15 May 2017

Visiting my Methodist neighbours
in the Embury and Heck church

The Embury and Heck Memorial Methodist Church and the surrounding churchyard in Ballingrane, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

On my way back to the Rectory in Askeaton yesterday after the Sunday services in Castletown Church and Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, I stopped briefly to visit the Embury Heck Church at Ballingrane, where I received a warm welcome from the Revd Ruth Watt and the local Methodist congregation.

This church is at the heart of the story of the Palatine people in west Limerick but has also played an important part in the story of world Methodism.

In 1709, 110 refugee families arrived in Ireland, fleeing French persecution in the Palatinate in Southern Germany. Many of these families settled on the Southwell estate lands around Rathkeale, at Courtmatrix, Killeheen and Ballingrane.

In the generations that followed, many of their descendants were forced to emigrate. These emigrants included Philip Embury and Barbara Heck, from this part of West Limerick.

The memorial to Philip Embury in the church in Ballingrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Philip Embury was born in Ballingrane in 1729 and converted to Methodism following a religious experience in 1752. A carpenter by trade, he became a Methodist lay preacher and married Margaret Switzer from Rathkeale. They set sail from the Customs House Dock in Limerick in 1760.

His cousin Barbara Ruttle, who was on the same emigrant ship, was born in 1734 and was now married to Paul Heck. In New York, Barbara Heck was dismayed by the spiritual carelessness she found among the people and pleaded with her cousin Philip to preach to them. Philip maintained he could not preach as he had neither church nor congregation. But Barbara responded: ‘Preach in your own home and I will gather a congregation.’

Only five people attended that first gathering. But the congregation grew, and the first Methodist chapel was established in 1768 on the site of the present John Street church, in the heart of the business district.

Philip Heck later moved to Camden Valley, New York, where he continued to work in the linen trade during the week and preached every Sunday. He organised the first Methodist society among Irish emigrants at Ashgrove, near Camden Valley, but died suddenly in 1775 after a mowing accident.

The memorial to Barbara Heck in the church in Ballingrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Barbara Heck, her husband and their five children left New York for a farm in Camden but were forced off their land and moved to Montreal where she established a home for Methodism and founded the first Methodist congregation in Canada. She died in 1804 with her Bible in her lap.

Today, Philip Embury and Barbara Heck are counted among the founders of Methodism in North America. A pair of candlesticks that belonged to her are still lit every week in the John Street Church.

The Methodist Church in Ballingrane, which was built in 1766, bears their names. This is the last remaining Methodist church in the Rathkeale area.

John Wesley visited Ballingrane 13 times between 1756 and 1779. Originally, there were three Methodist church in this area, and the congregations were almost exclusively Palatine in origin. The Methodist Church in Ballingrane was built on a site donated by the Heck family, and replaced an earlier, smaller meeting house.

Until 1968, Sunday morning services were held in Rathkeale with evening services in Ballingrane, but the congregations were for the most part one and the same.

The church in Ballingrane retains much of its original form, despite additions, and is enhanced by features such as the coloured glass, lancet, sash windows and the fading limestone plaque, which reads: ‘Embury and Heck Memorial Church 1766, Renovated 1885.’

The church is a solidly-built building with seating for about 90 people. The original doorway was at the opposite end to the present entrance. When the church was restored in 1885, the porch was added and the opening for the older doorway became the present alcove. The entrance was originally from the laneway at the north of the church.

The memorial tablets inside the church include those to Barbara Heck and Philip Embury.

The Revd Dr William Crook (1824-1897), who is also commemorated, brought greetings from the Irish Methodist Conference to the American Methodist Church when it celebrated its centenary in 1866. He is buried in the adjoining cemetery.

Another tablet recalls the Revd Thomas Walsh (1730-1759), who is described as ‘A Saint For Seraphic Piety’ and ‘A Student Of The Divine Word,’ with a knowledge of Scripture that was rarely equalled.

