22 May 2021

Returning to the Banqueting
Hall in Newcastle West and
an early mediaeval chapel

Inside the restored Desmond Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West, Co Limerick … it incorporates an earlier chapel dating from the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

When museums and archaeological sites opened to the public once again as pandemic lockdown restrictions eased, one of the first sites to visit last weekend was the Desmond Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West, Co Limerick.

After more than four years in this parish, I am still coming to grips with the way the Church of Ireland in past decades transferred, closed or abandoned parish churches in many large towns across a large swath of west Limerick and north Kerry, including the parish churches in Newcastle West, Listowel, Abbeyfeale and Ballybunion.

The outline of Saint Thomas’s Church, the former parish church in Newcastle West, is now traced in a knee-high wall on the south side of The Square, below the walls of the Desmond Banqueting Hall that was once one of the main buildings in the Desmond castle that dominated the town for centuries. Within these boundary walls is a bronze figure representing Gerald FitzGerald, 3rd Earl of Desmond.

The outline of Saint Thomas’s Church seen from a window in the Banqueting Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

William Courtenay (1742-1788), 2nd Viscount Courtneay and de jure 7th Earl of Devon, paid to build Saint Thomas’s Church in 1777 in the centre of the new town he was laying out.

As the local landlords in Newcastle West, the Courtenay family were benign patrons of the church, building both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic parish churches, and their patronage is reflected in the names of streets in the town, including Bishop Street and Church Street.

The Limerick historian and antiquarian, Thomas Johnson Westropp (1860-1922), says a church in Newcastle West was destroyed in a war in 1302. A later church in Newcastle West was dedicated to Saint David on Saint David’s Day, 1 March 1410, perhaps in deference to the origins in Wales of many of the Anglo-Normans, including the FitzGerald family of Desmond.

This church may have been replaced in turn by the church in Churchtown that O’Donovan said was built in 1690. Saint David’s Church was abandoned when Saint Thomas’s Church was built in 1777, closer to the new town being laid out by the Courtenay family and closer to the castle.

Recent restoration reveals the remains of a triple lancet window at the centre of the east wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Henry Reginald Courtenay (1741-1803), Bishop of Bristol and later Bishop of Exeter, was the father of William Courtenay who recovered the family title as the 10th Earl of Devon in 1835. Two of his sons, Canon Henry Hugh Courtenay (1811-1904), who later became the 13th Earl of Devon, and Canon Leslie Courtenay, were both Anglican priests, as were the 15th and 16th Earls of Devon.

Archaeologists and historians suggest that the Banqueting Hall within the castle may also have built on the site of the earliest church or chapel in Newcastle West.

Local lore suggests a Templar origin for the first castle in Newcastle West, built ca 1184. However, there is no evidence for this, and Westropp suggested in 1909 that the Templar legend arose from a misinterpretation of the Irish word teampul for church.

The south face of the Banqueting Hall was lit by a row of four lancets 3.5 metres tall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Desmond Banqueting Hall, an imposing, two-storey building, is the only building of substance dating back to this early castle. The castle was begun in the 13th century by Thomas ‘the Ape’ FitzGerald. However, most of the spacious, imposing structure was created in the 15th century, at the height of the power of the Earls of Desmond.

A full description of the Banqueting Hall and a reconstruction of the castle is provided by Dr Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler in the North Munster Antiquarian Journal, Vol 51 (2011), pp 27-51. He argues convincingly that although this building may have been an early hall it is more likely to have been a chapel.

The hall, vaulted lower chamber and adjoining tower were built in the 15th century, incorporating the structure of an earlier 13th century chapel of similar size. It was extensively remodelled, with the insertion of a low barrel vault to support a second-storey structure lit by lancet windows.

The east end of the south face of the building was lit by a row of four lancets 3.5 metres tall, and recent restoration has revealed the remains of a triple lancet window at the centre of the east wall. These reflect the origins of this building as a chapel or church.

The piscina in the south-east corner of the first floor hall may have came from the earlier chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

A piscina inserted into the south-east corner of the later first floor hall possibly came from this earlier chapel.

In the absence of any other stone building from that time, the building might have been a hybrid hall-chapel, subdivided by screens. The complete remodelling of the early hall-chapel into the banqueting hall was carried out by James FitzGerald, 7th Earl of Desmond, between 1420 and 1463.

The restored mediaeval features include and oak musicians' gallery and a limestone hooded fireplace.

The former baptismal font was returned to Newcastle West in 2018, and can now be seen in the Banqueting Hall. The font, made of Caen Stone, bears the inscription, ‘One Baptism for the Remission of Sins.’

The parish of Newcastle West was amalgamated with Rathkeale in 1953. Saint Thomas’s Church was closed in 1958 and was demolished in 1962. The last Rector of Newcastle West, David Kaye Lee Earl (1958-1962), later became Dean of Ferns (1979-1994) and died in Waterford in 2017.

The former baptismal font was returned to Newcastle West in 2018 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
95, two retreat house chapels

Inside the chapel at Saint Columba’s House in Woking (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

We have come to the end of ‘in-between week’ after Ascension Day and tomorow is the Day of Pentecost. My photographs this week are from places I associate with the life of USPG. Earlier in this series, I introduced the Chapel in the USPG offices in Southwark and its stained glass windows (20 March 2021).

