10 June 2021

Saint Colman’s Church,
one of a pair of churches
by Pain in Gort, Co Galway

Saint Colman’s Roman Catholic Church, Gort, Co Galway, stands on a site donated by the family of Lord Gort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Wexford town has its twin churches – on Rowe Street and Bride Street. But Gort in Co Galway has twin churches at opposite end of Church Street, both dedicated to Saint Colman, both designed by the Limerick-based architect James Pain, and both standing on sites donated by the same family.

The site for Saint Colman’s Roman Catholic Church – like the site for Saint Colman’s Church, the former Church of Ireland parish church – was donated by the family of Lord Gort. Charles Vereker (1768-1842), 2nd Viscount Gort, gave the site to Dr Edmund Ffrench, Bishop of Kilmacduagh, and the church was built in 1825-1828. These two churches are dedicated to Saint Colman, traditionally said to be the founder of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh.

Edmund Ffrench (1775-1852) was a Dominican friar, the last Roman Catholic Warden of Galway and Bishop of Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora. His father, Edmund Ffrench, was Mayor of Galway and the Church of Ireland Warden of Galway.

The future bishop and his brother, Charles Ffrench, became Roman Catholics in their youth, through the influence of a Catholic servant. Charles went on to become a missionary in America.

Their sister Rose (1787-1857) married Francis James Blake Forster (1797-1838) of Park Lodge, Gort. Rose and Francis were the parents of Francis Blake Forster (1817-1881) of Galway, who married Mary Josephine Comerford (1827-1862), eldest daughter and co-heiress of Henry Comerford of Ballykeale House, Co Clare.

Edmund Ffrench joined the Dominicans in the Claddagh Priory, Galway, in 1794, studied in the Dominican College of Corpo Santo, Lisbon where he was ordained ca 1804, and served at Saint Michan's, Dublin, in 1806-1810.

He became the last Roman Catholic Warden of Galway when he was elected in 1812 despite being ineligible as a member of a religious order. He was criticised for not ending the disputes between the religious orders and the secular clergy. He brought the Presentation Sisters to Galway, and built Saint Nicholas’s ‘parish chapel’ as the Pro-Cathedral, on Middle and Lower Abbeygate Streets.

He was appointed Bishop of Kilmacduagh and appointed Administrator of Kilfenora in 1824, and was consecrated bishop in 1825.

Inside Saint Colman’s Church, Gort, facing the liturgical east … the church is built on a south/north axis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

While Ffrench was bishop, Lord Gort donated the site for a new Catholic church in Gort. Building work began in 1825 while Father Michael Duffy was parish priest of Gort, and Saint Colman’s Church was dedicated Bishop Ffrench on 6 September 1828.

The post of Warden of Galway came to an end in the Roman Catholic Church in 1831, when Galway was absorbed into the new Diocese of Galway. But Edmund Ffrench remained Bishop of Kilmacduagh and Kilfenora until his death. He moved to live in Thornville, Kinvara, built nine more churches, and was committed to developing school education.

Towards the end of his life, Edmund Ffrench lived near his sister Rose Blake-Forster, at Park Lodge, Gort. He died on 14 July 1852 and was buried in what was believed to be the grave of Saint Colman mac Duagh in Kilmacduagh, outside Gort.

His nephew Captain Francis Blake-Forster, of Castle Forster and his wife Mary Josephine (Comerford) were the parents of the writer Charles French Blake-Forster (1851-1874), an antiquarian and historical writer, who compiled much of the Victorian accounts of the Comerford family history and genealogy.

Inside Saint Colman's Church, facing the liturgical west … the church was first designed by James Pain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Saint Colman’s is a large Gothic-style church first designed by the Limerick-based architect James Pain (1779-1877), who also designed the neighbouring Saint Colman’s Church for the Church of Ireland parish in Gort, now the town library. Pain’s work is described in my account of that church yesterday (see HERE).

Saint Colman’s is approached from Market Square, Church Road and Church Street, and it makes a highly artistic and architectural contribution to the streetscape of Gort, while its prominent corner site is a dominant feature in the town.

Pain’s elegant design of this church is complemented by the use of high-quality materials and a visually pleasing repetition of form, seen in the pointed arch windows and doors, the buttresses and the turrets.

