28 August 2020
Is Saint John’s Church on
Valentia the ‘most westerly
Protestant church in Europe’?
Valentia Island and its neighbouring islets are scattered with ancient cairns, dolmens, wedge tombs, standing stones, Ogham stones, a promontory fort, and the remains of churches and numerous beehive huts.
Mug Ruith, or Mogh Roith, ‘slave of the wheel,’ a mythological, powerful, blind druid of Munster, is said to have lived on Valentia Island. Legend says he could grow to an enormous size, and that his breath caused storms and turned men to stone.
But the first historical, recorded evidence of people living on the island is found in 1291, in the Papal taxations of Pope Nicholas IV, when a church on the island is valued at 13s 4d.
In church records, the parish was also known as Kilmore, but the list of vicars or rectors of Valentia only begins in 1627, when the Revd Donogh O’Giltenan was presented to the parish.
Canon John Warburton, who was Rector of Valentia in 1812-1830, was a younger son of Charles Morgan Warburton (1754-1826), Bishop of Limerick (1806-1820) and Bishop of Cloyne (1820-1826).
While Warburton was Rector of Valentia, he was the very model of a pluralist, absentee rector, and he was, at various time, also Vicar of Kill and Lyons in the Diocese of Kildare, Vicar of Loughill, Limerick, Rector of Drumcliffe or Ennis in Co Clare, and a minor canon or vicar choral of Cork and Cloyne cathedrals, Precentor of Ardfert (1811-1814).
He was also one of my predecessors as Precentor of Limerick (1818-1878), while his elder brother, Canon Charles Warburton, was one of my predecessors as Rector of Rathkeale in 1813-1855.
Despite John Warburton’s lengthy absences from Valentia during his time as rector, a new Church of Saint John the Baptist was built at Kilmore in 1815, almost a generation before Knightstown was laid out and developed by Alexander Nimmo on behalf of the Knights of Kerry.
This was a Georgian hall and tower church, designed by the Limerick-based architect James Pain, a pupil of the renowned London architect John Nash. The Pain brothers were involved in designing many of the churches in the Diocese of Limerick including, it is said, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, and Castletown Church.
The church could seat a congregation of about 60 people. However, as the Church of Ireland population of Valentia grew with the growth of Knightstown, the expansion of the slate quarry and the arrival of the transatlantic cable, the church became too small for the needs of a growing parish.
A new church, also dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, was built in Knightstown in 1860, when the Revd Edward Lee Sandiford was Rector of Valentia (1848-1869). This is one of the last churches designed by Joseph Welland (1798-1860).
The stained-glass windows are memorials to the Knights of Kerry. The oak panelling and the mosaics in the chancel date from 1925.
The other rectors of Valentia include John Godfrey Day (1830-1847), later Dean of Ardfert (1861-1879), father of Bishop Maurice Day of Clogher and grandfather of Godfrey Day, Bishop of Armagh and Archbishop of Armagh; Abraham Isaac, later Dean of Ardfert (1894-1905); the Revd Alexander Delap, father of the marine biologist, Maude Delap (1866-1953); and George Lill Swain, later Dean of Limerick (1929-1954).
Other clergy on the island also served in developing scientific roles. For example, the Revd Thomas Kerr, who is buried in Saint John’s Churchyard in Kilmore, was also Director of the Meteorological Observatory on Valentia.
The Church of Ireland population on Valentia began to fall in numbers with the loss of British officials in the early 20th century, moving the headquarters of the cable stations to London, and the eventual departure of the Knights of Kerry from Valentia.
Today, a sign claims the church in Knightstown is the ‘most westerly Protestant church in Europe.’ Although the church is closed this summer due to restoration and renovation works, it is normally open in summer from May to September, and the church is also the venue for an ecumenical Christmas service and regular musical recitals and lectures.
The Sensory Garden was designed by Arthur Shackleton to cater for people with disabilities and was opened by Bishop Michael Mayes in 2005.
Saint John’s Church is lovingly cared for by the churchwarden, Richard Williams, who also welcomed us to the former church at Kilmore and its churchyard and pointed us to the graves of the Knights of Kerry, the Delap family, and the marine biologist Maude Delap.
The Revd Michael Cavanagh has been the priest-in-charge of Kenmare, Kilcrohane, Dromod and Valentia since 2010.