This morning (22 May 2021), my photographs are from two retreat houses: the Kairos Centre in south-west London, close to the campuses of Roehampton University and overlooking Richmond Park, where USPG trustees held a residential meeting in November 2018; Saint Columba’s House on Maybury Hill in Woking, where we met in November 2019.

Previous venues for residential meetings have included Westcott House in Cambridge and the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in Limehouse.

The Kairos Centre, where we met in 2018, is a retreat and conference centre in an urban oasis in south-west London, standing in acres of landscaped gardens close to the campuses of Roehampton University and overlooking Richmond Park.

The tranquil setting of peaceful, secluded gardens provides a place to pray, space to think and time to meet. Kairos is keen to be a resource for the local community in response to the Lord’s invitation to ‘come and rest a while.’

The Kairos Centre is at 12 Roehampton Court, later known as Maryfield Convent, was built in 1913/1914 to a Georgian design. The architect was Frank Chesterton, who also designed part of Hampton Court and Ibstock School. The house was by the Poor Servants of The Mother of God in 1927 as a novitiate.

During World War II, Digby Stuart College nearby was hit by a bomb and a Jesuit novice was killed in an air raid in 1941. The novitiate was moved from Maryfield to Corston near Bath. Maryfield was hit by a basket of bombs in 1944, but the novices returned in 1945.

From 1974 to 1995, The Novitiate was relocated to the top floor of the convent and the remainder of the house became a residential home for women with learning disabilities.

Part of the New Wing was refurbished in 1995 and became the present Retreat and Conference Centre known as the Kairos Centre. Meanwhile, the Generalate continues to have offices in the main building.

The Chapel at the Kairos Centre was blessed and opened on the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1939. Much of the building work of this chapel was helped by the generosity of Miss Agnes Foley. The Altar was made by Rock of Dublin, Gunnings of Dublin supplied the sanctuary lamp and candlesticks, and a marble plaque depicting the Annunciation came from Italy.

The side altar was donated by a Mr Segrue, and Agnes Foley gave the organ and a statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child that stands in front of the main building.

The stained-glass windows above the High Altar were the gift of a benefactor of Corston Convent. The words underneath these stained-glass windows declare in Latin: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (see John 3: 16).

The Crucifix and alabaster panelling at the back of the altar and around the Sanctuary was put in place in 1949-1950 as a ‘Thanksgiving Offering’ for the community living through the London bombing during World War II, especially on the night of the burning on 4 February 1944.

On 24 September 1959, the body of the order’s founder, Mother Magdalen Taylor (1832-1900), was moved from her grave in Mortlake Cemetery to a side chapel on the anniversary of the day 90 years earlier when she founded the Poor Servants of the Mother of God in 1869.

After Vatican II, the High Altar in the chapel was moved to a new position in the Sanctuary to face the people. Every bit of the old altar was carefully taken apart and placed again in a new design in work carried out by Gunnings of Dublin in October 1968.

Saint Columba’s House on Maybury Hill in Woking, where me met in 2019, is a refurbished retreat and conference centre a mile from the centre of Woking and just 30 minutes by train from the heart London.

Saint Columba’s House is part of the registered charity, Saint Peter’s Home and Sisterhood, and maintains its original Anglican foundation.

The Sisterhood of Saint Peter was founded as a new Anglican religious community on 25 June 1861 through the active support of Benjamin Lancaster, a London businessman. Susan Oldfield was appointed the first Reverend Mother for the Sisterhood, and the community became actively engaged in health and care provision.

At first, the community was based in Brompton Square in London. The sisters moved to Kilburn in North London a few years later in 1869. Saint Peter’s Home, Woking, was built in 1883. It became the Mother house of the Community during World War II when bombs destroyed the Kilburn Convent.

Over the decades the Woking complex had a convent, a hospital, a home for the elderly, a guest house, a home for adults with learning difficulties and a retreat house. I was invited to preach in the chapel when we met as USPG trustees in 2019.

A new community was established by the sisters in Seoul in Korea in 1925 by an Irish-born nun who spent much of her childhood in Limerick.

Mother Mary Clare (1883-1950), who was born Clare Emma Whitty, spent much of her childhood at No 11 The Crescent, Limerick, on the corner of Barrington Street. She joined the Community of Saint Peter in 1912 and spent much of her life in Korea.

On the outbreak of the Korean War, she turned down an offer from the British embassy to evacuate from Seoul, deciding to stay with her congregation. When the North Korean forces retreated from Seoul Mother Mary Clare and other foreign civilian prisoners were marched forcibly to the northern part of North Korea.

On the last part of this ‘Death March,’ Mother Mary Clare died on 6 November 1950 and she was buried in a shallow grave near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea by five French-speaking Roman Catholic sisters. They used an improvised bier to bring her to the top of a neighbouring hill, close to the camp, where they dug her grave.

Saint Columba’s House on Maybury Hill in Woking

John 21: 20-25 (NRSVA):

20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ 23 So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’

24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Inside the chapel at the Kairos Centre in Roehampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (22 May 2021, International Day for Biological Diversity) invites us to pray:

Let us also give thanks for the great diversity of species that inhabit our planet. Bless our efforts to preserve God’s creation.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The High Altar in the chapel at the Kairos Centre is the work of Gunnings of Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Crucifix and alabaster panelling at the back of the altar and around the Sanctuary in the Kairos Centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)