17 April 2011

Palm Sunday with the Communion of Saints in Saint George’s, Balbriggan

Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan ... celebrates its centenary in 2013 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I spent the morning of Palm Sunday [17 April 2011] in Skerries and Balbriggan, leading Morning Prayer in Holmpatrick Parish Church in Skerries, presiding at the Eucharist in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, and preaching at both services.

From the M1 out to Rush and Skerries, the east wind was blowing in a strong mist, that would burn off later in the morning. Although there was no time for a walk along the beach in Skerries this morning, the drive along the coast road to Balbriggan was pleasant, and in the warm sunshine there was no feeling of being rushed between the two churches.

This is only my second time inside Saint George’s, so it was good to be reminded of its history, and of an interesting connection with the kindly teacher and priest who was Rector of Balbriggan a century ago.

Before Saint George’s Church was built, the Church of Ireland parishioners in Balbriggan were served by Saint Peter’s Church in Balrothery, which is now used as a heritage centre.

The growth of Balbriggan was due to the wealth and industry created by the patronage of the Hamilton family of Hampton Hall, the major land-owning family in the area from the 18th century on. Baron George Hamilton donated most of the money to build a harbour in Balbriggan in 1763, and this encouraged the development of the fishing industry and coastal trade. Within two decades, Hamilton also built two cotton factories that provided employment for a large number of local people.

Samuel Lewis (1837) credits him with transforming Balbriggan from a “small fishing village to a place of manufacturing and commercial importance.”

By the early 19th century, the parish church in Balrothery was in a dilapidated state. In addition, by then most of the parishioners were living in Balbriggan, and the Hamilton family planned a new parish church or chapel-of-ease in the town.

Those plans were frustrated by resisted by successive Rectors of Balrothery. Eventually, however, the Hamiltons realised their hopes in 1813 when the Revd George Hamilton was given permission to build the new church for the people of Balbriggan under an Act of Parliament, 11 and 12 George III, 6, and the “chapelry of Saint George” was founded.

The legislation provided for a perpetual curacy, with a grant of £25 a year from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners from Primate Boulter’s fund. Hamilton granted the land for the church and provided a substantial endowment to fund the stipend of a perpetual curate or vicar.

The chapel was completed in 1816 at a cost of £3,018.2.2, of which £1,400 was given by the Board of First Fruits. £478.15.2 was raised from voluntary subscriptions by local people in Balbriggan, and £1,139.7.0 came from the Revd George Hamilton and his family.

The foundation stone for the new church was laid on 23 July 1813, and Saint George’s was consecrated on 20 October 1816. In his new book, Churches of the Church of Ireland Dedicated to Saint George, Duncan Scarlett suggests the church was dedicated to Saint George in honour of King George III, who was then the reigning monarch. But the name may also have been chosen personally by George Hamilton.

A winter fire

This original church, designed by an unknown architect, was a probably handsome edifice, although there are no surviving illustrations. We can imagine that it was a traditionally aligned three-bay hall, with a western tower. However, the church was accidentally burned on 22 December 1833. After the fire, the congregation used a schoolroom until their church was restored.

Saint George’s was rebuilt to a design by Frederick Darley, with a grant of £478 from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and reopened for worship on 4 March 1838. Darley enlarged the church with transects in the third bay to give the building a cruciform shape. The original box pews, destroyed in the fire, were replaced with bench pews.

Saint George’s is built of random rubble with few decorative features other than the dressed stone surrounds, hood mouldings and reticulated tracery on the window openings, most of which have clear lattice glazing in the original metal frames.

The quoins are restricted to the corners on the south wall, which faces the street. The later vestry and organ extensions are hidden from public view on the north wall. Unlike many churches of its time, the north wall of Saint George’s has window openings, although one of these was built up in 1901 when the organ was installed on the nave wall.

Darley’s original plans show how he intended to decorate the south facade of Saint George’s by adding buttresses with gabled extensions, pinnacles and finials matching those of the tower. He also envisaged a battlemented parapet above the gable on the south-facing transept, surmounted by a finial in the shape of a decorated cross. However, the money for these decorations may have run out during the course of rebuilding.

Humorous decorations on the buttresses on the tower of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The two-stage tower at the west end of the church survived the fire of 1833 and was incorporated into the rebuilt church. This tower is of roughly-coursed rubble and offset buttresses of ashlar limestone. On the lower stage there are large windows on the west and north faces, and above the string course there are four openings with timbered louvers on the upper stage, which contain a bell by Thomas Mears of London, installed in 1840, and a carillon or peal of eight bells, installed in 1909 in memory of Warren St Ledger Woods of Whitestown House, who died the previous year. One lone operator on the peal can play simple hymn tunes and Christmas Carols, but the volume is not as great as the large cast-iron bells hanging in the belfry above the peal.

