20 March 2019

Saint Michael’s: the church
in New Ross that found
a new life as a theatre

Saint Michael’s Theatre, New Ross, Co Wexford … for almost a century it served as the town’s Roman Catholic parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The New Ross Theatre Festival opens tonight [20 March 2019] with Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, performed by Newport Players, and the festival continues until Friday 29 March.

Last week, while visiting New Ross, I had lunch in Saint Michael’s Theatre, which served the Co Wexford town as its parish church for almost a century, from 1806 until 1902.

The site for a new church was donated by Nicholas Loftus Tottenham (1745-1823), MP successively for Bannow and Clonmines, Co Wexford, and a grandson of Charles Tottenham (1685-1758), known as ‘Tottenham in his Boots.’ This prominent town centre site is often offered as evidence of religious tolerance in Co Wexford in the years immediately after the 1798 Rising and before Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

However, the Tottenham papers show the lease of the site created family discord, and Charles Tottenham (1743-1823), former MP for New Ross, who lived in Delare House across the street, expressed his opposition to his brother’s decision.

The church was built by Dean William Chapman, who was parish priest of New Ross from 1786 to 1818, and the Roman Catholic Dean of Ferns from 1801.

The church was built in 1806 with a compact rectilinear or engaged half-octagonal plan, and it was aligned along an inverted liturgically-correct axis, from east to west rather than west to east, to provide immediate access from South Street.

The neo-Classical frontage has a central pillared portico showing good quality workmanship in a honey-coloured granite, and a pedimented roofline. These details show the continued development or improvements of the chapel in the later 19th century.

The building is an eight-bay, double-height former chapel, with a seven-bay, double-height nave opening into a single-bay double-height chancel at the west (liturgical east) end. The five-bay two-storey entrance front at the east (liturgical west) is centred on a three-bay, two-storey pedimented breakfront with a single-storey, prostyle tetrastyle portico at the ground floor.

The former chapel has a replacement flat corrugated-iron roof behind the parapet. The granite ashlar walls at the front have been repointed. There is a cut-granite plinth with cut-granite ‘Cyma Recta’ or ‘Cyma Reversa’ detailed cornice on a blind frieze that is centred on pediment topped with a ball finial.

There is a roughcast surface finish on the remainder of the front, with a rendered base that has roughcast stepped piers with rendered coping.

On the first floor there are grouped round-headed central window with cut-granite sills, and granite ashlar voussoirs framing the replacement fixed-pane windows replacing 12-over-12 timber sash windows without horns having fanlights. The two square-headed flanking windows have inscribed cut-limestone panels with cut-granite sills, and cut-granite lintels framing the replacement 6-over-9 timber sash windows. There are round-headed blind openings in square-headed recesses with cut-granite sills, and concealed dressings framing a cement-rendered infill.

Samuel Lewis described the church in 1837 as ‘a spacious and elegant structure with large pointed windows and faced with granite.’

The chapel was ‘improved’ in 1884-1888, producing the present composition. These works were paid for with money diverted by the parish priest, Canon John Kirwan, from an ad hoc fundraising campaign for building a new parish church. These later developments or improvements are attributed to the Cavan-born architect William Hague (1836-1899).

Hague was trained by Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), who is best known for rebuilding the Palace of Westminster. Hague spent four years in Barry’s office in London, and he returned to Ireland to develop a flourishing practice based at 175 Great Brunswick Street, Dublin, where he opened an office in 1861.

He became a prolific designer of Catholic churches, designing or altering 40 to 50 churches throughout Ireland. His works include Saint Eunan’s Cathedral, Letterkenny, Co Donegal, Saint Martin’s Church, Culmullen, Co Meath, Saint Brigid’s Church, Ardagh, Co Longford, the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Monasterevin, Co Kildare, Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny, and the completion of both Ashlin and Coleman’s church at John’s Lane, Dublin, and the chapel at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare. He also designed town halls in Carlow, Monaghan and Sligo.

An exhibition on the theatre stairs reveals a correspondence with Sean O’Casey in the 1940s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

With the opening of the Gothic Revival Church of Saint Mary and Saint Michael as the new parish church in 1902, Saint Michael’s closed as a chapel and was handed over to the people of New Ross to use as a theatre. Over the next half century, the building had many uses, including a town hall and from the 1930s a cinema.

An exhibition on the stairs in the theatre displays correspondence in March and April 1945 between Bridget Mary Lalor of New Ross and the playwright Sean O’Casey (1880-1964), by then living in Totnes in Devon. Bridget Lalor sought permission to produce one of O’Casey’s lesser-known plays, A Pound on Demand, in a drama competition in association with a local feis.

She initially contacted O’Casey through the offices of the Daily Worker in London. In this correspondence, he asks Brigid Lalor to convey his regards to Alderman Richard Corish, and recalls speaking at a rally with Corish at a rally in Dublin ‘when we were organising the agricultural labourers, and the Alderman was in the van of the fight. This was the memorable year of 1913.’

