30 August 2020

The religious history
of Cappoquin shows
a colourful diversity

Saint Anne’s Church and Saint Mary’s Church were built side-by-side on a shared site in Cappoquin in the 1820s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Although Mount Melleray Abbey is the best known church building in Cappoquin, the town has two parish churches – Saint Anne’s (Church of Ireland) and Saint Mary’s (Roman Catholic) – that share a prominent anchor site at the corner of Main Street and Church Street.

The religious history of Cappoquin is a story that includes not only this ecumenical campus, but also a rector who was the father of a famous poet, a Coptic Orthodox monastery, an industrial school run by Sisters of Mercy that has become part of the shocking story of abuse in Ireland, and an eccentric ‘White Quaker.’

As a child I was fascinated that these two churches, side by side, were named after mother and daughter, with Saint Anne’s on the highest point of the shared, triangular site, and Saint Mary’s on the lower part of the site.

Both churches were built in the 1820s on a shared site in the centre of Cappoquin that was donated by Sir John Keane of Cappoquin House.

Saint Anne’s Church was built in the 1820s on a site donated by Sir John Keane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Anne’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, was built in the 1820s and has undergone a number of structural changes since then, including the removal of its spire in the late 19th century and changing the clock face from square to round in the 20th century.

The church was first proposed by Bishop Joseph Stock. While Stock was Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, the Dean and Chapter of Saint Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, agreed in 1814 to a separate area served by a perpetual curate or vicar, and the Revd George Tierney Roche was appointed in 1819.

Saint Anne’s Church was built on the same triangle of land as Saint Mary’s Church in the centre of Cappoquin and was consecrated 200 years ago in October 1820.

Sir John Keane (1757-1829) of Cappoquin House subscribed £50 for a steeple and belfry; a Mr Chearnley give 20 guineas, and Bishop Stock gave the same.

This is a well-proportioned church of modest scale and appearance, built to a design similar to other churches built under the patronage of the Board of First Fruits. It is a three-bay double-height church, with a single-bay, double-height lower chancel, single-bay, single-storey vestry, and a single-bay, three-stage entrance tower with a square plan.

The church is well maintained, and retains its original character and fabric, both outside and inside. The interior features of artistic merit include the decorative tiling, carved timber pews, a Gothic-style pulpit, a pointed-arch chancel arch, a decorative Gothic-style timber reredos, the open timber roof on cut-stone corbels, and a monument to Senator Sir John Keane, who died in 1956. The churchyard is being developed by the parish as a community garden.

The Revd John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), who was ordained in 1895, began his life in ministry as the curate in Cappoquin in 1895-1899. Later he was Bishop of Cashel, Emly, Waterford and Lismore (1931-1934) and he died in office as Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore (1934-1942). But, perhaps, he is best known as the father of the poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963).

In my childhood and teens, Cappoquin had three distinguished rectors: Canon Joseph Smith O’Loughlin, Dean Charles Stanley and Dean Gilbert Mayes.

Canon Joseph O’Loughlin came to Cappoquin as the ‘Perpetual Curate’ in 1940, and he was appointed Chancellor in the chapter of Saint Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, and Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, in 1947. After he retired in 1956, Cappoquin was united with Lismore in 1958.

Dean Charles Stanley (1884-1977) was the Dean of Lismore when Lismore and Cappoquin were united as one parish following the retirement of Canon O’Loughlin.

Dean Gilbert Mayes (1915-2005) succeeded Dean Stanley in Lismore and Cappoquin in 1961. A distinguished liturgist, he was a founder member of the Liturgical Advisory Committee in 1962, was its secretary from 1975 to 1989, and edited the Alternative Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland, published in 1984 and still known affectionately as ‘the Blue Book.’ Dean Mayes retired in 1984, and died in 2005 at the age of 90.

Cappoquin also had a Church of Ireland school on the banks of the Glenshelane River from 1832. The building remained in operation as a school until the mid-20th century.

Saint Mary’s Church was built beside Saint Anne’s Church in 1822 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church was built over a number of years, and was completed in 1822. The church replaced an earlier church that had stood at Salterbridge from the 1700s. The church bell was installed in 1902.

