12 January 2021

Saint Mary’s: The Parish Church that Looks Like Part of the College

St Mary’s Church, Maynooth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

St Mary’s, the Church of Ireland parish church in Maynooth, is incorporated into the outer wall of St Patrick’s College, and while few students or graduates may have been inside the church, many still think it is part of the college buildings.

The church was originally built as a private chapel for Maynooth Castle when it was one of the principal residences of the FitzGeralds of Kildare.

At the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, the church at Laraghbryan was included in Strongbow’s list of church properties belonging to the Diocese of Glendalough in 1173. Soon after, however, Laraghbryan became subservient to Saint Mary’s, Maynooth, which was built by the FitzGerald family.

Maynooth was part of a pocket of churches and parishes in this part of north Kildare that were in the Diocese of Glendalough. St Mary’s became a Prebendal Church of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in October 1248, at the request of Maurice FitzGerald. Richard de Carren was the priest of the parish at the time. From then on, the tithes of the parish supported one of the canons of the cathedral, and this canon, the Prebendary of Maynooth, was also the incumbent (parish priest or rector) of Maynooth. Medieval rectors and prebendaries included John de Sandford, later dean of St Patrick’s and Archbishop of Dublin; and Alexander de Bicknor, also a future archbishop.

Gerald FitzGerald, ninth Earl of Kildare, built and endowed a college at Maynooth in 1518, rebuilt the castle chapel and attached it to his college. But, at the Reformation, what had become the ‘King’s College of Maynooth’ was suppressed and the chapel became the Church of Ireland parish church of Maynooth.

St Mary’s Church, like other churches of the day, suffered in the Reformation conflicts, and rectors were appointed or removed at whim, depending on the religious fashions of the day. Edward Dillon, who was also dean of Kildare, was put to death as a rebel in the castle in 1535; Richard Johnson was pensioned off at the suppression of the cathedral chapter of St Patrick’s in 1547, was reappointed in 1555, was deprived again within six or seven weeks, and was appointed for a third time in 1572. In between, John Doyne spent less than a year at Maynooth before he was dismissed on charges of adultery.

Later, it was said, the church fell into disrepair and was used for keeping cattle. However, St Mary’s was extensively renovated in the 1630s by Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, father-in-law of George FitzGerald (1612-1660), 16th Earl of Kildare. At the same time, Boyle was rebuilding Maynooth Castle.

During the wars of the 1640s, both the castle and the church fell into ruins. The FitzGeralds returned to appointing parish clergy after the Caroline restoration. Robert Price, who had survived the Cromwellian era, became the Restoration Bishop of Ferns, and his successor, Thomas Price, who was prebendary of Maynooth and Bishop of Kildare at the same time (1661-1667), became Archbishop of Cashel (1667-1678).

For much of the time, however, many rectors of Maynooth were absentees, pluralists, or both, and the real liturgical and pastoral work in the parish became the burden of the vicars or curates they appointed. However, the benign interest of the FitzGeralds ensured the parish did not suffer from clerical negligence, and a new schoolhouse was built beside the church in 1702.

James FitzGerald (1722-1773), first Duke of Leinster and father of Lord Robert FitzGerald, repaired St Mary’s Church in 1770, shortly after he had built Leinster House in Dublin, and the church was used by the Church of Ireland parish once again. The church was restored or repaired once more by the FitzGerald family in 1828, again in 1859 by Augustus Frederick FitzGerald (1791-1874), third Duke of Leinster. Throughout these times, the FitzGeralds retained the right to appoint priests to the church until disestablishment.

The large East Window is unusual because it is made of wood and set in stone. During the restoration in 1770, this window was taken from the church in Laraghbryan, which had fallen into ruin. Other windows came from the castle’s council chamber. The back end of the church and churchyard contains the last fragments of the medieval curtain wall of the castle.