Surmounting the upper stage of the tower is a battlemented parapet of sandstone, extensions of the buttresses with gablets and pinnacles topped with decorated finials, two of which are now missing. The spire was built ca 1835 at the restoration of Saint George’s, and the parapet, buttress extensions and pinnacles may date from the same time. The tower was damaged during the Night of the Big Wind, on 6 and 7 January 1839.

Psalm 132, quoted on a plaque above the main door on the south side of tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The biblical text on a plaqueabove the main door on the south side of tower above reads:

I will not suffer mine eyes
to sleep nor mine eye-lids
to slumber • neither the
temples of my head to
take any rest;
Until I find out a place
for the temple of the Lord:, an habitation
for the mighty God of

– Psalm 132: 4-5.

The quotation may have been chosen to give thanks for the rebuilding of the church after the fire of 1833.

Inside the entrance porch, a memorial honours parishioners who died in World War I.

Inside Saint George’s, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ architects, William Joseph Welland and William Gillespie, added a staircase and the gallery at the west end of the church in 1861-1863. This gallery is supported on two quatrefoil iron columns on either side of the aisle.

Underneath the gallery, the baptistery is in the north-west corner, and was used after the Eucharist on Sunday morning for serving coffee and tea. The baptistery has an octagonal red marble font, supported on grey marble colonnettes rising from a plinth of matching red marble. The font, dated 25 December 1862, bears the name Amelia Fancourt Hamilton, and was a Christmas gift to Saint George’s Parish from the wealthiest woman in Balbriggan at that time. She also established an infant school in the town. Th baptistery was tiled in 1904 as a memorial to the Revd Samuel Warren, who was the Rector of Balbriggan from 1865 until his death in 1902.

The oldest memorials in the church are in the north transept, many of them to the Hamilton family who had their family pew there. One of these memorials, to Baron George Hamilton, was originally in Balrothery Parish Church before being moved to Saint George’s. He died at the age of 63 years on 14 November 1793. There are monuments too to the memory of R. Hamilton Esq., and the Revd George Hamilton.

The elaborate memorial to George Alexander Hamilton, who died in 1871 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The most elaborate memorial recalls George Alexander Hamilton, who died on 17 September 1871. His wife Amelia Fancourt Hamilton is remembered on a similar memorial nearby. This memorial says: “Her clothing and coal clubs were for many years a great benefit to the poor of this neighbourhood.” It also mentions that she set up an infant school in 1836 at Hampton Gates.

There are other memorials recalling tragic deaths, including the death of Richard Lucas Baker who died aged 22 as a soldier in Guernsey in 1848, and the death of Desmond Maurice Macartney-Filgate of Lowtherstone, who was with the RAF in World War I and died in a plane crash in 1918.

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

There are two memorial stained glass windows in the south transept. One, depicting the Adoration of the Magi, was designed by William Francis Dixon and made by the internationally famous firm, Meyer and Company of Munich, in 1906. It recalls the drowning at sea of Desmond Filgate’s father, Charles Alexander Hume Macartney-Filgate, in 1906. Tryphena Elizabeth Seymour Macartney Filgate, who lost her husband and son in two tragedies, died in 1919.

The Presentation in the Temple ... a window by Catherine O’Brien of An Tur Glione in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The second window, designed by Catherine O’Brien of An Tur Glone in the Celtic Revival style in 1938, depicts the Presentation in the Temple, and is in memory of Richard Taylor Woods of Whitestown House.

The Resurrection ... an Easter sermon in glass in the East Window in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The three-light East Window behind the altar contains the oldest glass in the church, dating from 1883, and is a complete Easter sermon in itself. This window depicts the Resurrection and was also made by Meyer and Company of Munich. It was erected in memory of Thomas Edward Taylor (1811-1883) of Ardgillan Castle, near Balbriggan, who was MP for Co Dublin over 42 years and who is buried in a vault beneath the church.

Beneath the window and behind the altar stands a simple wooden Celtic cross, presented in 1995 by the family of Kathy Keenan. When the lights are on, this cross throws three shadows, evoking images of Calvary that are so appropriate in this Holy Week.

The crossing is occupied by a large chancel and an extension of the originally shallow sanctuary, which has an attractive, carved wooden altar. The altar frontal, and the pulpit and lectern falls were embroidered by Dorothy Whyte in memory of her son Alan White (24), who died on Christmas Day, 1936.

The wooden carved pulpit was donated in 1899 by Sarah Scriven, daughter of Henry Hamilton, originally from Tullylish, Co. Down. Sarah Scriven, a doctor’s wife, lived in Hampton Hall, and her son, the Revd Rowland Scriven (1859-1944), was a curate in the parish from 1898 to 1920, when he moved to England.

