis of hostile operations; but, if so, let Austria take on herself the discredit of this act. Why should we be execrated, and our good faith impugned, to allay Austria’s apprehensions.’

Gregory spoke of ‘the lighting up of hope in the breasts of the oppressed at the deliverance of their brethren.’

His widow, the former Augusta Persse (1852-1932), is remembered as Lady Gregory, a key figure in the Irish literary revival, a founder of the Abbey Theatre, and the patron of William Butler Yeats, who often went to church in Gort.

Sir William Gregory lost much of his inherited fortune in gambling on the racetrack. It is no surprise, then, that he gives his name to the inspector in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel Silver Blaze (1892). The story is based on the disappearance of a racehorse on the eve of a major race. Gregory was at Harrow with Sir Robert Peel and Anthony Trollope, and he may have been the model for Phineas Finn in Trollope’s Palliser novels.

Sir William Henry Gregory inspired characters in novels by Arthur Conan Doyle and Anthony Trollope (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Saint Colman’s Church is set in its own grounds, and the graveyard on the south side of the church, which is still in use, incorporates the former orchard of a neighbouring convent.

The church closed in 1970 and was handed over on behalf of the diocese to the people of Gort on 5 April 1972, when Bishop Edwin Owen of Killaloe presented the keys to Bishop Michael Browne of Galway.

Since then, the church has become the public library in Gort.

Saint Colman’s Church is set in its own grounds and is now the town library in Gort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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