25 August 2020
Holy Cross Church in
Kenmare stands on the
site of a disused brewery
During our visit to Kenmare at the beginning of the first phase of this year’s ‘Road Trip,’ two of us visited both Saint Patrick’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church, and Holy Cross Church, the Roman Catholic parish church, consecrated in 1864.
Holy Cross Church, which dominates much of the streetscape of Kenmare, was built by Archdeacon John O’Sullivan, who is one of the four priests buried within the church.
This church was built on the site of a disused brewery that had been used as a workhouse for 500-900 children during the famine.
The church replaced the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, built in 1799, and this in turn had replaced an earlier, ruined church at Killowen, which also took its name from Saint John the Baptist.
The architect of the church and the neighbouring convent, Charles Francis Hansom (1817-1888), worked primarily in the Gothic Revival style and was strongly influenced by AWN Pugin
Hansom was born into a Roman Catholic family in York, and was a brother of Joseph Aloysius Hansom, architect and creator of the Hansom cab, and father of the architect Edward Joseph Hansom.
Charles Hansom was in partnership with his brother, Joseph, in London from 1854, but the partnership was dissolved in 1859 and Charles established his own independent practice in Bath and Bristol with his son Edward.
Local lore claims Archdeacon O’Sullivan topped the spire of the church with a cock to crow over the local landlord’s agent, whose office was in the Square and had refused him a site for the church.
The church was consecrated on 14 September 1864, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
This cruciform, single- and double-height Gothic Revival church has a five-bay double-height nave, five-bay single-storey lean-to aisles single-bay double-height transepts and a single-bay three-stage tower on a square plan with diagonal stepped buttresses and a copper-clad hexagonal broach spire.
There is a bellcote over the crossing, a single-bay double-height chancel, a two-bay single-storey sacristy, and an entrance bay.
The carved Gothic Revival screen below the gallery was dedicated to Monsignor O’Sullivan, who died in 1901.
The notable internal features include the ornate chancel, the organ and the carved roof, with 14 angels carved in pine imported from the Black Forest in Germany.
The East Window above the High Altar depicts the Crucifixion and was supplied and fitted by O’Connor of London in 1863.
The High Altar is of Italian marble and dates from 1914. The reredos behind the altar dates from the1860s and has statues of six apostles. The sanctuary floor is laid with Italian mosaics, and 19th century patterned tiles decorate the sanctuary walls.
Three lancet windows in the north transept depict Saint Peter, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Paul.
The Stations of the Cross were presented by Sister Mary Frances Cusack, the ‘Nun of Kenmare.’
The large, Celtic-style High Cross in the churchyard has panels with designs said to symbolise eternity.
Hansom also designed the neighbouring Convent of the Poor Clares for nuns who arrived in Kenmare in 1861. Their founder, Abbess Mary O’Hagan, was the sister of Lord O’Hagan, the first Roman Catholic Lord Chancellor of Ireland.
The seven nuns first lived in Rose Cottage, near the Fair Green, and moved into the site beside the church as it was being built in 1862.
The nuns were known for their production of ‘Kenmare Lace,’ which is still made in the town. The best-known of the nuns was Sister Mary Frances Cusack, ‘the Nine of Kenmare.’ Her writings, advocating the rights of small farmers and tenant farmers, stirred controversy, and she left Kenmare in 1881, never to return, dying in England in the 1890s. The convent closed in 1993.