17 August 2021
Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church,
a living mediaeval church, is
the main attraction in Youghal
This is Heritage Week, and as part of this summer’s continuing ‘road trip’ and extended ‘staycation,’ two of us were given a personal tour of Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church in Youghal, Co Cork, by the priest-in-charge, Canon Andrew Orr, and two parishioners, Lydia Mossop and Norman McDonald, on Monday (16 August 2021).
In the 15th century, Youghal was one of the important ports in Ireland, rivalling Bristol in wealth and trade. Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church, the Church of Ireland parish church, remains the largest and most important mediaeval building in the town and is one of the largest churches in Ireland.
Nestling in a corner of the Town Walls in the Raleigh Quarter, Saint Mary’s is a national monument and the principal tourist attraction in Youghal.
As he pointed out the features of the church yesterday, Norman tried to make sense of old doorways, blocked up windows, old wall lines and the former roof levels.
The church may stand on the site of a monastic settlement associated with Saint Declan of Ardmore, ca 450. It was rebuilt ca 750, and the Great Nave was erected in 1220. The roof timbers have been carbon dated to 1170.
The structure of the nave is largely unchanged since 1220, when it was built under the direction and hand of the masters of four local guilds of operative masons, whose marks are still found on the pillars of the gothic arches.
The earliest entry in the vestry book of Youghal is a statement of parish accounts for 1201. Pope Nicholas IV described Youghal in 1291 as the richest benefice in Cloyne. The list of clergy can be traced back to this date.
In the chancel, a sepulchre tomb on the north side of the altar is a rare example of this type of feature. It was a major focus for mediaeval piety in Holy Week and it was defaced during the Reformation.
Others mediaeval remains in the church include a late 13th century effigy, a late 13th century head-slab of a man, an early 14th century effigy in a wall tomb of Thomas Paris with a dove in his hands, an early 14th century effigy of Matheu le Mercer in a canopy tomb, and the effigies of Richard Bennet and Ellis Barry, a wealthy couple who founded a chantry chapel that later became the Boyle Chapel.
The font dates from ca 1400. The unusual fortified bell tower probably dates from the 15th century.
Saint Mary’s became a Collegiate Church in 1464, with the foundation of Our Lady’s College of Yoghill by Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Desmond. The college included a Warden and Clerks, or priests, with eight fellows and eight singing men.
After the Reformation, Roger Skiddy was described as Warden of Youghal in 1567. He had become Dean of Limerick in 1552 and Bishop of Cork in 1557.
Sir Walter Raleigh was Mayor of Youghal in 1588 and lived in the Warden’s House, now known as Myrtle Grove.
The college house was plundered and laid in ruins in 1597 by the army of Gerald FitzGerald, 15th Earl of Desmond, who also unroofed the chancel.
After the Desmond rebellion was defeated, Sir Walter Raleigh was granted over 40,000 acres of the Earl of Desmond’s land, including properties in Lismore and Youghal. In 1602, Richard Boyle (1566-1643), 1st Earl of Cork, bought Raleigh’s estates in Co Cork, Co Waterford and Co Tipperary, including Myrtle Grove, the former Warden’s House in Youghal, and Lismore Castle. Another account of this sale says Raleigh sold his property directly to Boyle.
Boyle rebuilt Saint Mary’s Church at a cost of £2,000 in 1608, making good the devastation of the Desmond Rebellion, and erected a marble monument for himself and his family in the Boyle Chapel.
The Boyle monument was designed by the architect Alexander Hillis of London, and shows a reclining Boyle placed between his first wife, Joan Apsley, and his second wife, Catherine Fenton, with their children below them, including Robert Boyle, who gives his name to ‘Boyle’s Law.’
During the Civil Wars of the mid-17th century, Oliver Cromwell conducted his campaign from Youghal in 1649 and delivered a funeral oration from the top of a chest that is still seen in the church.
A sword rest on the north side of the nave once held the ceremonial sword of the Mayors of Youghal, and dates from 1684. The pulpit dates from the 1730s.
The philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) became Warden of Youghal in 1734 when he became Bishop of Cloyne, and he conducted services in Saint Mary’s. When John Wesley visited Youghal in 1765 he attended Saint Mary’s.
The church was re-roofed in 1833, and large-scale restoration, including rebuilding the chancel, was carried out in 1851-1854, possibly by WH Hill.
The stonework in the great East Window dates from the 1460s. It was restored in the 1850s, and the glass depicts the coats-of-arms of many leading families associated with the church.
A restoration of a remedial nature was carried out between 1970 and 1973. The Chapel of Remembrance was created in the North Transept in the late 1980s, using the furnishing of the closed church of Templemichael.
Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church is now a National Monument under the care of the government, and leased by Representative Church Body to the local council.
The Collegiate Church has been a long history of choral music, and is a venue for recitals, concerts and festivals, including concerts in the East Cork Early Music Festival.
From 2005, music has been provided in Youghal and in Cloyne Cathedral by the Clerks Choral, who sing traditional Anglican repertoire and regularly feature on RTÉ Radio 1 and Lyric FM.
They have rendition of Compline in Saint Anne’s Church, Shandon, is a regular feature of the Cork International Choral Festival.
The organ from the Church of Saint Michael-on-the-Mount-Without, Bristol, was installed in 2007 in the North Bay of the crossing of the Great Nave.
The unique bishop’s throne in the nave is for the Bishop of Cloyne, who remains nominally the Warden of Youghal. Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church is part of the Diocese of Cloyne within the United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.
Canon Andrew Orr has the priest-in-charge of Youghal since 2018. The other churches in the Youghal Union of Parishes are Saint Paul’s Church, Ardmore, Co Waterford, and Saint Anne’s Church, Castlemartyr, Co Cork. Canon Orr is also chaplain of Middelton College. He is married to the Very Revd Susan Green, Dean of Cloyne.
The interpretive installation, ‘Voices of Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church,’ offers a choice of three types of tour, each unique, informative and entertaining.
It offers a personally guided tour through the church, highlighting the gems, a self-guided audio tour sharing the emotional reunion of the imaginary Roe family and they talk about the history of the church and their own family memories, and interactive information displays, in which visitors follow a timeline from 1220 to today, including the church’s archaeological dig.