26 August 2020

When Sneem was a knot
in the river and had
‘a very eccentric’ rector

Sneem is colourful, even on a wet and windy grey day in summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

On the way from Kenmare to Waterville, we drove along the southern loop of the Ring of Kerry, passing through Parknasilla and stopping at Sneem. Sneem is 27 km west of Kenmare and 45 km west of Killarney, and lies on the estuary of the River Sneem.

Even on a wet, windy and grey day at the end of summer, Sneem is a colourful town. The former French President Charles de Gaulle visited Sneem on several occasions. The village has many fine sculptures, including a statue of Steve ‘Crusher’ Casey, a world champion wrestler who was born in Sneem.

William Melville, the first head of the British Secret Service, was also born near Sneem, at Direenaclaurig Cross.

The name of Sneem in Irish is An tSnaidhm and means ‘The Knot.’ There are several explanations for this name:

1, A knot-like swirling is said to be visible where the River Sneem meets the currents of Kenmare Bay in the estuary, just below the village.

2, Sneem has two squares, North and South, and the bridge in the middle of Sneem acts as a knot between the two squares.

3, Sneem is the knot in the Ring of Kerry.

The Church of the Transfiguration, the Church of Ireland parish church beside the bridge at Sneem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In the Church of Ireland, the parish of Sneem is known as Kilcrohane. The list of vicars and rectors of Kilcrohane or Sneem date back to the late 14th century, when Denis O’Sullivan died in 1396 and was succeeded by Mark Otronia, who needed a dispensation for ordination because he was a priest’s son.

Canon Mountifort Longfield, who was Rector of Sneem for most of the first half of the 19th century (1809-1850). A year after he arrived in Sneem, the Church of the Transfiguration at Kilcrohane was built in 1810 beside the bridge with a gift of £553 from the Board of First Fruits.

This double-height parish church has a three-bay nave, a single-bay full-height polygonal apse at east gable end and a single-bay two-stage entrance tower at the west gable end, with a square plan and curved flanking bays at the first level, and an octagonal upper stage, with a copper-clad octagonal spire, topped by a wind vane with a fish.

The church was renovated by the architects Welland and Gillespie in 1863, when the vestry was added at the south side.

The church was named after Feast of Transfiguration when it was renovated again in 1967, when Dean Charles Gray-Stack was Rector of the Kenmare Group of Parishes. New windows were installed, the walls were rendered and a porch was added on to the tower.

The single lancets have limestone sills, render surrounds and replacement timber windows. There are round-headed paired and tripled windows at the west front.

Inside the church, there is a plain ceiling with profiled edges. The plain walls have brass and marble wall memorials. The church still has its original timber pews, but the west gallery has been replaced.

The churchyard, which continues in use, has cut-stone graves and mausoleums, dating ca 1810, when the church was built.

The gateway has a pair of rubble stone piers with battlemented parapets, inscribed plaques and wrought-iron gates.

Canon Mountifort Longfield was the father of two distinguished academic clerics: Mountifort Longfield (1802-1884), the first Professor of Political Economy at Trinity College Dublin, Regius Professor of Feudal and English Law in TCD, and Judge of the Landed Estates Court; and Canon George Longfield (1818-1878), Regius Professor of Hebrew in TCD and Treasurer of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Longfield’s successor in the parish, the Revd Arthur Vincent Watson, was a former curate in Waterville (Dromod), and is said to have been ‘very eccentric and had fits of madness.’ After 22 years, he was forced to retire in 1872, and moved to Kenmare. Leslie recalls, ‘During a mad fit he shot his wife, and ended his days in a criminal lunatic asylum.’

The Revd Charles Le Poer Trench Heaslop (1853-1931) was Rector of Kilcrohane not just once, but on three separate occasions: 1912-1914, 1917-1918 and 1920-1923. When he moved to Wiltshire in 1923, the parish was united with Dromod (Waterville).

The Revd Michael Cavanagh has been the priest-in-charge of Kenmare, Kilcrohane, Dromod and Valentia since 2010.

From Sneem, we continued on to Waterville. About 5 km outside Sneem is the ‘Staigue Fort,’ one of the largest and finest ring forts in Ireland. We stopped briefly at the beach at Glenbeg, but time was catching up on us and it was too late to stop at the ruins of Derrynane Abbey (or Aghamore), said to have been founded by Saint Finbarr in the seventh century, and at Caherdaniel, the ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell.

The long sandy beach at Glenbeg, on the road from Sneem to Waterville on the Ring of Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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