20 August 2018
Close to the ruins of Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Ardagh and Saint Patrick’s Church, the 200-year-old Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church is a magnificent church that dominates the east approach into Ardagh.
Built in 1878-1881, it was design in the Gothic revival style by William Hague, a protégé of AWN Pugin. This spectacular church has an important place in the architectural heritage of Co Longford and is one of the finest Gothic revival churches in Ireland.
Saint Brigid’s Church was commissioned by Archdeacon James Reynolds and was completed under Monsignor James O’Farrell. It replaced an earlier ‘T-plan’ chapel at Ardagh, which stood to the east of the present site in the townland of Cross. The church was consecrated in 1905.
The church was designed by the architect William Hague (1836-1899), an eminent church architect of the day, and his church in Ardagh is considered to be one his best works.
William Hague was born in Cavan in early 1836, the eldest of five sons of the builder William Hague and his wife, Catherine. As a pupil of the architect Charles Barry (1795-1860), best known for his role in rebuilding the palace of Westminster, Hague spent four years in Barry’s office.
After practising briefly as an architect in Cavan, Hague opened an office at 175 Great Brunswick Street, Dublin, in 1861. He established a flourishing practice, particularly as the designer of Roman Catholic churches, designing or altering 40 to 50 churches throughout Ireland, including Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. He was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (FRIAI, 1863) and a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (RSAI).
Hague’s other works include Carlow Town Hall, Sligo Town Hall, Saint Eunan’s Cathedral, Letterkenny, Co Donegal, Saint Martin’s Church, Culmullin, Co Meath, the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Monasterevan, Co Kildare, and Saint John’s Church (RC), Kilkenny, and he completed many of the works at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and the Church of Saint Augustine and Saint John (John’s Lane), Dublin.
Saint Brigid’s Church, Ardagh, is well composed and well massed, and it is richly ornamented throughout with cut stone carving of the very highest quality. The contrast between the yellow sandstone masonry and the grey limestone detailing creates a highly picturesque composition. The quality of the design, building materials and finishes are immediately apparent outside the church. Inside, the beauty of Hague’s design and work is overwhelming.
The church is built on a cruciform plan, with side aisles, a three-bay clerestory level, single-bay transepts on the north and the south, a chancel, a sacristy attached to the north-east corner of chancel, and a three-bay narthex at the entrance gable on the west side, which has an advanced central gabled entrance porch.
The church has rock-faced snecked sandstone walls with buttresses, an advanced plinth course, dressed limestone quoins and extensive cut limestone dressings.
The pointed arch window openings have dressed and rock-faced limestone block-and-start surrounds. The roll mouldings have label stops including cast heads.
At the west front, the pointed arch entrance, which is approached by stone steps, has a dressed and rock-faced limestone block-and-start surround, ordered roll mouldings with a trifoliated inner order, and a pair of label stops in the form of cast heads of Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid.
The timber battened double leaf door have elaborate wrought-iron strap hinges. Above is a carved stone figure of Saint Brigid and carved limestone plaque with the date ‘AD 1881’.
The church has a four-stage bell tower that was finished in 1903. A niche with a carved stone figure of Saint Patrick can be seen on the east side of the bell tower. This tower was designed on a square-plan with a spire above at the angle of the chancel and the north transept, with a stair tower on square-plan attached to the north face of the tower, and a conical roof over. The spire has with cut stone waterspouts in the form of the four evangelists.
The tower and spire were completed around 1903 by the Dublin-born Thomas Francis McNamara (1867-1947), a partner of Hague and an accomplished and prolific architect whose pupils once included the stained-glass artist Harry Clarke.
The church has pitched and lean-to natural slate roofs, with terracotta ridge cresting, dressed limestone coping on the gable ends, and cut stone kneeler stones with gabled stops.
There are carved limestone cross finials, a dressed limestone eaves course and corbels. The church has cast-iron rainwater goods with moulded hoppers, square-profile downpipes and fleur-de-lis wall brackets. There is a pair of coursed dressed limestone chimneystacks above the sacristy.
