Any salvation for Cork church?
With a renewed interest in the English Market next door, the possible linking of the church with the market is being explored
IF A building like Princes Street Church was in a city such as Boston, it’s unlikely it would be hidden behind locked gates with paint peeling off its walls. Few other tourist cities would choose to conceal stunning early 18th-century windows behind an unsightly false partition, or hide entirely a semi-circular 300-year-old-gallery with original staircase, which until recently was visited only by flocks of pigeons. But such is our sometimes cavalier attitude towards heritage in Ireland, that Princes Street Church, probably one of the most historically important religious buildings in Cork city, remains in a poor state of repair with time running out for a long-term solution to its problems.
Ask most Cork people where the city’s sole Unitarian church is located and many would struggle to tell you. The church, located beside the Princes Street entrance to the English Market, is one of the oldest religious buildings still serving its original purpose.
The church was completed in 1717, as the Unitarian congregation in the city outgrew its original premises near South Main Street. It became known as the “New Meeting House” and was one of the first buildings to be built on reclaimed marsh to the east of the medieval walls of Cork. At the time it would have stood out architecturally until the city’s expansion caught up with it.
It is older than the newly revamped Triskel Christchurch, and took around five years to construct, as hard rock and rubble had to be brought into the area to secure the foundations and reclaim the land.
“It was one of the first buildings built outside the old medieval city walls,” says Cork Unitarian Fritz Spengeman, who has offered to show me around. “In the 1690s the old medieval walls were breached during the Williamite wars and after the destruction of large portions of those city walls, people began to build to the east and to the west. This was one of the first buildings along the eastern marsh.”
Originally the pulpit was on the west wall facing east and a pillar, door and gate stood perfectly in line from there to the street outside. Now, the interior is in a poor state, with parts of the gallery panelling missing, and a 1970s portioned ceiling giving the main hall a somewhat suppressed feeling. Dividing interior walls were installed 100 years ago, as the congregation got smaller and the gallery and adjoining wings were no longer needed.
The stairs leading to the gallery is in poor repair and hidden behind a material partition. At the top though is surely one of the most authentic early 18th-century rooms left in Cork city, with huge exposed beams detailing robust Cork craftsmanship. In one corner two chairs are kept amid piles of dusty boxes and Christmas decorations. These two ornate chairs are thought to have come from the previous Unitarian church, which would mean they were made sometime in the 1600s.
Downstairs, there is no pulpit anymore as the ornate original was removed at some point in the past 30 years. Where it went or who took it are unclear. Yet, despite the obvious need for refurbishment, the building is utterly historic and charming. Windows are of an unusual oval shape and the back door leads directly onto the back wall of the English Market. Outside, where the clink of cutlery on plates from the Farmgate restaurant can be heard, is a four-foot high wall in one corner. This, I’m told, was a public toilet circa 1700. The exterior of the building to one side contains the original rubble wall construction.
Fritz Spengeman, and 20 members of the Unitarian church left in Cork, are now hoping to finally put in place a financial master plan for the complete refurbishment of the church. But the building has been at a crossroads before.
Inside the main hall, a report from a Cork newspaper in 1958 hangs on one wall. It has a picture of the inside of the church with the headline stating “Church to be a supermarket”. Mrs Marjory Thompson of Blackrock Road is pictured sitting in the pews, and described as the only remaining Unitarian left in the city at that time. The paper reported that a grocery chain which was planning to convert it into a supermarket had bought the church. Thankfully, the plan never went ahead as the building was listed.
Once Mrs Thompson left the city, the building saw little Unitarian activity until the 1990s, when a small group, including Fritz Spengeman, resumed weekly services. To earn its keep, from time to time the building is let out to local groups, and used for a variety of events, from experimental rock concerts to craft fairs. Some essential works have been carried out through the assistance of Cork City Council, Cork City Planning Office and the Heritage Council. The pigeons have been evicted and much of the rising damp in the walls has been treated.
With renewed interest in the English Market next door, following the recent visit of Queen Elizabeth II, a link-up between the church and the market is one of the possibilities being explored.
“We have a small congregation here. Since 2003 we have spent about €330,000 on this place and have done a lot of work,” explains Fritz. “Many of the windows were broken and we had serious damp problems. We have a place secure to the elements now.”
Members of the Unitarian church are in talks with Cork City Council and hope that a plan can be arrived at before Christmas. As yet, no wealthy benefactor has come forward to foot the bill; the final cost of complete restoration is likely to be seven figures. But, if nothing is done, a link back to Cork city at the start of its development is in danger of being lost.
For more information see unitarianchurchcork.org