There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
St Catherine’s Church, 1815. This is the second article to mark the successful Heritage Week 2023. The new St Catherine’s Church was designed by Francis Johnston and was built in the Gothic style with a Latin cross plan, side-aisles, a tower in the west and a crypt at the east end for the burial place of the Bury family. Its situation on Hophill makes it an impressive landmark in Tullamore. Hophill is a glacial mound which rises steeply to a height of about fifty feet above the land around it. It is not clear how the mound acquired its name or when. The earliest known reference to the hill occurs in a lease of 1748. There is a local story that the spoil for digging out the new lake at Charleville was used to construct the site for the new church. While this is not true perhaps some materials were used which gave credence to this story. Originally more pointed, the hill is a natural one.
The Francis Johnston drawing courtesy of the Irish Architectural Archive
On 13 July 1808 Lord Charleville wrote from Tullamore to his wife at Weymouth:- ‘Johnston here till Saturday: this morning we lay out foundations for the church on the Hophill which Goldsbury [Gouldsbury, the rector] represents as now preferred to the site near the stores. [He is referring here to the new canal stores of Store St. completed in 1800.] He insists on a Gothic plan.’ Lord Charleville was referring to the site opposite the canal harbour stores where about 1822 the Pentland distillery was built and is now the site of the Granary apartments. Revd Ponsonby Gouldsbury, the Church of Ireland rector and apparently a great raconteur and bon vivant, was accordingly responsible for the choice of the Hophill site. The rector had his house adjoining completed at the same time and some land to go with it. The Gothic plan can hardly have disappointed Charleville given that the castle at Charleville was in this style and so would be the jail ten years later. Nonetheless Gouldsbury must have been a forceful character to have this radical plan adopted and the church built a distance from the town and at a time when there was no public lighting and would not be any until the 1860s. Even then a large room above the market house was used for services on Sunday evenings from the 1820s until at least the 1950s so that parishioners did not have to make the journey out of town on cold dark evenings.
Charles William Bury, first earl of Charleville, 1764-1835
The church was erected at a cost of about £8,000 and opened in 1815 and fully completed in 1818. The earl of Charleville had provided over £4,000 with the balance coming from the Board of First Fruits and local subscriptions. The best pews were sold for thirty guineas to the local Protestant elite. One the few surviving mentions of the opening of the new church is contained in the diary of Killurin, Killeigh estate owner, the Rev. Franc Sadleir, later Provost of Trinity College Dublin, for 20 August 1815:
‘Tullamore church opened, assisted in reading; Jephson preached. Lord Charleville, Miss Tisdall, Lord Tullamore there [and] Col, Stepney. Dined at Charleville, meeting Jephson, his son & Miss Tisdall [a stepdaughter of the earl].‘
Franc Sadleir, later provost of Trinity (1837-51), attended the first service at St Catherine’s in 1815. The Trinity College’s historians wrote: ‘the tightly pursed lips and the shrewd calculating eye betray indeed the whig outlook’ (McDowell & Webb, 155), from DIB entry.
Sixty years later Revd Graham Craig, the rector of Tullamore from 1869 to 1902 officiated at the funeral service of Thomas Sadlier, the youngest and last surviving son of the former Trinity provost.
Dean Craig carrying his sun chair at Geashill Castle in 1900. He was rector from 1869 to 1902. His son succeeded from 1902 to his death in 1929. The popular rector had a bad fall from his bike in 1902 and was confined to bed until his death in 1904. Reginald Digby on the right agent of the Geashill estate. The house was burned by the Republican IRA in 1922.
Improvements since 1831
St Catherine’s Church in bicentenary week 2015.
Published short accounts of improvements to St Catherine’s have appeared since 1900 written by former rectors, R. S. Craig and A.T. Waterstone. Canon Waterstone’s summary was prepared for the 150th anniversary celebration/Sesquicentennial Service on 1 October 1965 at which Bishop R.B. Pike spoke.
1831 Large congregations and the original box pews led to the erection of side galleries.
1851 West gallery built for the organ subsequently placed in the north transept and later again restored.
1871 Repairs costing £650 carried out. The galleries over the side aisles were removed; the box pews were removed and replaced by open bench style pews. The old pulpit with font beneath and flanking reading desks were removed from the centre of the chancel. R.S Craig spoke of the pulpit ‘as a wonderful structure on four large wooden pillars and surmounted by a sounding board resembling a huge bell.’ It was in turn flanked by two reading desks of colossal proportions. However, the effect was to shut out the chancel and Holy Table from the view of the people. The church was reopened on 8 March 1871, ‘singing excellent, great success’. (Craig).
1875 The Countess of Charleville made proposals for improvements but excluding a controversial reredos (voting was eight to four against) based on plans submitted by a Norfolk architect. Waterstone states that the reredos, pulpit and low chancel screen of Caen stone were erected.
