30 August 2021

Lighthouses and lace … once
the lot of the nuns in Youghal

The former Presentation Convent and Chapel in Youghal, Co Cork … is this work of Ashlin architecture in danger of being lost? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Lighthouse-keeping and lace making seem o have been the lot of nuns in Youghal, Co Cork, for centuries.

The former Presentation Convent in Youghal was known for the word-famous Youghal Lace, once sought after by popes, queens, and all who valued exquisitely crafted garments without worrying about the price.

Wedding gowns and christening robes that were made of Youghal Lace would become family heirlooms.

The Convent Lace School was opened in 1852 by Mother Mary Ann Smith of the Presentation Convent and the world-famous Youghal Lace was made here.

The production of Youghal Lace grew out of the need to create employment in the area during the potato famine in the later 1840s.

When a piece of lace of Italian origin came into the hands of Mother Mary Ann Smith of the Presentation Convent in Youghal, she carefully unravelled the piece of lace, examined how it had been made, and then mastered the stitches.

Mother Mary Ann Smith then taught what she had learned to children in the convent who had shown an aptitude for needlework. This lace is made entirely by the needle, and the thread used is of very fine cotton.

The Convent Lace School opened in 1852 and flourished. In 1863 A shawl of Youghal Lace was presented in 1852 to the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexander, when she married the future King Edward VII. It was the first of many presentations of Youghal Lace to the British royal family.

Youghal Lace was awarded several medals at in prestigious international exhibitions, including the Vatican Exhibition (1888), the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), the RDS, and the Exhibition of British Lace, London (1906).

The convent closed in the early 1990s, and the nuns’ coffins were reburied in the North Abbey Cemetery. A statue of the Virgin Mary once stood on a plinth on the Bell Tower overlooking the grounds and the nuns’ graveyard. The empty plinth can still be seen in the bell tower.

The building was refurbished and adapted as the Youghal International College, a Spanish second-level school, in 1992. But the building is closed and fenced off again, although it has been declared a National Monument.

Gothic decline at the former Presentation Convent in Youghal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The convent chapel designed by AWN Pugin’s son-in-law, the Cork-born architect George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), as part of the convent complex, with the former convent to the north, sharing a decorative scheme and architectural style.

The chapel, in a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles, is typical of churches of its type and time, with features such as the round-headed windows, a bellcote, and steeply-pitched roofs and gables. The variety of materials used in building it add decorative emphasis to the fa├žade and textural variety to the streetscape.

The gable-fronted chapel was built ca 1880, with slightly projecting gabled transepts, four-bay nave elevations, a gabled single-bay single-storey porch at the south side and a gabled bellcote and carved limestone pinnacles at the end.

The chapel is part of a group that forms an imposing and unusual feature on the streetscape of the town. The attached former convent, built at the same time, is a ten-bay, three-storey block with advanced end bays, a gable-fronted, single-bay, single-storey porch at the front elevation and a six-stage, square-profile tower at the north.

The other architectural features include sandstone chimneystacks, dressed limestone quoins, carved limestone bracketed eaves courses, the cross finial, and the round-headed windows.

I hope this important Ashlin chapel, now vacant on a prominent site, is not facing the same fate as the one that has befallen the former Chapel and Mercy Convent in Skibbereen in West Cork, abandoned to the elements after a fire some months ago, to fall into disrepair and decay. The convent and chapel in Skibbereen were designed in the 1860s by Pugin and Ashlin, and the neglected convent chapels in these two towns – one in East Cork, the other in West Cork – have been parts of architecturally significant ecclesiastical complexes.

The former Loreto Convent is being transformed into a modern apartment complex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Further south on the same road in Youghal, the former Loreto Convent campus has been on the market in recent years and is now being converted into apartments in a new development known as Ashton Court.

This site includes the former Loreto Convent and Secondary School, Marymount House, halls and outbuildings on about 4.2 acres of mature grounds on elevated site, with sea views over Youghal bay with its sandy beaches and panoramic views of the River Blackwater.

The former convent is an imposing, red-brick, two-storey over basement building. It was built ca 1850, and was originally known as Ashton Court. It later included a library, conservatory, and first-floor oratory. The former chapel had been converted into a community room.

The former school buildings were extended in mid-1970s, and refurbished and extended in 1991. The school closed in 2006, leaving the site to slowly fall into disrepair.

Naas-based Redbarn Construction Ltd bought the listed property as part of an immediate €6 million investment that also includes restoring a local cinema and an unfinished housing estate. The Loreto site plan envisages about 40 apartments in a gated development, some with access from Golf Links Road. The plans also envisage turning a small cottage close into a coffee shop and newsagents.

There has been a lighthouse overlooking the Blackwater estuary since the late 12th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The two former convents are immediately north of Youghal Lighthouse. It stands on the site of the first lighthouse in Youghal, built there over 800 years ago by Maurice FitzGerald (1194-1257). It is interesting, therefore, that this first lighthouse was maintained by the nuns of Saint Anne’s Convent for centuries.

That first lighthouse fell into disrepair after the nuns’ community was dissolved during the Tudor Reformation.

More than 30 ships were wrecked off the coast of Youghal in the 1820s alone. The merchants of Youghal demanded a new lighthouse be built on nearby Capel Island. But the authorities declined, and for over a decade the merchants and the local authorities fought over the ideal location for a new lighthouse.

Capel Island was then chosen, and building work started in the late 1840s. But local opinion changed, a new location was sought, and the half-built lighthouse on Capel Island was abandoned.

