27 May 2021

The ruins of a church in
Askeaton destroyed by fire
at the height of the Famine

The ruins of the former church in Askeaton, destroyed by fire in 1847 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Askeaton is bookended by two churches named Saint Mary’s, the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland parish churches. It is as though the town is held or enclosed by two hands joined in prayer.

But Askeaton had other churches in the past too. The most notable among these is the Franciscan Friary, whose dramatic ruins stand on the east bank of the Deel, just north of the town. Historians agree too there was also a chapel or church within the walls of the Desmond castle in Askeaton.

Other churches within a short distance of Askeaton included the former churches at Lismakeery, Tomdeely, Morgans North or Mount Pleasant, and Beagh, near Ballysteen, served in pre-Reformation days probably by the Augustinian canons sent to Askeaton from Keynsham Abbey, and working like priests moving out from a minster.

In the 17th and early 18th century, the Catholics of Askeaton may have been served by Franciscan friars who remained around the ruined friary and living in the town. The list of parish priests of Askeaton dates back to 1704, and this list is complete from the end of the 18th century.

As the Penal Laws eased at the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 19th century, a Catholic church was built close to the friary ruins, facing the mills and on the east bank of the Deel.

The 1842 map of Askeaton shows the church was a large building before the Famine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

A neighbour called around to the Rectory in recent days with a map of Askeaton dated 9 July 1842, showing that this church, although it was thatched, was a substantial building on the north edge of the town.

John Norris Russell & Co began as corn merchants and millers, but soon expanded to other areas. John Norris Russell (1771-1853), the founder, has been called ‘the most enterprising businessman Limerick ever saw.’

Russell was a merchant, shipowner and industrialist. He built the Newtown Pery Mills on Russell’s Quay, Limerick, and the Newtown Pery store nearby on Henry Street, and he was one of the founders of the Limerick Savings Bank. The Russells also acquired large landholdings in Limerick, Ballinacarriga, Kildimo, and Milltown, Askeaton.

Russell bought Paul Erson’s mill in Askeaton in the 1840s and expanded the business. But disaster struck on 10 March 1847 when fire broke out at the Russell Mills, now known as the Old Creamery. The fire killed a mill worker named Costello and several other workers were burned and injured.

A spark from the fire set ablaze the thatched roof of the church and the whole building perished in the ensuing conflagration. During the fire, the parish priest, Father Edward Cussen, put his life at risk as he worked rescuing several men from the blaze.

The thatch-roof church was destroyed by a fire that spread from the neighbouring mill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Askeaton was without a Catholic church and Father Cussen was offered Corbett’s flour mill in Brewery Lane, later Fitzgibbon’s store. Mass was celebrated there for the next four years until the present Saint Mary’s Catholic Church was built in 1851-1853.

The fire happened at the height of the Great Famine, and there were no funds locally to build a new church. And so, Father James Enright was sent to US to raise funds for a new church.

Between the burning of the old church in 1847 and the opening of the new one in 1851, Askeaton suffered through the Famine. A famine or fever hospital was set up to take care of the dying and the very ill. The ruins of the hospital can still be seen on the main bypass opposite the turn off to the Wyeth plant.

Before the Famine, this building was a treatment centre and a home for lepers. It seems that leprosy may have occurred in the area, as a stream near the four roads also refers to leprosy – Lochan Lobhar, or the Lepers’ Pond.

The population of Askeaton in 1841, four years before the Famine, was 1,862; 40 years later, the population in 1881 was 804, and today it is about 1,137, illustrating graphically how Askeaton has never fully recovered from the impact of the Famine.

Father Cussen died in 1860 and he is buried under the main aisle of the church he built.

The church fire left Askeaton without a Roman Catholic church for four years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

As for John Norris Russell, he died in 1853 and is buried at Saint John’s Church in Limerick, where the Russell mausoleum was erected 20 years later.

This is a fine classical mausoleum built of limestone in 1873, with a tetrastyle temple front in the Doric order, limestone ashlar walls with Doric pilasters supporting a plain entablature and pediment. The heraldic decorations include a cast-iron relief goat figure above ribbon band with the Russell motto and date: Che Sara Sara 1873.