In the course of this conversation, Brigid Lalor told O’Casey: ‘I would pass on your greetings to Alderman Corish but relations are strained. He suspects me of being one of those awful Reds who are the curse of the country, and if I mentioned your name he might suspect you also. Wouldn’t that be terrible?’

Richard Corish (1886-1945), who was Labour TD for Wexford (1921-1945) and Mayor of Wexford (1920-1945), died three months later on 19 July 1945.

Brigid Lalor stood for election to New Ross Urban District Councillor in 1942 and topped the poll. She chaired the council in 1948-1949 and again in 1949-1950. Her granddaughter, Niamh FitzGibbon of the Green Party, was elected Mayor of New Ross in 2013.

Meanwhile, by 1957, the Savoy Cinema was in a sad state of neglect and there was a debate in New Ross about whether to bulldoze it or spend money to refurbish it. With public support for a major refurbishment of the theatre, Monsignor ‘Doc’ Brown travelled to London in the late 1950s to look at the lighting in West End theatres.

The theatre reopened on 28 February 1960 with a performance by the Abbey Players of The Country Boy. The old Pantomime Society was revived, a Musical and Choral Society was formed, and two drama groups were active in the town. The New Ross Drama Festival and the John Player Tops of the Town played to enthusiastic audiences down the years, and the AIMS Choral Festival moved to New Ross in the 1980s.

After 35 years of constant use, the theatre started showing signs of wear and tear in the mid-1990s, and, yet again, there was talk of the bulldozers. The people of New Ross rallied once more, public meetings were called, and a capital grant from the Department of the Arts was secured.

The theatre closed in May 1997 and rebuilding work began. Two major finds during the renovation work included the original altar steps and a grave believed to be that of a priest. The theatre reopened on 3 May 1999 with the Abbey Theatre’s production of Love in the Title by Hugh Leonard.

A significant expansion of the theatre took place in 2002 with the opening of the Visual Art Gallery Saint Michael’s, and a cinema was added in 2003.

Today, Saint Michael’s is a theatre, a cultural centre and a community based arts centre serving New Ross and the surrounding district. It boasts a 300-seat theatre, a 50-seat studio venue, an art gallery, a cinema, two visual arts spaces, a coffee shop and a bar, and it is now a fully-fledged arts centre with a staff of 12.

There are about 300 events a year, from drama and film to ballet and rock concerts, and there is successful youth arts programme. It is home to three amateur community based theatre companies – New Ross Musical Society, New Ross Drama Workshop and New Ross Pantomime Society – and has its own in-house musical society, Saint Michael’s Theatre Musical Society, which hosts productions each November.

The is set back from street, and the granite ashlar piers outside have ‘Cavetto’ stringcourses below truncated pyramidal capping, and there the wrought-iron double gates have arrow head-detailing.

The composition of this former chapel retains its architectural value and continues as an important component of the early 19th-century church heritage and architecture of Co Wexford.

A plaque at the gates recalls the theatre’s previous life as a parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Singled out in a book review
as ‘only one gem among many’

Brendan McConvery receives his honorary doctorate from the Pontifical University in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

In the past week or two, I have crossed paths once again with two interesting priests.

Brendan McConvery was honoured last week [12 March 2019] with an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Theology at the Pontifical University at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth. In the same chapel in November 1987, as my Professor of Biblical Studies, Brendan had presented me for my BD degree.

Dom Henry O’Shea is a monk of Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, where he is the master of studies and archivist. He spent 12 years in Rome as secretary to the Abbot Primate, procurator and secretary general of the Benedictine Confederation. We first met in Rome in September 2005, while I was staying at Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine college and monastery, during a conference on the Churches and China.

Our paths cross again once again this month [March 2019] in the current edition of The Furrow, a ‘Journal for the Contemporary Church’, founded in 1950, published in Maynooth and edited by the Revd Dr Pádraig Corkery, Head of the Department of Moral Theology and Acting Director of Pastoral Theology.

In his review of a new Festschrift honouring Brendan McConvery and edited by Professor Salvador Ryan and Professor Liam Tracey of Maynooth, Dom Henry O’Shea says the ‘sheer breadth of the book is a joy’ and he singles out my essay for special consideration, describing it as ‘only one gem among many.’

His full review of the book, The Cultural Reception of the Bible, in The Furrow (pp 182-184) reads:

The Cultural Reception of the Bible. Explorations in Theology, Literature and the Arts. Essays in honour of Brendan McConvery CSsR, Salvador Ryan and Liam Tracey, OSM, eds. Dublin: Open Air, 2018. ISBN 978-1-84682-725-9.

Festschriften are not always a fun read – and are all certainly not intended to be. Frequently dull and of interest only to the specialist reader, they can also be marked by a mawkish piety, a form of ante-mortem canonization. This book is an exciting exception to all those hazards. Its thirty-three contributors along with a foreword by a prominent prelate, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, CSsR, and an introduction by the editors, Salvador Ryan and Liam Tracey, OSM, provides a feast for the specialist as well as the general reader. The book reflects the broad culture and scintillating personality of the one being honoured, Brendan McConvery CSsR. The list of contributors read like a Who’s Who of contemporary Irish ecclesiastical scholarship.