A memorial inside the church remembers the role of Bishop Edmund Ffrench (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Saint Colman’s was built to a cruciform plan in 1825-1828, and it was dedicated by Bishop Ffrench in 1828. Since then, the church has been much altered and extended since, with contributions by many architects, including Francis O’Connor and William Hague in the 19th century, and substantial alterations by Ralph Byrne in the 1930s.

The chancel and the sacristy, designed by an unknown architect, were added in 1876, when Father Timothy Shanahan was parish priest. The church was altered and extended in 1883, with additions to the nave designed by Francis O’Connor (1840-1908) of Ennis, Co Clare.

The façade in the early English style, the tower and spire, were designed by William Hague (1836-1899), and the original baptistry were added in 1892-1895, while Monsignor Fahy was parish priest.

The mosaic of Saint Colman above one of the doorways is the work of the firm established in Manchester by Ludwig Oppenheimer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The mosaics of Saint Colman and Saint John the Baptist above the doorways were added in 1915. These are the work of the firm established in Manchester by Ludwig Oppenheimer (1830-1900), and the sanctuary floor dates from the same time.

Saint Colman’s was substantially altered again in 1935-1938 by Ralph Henry Byrne (1877-1946) of Rathmines, who had once been a pupil of JJ McCarthy.

Byrne’s other churches and cathedrals about this time include the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (1930-1936), the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar (1931-1936), the Cathedral of Saint Patrick and Saint Felim, Cavan (1938-1943), the Holy Rosary Church in Harold’s Cross, Dublin (1938-1940), the Church of the Four Masters, Donegal, the completion of Saint Senanus Church, Foynes, Co Limerick (1932), commenced by JJ McCarthy, rebuilding Saint Mary’s Church, Croom, Co Limerick (1929-1932), and the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Newport, Co Tipperary (1933-1934).

Byrne’s additions to the church in Gort include the side aisles, rebuilding the spire, and heightening the nave roof, while Monsignor Cassidy was parish priest.

The transepts, sanctuary and sacristy were rebuilt in 1956-1959.

The mosaic of Saint John the Baptist above one of the doorways is the work of the firm established in Manchester by Ludwig Oppenheimer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Because of the shape and incline of the site, the church is oriented on a south-north axis rather than the traditional east-west axis. It has a three-bay nave elevation with a clerestorey and lean-to side aisles, full-height single-bay transepts, a four-stage tower at the north-west corner with a steeple, a single-bay two-storey annex at the front elevation and an apse and sacristy extension at the south (liturgically east) side.

The end bays of the front elevation have pointed arch double-leaf timber battened doors, with carved stone hood-mouldings, and mosaic panels on the tympanums, depicting Saint John the Baptist (left) and Saint Colman (right).

The central doorway has a pointed-arch opening and double-leaf timber battened doors set in a moulded limestone surround with a cross finial, square-profile corner buttresses with pinnacles, carved roll mouldings, and a carved marble panel in the tympanum.

The snecked rock-faced rusticated limestone walls have cut limestone plat bands. There are octagonal-profile corner turrets at the east end of the front elevation, stepped diagonal buttresses at the corners of the tower and the transepts, and stepped buttresses at the other side elevations.

The tower has carved string courses with decorative courses, including quatrefoils. The top stage of the tower has pointed arch openings, with trefoil-headed metal louvred windows, pointed arch openings at the other stages, and at the second stage these are tripled and have hood-mouldings.

There is a pitched slate roof with cut limestone copings, limestone cross finials at the transepts and the front, a wrought-iron cross finial at the apse, a rendered chimneystack at the sacristy, and cast-iron rainwater goods.

Inside, the marble arcaded nave and side aisles are separated by clustered piers with sculpted bosses on the capitals. There is a marble altar and a rendered reredos in the apse.

The carved marble panel in the tympanum above the central doorway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

There are pointed arch windows in the nave, transepts and chancel. These are mainly paired, but are tripled in the side aisles and there is a triple-light in the transept gables, all with chamfered cut limestone surrounds and stained-glass windows, and with hood-mouldings in the transept gables. There is a quatrefoil window in the apex of the front elevation, and shallow triangular-headed windows in the sacristy.

The open arch-braced A-framed truss roof has hanging posts. There is a carved timber gallery at the rear over a glazed screen wall and carved timber confessionals at the east long wall.

The memorials and the plaques on the wall include ones that commemorate Bishop Edmund Ffrench, Father Michael Duffy and other parish priests involved in the various stages of building Saint Colman’s Church.

Gort is a designated heritage town, with its wide streets and squares and its coourful shopfronts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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