20 October 2020

Saint John’s Church,
Abington, a ‘mini-cathedral’
near Glenstal Abbey

Saint John’s Church, Abington, Co Limerick … the only Anglican church still open in the historic Diocese of Emly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The nearest Church of Ireland church to Glenstal is Saint John’s Church in Abington, close to the village of Murroe, Co Limerick. This is the only Anglican church still open in the historic Diocese of Emly, and today it is part of the Limerick Cathedral Group of Parishes.

Long before the Benedictines moved to Glenstal Abbey in the 1920s, the parish of Abington had an ecumenical reputation.

Dr John Jebb (1775-1833), who was the Rector of Abington in 1810-1822 and Archdeacon of Emly in 1821-1823, had a good working relationship with the Roman Catholic parish priest and together they condemned agrarian violence in 1821. He was Bishop of Limerick (1823-1833), and he is commemorated by an imposing monument in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick. Jebb’s writings laid the foundations of the Oxford Movement.

Caleb Powell (1793-1881) of Barrington’s Bridge, Whig MP for Co Limerick (1841-1847) with William Smith O’Brien and a parishioner in Abington, championed Daniel O’Connell in 1841. He was later High Sheriff of Co Limerick.

Saint John’s Church is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

This church, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, was designed by the Dublin-born architect James Rawson Carroll (1830-1911), was built in 1869-1870, and opened on 7 November 1870.

Carroll had built up a considerable country house practice as well as designing several churches and other public buildings. His works include the Molyneux Church and Asylum, Leeson Park; Saint John the Baptist Church, Clontarf; Sandford Parochial Hall; the Mageough Homes, Rathmines; the Guinness Mahon Bank in Dublin; Sligo Courthouse; Classiebawn House, Mullaghmore; the de Vesci Memorial, Abbeyleix; and many of the houses and the public clock in Ardagh, Co Longford.

Carroll’s pupils and assistants included his nephew, John Howard Pentland, Frederick Batchelor and Frederick George Hicks, who designed Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church (1938), Kilmallock, Co Limerick, which I described last week.

Saint John’s Church was designed by the architect James Rawson Carroll (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church was financed by donations from Sir Matthew Barrington and Lord Cloncurry, and cost £1,100 to build. It was built in the English Gothic style, with a sandstone and limestone exterior and an ornately painted interior.

This Gothic-style church shows the development of church architecture from the time of the Board of First Fruits single-cell and tower arrangement. The chancel and the porches are distinguished by their ornate entrances, and they enliven the form of the church.

The well-composed façade is enlivened by the use of alternating sandstone and limestone voussoirs, and sandstone dressings, and they provide textural and chromatic variation. The tower with its decorative spire provides a focal point of the Gothic Revival design.

The south porch of Saint John’s Church, Abington … once described as a ‘mini-cathedral’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The church has a four-bay nave, a three-stage square-plan tower at the south with an octagonal-plan at the upper stages, porches on the north and south side, and a chancel at the east.

There is a pitched fish-scale slate roof with cast-iron ridge crestings and limestone copings.

The snecked limestone battered walls have a limestone and sandstone plinth course and there is a sandstone stringcourse at the gable apexes on the west and east ends.

The church has a timber battened door with wrought-iron strap hinges, and the limestone threshold has cast-iron boot-scraper.

The interior of Saint John’s Church, Abington, Co Limerick

Other architectural features include blind sandstone quatrefoil motifs on the tower, a blind sandstone trefoil motif at the apex of the west front, a pointed arch opening at the west end, limestone hood-mouldings, sandstone Corinthian-style engaged columns with limestone plinths and capitals, a rose window with quatrefoil and sexfoil stained glass windows, sandstone trefoil motifs, alternating limestone and sandstone voussoirs, pointed arch openings, stained-glass windows, a shouldered square-headed opening to north porch, stained-glass windows, and an oculus at the chancel.

The tower has a pointed arch opening with sandstone and limestone hood-mouldings, and stained-glass windows, mouldings, and Corinthian style engaged columns.

This church was once described as a ‘mini-cathedral.’ In acknowledgment of the fact that this is the only parish church that remains open in the historic Diocese of Emly, the church was recently rededicated to Saint John and Saint Ailbe.

The Covid-19 pandemic restrictions have dampened many of the events to mark the 150th anniversary, but the celebrations have continued this year.

The church was recently rededicated to Saint John and Saint Ailbe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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