07 July 2020
Finding a short-lived,
pretty parish church
on the edge of Foynes
When I first came to the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes over three years ago, some kind parishioners brought me to see the former church in Foynes. However, I lost my way there when I tried to find it water, and I decided to look for it again on Sunday, on my way back from Sunday’s services in Askeaton and Tarbert and a walk on the beaches in Ballybunion.
Although Foynes is a major port in Co Limerick it is a small town, with a population of about 550, and a relatively young or new town by Irish historical measurements.
The town stands on the edge of hilly land on the south bank of the Shannon Estuary, and is less than two centuries old.
The port of Foynes was first surveyed by JF Burgoynes, Harry D Jones, and Richard Griffith. In a report to Parliament in 1837 on improving the River Shannon, they pinpointed what would become Foynes proper and made detailed recommendations for its development.
The cost of carrying out their plans was estimated at £8,500. Foynes port was soon built, and a new village was developed afterwards.
The Spring-Rice family of Mount Trenchard, who held the title of Lord Monteagle, tried to develop the estates they owned at the small port town of Foynes and, to a lesser degree, Foynes as a town.
Around 1900, Lord Monteagle commissioned an ambitious plan for Foynes, which he thought would eventually replace Limerick City as a port and harbour. He had a vision of transforming Foynes into an urban centre that would be at the centre of the social and economic life of the port and the surrounding agricultural hinterland.
Monteagle commissioned Francis Inigo Jones (1866-1950), a fashionable architect, artist and garden designer, to designed a planned town and bring his vision to daylight. Inigo Thomas was a nephew of Broderick Thomas (1811-1898), one of the principal landscape garden designers in the latter half of the 19th century.
Later parts of the planned village were designed by William Clifford Smith, although the complete vision and plans never saw the full light of day., and it was not until well into the 20th century that a Church of Ireland church was built in Foynes.
Saint Senan’s Roman Catholic Church in Foynes stands on a site given to the parishioners by Thomas Spring-Rice (1849-1926), 2nd Lord Monteagle, who lived nearby at Mount Trenchard. The church was designed by McCarthy, the original contractor was John Ryan & Son of Limerick and building work began in 1868. The church originally cost £1,864.13.9, and in 1874 The Munster News gave Sir Stephen Edward de Vere most of the credit for building the church.
However, de Vere was generous in recognising the contributions of others, and wrote: ‘I cannot refrain from recording with gratitude that over £335 has been bestowed by our Protestant fellow Christians to the building of a Catholic church, and that a sum of £420 intended for the establishment of a Savings Bank in Foynes was, on the institution of the Post Office Savings Banks, transferred by a mixed board to the same object.’
For the Church of Ireland parishioners living in the town, Foynes was within the parish of Castlerobert, or Gore and the church at Mount Trenchard was too far away.
From the early 17th century, the rectors and vicars of Castlerobert usually held the parish in conjunction with neighbouring parishes, particularly Shangolden and Kilfergus (Glin), and for over 120 years, from 1747 to 1869, there were just three vicars: three members of the Graves family.
The Revd James Graves (1710-1784), who came to the parish in 1747, was the son-in-law of his predecessor, the Revd Thomas Ryder, and was a well-known writer. He was succeeded at his death by his son, the Revd John Graves (1751-1820). He, in turn, was succeeded in turn by his son, the Revd James William Graves (1784-1869), the last Vicar of Castlerobert and a first cousin of Charles Graves (1812-1899), Bishop of Limerick.
By the time Foynes was being developed at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the church at Robertstown was in ruins, perhaps for centuries, Mount Trenchard was too distant, and the clergy lived in either Shanagolden or Askeaton.
For some decades, a schoolhouse was used for Church of Ireland services in Foynes, until a new church was built in 1926 on southern edges of the village, on a narrow, steep road.
The parish was later joined to Askeaton. But the congregation had always been small and the church was finally sold in 1995.
As for Foynes, its importance faded with the development of Shannon Airport on the other side of the estuary, although there are still memories of Maureen O’Hara, Charles Lindbergh, the first flying boats and the world’s first duty-free shops established by Brendan O’Regan. The town is known today for the Foynes Flying Boat Museum and as the place where Irish Coffee was first served almost 80 years ago by chef Joe Sheridan in 1942.