08 December 2021
Finding the stories of real lives in
the churchyards of West Limerick
One of the downsides of not driving a car and living in an area with inadequate public transport is missing so many community events in the evening, including book launches. On the other hand, one of the advantages of living in an area like this in provincial Ireland is the large number of active local historians eager to continue their research and to publish their work.
I have missed two or three book launches in recent week, but recently two friendly neighbours brought around a copy of one of the books whose launch I had missed.
Mary Kury of Saint Kieran’s Heritage Association is a good example of historians like this. She recently published In Loving Memory: the Headstones in Clonagh, Coolcappa, Kilscannell and Rathronan Graveyards. I missed her book launch, but in the past week or two I have been poring over the signed copy she sent me.
Local historians mine reach seams and bring up the gems that provide the working material for academic historians. In this book, Mary Kury not only transcribes the gravestones and memorials in a number of churchyards and graveyards in West Limerick, but she also weaves through her text the stories of real-life people and their families.
Limerick was at the centre of the development of aviation and transatlantic air flights, as all who visit Foynes, or who have heard the story of Sophie Pierce, know. But Mary Kury also recalls the tragic story of a tragic air collision in Limerick almost 90 years ago. Sir Alan Cobham and ‘Cobham’s Flying Circus’ visited Limerick on 7 and 8 July 1933as part of a orld tour.
Tragedy struck when two planes collided, with the tail of lower plane being struck with Sir Alan’s plane. Cobham was unaware of the collision until he landed. The damaged plane spiralled to the ground, and the pilot, WR Elliott, and the passenger, 28-year-old William Ower, were killed. William Ower was the eldest son of William and Mary Ower of Newcastle West, and his father and his brother, who were in the queue waiting to go up, saw the tragedy unfold before their eyes. The two brothers are commemorated in Rathkeale, while their father William Ower is buried in Clonagh.
Patrick Hartigan, who is buried in Clonagh churchyard, was a local magistrate who lived in Reens. His two sons were killed in World War I: Luke Joseph Hartigan, of the 1st Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, was killed in action on 15 August 1917; three months later, his brother Edward Patrick Hartigan, a second lieutenant in the 57th Squadron in the Royal Flying Corps, was killed in action on 20 November 1917 at the age of 22. Both brothers are commemorated in Rathkeale.
Rathronan Church was built in 1822 on the site of an earlier, mediaeval church, and is known for its associations with the patriot William Smith O’Brien and his family of Cahermoyle House. The O’Brien and Massy families have large mausoleums in the churchyard, and members of the Goold family of Athea are also buried in Rathronan churchyard.
Thomas Goold bought the Athea estate from the Courtenay family of Newcastle West and Earls of Devon, in 1817. His son, Wyndham Goold (1812-1854), as MP for Co Limerick in 1850-1854, and his daughter Augusta Charlotte married Edwin Richard Wyndham-Quin (1812-1871), 3rd Earl of Dunraven, who became a Roman Catholic in 1855; he lived at Adare Manor and reported on the discovery of the Ardagh Chalice. Another son, Archdeacon Frederick Goold (1808-1877), owned almost 11,000 acres in Co Limerick when he died in 1877.
The church in Kilscannell, with its square tower, was rebuilt in 1823 with a grant from the Board of First Fruits. The Chancellors of Limerick, who were rectors of Rathkeale, also held the parish of Kilscannell, and usually appointed a separate curate to look after the church. The last such curate was probably the Revd Clement Richardson in 1859-1864. His first wife, Mary Anne Richardson, died in 1865, and is commemorated with a plaque in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale. He later became a missionary in Canada with the Anglican mission agency SPG, now USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).
Canon Samuel Wills was the first rector of Rathkeale (1872-1905) who was not Chancellor of Limerick and who was without a curate in Kilscannell. During his time, the church in Kilscannell burned down on Easter Day 1895. The weather was cold that morning, and the Rector of Rathkeale, Canon Samuel Wills, asked the sexton, Dan Eaton, to stoke up the fire. According to Mary Kury, Eaton was annoyed at the manner in which he was instructed and built a large fire in the stove. The roof above the stove pipe caught fire and the flames spread quickly, fanned by a strong breeze.
The rector, the sexton and the large congregation all escaped unharmed, but the church burned down. Although the church was fully insured, it was never rebuilt, and its ruins by the side of the road near Ardagh are a sad and lonely sight.
Even when memorial stones are missing, Mary Kury has interesting stories to tell. The Gibbins family once had a tomb inside the front wall of Kilscannell Church. She recalls the local story of the Revd Thomas Gibbins (1870-1927), who ‘was courting a young lady who rebuffed his advances. As he left her home, he met another clergyman coming to visit the woman. He drew a pistol and threatened to shoot the man. The second clergyman avoided being shot by circling his horse until help arrived.’
Thomas was taken to hospital and died in an asylum in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.