St John’s Church, Coolclogh, Co. Cork

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Catholic Emancipation, Features, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2011), Penal Laws, Volume 19

St John’s Church is distinguished by its imposing, if not mildly eccentric, west front. (NIAH)

St John’s Church is distinguished by its imposing, if not mildly eccentric, west front. (NIAH)

The gradual dismantling of the Penal Laws in the later eighteenth century fostered a modest spate of chapel-building across Ireland. Emancipation under the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, however, encouraged an accelerated building programme celebrating the liberated status of the Catholic Church. More often than not, each new church was a communal effort combining fundraising by the parish priest with assistance from benevolent landowners, the latter usually taking the form of a financial donation and/or the provision of a plot of land. Where resources permitted, no expense was spared and a well-known architect or builder was contracted to provide a design for the new parish church. Thus the second quarter of the nineteenth century produced a wealth of ecclesiastical architecture in Ireland, although the building boom was curtailed by the economic upheaval of the Great Famine.In the parish of Drumtariff, near Kanturk, the Revd John Barry (d. 1836) responded in 1833 to the need for a new parish church. Barry obtained a site from Nicholas Philpot Leader MP (1773–1836), proprietor of Dromagh collieries and one of the most influential landowners in the region. Leader also made a contribution of £150 towards the cost of construction. For the design of the church Barry turned not to an architect but to Charles O’Connell, a local sculptor. The collaboration between Barry and O’Connell culminated in one of the finest rural churches in Ireland.Although a simple ‘barn’ structure, St John’s Church is distinguished by its imposing, if not mildly eccentric, west front. Where the proportions and symmetry of the façade are Classical, the detail—the pointed openings with hood mouldings over; the stepped buttresses crowned by spiky pinnacles; the slender needle spire surmounting the central tower—all draw on the contemporary Gothic Revival fashion. More interesting still are the carved limestone dressings that reward a closer inspection of the frontispiece: the Romanesque portraits of Saints Peter and Paul, the former clutching his keys; the papal arms of Pope Gregory XVI; winged angels; and a superbly crafted Memento Mori (reminder of mortality).

Unfortunately, some of the visual treats that once adorned the interior no longer survive intact, the sanctuary having been reordered in response to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. (NIAH)

Unfortunately, some of the visual treats that once adorned the interior no longer survive intact, the sanctuary having been reordered in response to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. (NIAH)

The generosity of the Leader family is recorded by a plaque positioned over the principal doorway, while overhead the tower displays a carved stone clock face and columns showing a loose interpretation of a Classical order. Unfortunately, some of the visual treats that once adorned the interior no longer survive intact, the sanctuary having been reordered in response to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–5). Further examples of O’Connell’s work in County Cork can be seen in the churches at Dermagree and Kanturk, and in graveyard monuments in Kanturk, Kilbrin, Mallow and Newmarket. Nowhere, however, does his art flow more freely than at St John’s Church, which remains one of the finest examples of folk art in Ireland.  HI
Barry O’Reilly is a staff member of the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH). Series based on the NIAH’s ‘building of the month’, www.buildingsofireland.com.

 

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