Inside, there is an arch braced timber boarded ceiling, and the wall mosaics are worth noting, not only because they are attractive and complex, but also because they are relatively rare in Ireland.
The wall mosaics in the side chapels, chancel, and south transept depict the Annunciation and Saint Brigid.
There is a marble reredos and altar rail with beautiful work in Irish and Italian marble. The high altar and altar rail were designed by Hague and carved by James Pearse (1839-1900), father of the sculptor Willie Pearse and the Patrick Pearse (1879-1916), one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. James Pearse’s other works include the reredos in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick.
The five-light East Window, depicting the Nativity, which was added in 1919, is stained-glass by Mayer and Co of Munich, who worked on many windows for churches in Ireland. The four-light west window is also by Mayer and Co of Munich, but its date is uncertain.
Other stained-glass windows in the church are by J Watson and Co of Youghal, Co Cork. The lancet windows in the side aisles have 20th century stained and painted glass.
The three-bay arcade in the nave has alternating clustered polished granite and painted concrete columns, with cast heads to springing, carved stone shaft rings, and dressed limestone bases. Inside, there are stucco mouldings, capitals, corbels and polished granite colonnettes throughout the church too.
The carved stone Baptismal font has an elaborate gold painted metal cover on a pulley and chain system.
The graves of Archdeacon James Reynolds and Monsignor James O’Farrell are placed at the base of the side aisles on the inside.
The neighbouring Parochial House or parish priest’s house was built in 1905 under the direction of Monsignor James O’Farrell. It was designed by Hague’s partner, the Dublin-born architect Thomas McNamara (1867-1947) of Hague and McNamara architects.
This is a detached, three-bay, two-storey house, with an advanced gabled bay to the south end of the front (east) elevation and a full-height canted bay window to the north end of the front elevation. Here too the contrast between the rock-faced yellow sandstone and the grey limestone creates an interesting tonal and textural variation to the façades.
There is an advanced bay with a single-storey canted bay window at the south elevation. There is a late 20th century single-storey extension behind the house.
This parochial house displays high quality craftsmanship throughout, and its deliberate asymmetry is typical of many substantial late Victorian and Edwardian buildings of this type. It is unusually grand and large for a parochial house in a small village, suggesting, and the intention may have been to highlight the place of Ardagh as the former seat of the Diocese of Ardagh.
On the way back from Wineport Lodge near Athlone, Co Westmeath, last week, I visited the village of Ardagh, Co Longford, just off the N4 Dublin-Sligo road, 10 km from Longford town and 5 km from Edgeworthstown.
The Irish name Árd Archadh means the ‘high field.’ The village is set on high ground with good agricultural lands. About a mile from the village, a hill called Brí Leith is known locally as Ardagh Mountain, and is said to have been a centre of pre-Christian religious worship.
The ruins of Saint Mel’s Cathedral in the centre of Ardagh mark one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Co Longford. These ruins are to the south-east of Saint Patrick’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, in a corner of the graveyard beside the road.
Tradition says Saint Patrick founded a church at Ardagh in the mid-fifth century, around 454. Here he baptised Maine, Lord of South Teffia, built a church, and consecrated his nephew, Saint Mel, the son of Patrick’s sister Darerca, as bishop, with Mel’s brother Melchu as co-bishop. It is said Mel and his three brothers had travelled with their uncle Saint Patrick to Ireland.
Although there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support these legends, Saint Mel is still regarded as the founder of the Diocese of Ardagh, and he invited Saint Brigid there to found a convent. He accepted her vows and gave her and her seven companions a site for their convent. There is no trace of an early convent in Armagh, although a holy well is named after Saint Brigid and is visited each year on her feast day, 1 February.
Saint Mel is said to have died ca 490, and his feast day is on 6 February. From the saint’s death, the line of episcopal succession in Ardagh is uncertain and the subject of speculation and legend.
Saint Erard is said to have been Bishop of Ardagh in 754, to have travelled to Rome with his companions and to have died died at Ratisbon, where he is also said to have been bishop.
