26 October 2020

‘House of God, Gate of
Heaven’: Saint James’s Church
in Cappagh, Co Limerick

Saint James’s Church, Cappagh, Co Limerick … built in 1839 and rebuilt in 1986-1987 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Saint James’s Church is one of the few public facilities in the village of Cappagh in West Limerick, about 5 km south-east of Askeaton. Cappagh is the third smallest parish in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Limerick.

Cappagh has no public house, post office or shop, one of the few villages in Co Limerick without any of these amenities.

Cappagh was part of the old tuath of Nantenan, in the territory of Uí Fidgeinte, from the fourth century on. Cappagh takes its name from An Ceapach, meaning ‘the tillage plot.’

Saint James’s Church was built in Cappagh in 1839 to replace an older church damaged by a storm. The church was extensively renovated in 1986 and officially reopened on 15 February 1987.

A mass house was used in the parish during penal times. However, almost nothing remains of this now, and the one remaining wall is virtually indistinguishable from the boundary wall of a field, covered by ivy and briars.

Samuel Lewis described the church as a large plain thatched edifice in 1837, built on Cappagh Hill to replace the 18th-century mass house in Ballymorrisheen. He noted Cappagh was on the road from Adare to Shanagolden, with 694 inhabitants.

The earlier church was blown down on the ‘Night of the Big Wind’ on 6 January 1839. That year, Father Jeremiah Halpin acquired the site for a new church and designed and took charge of the building, which was completed within a year and dedicated to Saint James.

The Latin-inscribed foundation stone now lies in the churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The foundation stone that once stood over the front door is now placed at the side. The inscription in Latin reads:

Hanc Capellam Sto Jacobo
Apostolo dedicatum fieri
Fecit Rev J Halpin PP
Joanne Ryan DD Episcopo
Anno Domini 1839

For many years, this church had only a mud floor and no seating.

A parochial house was built in 1849 by Lord Southwell for the parish priest, Father Richard Mulcahy.

While the church was being rebuilt in 1986, Mass was celebrated in the community hall for six months during the work. The church was officially reopened on 15 February 1987 with Bishop Jeremiah Newman concelebrating Mass with 11 priests.

A plaque lists all of the donors to the church, including Father Robert Somers PP, who donated the church altar and chancel. He had been an invalid for some years and when he died in 1871 at the age of 48, he was buried in the church. P and J Hayes donated the Altar rails, and Kennedy James Hayes donated the baptistery.

‘House of God, Gate of Heaven’ … the porch window at Saint James’s Church, Cappagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church has double buttresses on the corners of the nave and the chancel. The porch is a modern addition, with a window depicting Saint James and inscribed ‘House of God, Gate of Heaven.’

The three-light, round-headed window above the altar, framed by a tall pointed arch, depicts Saint William, the Sacred Heart, and Saint Michael. This window was donated by the White family of Nantenan in memory of William White who died in the Boer War on 12 March 1901. The White family coat of arms is depicted on this window, with the motto A Deo Fortuna et Honor.

The front window was donated by Mary A McDonnell, and Emily White donated the chancel window.

Senator Michael O’Dea donated the stained-glass windows on either side of the nave. The window on the right is in memory of his only son Bernard, who died on 8 December 1916. This window depicts Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monastery and writer’s tools, common symbols of Saint Bernard.

The window on the left is in memory of Michael O’Dea’s mother, Lucy, who died on 25 June 1902. This window depicts Saint Lucy, who was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian in the fourth century. Images in the window include a dish with two eyes, s a symbol of Saint Lucy.

The side altar with a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes was donated by Mrs White of Nantenan in1877. The side altar of Saint Joseph was donated by Thomas and Margaret Hayes of Callow in 1883, who also donated the Stations of the Cross.

The Celtic cross marking the grave of the White family of Nantenan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Two parish priests are buried within the church: Father Richard Mulcahy and Father Robert Somers. Four parish priests are buried in the church grounds: Father Patrick Woulfe, Father David Barry, Father William Boyce, and Father P Fitzgerald.

Patrick Woulfe, who was parish priest in 1926-1934, was the author of an influential study of Irish surnames, Sloinnte Gael is Gadhaill. David Barry was a regular contributor to the church history journal, Irish Ecclesiastical Record.

Other priests associated with the parish include Father ‘Patch’ Carroll, who was vice-president of Notre Dame University in Indiana and a prolific author whose writings include plays, poetry, memoirs and novels.

The other noticeable grave in the churchyard is that of the White family of Nantenan, with a large Celtic cross bearing the names of John P White (1840-1982), who is buried at Saint John’s Limerick, his wife Emily (MacMahon) White (1840-1906), Captain JJ White (1863-1940) and Lieut-Col MWH White (1908-1997) of the 9th Gurkha Rifle.

Saint James’s Church, Cappagh, has double buttresses on the corners of the nave and the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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