A plaque reads: ‘Here lieth the mortal remains of Francis Russell who died the 25th day of August 1800. He was an affectionate husband, a kind and indulgent parent, a true friend & an honest man.’ Another plaque reads: ‘John Norris Russell dedicated this monument to his father Francis Russell. A tender husband, an affectionate parent, a kind friend & an honest man.’

The ruins of the church destroyed by fire in 1847 still stand beside the Friary ruins close to the east bank of the River Deel on the north edge of Askeaton.

The ruins of the church destroyed by fire in 1847 stand by the Friary ruins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Pentecost 2021:
100, Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, London

Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, on the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Seasons of Lent and Easter this year, I took 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).

Sunday was the Day of Pentecost (23 May 2021), and I am continuing with photographs for the rest of this week from six churches in the ‘Major Churches Network,’ churches once known as the ‘Greater Churches’ in England.

The Major Churches Network was founded in 1991 as the Greater Churches Network. It is a group of Church of England parish churches with exceptional significance, that are physically very large, listed as Grade I, II* or exceptionally II, open to visitors daily, have a role or roles beyond those of a typical parish church, and make considerable civic, cultural, and economic contributions to their community.

These churches are often former monastic properties that became parish churches after the English Reformation, or civic parish churches built at a time of great wealth.

Inside the Church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields (Photograph courtesy Saint Martin-in-the-Fields)

This morning (27 May 2021), my photographs are from the Church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, in the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, close to the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, London. This is a church I assoicate with Anglican pacifism, campaigning against apartheid and on behalf of the homeless, and with an Irish-born, cricket playing, USPG missionary.

This is a landmark church in London, known for its fine architecture and its prominent location. The church has a long tradition, but is also innovative in response to changing needs, from London’s first free lending library to the first religious broadcast.

There has been a church on the site since Norman times. In 1222, a dispute was recorded between William, Abbot of Westminster, and Eustace, Bishop of London on the bishop’s authority over the church, then surrounded by fields. The Archbishop of Canterbury decided in favour of the abbot and the monks of Westminster Abbey.

Henry VIII built a new church on the site ca 1542 and extended the parish boundaries to keep plague victims away from his palace. The church was enlarged in 1607 at the cost of Prince Henry, son of King James I.

This church was replaced by the present church in 1721. The church was designed by James Gibbs and completed in 1726. Gibbs’s design has been imitated across North America and throughout the world. While John Nash was planning Trafalgar Square in the 19th century, he created Church Path and the range of buildings to the north.

The work of the church today is informed by the practical Christianity exemplified in the life of its patron, Saint Martin of Tours, known for his spontaneous generosity, typified in sharing his cloak with a beggar.

Canon Dick Sheppard, Vicar of Saint Martin’s during World War I, gave refuge to soldiers on their way to France. He saw Saint Martin’s as ‘the church of the ever-open door,’ and the doors of the church have remained open ever since. Dick Shepherd, a life-long pacifist, was also a founder of the Peace Pledge Union and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship in the 1930s.

When Dick Shepherd became Dean of Canterbury, he was succeeded by Canon (William) Patrick ‘Pat’ Glyn McCormick (1877-1940), an SPG (USPG) missionary in the Transvaal in 1903-1910. His father, Canon Joseph McCormick (1834-1914), played Cricket for Ireland under the alias of Joseph Bingley to disguise his participation from his parishioners in Dunmore East, Co Waterford. Joseph McCormick also rowed in the Cambridge Boat in March 1856, helping to defeat Oxford in 22 minutes 45 seconds.

Pat McCormick played cricket for Devon and had one first class match for MCC in 1907, and also played Rugby for Transvaal. When he succeeded Dick Shepherd at Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in 1927-1940, he continued his work among the ‘down and outs.’ His brother, Joseph Gough McCormick (1874-1924), became Dean of Manchester, and also played cricket with distinction for Norfolk 1899 to 1909, scoring four hundreds.

