13 October 2020
A weekend visit to
the Collegiate Church in
the heart of Kilmallock
Two of the mediaeval church ruins that once made Kilmallaock known as the ‘Baalbec of Ireland’ are still standing in the town: the ruins of the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and the ruins of the Dominican Priory of Saint Saviour.
Kilmallock, Co Limerick, is one of the few towns in Ireland that owe their name to a monastic settlement. The name Kilmallock originates from Saint Mocheallóg, who established a monastery in the area in the seventh century.
The site of the monastery was moved in the 11th century, and what remains of the early monastery that its name to the town can be found at the ruins of the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the centre of the town.
During a weekend visit to Kilmallock, two of us strolled around the ruins of the Collegiate Church, which was substantially complete by 1241. It incorporates the base of a round tower that is the only visible remains of the monastery that relocated to the site in the 11th century.
The church and its ruins stand in a small, well-kept graveyard in the centre of the town, about 150 metres south of the Dominican Priory. The two churches are separated by the River Loobagh.
The Collegiate Church was dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul in 1410 and housed a college of priests, including a dean and canons, who did not follow a monastic rule.
Other collegiate churches in Ireland included Saint Mary’s in Youghal, Co Cork, Saint Nicholas’s Collegiate Church in Galway, and Saint Patrick’s in Dublin was both a cathedral and a collegiate church. A well-known example of a collegiate church in England is Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth.
The Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Kilmallock was expanded and added to from the 13th to the 15th century, and the nave and transept were substantially altered by Maurice Fitzgerald in 1420.
The church consists of a nave, two aisles, a chancel and a south transept. There is a fine 13th century doorway in the south wall and three two-light windows in the south wall. The chancel has a five-light lancet window. The arcades are still standing.
The nave and transept were substantially altered in the 15th century when a south porch was added. The 17 metre round tower in the north-west corner of the nave incorporates the stump of a round tower from the early monastery.
The list of chaplains and vicars dates from 1291, and from the Reformation until the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland the rectory of Kilmallock was held by the Dean and Chapter of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, with vicars of the College of Kilmallock being appointed from the early 17th century.
James FitzThomas, FitzGerald, the ‘Sugán’ Earl of Desmond surrendered to the Crown in this church in 1600. Gerald FitzGerald, 16th Earl of Desmond, attended the Anglican liturgy in the church, offending his followers who rebelled against him. He died in London in early November 1601, but his death was not announced until January 1602.
The ‘Súgan’ Earl’s younger brother, John FitzThomas FitzGerald, escaped to Spain with his wife, a daughter of Richard Comerford of Danganmore Castle, Co Kilkenny. In Spain, he was known as the Conde de Desmond, and he died a few years later in Barcelona. His son Gerald FitzGerald, also known as the Conde de Desmond, entered the service of the Emperor Ferdinand and was killed in 1632.
The large south transept in Kilmallock is the only part of the church with a roof and it contains several mediaeval tombs. It was closed to the public during our visit at the weekend, and it is impossible to have a closer look at the altar tombs inside.
There is an effigy of Maurice FitzGerald, who died in 1635, and a number of monuments with important examples of coats of arms carved in stone.
The FitzGerald tomb features a carved cadaver and the Fitzgerald coat of arms.
The Verdon Tomb was erected by Walter Coppinger to commemorate his wife, Lady Alison Haly and her first husband Sir John Verdon, and bears the Verdon coat of arms, two effigies representing Sir John and Lady Alison, and two angels. A long Latin inscription is carved around the edges of the slab and around the effigies.
The richly decorated tomb of George Verdon displays his coat of arms and a lengthy Latin inscription and the motto Non fugiam! Prius Experiar. Non mors mihi terror (I shall not flee! I shall attempt first. Death does not terrify me).
The church was partly destroyed by Cromwell and was roofless from 1657, although the choir and chancel continued to serve as the Church of Ireland parish church.
In 1776, this was a collegiate church under the dean and chapter of Limerick, but administered by a perpetual curate or vicar.
Among the 19th century mausoleums inside the ruins is one to the Evans family of Ash Hill, near Kilmallock, with the Evans coat-of-arms and the inscription: <>Sic transit Gloria mundi, ‘We know neither the day nor the hour wherein the son of man cometh.’
The chancel and choir of the church continued to be used as the Church of Ireland parish church until a fire destroyed it in a sectarian arson attack in 1935.
The attack was part of a short-lived but vicious sectarian campaign in July 1935. The worst disturbances took place in Limerick city on the night of 20 July, when an attempt was made to burn down the Presbyterian church.
During the early hours of Monday 22 July, the Church of Ireland parish church within the former collegiate church in Kilmallock was burnt down, while the windows of the local rector’s home were smashed along with those of a shop owned by Protestant family.
In the years that followed, community trust was regained. A new parish church was built on the outskirts of the Kilmallock and was consecrated on Saint Peter’s Day, 29 June 1938.
And so, from the collegiate church, we moved on to visit the ruins of Saint Saviour’s Dominican Priory and the new Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.