22 September 2020
During a visit to Valentia Island on the first stage of this year’s late summer ‘Road Trip,’ I visited the Church of Ireland parish church, Saint John the Baptist in Knightstown, which claims to be the ‘most westerly Protestant church in Europe,’ and the ruined former parish church, the Church of Saint John the Baptist, built at Kilmore in 1815.
The island also has two Roman Catholic churches that I visited on this ‘road trip.’ The Roman Catholic parish on Valentia Island was created about 1819.
The first church in that parish was built at Chapeltown, and a second church was built at Knightstown as the number of workers at the Cable Station continued to expand.
Chapeltown is one of the many villages developed around newly-built churches after Catholic Emancipation in the 1830s. The present church in Chapeltown was built in 1939 and is dedicated of Saint Dorarca and Saint Teresa.
Saint Dorarca is the patron saint of Valentia. She is said to have been one of Saint Patrick’s sisters and to have been the mother of 19 children.
Chapeltown, known in Irish as An Caol, is the second major settlement on the island. The village is in the centre of the island, about 4 km from Knightstown and about 3 km from the bridge linking Valentia to the mainland at Portmagee. To the north of the village, Geokaun mountain dominates the northern skyline.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception on the Promenade in Knightstown was paid for by the people who worked at the Cable Station and by local people.
It was designed in the Gothic-revival style by Ashlin and Coleman, the architectural partnership of George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921) and Thomas Aloysius Coleman (1865-1950). Ashlin was noted for his work on churches and cathedrals throughout Ireland, including Saint Coleman’s Cathedral, Cobh, and was AWN Pugin’s son-in-law.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception was built in 1914 and dedicated on 1 August 1915. This is a cruciform-plan, double-height, Gothic Revival church. It is oriented on a west/east axis instead of the traditional east/west liturgical axis, but this gives beautiful views of the sea to people as they leave the church by the front door.
The church has a three-bay nave, single-bay transepts at the north and south sides, a two-bay chancel at the west gable end, a two-bay single-storey sacristy projection, an entrance bay at the east gable end, and a single-bay, two-stage corner turret at the north-east, with an octagonal plan, a limestone ashlar open belfry at the upper stage and a spirelet above.
The roofs, appropriately, are of pitched Valentia slate. There are decorative ridge tiles, cut-stone coping at the gables with finials, a coursed rubble stone chimneystack and a limestone ashlar flue.
The coursed rubble stone walls have a continuous cut-limestone sill course and cut-limestone brackets at the eaves. There is a base batter at the plinth of the turret with cut-stone coping and the cut-limestone open belfry at the upper stage.
The church has lancet arch windows with limestone sills, cut-limestone block-and-start surrounds, and metal-framed diamond-leaded windows.
The lancet arch door at the east gable end (the liturgical west end) has a cut-limestone, block-and-start, fielded doorcase with timber double doors. There are paired lancet arch window openings and a rose window over the entrance.
Inside the church, the full-height interior opens into the open scissors-truss timber roof. There are decorative tiles on the floor, timber pews, carved timber Stations of the Cross, a pointed-arch chancel arch on moulded corbels, and an organ that came from an opera house in Piccadilly, London.
The sanctuary was refurbished in the 1960s to meet the needs of the liturgical reforms introduced by Vatican II.
The five-light traceried window above the altar in the west end (liturgical east) is filled with a stained-glass window made by the Earley Studios in Dublin 1916-1917.
This window was donated to the church by the Galvin family of the Royal Valentia Hotel in Knightstown, where we stayed for two or three days during that first week of this year’s ‘road trip.’
Spike Island was once the largest convict depot in the world with over 2,300 inmates. Over the centuries, the island’s rich history has included monks and monasteries, rioters and redcoats, captains and convicts and sinners and saints.
Today the island is dominated by the 200-year old Fort Mitchel, the star-shaped fortress that became a prison holding over 2,300 prisoners. It was once the largest prison in the world and there has never been a larger prison in Ireland or Britain before or since.
Two of us visited Spike Island at the end of last week, as our late summer ‘road trip’ seemed to extend into autumn day trips.
The island’s strategic location in Cork Harbour meant it an ideal location for military and prison facilities in the past. But in recent years the island has been developed as a heritage tourist attraction, with over 81,000 visitors a year. Spike Island was named the top European tourist attraction at the 2017 World Travel Awards.
Over a span of 1,300 years, Spike Island has been the home of a seventh century monastery, a 24 acre fortress, the world’s largest convict depot in Victorian times and, for centuries, an island village with family homes, a school and a church.
Saint Mochuda, later known as Saint Carthage of Lismore, is said to have founded a monastery on Spike Island in the year 635 AD after he had cured the High King of Ireland and was granted ‘land including Inis Pic forever more.’
Saint Mochuda is said to have spent a year on Spike Island before leaving behind 40 followers to set up another monastery at Lismore, Co Waterford. The disciples he left behind on Spike Island continued on his work, with later descriptions say the ‘island is a most holy place in which an exceedingly devout community constantly dwell.’
The principal evidence for a monastic foundation on Spike Island is found in Archdall’s Moanasticon Hibernicum, which states that Saint Mochuda founded a monastery there in the seventh century. However, another passage from the Life of Saint Mochuda implies that Saint Mochuda was associated with a place called ‘Rahen,’ rather than Spike Island.
a The monks on Spike Island had a safe haven and sustenance on the island, farming the land and fishing the waters, until the Vikings came stormed Cork harbour in 820 AD.
