25 September 2014

Stepping inside the ‘Lyons’ Den’
in All Saints’ Church, Mullingar

All Saints’ Church, Mullingar, is celebrating its bicentenary, but the church dates back more than 800 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this week [22 September 2014], I was in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, for the ordination of the Revd Ruth O’Kelly as deacon by the Bishop of Meath and Kildare, the Most Revd Oat Storey.

All Saints’ Church is a focal point in Mullingar and represents one of the more important elements of the built heritage of the town.

All Saints’ Church illustrates the changing tastes in Church of Ireland architecture over the past two centuries with various Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival styles from the past 200 years being enhanced by modern architectural styles in recent years.

The church is celebrating its bicentenary this year, commemorating the completion of the present church building in 1814. But this prominent, elevated site has been the site of church buildings since around 1208, when the Bishop of Meath, Simon de Rochford, gave a church here to the Augustinian Priory of Llanthony Prima in Gwent in Wales. Around the same time, the townland of Mullingar was granted to the Anglo-Norman lord, William le Petit by Hugh de Lacy of Meath.

This church was still attached to Llanthony Prima ca 1540, when the monastic houses were dissolved at the beginning of the Anglican Reformation.

The monument above the tomb and vault of Sir James Leigh and his wife Mary in the porch at the west end is dated 1683 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

At the Caroline Restoration in 1660, the parish church in Mullingar was said to be “ruinous.” By 1682, it had been “handsomely rebuilt” according to Sir Henry Piers in his chronological description of Co Westmeath. Later, around 1750, the chancel was “ruinous” once again, and the nave was thatched.

This church was rebuilt in 1813-1814 at the cost of £3,554, an enormous sum of money at the time. £2,261 was raised by parochial assessment, the Trustees of the Blue Coat Hospital granted £185, and a loan of £1,108 came from the Board of First Fruits, later the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.

After the rebuilding, the church was extensively refit to designs by Joseph Welland (1798-1860) and William Gillespie (1818-1890).

Welland, who was the architect to the Board of First Fruits and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, was born in Midleton, Co Cork, and became a pupil of John Bowden, architect to the Board of First Fruits.

Welland’s obituary in the Irish Builder says he designed over 100 new churches and carried out alterations and enlargements to existing structures. His eldest son, Thomas James Welland (1830-1907), became Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore. After his death, his son William Joseph Welland and William Gillespie were appointed joint architects to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in May 1860.

In 1878, the chancel and sanctuary and the transepts in All Saints were raised to designs by Sir Thomas Drew (1838-1910), one of the celebrated architects of his day. Drew also designed the Ulster Bank in College Green, Dublin, the Graduates’ Memorial Building in Trinity College Dublin, Rathmines Town Hall, and Saint Anne's Cathedral, Belfast.

All Saints’ Church has an interesting collection of memorials dating from the mid-17th to the late 19th-century, and many of them have been carefully labelled to take the visitor on a self-guided tour of the church.

The mid-19th century interior refurbishments included new stained glass windows dated 1865. Many of the windows in the church commemorate members of the Swift family, others have been moved here from neighbouring churches when they were closed.

In recent years, the church hall, dating from 1888 and standing at the church gates was sold to pay for considerable refurbishments in the church. The internal plasterwork was removed to expose the stonework. The seating in the nave of the church was raised upwards, to create one long balcony in the main church body and the new space at ground-floor level became a new parish hall.

The balcony and hall fill the nave area. The new hall is used for parish events and for tea and coffee after Sunday services. It was here we were invited to a reception on Monday evening.

The monument to James Charles Lyons (1792-1874) in the “Lyons’ Den” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

A small semi-chapel in an alcove on the north side of the sanctuary opens onto the North Transept and is known as the “Lyons’ Den” because of the memorials to members of the local Lyons family. Before the recent renovations and redesigns, this small area was curtained off and used as a storage area, but is now open.

The bicentenary celebrations began last month [August 2014] with a series of Heritage Week Lectures. Next month, they include an organ recital and a bicentenary harvest festival. The plans for November include a Bicentenary Festival Service, a Remembrance Service, a Bicentenary Gala Banquet in the Greville Arms Hotel, Mullingar, and a Bicentenary Flower Festival in aid of the North Westmeath Hospice.

The Revd Alistair Graham has been the Rector of the Mullingar Union of Parishes since his institution on 23 June 2009. The union also includes Portnashangan, Moyliscar, Kilbixy, Almoritia, Killucan, Clonard and Castlelost.

The warm, welcoming interior of All Saints’ Church, Mullingar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The Revd Alistair Graham was born in Belfast and began his ministry as a curate in Clontarf, Dublin. He has served in a number of parishes, including Saint Michael’s at the North Gate, Oxford, Christ the King Parish, Frankfurt, Germany, Wellend Parish, Canada, Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, and Saint Brigid’s, Stillorgan, and All Saints’, Blackrock. His brother, the Revd Gordon Graham, is a priest in the Episcopal Church in the US and the Henry Luce III Professor of Philosophy and Arts at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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