31 August 2021

Boyle’s Almshouses: 400 years
of social housing in Youghal

Boyle’s Almshouses on Main Street, Youghal, Co Cork … a 400-year-old example of social housing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

I have been writing in recent days about the former Benedictine priory in Youghal, Co Cork, the former Franciscan Abbey or South Abbey, and the nuns who maintained the mediaeval lighthouse in Youghal.

When the monastic houses were dissolved at the Tudor Reformation, towns throughout Ireland and England lost not only the spiritual life of these foundations, but also the hospitals and hostels that cared for the sick and offered care and hospitality to pilgrims and travellers.

To meet this need in the decades that followed, many wealthy and powerful individuals founded charitable institutions. A surviving example of one of these foundations is Boyle’s Almshouses on the corner of Main Street and Church Street in Youghal, founded by Richard Boyle (1566-1643), 1st Earl of Cork or the ‘Great Earl of Cork.’

These almshouses are a short walk down Church Street from Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church. They were built in 1624 by Richard Boyle, who had become Lord Boyle, Baron of Youghal, in 1616, and Earl of Cork and Viscount Dungarvan in 1620.

The almshouses are said to stand on the site of an earlier town house that was the residence in Youghal of the Earls of Desmond. The were built of local old red sandstone, probably taken from the former Dominican friary or North Abbey in Youghal.

Boyle had the support of the Corporation or town council of Youghal, and initially the almshouses housed six old soldiers, ‘six old decayed soldiers or alms men’, who also received a pension of £5 a year each.

The first residents were probably retired soldiers engaged in the Desmond rebellion. Later, the houses were extended to accommodate poor widows too. Widows and widowers were normally kept apart by assigning them to different floors. In their days, these were an early example of social housing.

Four of the six almshouses face onto Main Street, and the remaining two facing onto Church Street. Although they were built four decades after the death of James I, they have been described as being ‘most convincingly Jacobean’ in their style of architecture.

A carved plaque on the Main Street façade displays Richard Boyle’s coat of arms (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Main Street or east façade presents a four-bay, three storey building, with a plain gable at the north end. The almshouses were originally gabled at the front, with heavy mullioned windows and thick hood mouldings above.

Some of the architectural details include six pointed arched doorways, the two mullioned windows on Church Street, and a carved plaque on the Main Street façade displaying Richard Boyle’s coat of arms.

These buildings have been described as the oldest surviving almshouses in Ireland, although they were built about 30 years after Sir Richard Shee’s almshouse in Kilkenny.

When a poll tax of two shillings was introduced in 1697, the residents of the almshouses were exempt. In later years, the residents were provided with fuel and an annual allowance from the Duke of Devonshire.

Two of the six almshouses face onto Church Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The almshouses retained their original form until the mid-19th century, when some of the houses were modified substantially. The flat elevation seen on Main Street today was created when a new roofline was put in, removing the original pointed gables. The building was stonewalled all round and the original interior was formed with two floors and timber partitions between the houses.

Bernard Powell, a local man who lived in one of the houses in recent years. He suffered from gigantism, and stood almost 7 ft tall. But the front door was little more than 5 ft high. Despite this obvious disadvantage, he continued to live in the almshouses until he died.

Under a proposal in 1976, the former almshouse were to become a library space. Only the façade of the almshouse was to be preserved, a new entrance was to be created, an interior garden would be created off a corridor on the way to the adult and reference sections of the library.

Instead, however, in recent years alterations and modifications were made to the buildings and they now accommodate senior citizens.

The original gables survive on the Church Street façade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
94, Saint John’s Priory, Youghal

The site of the early 14th century Benedictine Priory of Saint John in Youghal, Co Cork, is now Priory Coffee Company (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme this week is Benedictine (including Cistercian) foundations. My photographs this morning (31 August 2021) are from the former Saint John’s Priory in Youghal, Co Cork.

Portions of the Priory of Saint John still survive, including a moulded Gothic doorway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Portions of the early 14th century Benedictine Priory of Saint John can be found at 56 Main Street, in the centre of Youghal. The building is now Priory Coffee Company, an award-winning café in the town centre.

This Benedictine house in the centre of Youghal was founded ca 1350, but the Benedictine presence in Youghal dated back to 1185.

A maison dieu was founded for or by the Benedictines at Youghal in 1185, with an associated leper house on a hill outside the town. A maison dieu was often served as a hospital or hostel providing overnight accommodation for pilgrims.

The Benedictine presence in Youghal was more firmly established inside the walled town by 1306, with the foundation of a structure known as Saint John’s House on Main Street. The house appears to have been a small dependent cell of the Benedictine house at Bath Abbey and operated as a hospital-cell.

Saint John’s Priory was founded in 1350, as a subordinate of the Benedictine Priory of Saint John the Baptist in Waterford (1185) and as a ‘mortuary bequest’. Saint John’s in Waterford was a double monastery that also provided hospital care and it, in turn, was a dependency of Bath Abbey in England.

Saint John’s in Youghal served as a hospital, hostel or almshouse until the Dissolution of the Monasteries at the Tudor Reformation.

Small portions of the building still survive, including the east gable with a moulded pointed arch Gothic doorway that has a carved sandstone surround and trefoil motifs to the spandrels, roll mouldings and a timber battened door with strap hinges. Other interesting architectural details include the two-bay, two-storey, gable front, the rendered chimneystacks, and a carved sandstone lancet opening with open work tracery. The original piscina and aumbrey are said to survive inside.

The passageway leading from the doorway along the southside of the building is a later addition.

It is said Oliver Cromwell made the priory in Youghal his headquarters during the winter of 1649, and that he inspected his troops every morning from the priory.

After a period of neglect, a new gable was inserted in a central position in the structure in the late 18th or early 19th century.

An architectural and archaeological assessment of the building in 2000 identified how the building is laid out in four spaces: the main retail area fronting the street on the east, a kitchen to the west of the shop, a yard beyond, and a long, narrow corridor running along the south wall through the building from east to west, bounded by a poorly built rubble stone wall on the north.

All the spaces are confined within a single rectangular structure. The building was found to have four main phases of construction. The main core is of mediaeval date, and the lower courses of the north and west walls of the mediaeval building were found.

The Magazine was an urban tower house at the front of the property now at 54 North Main Street. It was built within the precinct of Saint John’s Priory, and archaeological studies show uncovered the foundations of an earlier tower and a late mediaeval fireplace.

This building too was supposedly occupied by Cromwell’s army during the winter of 1649-1650.

The Magazine was demolished in 1835 as part of reconstruction works and the realignment of the Main Street.

The former priory has gone through many changes over the years and is now home to the Priory Coffee Company – and, yes, Eggs Benedict are on the menu.

The Priory Coffee Company is an award-winning café in the centre of Youghal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 4: 31-37 (NRSVA):

31 He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. 32 They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. 33 In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 ‘Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm. 36 They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, ‘What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!’ 37 And a report about him began to reach every place in the region.

The Gothic doorway opens into a passageway that leads into the rest of the site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (31 August 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for the Lusophone Network, which represents and connects Portuguese-speaking members of the Anglican Communion. The network comprises 350,000 Portuguese-speaking Anglicans and Episcopalians across countries including Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique and Angola.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A plque recalls the original use of the building as a Benedictine priory (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

The Magazine at 54 North Main Street was built within the precincts of Saint John’s Priory and was demolished in 1835 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)