1880s Black marble steps replaced the old wooden steps to the sanctuary and a new east window and brass lectern presented by Lady Emily Bury.
1950 Restoration works begun by the then rector, Revd I.R Kirkpatrick including electricity installed and a new ceiling erected.
1952 Restoration work continues under the new rector Revd D. J. Morrow with the restoration of the organ to the west gallery and the installation of an electric blower (courtesy of Mr and Mrs Frank Hurst). The vestry in the north chancel was reduced in size and the porch in the in the west gallery converted to robing rooms.
1953 Circular drive and car park completed
1955 The church was completely re-decorated and oil-fired central heating installed. The church was re-opened on 26 February 1956.
1957 Belfry roof repaired
1958 The church tower was fitted with new louvres
1962 Walls pointed and repairs to roof completed
1986 Organ restored at St. Catherine’s Church, originally built in 1857.
The chapel-of-ease in the market house in O’Connor Square
R.S. Craig states that in 1823 a collection was made ‘for the purchase of seats for the Evening Service in the market house’ at a maximum of 5s. The availability of the market house from the 1820s when the new Shambles was completed on the site of the old church combined with the need to have a room nearer the town centre on the cold winter’s evening made this option attractive. The town was dark in those days and up to 1854 public lighting consisted of one poor lamp in the main square. It was not until 1860 that gas lighting appeared and even that could be indifferent at times as the same R. S. Craig noted in letter to the local press in 1914. Electric light was switched on in Tullamore for the first time in 1921 but St Catherine’s was not wired until 1950.
R.S. Craig noted that the ‘Church Room’ in the market house was conducted on the ‘Free and open principle’ and that there was no attempt to traffic in the pews as presumably happened in the church with the initial purchasers having paid so much for their lockable pews. On very wet days Morning Service was also held in the market house and as late as 1869 it was customary to employ a bellman to go around the town crying ‘Prayers in the market house today’. Probably for this account R.S. Craig is drawing on notes or recollections of his father who was appointed rector in that year. The ‘Church Room’ had been used as a courthouse for quarter sessions but that would have finished in 1835 with the opening of the new courthouse. The market function downstairs finished as early as 1820 and this area was given over to the use of the new Tullamore Charitable Loan Fund Bank. The old furniture and banking drawers were still there in the 1950s when the ground floor was used as a temporary classroom for the vocational school nearby.
The Glebe House or Rectory
The former glebe house near the church was erected in 1814 at a cost of £821 with the verger’s cottage at the entrance. It is a simple five-bay, two-story house with rough-cast walls and a hipped roof. Following the retirement of Canon Waterstone it was decided to sell the old rectory and it was sold in 1991 for £110,000. Now the rector lives in a modern house and the old rectory was, in the Celtic Tiger years, proposed as a nursing home replete with more housing ‘units’. The lands surrounding the church were sold for development of a planned 300 houses and apartments known as Church Hill where work started about 2005 and is in progress. In one weekend such was the demand that the selling price of the houses was increased for a three-bed house from €240,000 to €270,000. It was in the old rectory that the astronomer Charles Jasper Joly was born in 1864. An astronomical price-increase Joly might have said!
A water colour courtesy of Fergal MacCabe
The Charleville Centre
In 2013 the new Charleville Centre was opened at Church Avenue at a cost of €750,000. Over a period of 200 years parish events had been held in the Charleville School (1811) or from the 1820s to the 1950s in the market house in O’Connor Square. Now the sale of lands adjoining the rectory in the ‘Tiger years’ provided funds for the completion of the new centre. It was opened by then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in February 2013 lauding the local Church of Ireland community for their vision in developing a centre which would be open to ‘people of all faiths and none’. Today the Tullamore union of parishes serves about 350 people and the Centre is providing a great service.
A more tolerant and inclusive Tullamore
There were 12,436 Roman Catholics in Tullamore town and environs at census time in 2011. A further 1,274 were adherents of other stated religions (e.g. Church of Ireland, Islam, Presbyterian, Orthodox), while 490 persons indicated that they had no religion by contrast with just one person in the 1961 census. The history of the church buildings (and their future) must be viewed in terms of the changes since the early 1800s, the turbulent decade of 1912–23 and the last twenty years of decline in religious belief and inward migration. The Church of Ireland members in Tullamore and district have had great success in maintaining their fine church in the face of great political and social change since the first centenary in 1915 during the First World War. The rectors since the 1960s have all played a strong part in the story of a more tolerant and inclusive Tullamore. The new Charleville Centre is a sign of growing confidence and augers well for the future. This bicentenary of 2015 was a community affair for everyone. To stop the clock in 1815, 1915, 1965, and even in 2015, is to step back into another country.