From 1821 to 1875, the fifteenth-century tower was a mausoleum for the third Duke of Leinster, who lived at Carton, his wife Lady Charlotte Augusta Stanhope (1791-1874), duchess of Leinster, and seven members of their family. Before that, the family was buried in St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare.

One clergyman was also buried here: Canon George Dacre Blacker came to the parish in 1838, and was rector and prebendary of Maynooth from 1841 to 1871. His death coincided with disestablishment, and the pulpit is also his memorial. The positions of rector of Maynooth and prebendary of Maynooth were separated at disestablishment, and the patronage of the FitzGerald family was abolished.

A medieval font from Saint Coco’s Church in Kilcock was moved to Saint Mary’s in 1991. The small organ, dating from around 1820, is one of the few untouched Telford organs in Ireland. The church plate includes a large silver flagon and an alms dish given by Mary FitzGerald, Countess of Kildare, in 1744, and a chalice and paten dating from 1697. The church still exhibits prayer books from 1860 that identified the pews of the Duke of Leinster and his family.

The area on the north side of the church, behind the vestry, was a parish school from 1770 to 1859, when it was moved to the Geraldine Hall near the Royal Canal. The school closed in 1935.

The Parish of Maynooth was transferred to the Diocese of Meath in 1940 and joined to the Dunboyne group of parishes. The present rector, the Reverend Eugene Griffin, who was appointed in 2018, is also the treasurer’s vicar or a minor canon of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The present Prebendary of Maynooth in St Patrick’s, Canon Mark Gardner, was appointed in 2012.

St Mary’s Church, Maynooth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

This is a chapter in We Remember Maynooth: A College Across Four Centuries, ed Salvador Ryan and John-Paul Sheridan (Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2020, 512 pp), pp 36-38.

Notes on Contributors (p 496):

Patrick Comerford is a priest in the Church of Ireland Diocese of Limerick, a former adjunct assistant professor in TCD, and a former lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

A Comerford countess
with links to the Fitzgerald
family of Askeaton Castle

The ruins of Askeaton Castle … the brother of the ‘Sugán’ Earl of Desmond married a Comerford from Danganmore, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It is almost four years ago since I moved to Askeaton I have often pointed out that I have no immediate family connections with this part of west Limerick. There are other branches of the Comerford family that lived for short periods in Pallaskenry and near Castleconnell, and one Comerford family that lived for generations in Limerick City. But I am a complete ‘blow-in’ when it comes to this part of west Limerick.

However, as I was going back over my notes of my visit late last summer to Dromana House, outside Cappoquin, Co Waterford, I realised that there was one – albeit remote – connection between my side of the Comerford family and Askeaton and this part of Co Limerick. And this link involves the story of a Comerford woman who became a countess and fled into exile in Barcelona 400 years ago.

Richard ‘Boy’ Comerford was a younger son of Richard ‘Oge’ Comerford of Ballybur Castle, Co Kilkenny, who died ca 1579/1580, and a younger brother of Thomas Comerford of Ballybur. In the late 1560s, and certainly by the early 1570s, this Richard ‘Boy’ Comerford was living at Danganmore Castle, and probably worked as the equivalent of a legal clerk to the Butlers of Kilkenny Castle, witnessing numerous Ormond legal documents.

Richard was the father of two sons – Edmund Comerford and Richard Comerford, who eventually inherited Danganmore Castle – and one daughter, whose name has been forgotten in time, but who married John FitzThomas FitzGerald, who became the claimant to the title of Earl of Desmond at the end of the last Desmond rebellion.

John FitzThomas FitzGerald was a younger brother of James FitzThomas FitzGerald, the ‘Súgán’ Earl of Desmond, and they were the sons of Sir Thomas FitzGerald, commonly called ‘Thomas Roe,’ ‘Tomás Ruadh’ or ‘Red Thomas,’ and his wife Ellice Le Poer, daughter of Richard Le Poer, Baron Le Poer.