The Revd Samuel Percival Warren (1828-1902), who was the Rector of Balbriggan from 1865 until his death in 1902, was responsible for many later improvements to the church, including the installation of the organ in 1901. At the insistence of Gertrude Uhthoff Hamilton, the organ was located in its unusual place in the north wall.

A quiet cul-de sac

Passing trains can be heard in the church but the railway line gives Saint George’s churchyard an air of tranquillity and seclusion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

When the Dublin-to-Drogheda Railway was built alongside the church in 1840-1844, George’s Street was cut in half. One half became Seapoint Street, the other half Church Street, and Church Street became a cul-de-sac. Although passing trains can be heard in the church, the cul-de-sac gives a sense of tranquillity and seclusion to the churchyard.

One of the few graves in the churchyard is that of the Revd Daniel Henry Maunsell (1791-1834), “Curate of the Chapel of Balbriggan,” who is buried to the west of the tower. He died of cholera on 15 July 1834 at the age of 42, and it is said that the only man with the courage to touch his body was the son of Revd George Hamilton of Hampton Hall, T.C.G. Hamilton, who placed his body in a coffin and buried him.

Twenty years later, the row between the Rectors of Balrothery and the Hamiltons of Balbriggan erupted again in 1855 on a dispute over burial rights in the churchyard. A proposal by the Revd James Fitzgerald Gregg (1820-1905) to use the grounds for further burials was successfully opposed by the Rector of Balrothery, the Revd Francis Baker, who argued that the grounds should not be consecrated for burials because the church was “too close to the town for burials to be sanitary.”

The only exception was conceded for members of the Hamilton family, whose family vault lies beneath the east end of the church. Gertrude Uhthoff Hamilton and Alfred Ormsby Hamilton, who both died in 1935, are buried on the south side of the church.

Presidential links

The parochial hall behind Saint George’s Church was once the junior classroom for the parish school. The teachers in the parish school in the early 20th century were a husband and wife, Mr J Douglas, who taught the senior classes, and Mrs Edith Douglas, who taught the juniors.

Their grandson, Nicholas Robinson, is the husband of the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson.

The Communion of Saints

The Benson Home Communion Set, passed through a long line of clergy for more than a century and a half (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When I was ordained priest ten years ago, my good friend, the late Canon Norman Ruddock, then Rector of Wexford, presented me with a Home Communion set that had first belonged to the Revd Dr Charles William Benson (1836-1919), who was Rector of Balbriggan from 1903 until his death in 1919.

Dr Benson was known affectionately in the parish as “Daddy Benson,” and while he was Rector of Balbriggan a hundred years ago, he lived across the street from Saint George’s Church in Bedford House – now the privately-run Saint Anthony’s Nursing Home.

Bedford House ... home of the Revd Dr Charles Benson while he was Rector of Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dr Benson was a pioneering figure in education in the late 19th century and as headmaster of Rathmines School for over 40 years he was responsible for nurturing and encouraging the vocations of many leading bishops, priests and missionaries in the Church of Ireland. At the age of 67, he became the Rector of Saint George’s in 1903, and he was still the Rector of Balbriggan when he died at the age of 82 on 6 February 1919 in Bedford House in Church Street.

The Revd Dr Charles Benson, Rector of Balbriggan and the first owner of the home communion set

With that Home Communion set, Norrie included a hand-written list of all the priests who owned the paten and chalice and who – over the generations – passed it on to those they saw as their successors in the ministry and heirs to their vision, with my name at the very end. It was good to be reminded of the whole communion of saints at the Eucharist on Palm Sunday in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin


Isabel said...

I came across your blog when hunting a list of the curates/rectors of Holmpatrick and I am very interested in your history of St George's. In my family tree I have several clergy from the Skerries area and I am trying to resolve some queries.

They are:
1. William Henry Johnston, curate of Holmpatrick in 1824 although he apparently lived in an adjoining parish;
his son John Henry gives his address as Hacketstown House and occupation as gentleman in various documents; but the Hamiltons owned that property so I wonder if he was actually the agent. He definitely owned a house called "Salcombe" in Strand Street, Skerries.
2. Richard William Ashe Shegog, rector of Holmpatrick in the 1880s
3. John Travers Madden of Balbriggan

Are these names you have heard of? Maybe there are memorials to them or their families there in Skerries and/or Balbriggan. It would be interesting to hear.

Many thanks
Isabel Hatcher

John Knox said...

Hi Isabel,
I live in Salcombe, Holmpatrick, Skerries, which was built in 1896, the original owner being Lucretia (or possibly Letitia) Johnston, a spinster - not sure how she relates to John Henry Johnston. Her niece Florence, daughter of Frances, married Richard Shegog, son of the rector, who was killed in action in 1917. I met their son, also Richard I think, in the late '90s, when he made a visit from England.
In the 1901 census, the Shegog's seem to have two residences. See http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1901/Dublin/Holmpatrick/Great_Strand_Street/

John Knox