They may have abandoned the island temporarily. But recent research by European scholars suggest an important ecclesiastical document, the Liber de ordine creaturarum, was written on the island. This has been described as ‘a work of magnificent conception ... Intertwining spacial and temporal dimensions, it is a bold attempt at describing God’s grand plan for the universe he created …’ If the Spanish researchers are correct about the Spike Island origin, then future research may uncover an important scriptorium.
A grant to Saint Thomas’s Abbey, Dublin, of the Church of Saint Rusien on Spike Island in 1178 supports claims to a continuing monastic presence on the island. Some reports suggest a monastic presence there as late as the 16th century, with a monastic continuity of 900 years.
Although the ruins of a church were reported on the island in 1774 and maps of the period show the same, no traces of the monastery have been found on the island. The enormous building work by the army in the late 1700s to create Fort Mitchel may have destroyed any lingering archaeological evidence of monastic or ecclesiastical remains.
Mitchel Hall was completed in 1851 by convict and civilian labour, and the wider ‘C Block’ as it was known housed convicts sent from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin.
The central hall, an attractive building with an ornate façade, was used as an Anglican chapel until the prisoners left in the late 1800s. Religion not only offered spiritual relief to the convicts but was seen as an important part in their rehabilitation.
The Revd Henry Woodruff was the first Anglican or Church of Ireland chaplain on Spike Island, and the prison also had Roman Catholic and Presbyterian chaplains.
Father Timothy Lyons, who may have been the longest-serving staff person on the island, spent 34 years as the prison chaplain, from 1849 to 1883. In 1857, he reported, ‘All the prisoners attend at an early hour every morning in the prison chapel for Morning Prayer and at divine services every Sunday and holiday … those who have witnessed their conduct in the chapel have been much struck with their earnest and edifying behaviour.’
The Revd Charles Bernard Gibson was the Presbyterian chaplain in 1856-1863. He was critical of the prison regime: ‘the prisoners are separated from each other by thin boarded and wired partitions, like a menagerie of wild animals, that snarl and fight in defiance of their keepers.’
A silver-plated chalice and paten, used by the Anglican chaplains in the chapel on Spike Island from 1848 and 1883, is engraved with name of the Spike Island and the words ‘Convict Church 1848.’
When the prison on Spike Island closed in June 1883, the remaining convicts were transferred to Mountjoy Jail in Dublin, and the chalice and paten were taken by the then governor, Peter Hay, to his next posting in Mountjoy Prison. There they were used for services in the Church of Ireland chapel for over a century, until it closed in 2013.
The chalice and paten were donated to the Spike Island museum by the Irish Prison Service in May 2017 and are now on display in the former Punishment Block.
Later, when the fort was occupied by British and then Irish forces, Mitchel Hall, was used for Friday evening dances for the residents, for wedding receptions and other community events.
Visitors also come to Spike Island to see the house that was once the childhood home of Nellie Organ, known as ‘Little Nellie of Holy God.’ She was born on 24 August 1903, at the Royal Infantry Barracks in Waterford, the fourth child of William Organ from Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and Mary (Aherne) from Portlaw, Co Waterford. She was baptised in Trinity Parish Church (‘Trinity Without’), Ballybricken, on Sunday 30 August 1903.
The family soon moved to Spike Island when her soldier father was stationed there with his family. She displayed a precocious spiritual awareness at an early age when her mother brought her along the shoreline to the village church to Mass.
When her mother died of TB, Ellen was taken into the care of the Sisters of the Good Shepard Convent in Sunday’s Well, Cork. The Good Shepard convent was one of many ‘Magdalene Laundries’ in Ireland, with stories of abuse and unmarked graves.
The nuns in Sunday’s Well noticed the child’s religious understanding was advanced beyond her years and were devastated to learn that this pious child had also contracted TB. Despite this, her devotion grew and Ellen began to describe visions and conversations with God and Jesus, and to display knowledge of the Trinity.
She expressed a desire to receive her first Holy Communion, which Catholic children of the day normally received at the age of 12. The Good Shepherd nuns they contacted the local Bishop, who was utterly convinced that Ellen should receive Communion. She received her first Communion at the age of five, died soon after in 1908 and was buried in her communion dress at Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, Cork.
When the nuns asked to move her body to the Good Shepard cemetery, she was exhumed and the priest and two men present reported her body was incorrupt, unchanged in appearance, as if she had been buried the day before.
Her story reached Pope Pius X in Rome soon after her death. At the time, the Pope was considering lowering the age of Communion for children from 12. On hearing the story of ‘Little Nellie,’ he lowered the age for Catholic children from 12 to seven. Queen Isabella of Spain asked one of her relics, and there were similar requests from France.
The house where her family lived in on Spike Island has been preserved and her room has been recreated, with a display of some relics.
The prison and military garrison ensured the survival of a small village on the north of the island – mainly consisting of families of those employed there – survived until 1985. The village came to an end after a prison riot in 1985
Today, the village church, school, homes and community buildings are decaying and crumbling.
But from the shoreline below the village and the former village church, Saint Colman’s Cathedral can be seen towering above the town of Cobh, and its 49-bell carillon – with Ireland’s largest bell – can be heard every hour and quarter hour across the narrow straits that separate the two islands.