A plaque on the wall near the grotto commemorates the poet and Gaelic scholar Pádraig Denn. The small graveyard beside the church was the only Catholic cemetery within the parish until Saint Declan’s Cemetery opened in Drumroe in the early 20th century. Tradition says that this is the birthplace of Saint Declan, patron saint of the Decies.

Inside Saint Mary’s Church, Cappoquin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Parochial House is at the top of Mass Lane, overlooking the River Blackwater and the boat house of Cappoquin Rowing Club. The architect of this Swiss-chalet style house was Andrew O’Riordan of Lismore.

The house was built as at a cost of £900 in 1896 for Canon Spratt, a nephew of an earlier Father Spratt, the parish priest who brought the Mercy Order to Cappoquin in 1850.

The Parochial House at the top of Mass Lane, Cappoquin, was designed by Andrew O’Riordan of Lismore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

After half a century in the town centre, the Sisters Mercy nuns built a new convent on land donated by the Keane family of Cappoquin House.

The convent was built in 1902-1903, and became synonymous with religious and educational life in Cappoquin for a full century, until it closed when the order left the town.

The Mercy order ran Saint Anne’s secondary school until it closed in 2003. Originally a girls’ school, it became co-educational after the introduction of free education in 1967. Famous alumni include the poet and novelist Thomas McCarthy and the world champion athlete John Treacy from Villierstown.

In recent years, the convent and school buildings were transformed into the Saint Athanasius Monastery of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The former Convent of Mercy, now the Saint Athanasius Monastery of the Coptic Orthodox Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Sisters of Mercy also rain Saint Michael’s, one of 26 industrial schools they ran in Ireland. It opened in 1877, and at its height there were nearly 100 children at Saint Michael’s. It became a group home in 1974 and was finally closed in 1999.

As children, we never knew about life at Saint Michael’s. But I was shocked when this was exposed in the media in recent years, including the abuse carried out by nuns and staff members. These stories recalled by Paddy Doyle in his autobiographical The God Squad (1988). It is a story so shocking that I felt it was inappropriate to refer to it in my recent posting on the literary legacy of Cappoquin.

The school was redeveloped as the Riverview Guesthouse in 2002.

The Christian Brothers first came to Cappoquin with the arrival of the Mulcahy brothers, John and James Mulcahy, in 1813. They were colleagues of Edmund Ignatius Rice, and came to Cappoquin from the Christian Brothers School in Dungarvan to open a free school near Cappoquin.

John Mulcahy ran the school for over 30 years, mainly under the auspices of the bishop, until his death. In 1832, following the Stanley Education Act, this school became Cappoquin’s first National School. It closed in 1847.

No story of religious life in Cappoquin would be complete without referring to Robert Cook (1646-1726), who gives his name to Cook Street, running south from Castle Street and the Square.

He was one of Cappoquin’s more eccentric former inhabitants, and may have been from Wexford originally. He insisted on wearing only white linen clothing. More curiously still, Cook also insisted on keeping a herd of only white cattle, although he was a vegan himself. Cook wrote some philosophical tracts.

Some local stories say Cook was a Quaker community, and that there was a Quaker meeting house on Mill Street in the 18th century. Although there was a Quaker family named Cooke in Cappoquin at the turn of the 17th and 18th century, including Samuel Cooke (1666-1704), Robert Cook self-identified as a Protestant and described his philosophy as Pythagorean.

Cook Street is said to take its name from Robert Cook (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Mount Melleray and
the return of Cistercian
monasticism to Ireland

Mount Melleray Abbey … founded in 1833, 6 km outside Cappoquin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

During the closing days of the first stage of this year’s summer ‘Road Trip,’ I stayed near Mount Melleray. Throughout my childhood years, I was very familiar with Mount Melleray, which was the neighbouring farm to my grandmother’s farm at Moonwee.

As children, we regularly traipsed through the fields at Moonwee, across brooks and stiles, to the farm and monastery in Melleray, feeling free to explore the abbey churches, buildings and farmyard, and to silently listen to the monks singing the daily offices.

I had only been back to Mount Melleray a few times since childhood, and 20 years ago I decided against the idea of a pre-ordination retreat there in 2000. So, it was good to return to Melleray at the end of last week and to reconnect with a spiritual tradition and monastic buildings I had once been familiar with over half a century ago.