Conveniently divided into six sections: I: Setting the scene. II: Theological Readings of the Bible. III: The Living Word of the Bible in Preaching, Literature and Life. IV: ‘Translating’ the Bible. V: Reception of the Bible in Literature and the Arts and VI: Appreciations, the book is enhanced by sixteen colour-plates. There is a seventh section whose sober title, Postscript, disguises what is in effect an unsentimentally moving meditation by the poet John F. Deane, who with his usual flair does honour to Brendan McConvery while creatively relativising the potential absolutes of any reader.

The sheer breadth of the book is a joy, ranging from the sober-sounding essay, The Spiritual Interpretation of Scripture, by Noel O’Sullivan to the racier-sounding Allegory and Cross-Reading: Paul Ricoeur and the Song of Songs by Michael A. Conway. This is to mention only two contributions in Section II. The honoree’s interest in liturgy and preaching is reflected in essays in Section III such as Between War and Fasting: Uncovering Leo, Joel and Pauline Thought in an Ash Wednesday Prayer by Thomas Whelan and an hilariously sobering contribution by Hugh Connolly, ‘For God and Ulster’: An Anecdotal Look at the Use and Abuse of Scripture in Northern Ireland.

In his introduction, Cardinal Tobin recalls Pope Paul VI’s judgement that the split between the Gospel and Culture is ‘the drama of our time, just at it was of other times’. If one accepts Patrick Kavanagh’s challenging distinction between the provincial and the parochial, this book is an illustration of how a scholar can lead a reader to an appreciation and appropriation of the Gospel by filtering it through the prism of a particular culture and in doing so opens up that appreciation and appropriation to all other cultures. The genius of Brendan McConvery in doing just that and in communicating this art and skill to his pupils and others is reflected in this book.

Given the sweep and the uniformly high standard of the contributions, it is invidious to single out any one of these for special consideration. This reviewer was particularly struck by Patrick Comerford’s essay, F.J.A. Hort (1828-92), the Dublin-born Member of the Cambridge Triumvirate and Translating the Revised Version of the Bible. The writer gives a fascinating glimpse into the world of Anglican theological scholarship at Cambridge in the wake of the academic reforms of the early nineteenth century, along with the not always temperate confrontation between partisans of the Oxford Movement and their evangelical and liberal opponents of whatever stamp. Garnished with an entertaining introductory account of the Hort’s background and lineage, the Anglo-Irish contribution to this scene, often unknown to present-day Irish readers, is discreetly indicated. More importantly, Comerford gives a concise but comprehensive account of the process that led to the Revised Version of the Bible, and his subject’s role in this. As he says in his summary of Hort’s contribution and legacy, ‘Hort’s scholarship has irreversibly changed how we read the New Testament. Without his work, we would have no Revised Version of the Bible, and its successors, the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version, against which all other translations are judged and compared.’ But Comerford’s is only one gem among many. Other essays reflect the title of the book in examining the reception of the Bible in music, stained glass, painting, literature and film.

Piety towards a mentor is not a sin and Section VI four appreciations from pupils and colleagues. The titles of these sum up what this Festschrift is all about: Brendan McConvery as teacher and mentor (Triona Doherty), as pilgrim and guide to the Fifth Gospel (Julieann Moran), as Redemptorist communicator (Máire Ní Chaerbhaill) and as colleague in the spreading the message of the Scriptures (Wilfrid Harrington OP).

The editors are to be complimented on the uniform discipline of the contributions, as are the publishers, Open Air, an imprint of the national treasure which is Four Courts Press. The last word is, appropriately, left to John F. Deane, ‘Let all the instruments fall still. Let there be a pause: breathless. Then let the applause begin for there will be joy untrammelled at the very end.’

Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick Henry O’Shea OSB

Praying through Lent with
USPG (15): 20 March 2019

‘Jesus is taken from the Cross’ … Station XIII in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am using the USPG Prayer Diary, Pray with the World Church, for my morning prayers and reflections.

USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential, and champion justice. It was founded in 1701.

This week (17-23 March), the USPG Prayer Diary is focussing on Injustice.

As an introduction to this week’s prayers, the Prayer Diary on Sunday published an article by the Anti Human Trafficking (AHT) Programme in the Diocese of Durgapur in the Church of North India.

Wednesday 20 March:

Pray for those who work with people vulnerable to trafficking, that their dedication to educate and inform, will empower those whose freedom has been taken away.

The Collect:

Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth
that they may return to the way of righteousness:
Grant to all those who are admitted
into the fellowship of Christ’s religion,
that they may reject those things
that are contrary to their profession,
and follow all such things
as are agreeable to the same;
through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection