Collon Church, Co. Louth

Published in Gems of Architecture, Issue 5 (September/October 2015), Volume 23

Collon Church interior, with col-legiate seating and ceiling design based on King’s College, Cambridge. (Stephen Farrell)

Collon Church is a prominent landmark that dominates the southern approach to the village. Commissioned by Speaker John Foster (1740–1828) of Collon House and designed by the talented amateur architect Revd Daniel Augustus Beaufort (1739–1821), the church is in the Perpendicular Gothic style and appears to have been modelled on the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

Collon and its church are closely associated with the Foster family, who arrived in County Louth in the 1600s. Originally tenant farmers, by the turn of the eighteenth century they were significant landowners with two seats in the Irish House of Commons. In 1764 the Fosters erected the first Anglican church in Collon and in 1810 they decided to build anew on a site immediately to the south of the old church. Begun in 1811, the present church was completed by September 1815 at a cost of c. £8,000.

It is not known why Beaufort chose the chapel of King’s College as the model for his design; there is no evidence that he ever visited Cambridge. He was, however, related by marriage to the celebrated Edgeworth family, who are known to have visited the university town, and perhaps he was influenced by their accounts. Alternatively, Speaker Foster’s son, Thomas Henry Skeffington (1772–1843), a Cambridge student, may have influenced the finished design. In any case, facsimile plans of the chapel of King’s College were already in circulation and may have been familiar to Beaufort. It is notable that Beaufort reproduced the design earlier than any other architect or builder.

On entering the church, the first impression one receives is of a large open space devoid of breaks or pillars. On either side of the central aisle the pews face each other in the collegiate style. The interior is lit by a series of brightly coloured stained glass windows, including the impressive semi-abstract East Window designed by Louisa Catherine Beaufort (1781–1867). Overhead, the stunning plasterwork ceiling is reputedly by William Edgeworth (1794–1829), son of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744–1817) and brother of the novelist Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849).
The system of collegiate seating, while similar to King’s College, also bears close comparison with the chapel of Trinity College, Dublin—both Beaufort and Foster attended Trinity. Collegiate seating enhances the acoustics of a choir and Collon Church provides a wonderful acoustic during concerts and services.

The ceiling is a lath-and-plaster reproduction of a vaulted stone ceiling and is clearly modelled on the King’s College chapel. On a recent visit to Collon, Professor Bruce Campbell of Queen’s University, Belfast, suggested that Beaufort might originally have planned a flat ceiling with fan-shaped pendants, similar to the ceilings at Charleville Forest, Co. Offaly (1800–12), by Francis Johnston (1760–1829). When work on the church was well under way, however, the design was altered and it was decided to attempt a replica of the King’s College ceiling, though with narrower dimensions.

Collon Church is substantially unchanged since it was finished in 1815. The only significant alteration took place in the 1880s, when it was decided to dismantle the original three-tiered pulpit. It is an eccentric and engaging building and it is hoped that those entrusted with Collon Church will secure its future for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come.

John Rountree is a local historian from outside Ardee, Co. Louth. He is chairman of a local group that is helping to maintain and preserve the historic Collon Church. Series based on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage’s ‘building of the month’, www.buildingsofireland.ie.

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