Fragile windows on the past


In small townlands in Munster lie old churches with beautiful windows andother artefacts which record some major and minor moments in local andnational history, but some are in decay, writes Mary Leland

It isn't often that the fate of a church can be associated with the fate of a pub, but at Duhill, near Clogheen in Co Tipperary, local belief has it that the closure of The Cross Bar two years ago was the first sign that the closure of Duhill Church would follow. The community that can't keep a pub open certainly can't support a church, in other words.

It is true that in fact and even in fancy the two events have no connection at all. The Cross Bar marks the crossroads where the turn off the main Clogheen-Clonmel road intersects the townland of Castlegrace and passes the small, apparently isolated and apparently undistinguished church of St John the Baptist at Duhill. Dating from 1826, the church is built in the simple barn style it shares with the earlier and much more prosperous St Kieran's parish church at Ballylooby, a few miles away.

Ballylooby was one of Tipperary's "chapel villages", developed as the mainspring of parochial life after Catholic Emancipation; its church is centrally situated and prosperous.

Duhill and its graveyard stand among the long pastures of the valley enclosed by the Galtee Mountains to the north and the Knockmealdown range to the south. In this quiet landscape, history has been made: a little to the east at Tubbrid is the grave of Geoffrey Keating; a little to the west is Seanrahan, the ancient church from which St Cathaldus began his pilgrimage to the Holy Land which ended at Taranto, and which is also the burial place of Father Nicholas Sheehy, parish priest of Clogheen, who was martyred at Clonmel in 1766. Below the Cross Bar, a bridge and a mill stand over the river Tar, and close to Duhill church the former Victorian school is in use as a community hall.

It was, perhaps, the closure of this school in 1950 and its replacement 20 years later that really signalled the decline of Duhill. The children of the area are bussed to school in Ballylooby, which remains the focus of parish life. Only five miles apart, the difference in the churches is obvious to the most casual visitor: Ballylooby is bright with paint and plaster, the pews glisten, the flooring shines, the notices are up to date, the flowers garden-fresh. At Duhill, the paint is peeling, the plaster cracked, the flowers few enough. But Duhill remained an important part of local life until it was announced on August 7th last that the collapse of part of a ceiling moulding had revealed that the roof was in a potentially dangerous condition and that the church would be closed for worship until a programme of renovations could begin.

"Nobody is more anxious to get Duhill repaired and reopened than myself," says parish priest Father Michael Walsh, perhaps a little surprised at the concern - it could even be called suspicion - aroused by the closure. But the difference between Ballylooby and Duhill is more than a matter of paint and slates: Duhill is listed as a protected building by Tipperary County Council, and Ballylooby is not. The reason is simple: at Duhill, surrounded by pasture, hill and woodland, the sanctuary is lit by two radiant Harry Clarke windows.

One on either side of the altar, the first of these lancet lights depicts the apparition at Lourdes. The second, in a vigorous departure from what might have been expected of rural piety, portrays the death of the church's patron, John the Baptist.

Each is set within a glazed frame of densely clustered blossoms. For Lourdes, the grotto is illuminated by the stellar nimbus of the Virgin's halo, which seems to irradiate even the colours of the frame. On the other side, Herod in scarlet and gold and the purple-clad Herodias gaze at Salome as if wondering what she's going to do next, while Salome, exuding a post-coital aura of satisfaction down to the straps of her jewelled sandals, smiles at her victim's plated head.

While the preliminary engineer's report on Duhill from C.J. Falconers of Waterford notes the fine balcony and beautiful sanctuary, it also points out that its listing for preservation "presents further problems far in excess of normal repairs". This report was circulated to parishioners and when its language was decoded locally there was alarm at the possibility that the costs might be so great that Duhill would remain closed for a long time. Father Walsh strenuously resists this implication, and although cautious about the support which might be offered by Duchas (Falconers have suggested a meeting with Professor Fred O'Dwyer of Duchas in order to arrange a programme of work) and apprehensive about the consequent financial burden he believes there will be no problem about getting the money required to restore Duhill.

