30 August 2020
The religious history
of Cappoquin shows
a colourful diversity
Although Mount Melleray Abbey is the best known church building in Cappoquin, the town has two parish churches – Saint Anne’s (Church of Ireland) and Saint Mary’s (Roman Catholic) – that share a prominent anchor site at the corner of Main Street and Church Street.
The religious history of Cappoquin is a story that includes not only this ecumenical campus, but also a rector who was the father of a famous poet, a Coptic Orthodox monastery, an industrial school run by Sisters of Mercy that has become part of the shocking story of abuse in Ireland, and an eccentric ‘White Quaker.’
As a child I was fascinated that these two churches, side by side, were named after mother and daughter, with Saint Anne’s on the highest point of the shared, triangular site, and Saint Mary’s on the lower part of the site.
Both churches were built in the 1820s on a shared site in the centre of Cappoquin that was donated by Sir John Keane of Cappoquin House.
Saint Anne’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, was built in the 1820s and has undergone a number of structural changes since then, including the removal of its spire in the late 19th century and changing the clock face from square to round in the 20th century.
The church was first proposed by Bishop Joseph Stock. While Stock was Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, the Dean and Chapter of Saint Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, agreed in 1814 to a separate area served by a perpetual curate or vicar, and the Revd George Tierney Roche was appointed in 1819.
Saint Anne’s Church was built on the same triangle of land as Saint Mary’s Church in the centre of Cappoquin and was consecrated 200 years ago in October 1820.
Sir John Keane (1757-1829) of Cappoquin House subscribed £50 for a steeple and belfry; a Mr Chearnley give 20 guineas, and Bishop Stock gave the same.
This is a well-proportioned church of modest scale and appearance, built to a design similar to other churches built under the patronage of the Board of First Fruits. It is a three-bay double-height church, with a single-bay, double-height lower chancel, single-bay, single-storey vestry, and a single-bay, three-stage entrance tower with a square plan.
The church is well maintained, and retains its original character and fabric, both outside and inside. The interior features of artistic merit include the decorative tiling, carved timber pews, a Gothic-style pulpit, a pointed-arch chancel arch, a decorative Gothic-style timber reredos, the open timber roof on cut-stone corbels, and a monument to Senator Sir John Keane, who died in 1956. The churchyard is being developed by the parish as a community garden.
The Revd John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), who was ordained in 1895, began his life in ministry as the curate in Cappoquin in 1895-1899. Later he was Bishop of Cashel, Emly, Waterford and Lismore (1931-1934) and he died in office as Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore (1934-1942). But, perhaps, he is best known as the father of the poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963).
In my childhood and teens, Cappoquin had three distinguished rectors: Canon Joseph Smith O’Loughlin, Dean Charles Stanley and Dean Gilbert Mayes.
Canon Joseph O’Loughlin came to Cappoquin as the ‘Perpetual Curate’ in 1940, and he was appointed Chancellor in the chapter of Saint Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, and Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, in 1947. After he retired in 1956, Cappoquin was united with Lismore in 1958.
Dean Charles Stanley (1884-1977) was the Dean of Lismore when Lismore and Cappoquin were united as one parish following the retirement of Canon O’Loughlin.
Dean Gilbert Mayes (1915-2005) succeeded Dean Stanley in Lismore and Cappoquin in 1961. A distinguished liturgist, he was a founder member of the Liturgical Advisory Committee in 1962, was its secretary from 1975 to 1989, and edited the Alternative Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland, published in 1984 and still known affectionately as ‘the Blue Book.’ Dean Mayes retired in 1984, and died in 2005 at the age of 90.
Cappoquin also had a Church of Ireland school on the banks of the Glenshelane River from 1832. The building remained in operation as a school until the mid-20th century.
Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was built over a number of years, and was completed in 1822. The church replaced an earlier church that had stood at Salterbridge from the 1700s. The church bell was installed in 1902.
A plaque on the wall near the grotto commemorates the poet and Gaelic scholar Pádraig Denn. The small graveyard beside the church was the only Catholic cemetery within the parish until Saint Declan’s Cemetery opened in Drumroe in the early 20th century. Tradition says that this is the birthplace of Saint Declan, patron saint of the Decies.
The Parochial House is at the top of Mass Lane, overlooking the River Blackwater and the boat house of Cappoquin Rowing Club. The architect of this Swiss-chalet style house was Andrew O’Riordan of Lismore.
The house was built as at a cost of £900 in 1896 for Canon Spratt, a nephew of an earlier Father Spratt, the parish priest who brought the Mercy Order to Cappoquin in 1850.
After half a century in the town centre, the Sisters Mercy nuns built a new convent on land donated by the Keane family of Cappoquin House.
The convent was built in 1902-1903, and became synonymous with religious and educational life in Cappoquin for a full century, until it closed when the order left the town.
The Mercy order ran Saint Anne’s secondary school until it closed in 2003. Originally a girls’ school, it became co-educational after the introduction of free education in 1967. Famous alumni include the poet and novelist Thomas McCarthy and the world champion athlete John Treacy from Villierstown.
In recent years, the convent and school buildings were transformed into the Saint Athanasius Monastery of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Sisters of Mercy also rain Saint Michael’s, one of 26 industrial schools they ran in Ireland. It opened in 1877, and at its height there were nearly 100 children at Saint Michael’s. It became a group home in 1974 and was finally closed in 1999.
As children, we never knew about life at Saint Michael’s. But I was shocked when this was exposed in the media in recent years, including the abuse carried out by nuns and staff members. These stories recalled by Paddy Doyle in his autobiographical The God Squad (1988). It is a story so shocking that I felt it was inappropriate to refer to it in my recent posting on the literary legacy of Cappoquin.
The school was redeveloped as the Riverview Guesthouse in 2002.
The Christian Brothers first came to Cappoquin with the arrival of the Mulcahy brothers, John and James Mulcahy, in 1813. They were colleagues of Edmund Ignatius Rice, and came to Cappoquin from the Christian Brothers School in Dungarvan to open a free school near Cappoquin.
John Mulcahy ran the school for over 30 years, mainly under the auspices of the bishop, until his death. In 1832, following the Stanley Education Act, this school became Cappoquin’s first National School. It closed in 1847.
No story of religious life in Cappoquin would be complete without referring to Robert Cook (1646-1726), who gives his name to Cook Street, running south from Castle Street and the Square.
He was one of Cappoquin’s more eccentric former inhabitants, and may have been from Wexford originally. He insisted on wearing only white linen clothing. More curiously still, Cook also insisted on keeping a herd of only white cattle, although he was a vegan himself. Cook wrote some philosophical tracts.
Some local stories say Cook was a Quaker community, and that there was a Quaker meeting house on Mill Street in the 18th century. Although there was a Quaker family named Cooke in Cappoquin at the turn of the 17th and 18th century, including Samuel Cooke (1666-1704), Robert Cook self-identified as a Protestant and described his philosophy as Pythagorean.