The monument claims ‘He Was The First Irish Evangelist Who Preached The Gospel To His Perishing Fellow - Countrymen, In The Streets, Fairs, And The Markets Throughout The Land In The Irish Language.’ He preached throughout Ireland and England, and John Wesley regarded his ministry as the most fruitful he had ever known. He died at the early age of 29.

A display cabinet inside the church porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A plaque commemorates celebrations in Ballingrane in 1960 marking the bicentenary of the departure of Barbara Heck and Philip Embury from Limerick. This plaque was given by the First Methodist Church in Englewood, New Jersey, in honour of their pastor, the Revd Dr Lowell M Atkinson.

A brass tablet removed from the former Methodist Church in Rathkeale lists the names of members of the congregation who served in World War I. Another tablet is to the memory of George Shier of Robertstown, who lost his life in World War I while trying to save the life of a comrade. He is buried in a war grave in France.

One of the features of the church is a baptismal font made from an original rafter from the kitchen of Barbara Heck’s old home.

Two display cases in the porch include memorabilia, artefacts and photographs from both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1968 the hall, kitchen and cloakrooms were built and further renovations were carried out in 1987 when oil fired central heating was installed throughout the buildings.

The graveyard beside the church was laid out at the end of the 19th century. The headstones include many Palatine family names, including Baker, Bovenizer, Delemage, Doupe, Miller, Raynard, Ruttle, Shier, Sparling, Switzer and Teskey.

Other Methodist ministers buried here include the Revd James Benjamin Gillan, a scholar of Lutheran theology, and the Revd William Bolton Merrick, of Adare. At one time Merrick was stationed in Co Clare and rowed his boat eight miles across the Shannon Estuary to take services in the Methodist Church in Tarbert, Co Kerry.

His hardships and endurance make light of my weekly journeys between churches in West Limerick and North Kerry on Sunday mornings.

Inside the Embury and Heck Memorial Methodist Church in Ballingrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A weekend walk by the shores
of Lough Derg and around
the ruins at Dromineer Castle

A weekend walk along the shores of Lough Derg at Dromineer, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

On the way back to Askeaton from Dublin on Saturday [13 May 2017], two of us left the motorway at Nenagh, and stopped at Dromineer, Co Tipperary, for a walk along the shores of Lough Derg, to look at Dromineer Castle, and for a light lunch.

Dromineer (Drom Inbhir ‘ridge of the river mouth’) is on the shores of Lough Derg on the River Shannon, about 10 km north of Nenagh. This is the heart of ‘Ormond Land’ and it is, perhaps, almost 30 years since I was in Dromineer, when I took regular boating holidays on the Shannon with a group of friends in the weeks after Easter in the 1980s.

Dromineer Quay and Canal store add to the attractions of the lake-side and the shore.

Dromineer is a popular location for boating, with public and private marinas. It is home to Nenagh Boat Club, Shannon Sailing Club and the Lough Derg Yacht Club, which is the seventh oldest yacht club in Ireland and the 23rd oldest yacht club in the world.

Dromineer is also home to the Lough Derg Lifeboat, the RNLI’s third inland lifeboat station and was the first inland station in Ireland. Onshore and offshore activities include sailing, kayaking, walking and cycling.

Dromineer Castle is an ivy-clad, ruined tower house dating back to the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Dromineer Castle is an ivy-clad, ruined tower house dating back to the 13th century. It began as a hall house built in the 13th century by followers of Theobald Butler in the 13th century. The Anglo-Normans built hall houses to control and administer their new fiefdoms, and represent the first stage of castle building in Ireland ca 1180-1320. They functioned as satellite manors, and the hall-houses at Dromineer and Clohaskin, for example, provided financial and military support to the caput of Nenagh and acted as the fortified residences of the lesser Anglo-Norman lords.

The hall house in Dromineer was two storeys high at first, but two additional storeys were later added, and vaults were added to the ground floor. A base batter is part of the earlier structure.