Saint Martin’s work with homeless people led to the foundation of the Social Service Unit in 1948. The work continues today through ‘The Connection at Saint Martin’s,’ which cares for around 7,500 people each year.

In the 1960s, Saint Martin’s was concerned for the welfare of new arrivals in the emerging Chinatown and welcomed a Chinese congregation.

Throughout the 20th century, Saint Martin’s also played an active role in wider social, humanitarian and international issues. The church and its priests were involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the founding of many charitable organisations, including Amnesty International, Shelter and The Big Issue.

The Vicar’s Christmas Appeal on BBC Radio 4 has been broadcast annually since 1924, and now raises over £2 million a year for disadvantaged people.

The Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields is one of the world’s foremost chamber ensembles.

The Revd Dr Sam Wells has been Vicar of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields since 2012. He is a former Dean of Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina (2005-2012), Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at King’s College, London, and a regular contributor to ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4. His wife, the Right Revd Jo Wells, is Bishop of Dorking.

The Revd Sally Hitchiner, who I once invited to preach in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, is the Associate Vicar for Ministry. The Revd Richard Carter is Associate Vicar for Mission.

A monument beside the church that constantly attracts my attention is the Edith Cavell Memorial in Saint Martin’s Place.

Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was a nurse from Norfolk and was matron at Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels when World War I broke out in 1914. She nursed soldiers from both sides without distinction and helped 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. She was arrested in August 1915, court-martialled, found guilty of treason, and shot at dawn by a German firing squad on 12 October 1915.

At first she was buried in Belgium, but she was brought back to Britain in May 1919 for a state funeral in Westminster Abbey and was buried at Norwich Cathedral.

Although Edith Cavell’s sister, Lilian Wainwright, wanted no public monuments, funds for a public memorial were raised by a committee chaired by Harry Levy-Lawson, Viscount Burnham, proprietor of the Daily Telegraph. Other committee members included the Lord Mayor of London, the Bishop of London, and the chairman of London County Council.

The sculptor Sir George James Frampton (1860-1928) declined any fee for the commission. He adopted a distinctively Modernist style for the memorial, with a three-metre statue of Edith Cavell in her nurse’s uniform, sculpted from white Carrara marble, standing on a grey Cornish granite pedestal. The statue stands in front of the south side of a larger grey granite pylon that is 12 metres high. The top of the block is carved into a cross and a statue of a mother and child, sometimes interpreted as the Virgin and Child. The whole memorial is elevated on three steps.

The inscription on the pedestal reads:

Edith Cavell
October 12th 1915
Patriotism is not enough
I must have no hatred or
bitterness for anyone

The last three lines quote her comment to the Revd Stirling Gahan (1870-1958), the Irish-born Anglican chaplain in Brussels, who gave her Holy Communion on the night before her execution. These words were initially left off, and added in 1924 at the request of the National Council of Women.

The face of the granite block behind the statue bears the inscription ‘Humanity,’ and higher up, below the Virgin and Child, ‘For King and Country.’ Other faces of the block bear the inscriptions, ‘Devotion,’ ‘Fortitude’ and ‘Sacrifice.’ On the rear face of the block is a carving of a lion crushing a serpent, and higher up, the inscription, ‘Faithful until death.’

The memorial was unveiled on 17 March 1920. The site was chosen because it is beside the first headquarters of the British Red Cross at 7 Saint Martin’s Place.

The Edith Cavell Memorial in Saint Martin’s Place, beside Saint Martin-in-the Fields (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 10: 46-52 (NRSVA):

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49 Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52 Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

A lamppost outside Saint Martin-in-the Fields recalls the story of Saint Martin of Tours sharing his cloak with a beggar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (27 May 2021, Saint Augustine of Canterbury) invites us to pray:

May we acknowledge racism in all its forms and work together to strive for equality and diversity in all we do.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Saint Martin-in-Fields … the work of the church today is informed by the practical Christianity (Photograph: Robert Cutts / Wikipedia, CCL Licence CCBY20)

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