Inside the monastic church at Mount Melleray Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Mount Melleray Abbey is a community of Cistercian or Trappist monks on the slopes of the Knockmealdown Mountains, about 6 km north of Cappoquin, Co Waterford. It was founded in 1833 on land donated by the Keane family of Cappoquin House at a nominal rent.

The abbey has been celebrated in Seán Ó Ríordáin’s poem ‘Cnoc Mellerí’ in Eireaball Spideoige (1952). James Joyce mentions Mount Melleray in ‘The Dead,’ the final short story in Dubliners (1914), in which the monks of Mount Melleray are noted for their exceptional hospitality and piety.

The Cistercian order was founded as branch of the Benedictines by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century, and the Trappists date from the mid-17th century. After the French Revolution and the suppression of monastic houses in France, some dispossessed Trappist monks arrived in England in 1794 and established a community in Lulworth, Dorset.

The symbol of the abbot’s crozier in the choir stalls Mount Melleray Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Following the restoration of the Bourbons, these monks returned to France in 1817 to re-establish the ancient Melleray Abbey in Brittany. During the July Revolution of 1830, the monks were forced to flee France once again and were sent by Dom Antoine, Abbot of Melleray, to found an abbey in Ireland.

The monastery was founded on 30 May 1832 at Scrahan, Cappoquin, by a group of Irish and English monks from Melleray, and who had come to Ireland under the leadership of Father Vincent de Paul Ryan.

After many efforts to locate his community, he accepted an offer from Sir Richard Keane of Cappoquin to rent 500 acres of mountain land, and this later increased to 700 acres.

The high altar and the sanctuary in the monastic church in Mount Melleray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

On the feast of Saint Bernard 1833, the foundation stone of the new monastery was blessed by William Abraham, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore. It was named Mount Melleray in memory of the motherhouse. The monastery became an abbey in 1835, and Father Vincent, who was unanimously elected abbot. He received his abbatial blessing from Bishop Abraham, the first abbatial blessing in Ireland since the Reformation.

A small group of monks was sent from Mount Melleray to England in 1835 to found Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, near Coalville, Leicestershire. Abbot Vincent vigorously undertook the work of completing the abbey, but died on 9 December 1845.

His successor, Dom Joseph Ryan, resigned after two years, and Dom Bruno Fitzpatrick became abbot in September 1848. Dom Bruno consolidated the initial work and the abbey and also devoted his energy to missionary work. During its earlier years, the monastery was directly subject to the bishop of the diocese, but in1848 it came under the jurisdiction of the general chapter.

The seminary at Mount Melleray began as a small school formed by Abbot Vincent in 1843, and was developed by Abbot Bruno and his successors.

When the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle visited Dromana House near Cappoquin in 1849, he also visited Mount Melleray and described the abbey in some detail, noting particularly the huge vats of ‘stir-about’ or porridge the monks prepared for the large number of Famine victims.

Abbot Bruno died in 1893, and was succeeded by Dom Carthage Delaney, who was blessed in 1894 and presided over Mount Melleray for 13 years. His successor, Dom Marius O’Phelan, was solemnly blessed by Bishop Sheahan of Waterford in 1908.

Dom Marius is credited with resuming the building programme at Mount Melleray in 1925. He bought the great cut limestone blocks from Mitchelstown Castle, 42 km west, after it was burnt by anti-treaty republicans on 12 August 1922. The owners of Mitchelstown Castle dismantled the ruins in 1925 and the stones were transported by steam lorry in two consignments a day over a five-year period.

The foundation stone laid by Cardinal McRory in Mount Melleray Abbey in 1933 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Dom Marius died as the abbey was being laid out, and his successor, Dom Celsus O’Connell, continued the monumental task. The monks ended up with far more stones than they needed and these were eventually stacked in fields around the monastery.

In March 1932, the community of English Cistercian nuns of Stapehill, England, moved to Saint Mary’s Convent, Lismore, which was bought and prepared for them by the monks of Mount Melleray.

The monastery celebrated its centenary in August 1933. Cardinal John McRory, Archbishop of Armagh, laid the foundation stone of a new abbey church on 17 April 1933, just 12 days after Dom Celsus was elected the seventh abbot and a few months before the abbey celebrated its centenary.