Finally, a new lighthouse opened in 1852 – in the same place where the nuns had run one from the 12th century. The half-built lighthouse on Capel Island can still be seen, and the entire island is now a bird sanctuary.

The last lighthouse attendant in Youghal moved out in 1996. Since then, the lighthouse has been fully automated and is now run from Dublin.

‘No Parking, Day or Night. Emergency Access Only’ … the gate in front of the former Presentation Convent Chapel in Youghal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
93, Bective Abbey, Co Meath

Bective Abbey was founded in 1147 as a daughter house of Mellifont Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme this week is Benedictine (including Cistercian) foundations. My photographs this morning (30 August 2021) are from Bective Abbey, Co Meath.

The Abbot of Bective was a spiritual lord and sat in the mediaeval parliament (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The ruins of Bective Abbey are on the banks of the River Boyne in Co Meath.

Bective Abbey was founded by the King of Meath, Murchad O Maeil-Sheachlainn, in 1147 as a daughter house of Mellifont Abbey, Co Louth, which had been founded just five years earlier. This was the second Cistercian foundation in Ireland and the new abbey was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Unlike many Cistercian foundations that sought isolation in the wilderness, Bective Abbey was set on prime agricultural land, and quickly rose in importance. The Cistercians were one of the new monastic orders that emerged in the 12th century. Their economy was based on self-sufficiency and relied on arable agriculture.

The cereal cultivated at Bective Abbey, including oat, barley and wheat, fed the monks and any surplus food was sold in Ireland or sent to England and continental Europe. The location of the abbey on the banks of the Boyne and at the fording points on the roads to the north and south made sending these cereals to the port at Drogheda an efficient trade.

Hugh de Lacy, the Anglo-Norman Lord of Meath who built Trim Castle, was murdered in Durrow in 1195. The Abbey of Saint Thomas in Dublin and Mellifont Abbey wanted his body to be buried with them. Finally it was decided to bury his body at Bective Abbey and his head in Dublin.

The decision caused feuding between the monks of the two abbeys, and 10 years later in 1205 the Bishop of Meath and two other judges decreed that the head and body should be reunited and buried together in Dublin.

Bective Abbey was fortified in 1228 and used as a safe haven for the English and visitors from Europe.

It is possible to gauge the importance of the abbey because the Abbot of Bective was a spiritual lord and sat in the mediaeval parliament. The community at Bective Abbey were Anglo-Norman, and in 1386 men of Irish birth were effectively barred from entering the monastery.

The number of monks at Bective declined significantly in the 15th century and the abbey was substantially reduced in size. The south aisles of the church were demolished, the adjoining arcades were blocked off, the nave was truncated with the construction of a new west facade protected by a fortified tower, and a second tower was built at the south-west corner of the cloisters.

The two towers and the fortified alterations made Bective Abbey the most heavily fortified abbey in Ireland, and by the 16th century, the Cistercians of Bective Abbey had become wealthy from rents, tithes and donations.

The abbey was suppressed in 1536, the roof was removed in 1540, and almost 1,600 acres of abbey lands were confiscated. At the time of the dissolution, it was recorded that the estate of Bective contained 1,580 acres valued at £83 18s 8p.

The lands were first rented to Thomas Asgarde, an English civil servant, and bought by Andrew Wyse in 1552. Bective then passed to the Dillon family and later to the Bolton family. The complex was converted into a great mansion with the insertion of new fireplaces, chimneys and large stone windows. However, the abbey and the great mansion later fell into ruin.

Later, in 1766, Thomas Taylour (1724-1797), Lord Headfort, who had been MP for Kells, Co Meath, in 1747-1760, was given the title of Earl of Bective, of Bective Castle, in the County of Meath. However, the family lived not at Bective but at Headfort House, near Kells, and the family’s hunting lodge in Virginia, Co Cavan later became the Park Hotel.

Eventually, Bective Abbey was donated to the State in 1894.

The ruins are surrounded by an outer wall, and nothing remains of the earliest 12th century monastic buildings. The earliest stone work dates from 1274 and includes five bays of the south arcade.

The main part of the fortified abbey is built over three floors and includes cloisters and a tower giving it the appearance of a fortress rather than an abbey. The large defensive tower was built above the south range of the abbey in the 15th century.

But the best-preserved parts of the building are two surviving sections of the 15th century cloisters, with some beautiful arches that are still intact, including a pillar with the figure of mediaeval bishop or abbot carrying a crozier. Some sources say this is Saint Brendan, but it is difficult to understand why an old Irish saint would be given such prominence in an Anglo-Norman foundation. Perhaps he was the abbot responsible for building the cloisters.

Bective Abbey was a location in the filming of Mel Gibson movie Braveheart in 1995, and the cloisters were used for the scene with the Princess and her maid.

Today the ruins of the abbey are set in the middle of pasture on the banks of the River Boyne. In 2012, the Office of Public Works bought some of the land from a local farmer and converted it into a carpark, laying out a footpath leading to the abbey.

The best-preserved parts of the building are two surviving sections of the 15th century cloisters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 4: 16-30 (NRSVA):

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23 He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum”.’ 24 And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Bective Abbey was donated to the State in 1894 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (30 August 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil. May we support them in all they do to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in Brazil.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Some sources the figure on a of mediaeval bishop or abbot carrying a crozier is Saint Brendan … but he may be the abbot responsible for building the cloisters (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 large defensive tower was built above the south range of the abbey in the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)