23 May 2016

‘Casting down their golden crowns
upon the glassy sea’ in Bantry

The parish church of Saint Brendan the Navigator in the heart of Bantry, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday was Trinity Sunday [22 May 2016], and in the morning I attended the Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Bantry, the Church of Ireland parish church on Wolfe Tone Square, the large market square in the heart of Bantry, Co Cork, where I spent the weekend.

The celebrant and preacher was Canon Paul Willoghby, and he was assisted by the Revd David Compton, who is a deacon intern in the parish.

In front of the church, a large, modern statue of Saint Brendan looks out towards Whiddy Island and Bantry Bay. On the opposite side of the quays stand the former estate office and the entrances to Bantry House and the estate of the White family who were instrumental in building Saint Brendan’s Church 200 years ago.

But before this church was built, Christian worship took place in two other centres in the parish, going back to 1411. Indeed, the parish retains its ancient Irish name, Kilmocomogue, recalling the church built by the founding saint, Saint Coman, in Lisheen, near the local village of Kealkill.

In 1704, by an Act of Parliament, the church centre was transferred to Bantry, which was a burgeoning town, and a new church was built in a place that was previously known in Irish as Garraidhe Ui Mhurchadha or “Murphy’s Garden.” The ruins of the earlier church can still be seen in Church Road, alongside an ancient burial ground.

But the humble, lowly church did not fit into the grand plans the White family had for the town that was developing at the gates of their estate. Richard White (1767-1851), who later became 1st Earl of Bantry, was the grandson of Richard White, who had made an immense fortune through his work as a lawyer, and the family owned extensive estates in Co Cork.

In 1797, White led a force against the French armada that arrived in Bantry Bay. For his role in this, he was given the title of Baron Bantry in 1797. In 1800, he became Viscount Bantry, and in 1816 he was made Earl of Bantry and Viscount Beerhaven, both titles in the Peerage of Ireland.

While he was still Viscount Bantry, Richard White signed a deed of conveyance for the site of the present church on 23 October 1815. A few months later, an Act of Council, ratified by the Lord Lieutenant on 13 July 1816, gave permission to build the new church.

Inside the Church of Ireland parish church in Bantry, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A new, fine Regency Gothic church was designed by the English architect Henry Edward Kendall (1776-1875). Kendall was a student of Thomas Leverton and possibly of John Nash. His wide-ranging styles included Greek, Italian and Tudor revival.

Kendall’s son, Henry Edward Kendall Jr (1805-1875), was also an architect. For a while, the two ran a practice together, and their notable works included the Esplanade and Tunnel in Kemp Town, Brighton, dating from 1828-1830. Lewis Cubitt was among those who worked at the practice before setting up on his own. Both Kendalls were among the co-founders of what became the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Kendall designed many civic buildings, including workhouses, hospitals and schools. In 1832, he won the 100 guinea prize for his Gothic design for Kensal Green Cemetery and his Italianate design was runner-up. Despite this, his designs were overlooked in favour of a Greek revival design by John Griffith.

Within two decades, Kendall’s church in Bantry was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland as “a neat edifice in the early English style, with a lofty tower.”

The town clock on the church was first rung on 1 January 1900 to herald the dawning of the 20th century.

The parish of Bantry was united with the parish of Durrus in 1984 to form the Kilmocomogue Union of Parishes.

On 3 October 1999, to mark the arrival of the millennium in 2000, Bantry Parish Church was rededicated in honour of Saint Brendan the Navigator, the patron saint of all who travel.

There is a carving of Saint Brendan the Navigator by David Semper of Glengariiff in the porch. Outside, on Wolfe Tone Square, the statue of Saint Brendan looks out towards Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island and out to the Atlantic. The statue was unveiled by Jack Lynch as Taoiseach in 1969, to mark the opening of the oil terminal on Whiddy Island. It looks as though it was inspired, on a less extravagant scale, by the statue to the great Portuguese navigators and explorers in the Padrão dos Descobrimentos in Lisbon.

The newly laid-out town square was opened 20 years ago on 17 September 1996 by Brendan Howlin, then the Minister for the Environment and elected the new leader of the Labour Party last Friday [20 May 2016].

Trinity Sunday in Bantry Parish Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Today, Bantry Parish describes itself as “an inclusive parish” and a member of the network of Inclusive Churches:

“We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

The parish also says: “We are firmly committed to the teaching of Jesus Christ in the wonderful parable of the ‘mustard tree’. We believe that all are welcome to shelter under its branches and, in like manner, all are welcome at the Lord’s Table.”

There are plaques and monuments recalling the White family of Bantry House throughout the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Bantry titles died out with the death of the fourth Earl of Bantry in 1891, although Bantry House remains in the hands of the White family. Throughout the church, the walls are decorated with murals and monuments that are reminders of the close connections between the parish and the White family of Bantry House.

Our opening hymn for Trinity Sunday yesterday was Regnald Heber’s Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty (321). I thought of Saint Brendan the Navigator and the many who sailed out from and into Bantry Bay as we sang those words:

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns upon the glassy sea …

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty,
all thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea …

Saint Brendan the Navigator, in front of the parish church, looks out to Bantry Bay, Whiddy Island and out to the Atlantic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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