The public church and the monastic church are the main elements of the church building project undertaken by Dom Celsus, and building work began in January 1935.

The words of the canticle Magnificat carved on the wooden screen at the west end of the monastic church in Mount Melleray Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The monastic church, where monks of Mount Melleray celebrate the Divine Office every day, was completed and solemnly blessed on 26 November 1940. Later, a high altar and some 20 lesser altars – all in marble and the gifts of benefactors – were installed, and a magnificent stained-glass window was erected behind the high altar.

President Séan T O’Kelly paid a state visit to Mount Melleray in June 1946. However, it was not until the 120th Anniversary of Mount Melleray that the abbey church was solemnly consecrated by Bishop Coholan of Waterford on 20 August 1952. During the consecration festival from 20 to 29 August 1952, over 100,000 people visited Mount Melleray, including President Séan T O’Kelly.

The Abbey Church is in Gothic style and cruciform in plan. Although extended, it follows mainly the lines of the original chapel built by the first community.

In the Cistercian tradition, a massive crucifix was suspended over the nave and contained relics of Saint Bernard and many Irish saints. However, this was removed during the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms.

The east window in the monastic church in Mount Melleray Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The east window is the work of the Harry Clarke studio. The central panel represents Christ the King crowning the Virgin Mary at the Assumption. Each evening at the Office of Compline, the lights of the Church are extinguished and, according to Cistercian tradition, the figure of the Virgin Mary is illuminated for the singing of the Salve Regina.

To the right of the central panel are Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Carthage of Lismore; to the far right are Saint Robert, one of the three founders of the Cistercian Order, and Saint Patrick of Ireland.

To the left of the central panel are Saint Brigid of Kildare and Saint Columba; to the far left are Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Doctor of the Church and the founder of the Cistercians, and Saint Malachy of Armagh, who invited Saint Bernard to send Cistercian monks to Ireland, leading to the foundation of Mellifont Abbey in 1142.

At the west end of the church, the words of the canticle Magnificat are carved in large letters on a wooden screen.

Inside the public church in Mount Melleray Abbey, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The public church was consecrated at the same time as the monastic church, with Dom Benignus Hickey, Abbot of New Mellifont, consecrating the High Altar.

The public church was dedicated to the Assumption and Saint Philomena, and was once the National Shrine of Saint Philomena. Her statue was removed when her name was removed from the Roman Calendar.

The interior of the public church has five bays consisting of aisles on either side and double lancets above. The sanctuary is decorated in mosaic, both in the nave and the aisles. The walls surrounding the side aisles are decorated with angels.

The walls of the sanctuary have the instruments of the Passion in quatrefoils on the lateral walls, the east wall has images of the Sacred Heart on the north side and Saint Joseph on the south side, each with a monogram in the quatrefoil beneath.

Inside the public church in Mount Melleray Abbey facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The east window of the public church is in two levels, above. In the central panel is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary with angels. Below, from left to right, are Saint Brigid, Saint Malachy of Armagh, who introduced the Cistercians to Ireland, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercians, and Saint Patrick.

The seven main panels of this window were originally in the east window of the old Monastic Church.

Many of the stained-glass windows in the side aisles are also the work of Harry Clarke or the Harry Clarke Studios in Dublin.

Saint Peter and Saint Paul in a two-light lancet window by the Harry Clarke Studio in the public church in Mount Melleray Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Abbot of Mount Melleray, Dom Eamon Fitzgerald, was chosen as the first Irish Abbot General of the Cistercian Order in 2008. Dom Richard Purcell was inaugurated as the new abbot of Mount Mellary in 2017. He was previously Abbot of Mount Saint Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, and had already received the abbatial blessing in 2009.

In the past, Mount Melleray was involved in founding New Melleray Abbey, near Dubuque, Iowa, Mount Saint Joseph Abbey, Roscrea, Co Tipperary, and the Southern Star Abbey in New Zealand.

Today, about six or eight men live in the community at Mount Mellary. Two died within the past two years, and one is living as a hermit near Saint Mary’s Abbey of Cistercian nuns in Glencairn, near Lismore, where he celebrates Mass once a week for the sisters.

The Lamb of God in a Harry Clarke window in the public church in Mount Melleray Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)