At the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, Ardagh and Ardcarn were named as alternative centres for a diocese in East Connaught. Ardagh was chosen, and at the Synod of Kells in 1152, the Kingdom of Breifne was incorporated into the new Diocese of Kells, while the Diocese of Ardagh remained an independent see, with Saint Mel’s as its cathedral.
The first named Bishop of Ardagh was Mac Raith Ua Móráin (1152-1166). The diocese originally comprised the country of the Eastern Conmaice. It included the territory of the O’Ferals and the O’Quinns in Co Longford, called Annally, and the territory of Muintir Eolais, or the MacRannal (O’Reynolds) family in Co Leitrim.
The rival claims of Armagh and Tuam to primacy in Ardagh, beginning in 1177, led to a schism in the Diocese of Ardagh in1224. Pope Honorius III decided in favour of Armagh in 1216, this was confirmed by Pope Gregory IX in 1235, and a final settlement was agreed in 1326.
The O’Farrells, a local chieftain family, provided seven Bishops of Ardagh in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Early cathedral ruins
The remains of Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Ardagh stand to the south-east of Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish church. Saint Mel is reputed to be buried within the walls of the cathedral ruins. However, this ruined church dates from three centuries after the saint’s death, and predates the introduction of a diocesan system in Ireland.
The present stone ruin, built in the eighth or ninth century, is of a cyclopean nature. Excavations have shown it was built on the site of an earlier timber church.
The ruins of Saint Mel’s Cathedral represent a typical early mediaeval church, with a simple rectangular room, accessed by a western lintelled doorway with inclined jambs, tapering from the base to the top.
The building is 10.35 metres long an 7.70 metres wide. The large blocks of stone that make up the walls sit on a stone plinth that projects slightly. Some limestone blocks in the wall measure an average of 2.5 metres by 0.90 metres. The roof would have been a high-pitched roof, supported somewhat by the antae located at the corners of the ruins.
The cathedral tower was destroyed in 1230 during a fight between supporters of rival claimants to the title of Bishop of Ardagh.
The cathedral was severely damaged in 1496 internecine warfare between factions in the O’Farrell family. A report to Rome said the cathedral was left without sacristy, bell tower or bell, and with only one altar open to the sky in a roofless church. and was never restored.
The cathedral remained in ruins in the 16th century, and when Bishop William O’Farrell died in 1516 Ardagh was said to consist of only four wooden houses and the ruined cathedral, ‘of which hardly the walls are left.’
Patrick MacMahon, who was Bishop of Ardagh in 1553-1572, was accused of leaving the cathedral in a ruinous state and doing nothing to repair it. Given the desolate state of Ardagh, the Bishops of Kilmore were also Bishops of Ardagh after 1604. A royal visitation in 1615 confirmed that the cathedral was still in ruins.
When William Bedell as Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh (1629-1642) visited Ardagh in 1630 and reported to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, that Ardagh was ‘very miserable’ and that the cathedral and the bishop’s house had been razed to the ground.
Saint Mel’s crozier was found in the vicinity of the church in the 19th century. Then in 1967, archaeological excavations at the site identified the footprints of a wooden structure, dating to the eighth century, almost identical in dimensions to the present footprint of the upstanding stone structure.
The late mediaeval cathedral
The church ruins in the graveyard to the south-east of the 19th century Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish church may represent the late mediaeval church built to replace Saint Mel’s Cathedral.
This is a single-chamber rectangular building, with a west doorway and an east window, and three windows in both the north wall and the south wall. The church is covered with ivy and there is no architectural details that would indicate its date or age. There is a blocked doorway with a horizontal lintel in the graveyard wall.
This may be the ruined cathedral that Bishop Bedell saw when he visited Ardagh in 1630. If so, then it was ruined again during the rebellion of 1641.
The church or cathedral was restored after the Caroline restoration, but it was certainly probably abandoned by the beginning of the 19th century when the present parish church, Saint Patrick’s, was built in 1810-1812.
Saint Patrick’s Church
Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland parish church was a cathedral church for a period during the early 19th century, until the Dioceses of Ardagh and Kilmore were united in 1839.
The church stands in the centre of Ardagh on an elevated site in landscaped grounds, surrounded by a graveyard to the south, east and west, and with random rubble stone boundary walls.
