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)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
28, San Michele and Murano, Venice

The Church of San Michele in Isola, designed by Mauro Codussi in 1469, is the first Renaissance church in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

My photographs this week are from churches in Venice. This morning (26 June 2021), my photographs are from churches on two of the islands in the lagoon: the Chiesa di San Michele in Isola on San Michele and the Church of Santa Maria e San Donato on Murano.

The monastery was suppressed by Napoleon and the monks were expelled from San Michele in 1814 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A vaporetto from the San Zaccaria waterbus station in front of the Doge’s Palace visits some of the tiny islands out in the lagoon, including San Michele, Murano, Mazzorbo, Burano and Torcello.

The lagoon was once the preserve of fishermen and hunters, and the stories of the islands is shrouded in myth and legend. Murano is the island of glassmakers and Burano the island of lace, but other islands were monasteries, used as prisons and gunpowder factories, or served as market gardens or cemeteries.

The first stop is at Cimitero on the island of San Michele, across the water from Fondamente Nuove. The island, with a large number of cypress trees and enclosed within high terracotta walls, was originally the two islets of San Michele and San Cristoforo della Pace.

Hermits of the Camaldolese Order moved onto the island in the 12th century, and founded the Monastery of Saint Michael (S Michele di Murano), which became a centre of learning and printing. The famous cartographer, Fra Mauro, who drew maps that helped European explorers, was a monk of this community.

The landmark building on the island is Chiesa di San Michele in Isola, designed by Mauro Codussi in 1469. This was the first Renaissance church in Venice, and the first church in Venice to be faced in white Istrian stone.

The monastery was suppressed by French forces under Napoleon, in the course of their conquest of the Italian peninsula, and the monks were expelled in 1814. The Napoleonic administration had decreed that burial on the main islands of Venice was unsanitary, and he islands then became Venice’s major cemetery. The canal separating the two islands was filled in between 1837 and 1839, and the larger island became known as San Michele.

Coffins were carried to the island on special funeral gondolas. Those who are buried here include Frederick Rolfe ‘Baron Corvo’ (1860-1913), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996).

From San Michele, the vaporetto continues to Murano, which is synonymous with Venetian glass. Murano is about 1.5 km north of Venice and measures about 1.5 km across with a population of about 5,000. It is not one island, but a cluster of seven small islands linked by bridges over eight channels.

For a while Murano was the main producer of glass in Europe, and for centuries the glassmakers had a monopoly on high-quality glassmaking, developing or refining many technologies. They benefited from many privileges but were forbidden to leave the Serene Republic as Venice sought to protect the secret of the production of glass and crystal.

Although decline set in during the 18th century, glassmaking remains the island’s main industry. The artisans of Murano continue to employ centuries-old techniques, crafting items from contemporary art glass and glass jewellery to Murano glass chandeliers and wine stoppers.

Most of the churches on Murano were torn down and replaced by housing or glass factories during the Napoleonic and Austrian occupations (1797-1866). Today, only four churches remain, and two are open to visitors.

The Church of Santa Maria e San Donato is known for its 12th-century Byzantine mosaic pavement and said to house the bones of the dragon slain by Saint Donatus in the fourth century. The Church of San Pietro Martire includes the chapel of the Ballarin family built in 1506 and artworks by Giovanni Bellini.

On Bressagio street, a few meters from the main lighthouse and the island pier, the Oratorio ex Ospizio Briati is the chapel of a former convent of the Discalced Carmelites.

For a time, this was the Briati Hospice, built by the master of Murano glass, Giuseppe Briati (1686-1772), to house the widows of glassmakers.

The Discalced Carmelites of Venice were given permission in 1736 to build a convent for Carmelite nuns on the site of the palazzo of the Marcelo family. They received financial assistance from other prominent families, including the Contarini and Giustiniani families.

A year later, the nuns moved to the convent from the monastery in Conegliano. Later, the Augustinians restored the oratory, and it served as a parish church at a time when the Basilica of San Donato was still closed.

The Oratorio ex Ospizio Briati is the chapel of a former Carmelite convent on Murano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 8: 5-17 (NRSVA):

5 When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him 6 and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralysed, in terrible distress.’ 7And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ 8 The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 10 When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 13And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour.

14 When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; 15 he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him. 16 That evening they brought to him many who were possessed by demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. 17 This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’

Murano is not one island, but a cluster of seven small islands linked by bridges over eight channels (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (26 June 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the descendants of immigrants living here, as they continue to face many of the injustices their forebears faced decades ago. May we work for a fairer, more inclusive society.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Souaci GesĂș,’ a sculpture by Remigio Barbera on the island of Burano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org