29 October 2020

In search of the site
of Saint Cornan’s church
in Castletown graveyard

The Hanley family grave in Castletown dates from 1818 and has images of the crucifixion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

One evening this week, before darkness began to close in, two of us visited the graveyard at Castletown, it was known as Kilcornan west of Pallaskenry, Co Limerick. It is almost opposite the Church of Ireland parish church at Castletown, which is also known as Kilcornan Church, and the graveyard is easy to find locally because of the large crucifix at its gates.

Although the townland is now known as Moig East, the civil survey names it as Killcornane in the 1650s, and it was known as Kilcornan (Cill Churnain) until about 1700.

The graveyard is said by some local historians to have been the original site of the church built by Saint Curnan, which gives its name to Kilcornan. Other local historians say the original Church of Saint Cornan was built on the site of the present Castletown church in 1832.

In either case, it is said the ruins of the earlier church were used to build the Waller vault in Castletown graveyard when the old church was taken down and replaced by the present Church of Ireland parish church in Castletown.

The rubble and stones from the earlier church in Castletown were used to build the Waller family vault (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

According to the Martyrology of Tallaght, written ca 797-808, the feast day of Saint Curnán Beg was marked on 6 January. He may have been known as Curnán Beg or Becc, or Curnan the ‘Llittle,’ because he was small in stature. Saint Curnán Beg is said to have belonged to Cill Churnain, a place that took its name from a church or cell he founded there.

The later Martyrology of Donegal, written by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (1590-1643) in the 17th century, notes the commemoration in the Diocese of Limerick of Saint Curnán Beg on 6 January. Ó Cléirigh gives his genealogy and the exact place where he was reverenced as patron. He says Saint Curnán was a son of Sinell, belonging to the people of Condri, son of Fearghus, son of Ross Ruadh, who was son of Rudhraige, ancestor of the Clann Rudhraighe.

John Waller (1762/5-1836) of Castletown Manor, MP for Limerick, built a new Roman Catholic parish church in 1828 in the townland of Boherbuoy, to replace an older church in Stonehall. He donated the site for the Church of Ireland parish church in Kilcornan, built in 1832.

The Church of Ireland parish church is one of the churches designed by the architect James Pain (1779-1877). It was built in 1831 at a total cost of £1,500. Of this, £700, as well as the site, came as an outright gift from Waller, who also paid off the balance of £800, which was a loan from the Board of First Fruits.

The church is oriented on a north/south axis, instead of the traditional east/west liturgical orientation. It has a three-bay gable-fronted nave, a square-profile three-stage tower at the south with square-profile, multiple-gabled, single-storey vestries to the east and west of the tower.

The Co Limerick historian and antiquarian TJ Westropp, in his Churches of Co Limerick, places the old church of Saint Curnan on the site of the Church of Ireland parish church built by Waller in 1832. Others suggest it was in Castletown graveyard, and Canon Wall believed it stood where the Waller vault was later built, and the use of the name Kilcornan has since shifted geogrpahically to the are near Stonehall.

The Caulfeild family vault is now unmarked (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The name Kilcornan continued to be used for the Church of Ireland parish church at Castletown, while Stonehall was used as the name for the church built at Boherbuoy in 1828 and dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. However, in the 1930s, under pressure from Canon Wall, the name of the parish was officially recognised as Kilcornan.

As for the old church dedicated to Saint Cúrnan – whether it stood on the site of Castletown Church or within the site of Castletown graveyard – it was pulled down 1831, the stones and rubble were used to build the Waller vault in Castletown graveyard, and John Waller was buried there when he died in 1836.

Another vault in the graveyard was built for the Caulfeild family. Major-General James Caulfeild (1786-1852) was a younger son of the Ven John Caulfeild, Archdeacon of Kilmore, grandnephew of the 2nd Viscount Charlemont.

However, both vaults were plundered and vandalised in the 1920s, and the plaques have been erased.

The Hanley family grave with a detailed crucifixion scene in Castletown graveyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

There is a number of family graves in the graveyard that pre-date the building of either church. The Hanley family grave, which dates from 1818, has a detailed, raised carving of the crucifixion.

The figure of Christ bears the crown of thorns on his head, with the initials INRI above and IHS below, and figures representing the Virgin Mary and Saint John are on each side, with figures of angels in the corners above.

On each side of the figure of Christ on the cross are 15 discs, adding up to the 30 pieces of silver. Below Christ’s feet is a symbol of the Lamb of God. The inner panel is filled on each side with foliage representing the tree of life.

In the space above the crucifixion scene, at the top of the gravestone, the scales of the Day of Judgment are surrounded by the sun and moon, stars, and two more angels in the corners.

In the side panels are two birds, two monstrances, and two figures, one with a hammer, the other with pliers, to fix and remove the nails of the crucifixion.

The emblems on the Kell family grave include the ladder used to take Christ’s body down from the cross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

There also notable crucifixion scenes on the O’Neill grave dating from 1812 and the McDonogh grave from 1827. The Kell family grave, from the same period, also shows traditional emblems of the passion, including the ladder used to take Christ’s body down from the cross.

A parishioner told me this week of a local tradition that survivors of the Spanish Armada who were brought up the Shannon Estuary and came ashore near Kilcornan were killed by local people and are buried in the graveyard too.

But there are signs in the graveyard of a mass grave, and no monuments or plaques telling this story.

The large crucifix at the gates of Castletown graveyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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