The Harry Clarke windows memorialise Margaret Byrne of Ashgrove and her brothers the Rev John Moran of Ballyduff, the Rev Thomas Moran of Newcastle and James Moran of Ballyknockane. Installed in 1925, they reinforce the distinction of old churches suggested by poet Philip Larkin's description (in Church Going) of "this special shell". Obscure, unvisited by strangers, vulnerable in their very isolation, the windows at Duhill offer that shock of the unexpected and the beautiful still to be found among the hidden churches of Ireland.

For example, the chapel of Clonegam, at Portlaw in Co Waterford, built in 1741 as an estate church for the De La Poer Beresfords at Curraghmore. Although used only a few times a year, it is not abandoned and the rector, George Cliffe of Fiddown Union, says how €38,000 (partly raised from the sale of Guilcagh Church, now an interior design centre) has been spent on it in the last three years, largely on the restoration of the Richard Hand windows vandalised in 1997. Re-set by Keanes of Waterford, the surviving panels were allocated by Caroline Lady Waterford so that each window would have four instead of the original six images. These sprightly colours belie the severity of the exterior and of the bronze and marble catafalques on either side of the aisle. The Beresfords, Earls of Tyrone and Lords of Waterford, lie here, with friends such as William Clayton-Clayton of the 9th Lancers, killed while playing polo in New Delhi on Christmas Day, 1876: an appropriate enough end for this "dearest friend of the house of Curraghmore", which included among its sons a legendary Master of Fox Hounds and Lord Marcus Beresford who managed the racing stables of not one king, but two. Among these heroes, is the tender effigy of Florence Grosvenor, wife of the 5th Marquess of Waterford. Florence died in childbirth; the little window over her memorial shows the tracery of cobwebs on the lace on her marble sleeves, her pillow's embroidered fringe, and on the loose swaddling of the baby by her side.

Clonegam sits on a cliff above the vast sheepfold of Curraghmore; the great house itself, with its stag-crowned courtyard designed in French Gothic by John Roberts of Waterford, can be glimpsed through the groves of trees as the hill falls into the Clodiagh valley. The chapel, often described as a mausoleum, is evocative of Larkin's "serious house on serious earth".

In a reminder of serious times, a signpost on a by-road between Aglish and Clashmore in Co Waterford indicates An Tur. This is St Patrick's Church, built in 1826 by Lord Stuart of Decies for the accommodation of his mountain tenantry. It lies hidden in the Drum Hills, a simple structure in which mass is celebrated every Sunday as part of a vibrant parish life.

Aglish, or Eaglais, is a village grown from several churches including a convent and friary, but An Tur is a Chapel of Ease.

Also called Mount Stuart, it is the historic link with its founder, Henry Villiers Stuart of Dromana, victor of Stuart's Election in 1826, which saw him returned to parliament as an advocate of Catholic Emancipation - a battle in which, as it happens, he was pitted against the Beresfordsof Waterford.

The little church in the hills would be notable for this connection alone. Its greater distinction, perhaps, is in its location on a hidden hillside reached by a 50-foot wide, 200-yard long avenue of beech trees springing from the ferny, moss-grown stone wall, which is pierced near the summit by a stile leading to a mass path. Again there is the shock - these marvellous trees, this small, living church lost among the hills to all but those who keep it breathing and holy. Mount Stuart is one of many: there is the Church of the Ascension in Timoleague, its exquisite chancel matched by the Indian mosaics covering the walls of the nave. There is St Colman's at Farahy, kept open for that one day in the year when a memorial service is held in memory of Elizabeth Bowen. There is the little church in the valley of the Glendine river near Youghal, Co Cork. There is the church of Gurranekennefeake at East Ferry, built by William Atkins, the local rival of William Burges; its lonely wayside spire pierces the woods above this creek behind Cork harbour, waiting for the answer to Larkin's question: "When churches fall completely out of use/ What we shall turn them into . . ."