St Mary’s Collegiate Church, in the heart of Youghal, Co Cork, is believed to be one of the oldest parish churches still in continuous use in Ireland. This year it celebrates its 802nd anniversary. The 800th anniversary celebrations were delayed due to the pandemic.
Built in 1220 under the patronage of the earl of Offaly, its huge roof trusses, made from local oak trees felled in 1190, are still visible today, as are pottery jars inserted in the walls in medieval times to improve the acoustics, and as is the sword rest where the mayor of Youghal’s enormous processional sword was kept.
When it was built, Youghal was one of the largest towns in Ireland and grew rich from trade with Bristol, France and the Netherlands. In 1291, it was by far the richest parish in Cloyne diocese, but in 1348 the traders brought with them a deadly cargo: the Black Death.
The arrival of the reformation in Ireland meant that Youghal was at the centre of religious and political wars for the following 200 years
That pandemic wiped out almost half of the town’s inhabitants and was to be a recurring problem for the next 200 years.
In the 15th century, a papal decree granted the church “collegiate” status; a college of priests and brothers was built beside it so that services could be sung continuously and as an early form of university.
The arrival of the reformation in Ireland meant that Youghal was at the centre of religious and political wars for the following 200 years. The Earl of Desmond, Gerald Fitzgerald, rose in revolt against Queen Elizabeth in 1579; the town was sacked and the college and church (now with an Anglican rector) were both plundered and damaged.
The rebellion was put down ferociously by Walter Raleigh who came to Youghal to try make a fortune from selling local timber. He was mayor of Youghal from 1588 and his house, close to the church gates, still stands today. Legend has it that it was in that garden Raleigh grew the first potatoes in Europe, and smoked the first tobacco, allegedly leading to a dowsing by his maid who thought he was on fire.
Raleigh got into financial trouble back in London and was forced to sell his Cork properties at a knockdown price to Richard Boyle, later first earl of Cork. He repaired the church and built the enormous and striking 7m-tall carved wooden tomb-memorial to himself and his family there, with himself surrounded by his two wives and all his children.
Boyle’s death coincided with the beginning of the English civil war, with Cromwell’s parliamentarians pitted against King Charles 1st’s royalist army. The war spilled over into Ireland, with the mayor of Youghal and the town council siding with Cromwell against the Confederacy of Kilkenny who supported the King.
Youghal was besieged for three months in the summer of 1645, when the medieval town walls that surround the church were battered by cannon fire on all sides. The town held firm, supplied by small ships sneaking in under the cover of darkness.
At the end of the war, Cromwell himself arrived in Ireland and, following his destructive campaign across the country, he spent the winter of 1649-1650 in Youghal. He expelled the Anglican clergy from St Mary’s in favour of his own preachers and he himself gave an oration at the funeral there of his trusted Lieut Gen Michael Jones while, it is said, weeping openly. The chest on which he stood while preaching is still in the church. In May 1651, Cromwell left Ireland from Youghal for Bristol.
By 1734, the philosopher Bishop of Cloyne George Berkeley had become warden at the college there while John Wesley, founder of Methodism, attended a service at St Mary’s in 1765.
On Sunday, October 23rd, a special service will take place to mark the church’s 802nd anniversary
As time passed the east end of the church fell into ruin, with no roof on the chancel, until a great restoration project got under way in the 1850s. The east window and its medieval stonework was restored with magnificent stained glass depicting significant local families.
By 2005, the small Church of Ireland congregation could no longer maintain the magnificent building and leased it to Youghal Town Council (now Cork County Council) who have since invested heavily in the building.
Worship still continues there, however. Next Sunday, October 23rd, a special service will take place there at 3.30pm to mark its 802nd anniversary. It will be led by Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross Paul Colton with Archbishop John McDowell, Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland, as preacher.
As priest-in-charge for the occasion, I have to say we are thrilled to be marking the anniversary of this extraordinary building with this very special service. We look forward to welcoming not just the archbishop and the bishop but also local representatives and visitors from across the island of Ireland.
Canon Andrew Orr is priest-in-charge of the Youghal union of parishes