By 1299, the Cantwell family were tenants, and Thomas Cantwell was paying taxes on the castle.

After the house fell into Gaelic hands, the tower house section of the castle was built before 1556 by the O’Kennedy family. The conversion to a castle or tower house gave an unusual rectangular shape to the castle, which measures 11 by 15 metres, and many of the windows were modified.

Dromineer Castle was converted ino a castle or tower house in the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In 1576, Dromineer was transferred by the O’Kennedy’s to the Butlers, Earls of Ormond, who let the property out initially to Patrick Purcell, and the Cantwell family returned in 1582. On 15 May 1597, the Manor of Dromineer in Lower Ormond was granted to Thomas Cantwell of Cantwell’s Court, Co Kilkenny.

During the Irish Confederate Wars in 1641-1653, Dromineer Castle was held by the Cantwell family. The Cantwells did not take part in the rebellion, and supported their patron, James Butler, Earl of Ormond, as commander of the royalist forces.

The Parliamentary forces laid siege to Dromineer in 1650. Henry Ireton, who commanded the Parliamentary forces in Ireland after Oliver Cromwell left in 1650, sent a party to Dromineer, which was confiscated in 1652, along with all of Ormond’s lands.

The Civil Survey of 1654-1656 describes the Manor of Dromineer with its manor courts, an old castle, six thatched houses, and 14 cottages and that the castle had been in the hands of John Cantwell of Cantwell’s Court, Co Kilkenny.

Dromineer Castle was returned to the Ormond Butlers after the Caroline restoration in 1660, and in 1661 Butler became the Duke of Ormond. By 1665, John Parker was living at Dromineer, and he appears to have been an agent or employee of Ormond.

Dromineer Castle continued to be inhabited until 1688. But the castle fell into ruin in the late 17th century. It was sold by the Butlers of Ormond in the late 19th century.

In 1908, Dromineer Castle was described as a mass of dislocated masonry. The Commissioners of Public Works decided it was ‘not a structure possessing any features, or of such historical interest as to justify it being maintained as a National Monument,’ although they conceded that it was ‘a picturesque landmark on the Shannon it is not desirable that it be removed.’

Today, Dromineer Castle looks like an empty shell. It is covered in ivy, and most of the west walls have fallen into ruin. Parts of the bawn wall surround the castle in places, and some remains of the large quadrangular windows survive from the 17th century, along with other architectural features. But the castle is only accessible through a private garden, and I could only walk around part of the ruins.

Local residents and members of An Taisce in North Tipperary, have formed ‘Cairde an Chaisle√°in’ or Friends of Dromineer Castle to help remove the ivy and conserve the castle.

The Canal Store in Dromineer was built in the early 1850s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Meanwhile, in the 19th century Dromineer became the port of the North Tipperary, and at its height was the centre of commerce and commercial traffic for the area, thanks to canal barge traffic from the mid-19th century on.

In the early 1850s, the Grand Canal Company built the Canal Store to facilitate this traffic and trade. From Dromineer, goods and merchandise were taken by horse and cart to Nenagh and other towns in the neighbourhood, while much of the agricultural produce of the area found its way to Dromineer, and was then brought by lake, canal and river to the markets in Limerick and Dublin, and even further afield to Liverpool, Braford and Glasgow.

The commercial importance of Dromineer was challenged only with the arrival of the railway to Nenagh in 1863. But for over 100 years the Canal Store in Dromineer was at the heart of commerce in this area, carrying goods and people. Trading continued until 1950, when the Canal Store closed, although barges continued to ply between Limerick and Dublin until 1960.

After walking along the lake shore and around the castle ruins, we had lunch in The Lake Café, which is part of Lough Derg House, a guesthouse and hostel, and from a table with a window view we watched the early summer activities on the lake.

The marina at Dromineer in early summer sunshine at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)