Thomas Rue FitzGerald, in turn, was the son of James FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond and Joan Roche, daughter of Maurice Roche, Lord Fermoy. As Joan Roche was his own grandniece, their relationship fell within the proscribed limits of consanguinity. Because of this, their marriage was annulled and their son, Thomas Roe FitzGerald, father of James and John FitzGerald, was declared illegitimate and disinherited.

Instead, the title of Earl of Desmond was handed to Thomas’s younger, but decidedly legitimate, half-brother, Gerald FitzJames FitzGerald, who was recognised as Earl of Desmond by the Parliament in Dublin.

However, Gerald first entered into a bloody conflict with the Ormond Butlers of Kilkenny, and was heavily defeated at the Battle of Affane, near Cappoquin, by ‘Black’ Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1570.

After his release, Gerald returned to Ireland and rebelled in 1579. He was killed in battle on 11 November 1583 and his severed head was displayed on London Bridge.

After the suppression of the rebellion in 1583, Thomas Roe FitzGerald and his son James FitzThomas claimed the title and estates of the Earl of Desmond. Their petitions failed, however, and Thomas Roe died in 1595 and was buried in Youghal.

His son, James FitzThomas FitzGerald, assumed the title of Earl of Desmond. He became known as the ‘Sugan’ Earl of Desmond. He soon gathered an 8,000-strong force and engaged in a three-year struggle. He took Desmond Hall and Castle in Newcastle West in 1598, but lost them the following year. In 1599, the Earl of Essex also brought to an end the 147-day siege of Askeaton Castle the ‘Sugan’ Earl of Desmond.

After escaping from Kilmallock, he was finally captured on 29 May 1601 while he was hiding in a cave underground, near Mitchelstown.

FitzGerald was placed in irons and taken to Shandon Castle, where he was found guilty of treason. He was then brought to England, and he was made a prisoner in the Tower of London. Historians suggest that he died sometime in 1608, and was buried in the chapel of the Tower.

Richard Comerford’s tomb in the ruined church in Kilree, south of Kells, Co Kilkenny … his daughter married John FitzThomas FitzGerald, ‘Earl of Desmond,’ and they fled to Barcelona (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The next male heir in this line of the Desmond FitzGeralds was his younger brother, John FitzThomas FitzGerald, who had taken part in the Desmond rebellion. John fled Ireland in 1603 with his wife, the daughter of Richard Comerford of Danganmore, Co Kilkenny, to Spain. There he was known as the Conde de Desmond. John died a few years later in Barcelona, probably after 1615.

Meanwhile, his father-in-law, Richard Comerford, continued to live at Danganmore Castle, Co Kilkenny. He died at an advanced age on 5 October 1624, and was buried against the wall in the north-west chancel of Kilree Church, Co Kilkenny, with his wife Joanna St Leger, who had died on 4 October 1622.

Their grandson, Gerald FitzJohn FitzGerald, claimed the title as 17th Earl of Desmond, according to the family tree in Dromana House, and was also known as the ‘Conde de Desmond.’ He served in the Habsburg armies of the Emperor Ferdinand in Spain and Germany, and died in Germany in 1632. As he had no male children as heirs to his claims, with him ended the male heirs of the four eldest sons of Thomas FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Desmond.

As for Richard Comerford, brother of the exiled ‘Countess of Desmond,’ he inherited Danganmore Castle in 1624, and was the ancestor of the Ryan and Langton families who later lived there.

Richard Comerford of Ballybur Castle, first cousin of this exiled Comerford countess, died in 1637, five years after the death of her son Gerald in Germany. The descendants of this Richard and his wife Mary (Purcell) include the Bunclody branch of the family, and so they are my immediate ancestors.

The connections with Askeaton – and with Dromana – are distant and may even seem obscure. But, almost 400 years later, they are still there.

The FitzGerald connection with the Comerford family … a corner of one of the family trees in Dromana House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)