This church is typical of churches financed the Board of First Fruits between 1711 and 1833, with two or three bays and a tower and found throughout the Irish countryside. The front or west face of the church exhibits an interesting mix of classical influences in the cornice and frieze and Gothic details. The side vestibules are a feature found in a number of the Church of Ireland churches in Co Longford.
This may be a slightly quirky church, but it is attractive and retains its early form and character and its fabric, and fine craftsmanship can be seen in the carving and detailing.
Saint Patrick’s is a three-bay single-cell church built or rebuilt in 1810, with a three-stage tower on square-plan to the west, added around 1812. It is flanked on either side, to the north and south, by a single-bay vestibule and narthex.
The church is built of rendered walls over a dressed limestone plinth, with dressed limestone quoins to the corners.
The front of the church is reached by stone steps. The front or west elevation of the church has a parapet, with moulded cornices, a carved limestone quatrefoil decoration on the frieze, a date plaque and inscribed crosses and cross loops to west elevation.
At each side of the nave, the pointed arch window openings have dressed limestone block-and-start surrounds, sills and stone tracery with quarry and storm glazing.
The east end has a triple-light pointed arch window, with dressed limestone block-and-start surrounds, sills, timber tracery and with quarry and storm glazing. There are blind pointed arch window openings, with corbelled dressed limestone surrounds, and pointed arch timber louvered openings.
The square-headed entrance opening has a pointed arch dressed limestone surround to a plain tympanum. There is a timber battened double leaf door with elaborate strap hinges, flanked by carved limestone pilasters and a moulded cornice.
There are pointed arch window openings at the sides of the vestibules too, with dressed limestone block-and-start surrounds, sills and six-over-six pane timber sliding sash windows with intersecting tracery to the heads.
The tower is built of random rubble stone at belfry level with cut stone quoins to the corners. It has cut stone corner pinnacles and a crenellated parapet. The tower also has pointed arch timber louvered openings.
The church has a pitched, natural slate roof with overhanging eaves and cast-iron rainwater goods.
The church cost £1,809 to build, and Lewis records in 1837 that the church in Ardagh is ‘a plain commodious building with a square tower, for the erection of which the late Board of First Fruits granted a loan of £900, in 1812, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners have lately granted £301 for its repair.’
The tracery details in the nave windows suggest they were altered in the second half of the 19th century, perhaps to designs by the architect James Rawson Carroll (1830-1911), who carried out extensive works in Ardagh between 1860 and 1865.
The elevated position and the prominent site in the village makes it a dominant feature in the surrounding landscape. It forms part of an interesting group of related buildings, including the former rectory and the lychgate at the entrance to the church.
The graveyard has a number of good quality grave markers, the earliest of which is dated 1818.
Saint Patrick’s Lychgate
A charming timber lychgate at the main, west entrance to Saint Patrick’s churchyard was erected in 1863. This is composed of a half-hipped terracotta flat tiled roof, with slates on each side, supported by a painted open timber post construction on red brick bases. There are double leaf timber gates with latches.
A lychgate was the place where priests traditionally met coffins before a church funeral. The word lych has its origins in Old English and means ‘corpse.’ Although lychgates are a typically Anglican feature, they are unusual in Ireland. In England, they can date from the 13th century, but many are thought to date from the 15th century. The tile roof is also an unusual feature in Ireland.
This lychgate was probably designed by the architect James Rawson Carroll (1830-1911), who carried out a number of works in Ardagh for Sir Thomas Fetherston in 1860-1865, when he was commissioned to improve the village as a memorial to his uncle, Sir George Fetherston.
In 1961, the parish church of Saint John in Sligo became the cathedral of the Dioceses of Ardagh and Elphin as the Cathedral Church of Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist, and the dean is the Dean of Elphin and Ardagh. In the renaming, the stories of Saint Mel have been forgotten.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Bishops of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise lived in Ballymahon from 1788, but the cathedral was moved to Longford in 1838, and today the cathedral for the Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise is Saint Mel’s Cathedral in Longford.