Reclaiming the forgotten church of St Thomas à Becket in Waterford City

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2016), News, Volume 24

By Damien McLellan

A photograph of the chancel arch of the Church of St Thomas before its demolition in 1967.

A photograph of the chancel arch of the Church of St Thomas before its demolition in 1967.

Recently I set about locating the church—or, more realistically, the site of the church—that Henry II was said to have founded in Waterford City in atonement for his part in the murder of Thomas à Becket, his former close friend before he appointed him archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 (see ‘Reclaiming an Irish “Way of St James”’, HI 24.3, May/June 2016, pp 16–19). The literature was promising. Ryland (1824) proposed that

‘The Church of St Thomas, situated on a hill bearing that name, is supposed to have been erected by King Henry II or his son John, and dedicated to the memory of Thomas à Becket as a testimony of regret for the murder of that prelate. Part of the entrance still remains and exhibits a beautiful specimen of Saxon architecture.’

The Topographical dictionary of Ireland (1837) similarly claimed that

‘Of the old parish churches, the only one that remains is that of St Thomas, supposed to have been erected by Henry II, or by his son and successor King John, and which was dedicated to St Thomas à Becket: part of the entrance is still entire, and displays a beautiful specimen of Norman architecture.’

‘St Thomass Chapel’ is clearly shown (just off New Road to the right) on Richard’s scale map of city and suburbs (1764).

‘St Thomass Chapel’ is clearly shown (just off New Road to the right) on Richard’s scale map of city and suburbs (1764).

So I began my physical search in Thomas Street and Thomas Hill, both streets leading up towards Ballybricken from O’Connell Street in Waterford City. Some of the residents I spoke to were intrigued by a possible local connection to Thomas à Becket but nobody remembered a church. I asked to see the oldest map of the city in Waterford Library, and ‘St Thomass Chapel’ is clearly shown on Richard’s scale map of city and suburbs (1764). This did not identify where exactly the site is in present-day Waterford, but the 1871 Ordnance Survey map shows the site on Thomas Hill and describes it as ‘Thomas’ Grave Yard’ and ‘Church (Remains of)’. The 1926 Ordnance Survey map brought me to the exact location: a car park, with nothing remaining of the church or graveyard.
I took my question (‘What happened to the remains of the church and the graveyard?’) to Bernadette Guest, Heritage Officer with Waterford City and County. Her answer was a survey that Kilkenny Archaeology had conducted on Waterford City historic burial grounds in 2015. It concluded that

‘No evidence for the original boundary walls remains above ground, apart from one possible fragment of stone wall in the south of the site … The conservation of the site remains—skeletons, coffins, burial vaults, funerary monuments—of the medieval and post-medieval graveyard of St Thomas’s remains a challenge given that it has been largely built over … All development proposals for the site should be the subject of archaeological assessment.’

The survey cites Ian Lumley (1978) for information on when and how the graveyard and the remains of the church were destroyed. With great sadness and anger he wrote that

‘Its history has been a subject of confusion but the chancel arch which was the only surviving feature was of undoubted 12th century, and probably early Anglo-Norman, date. It was round arched with simple mouldings and bulbous capitals. As the stones have been destroyed it is impossible to comment on it more precisely … This wreckage was done in 1967 by the owners of the site, as what can only be described as an act of vandalism … For ten years nothing was done with the bulldozed site until it was sold and serves as a public car park.’

Perhaps the greatest act of historical vandalism in Waterford’s history was the demolition in 1773 of its early medieval cathedral, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, on the grounds that it was unsafe. Ryland (1824) contends that ‘there is some reason to doubt the correctness of this opinion, not only from the acknowledged strength of all the ancient churches, but also from the extreme difficulty which the workmen experienced in effecting its demolition’. I believe that some stones from the original cathedral that were carted away have been found and may be returned to and welcomed by the present cathedral.
Would it be too much to hope that the cut stones from the chancel arch of the Church of St Thomas were also safely squirrelled away in 1967 and could also find their way back to the site? What is certainly possible is that an information sign or plaque should be erected that would restore the name and memory of Thomas à Becket to Waterford City.

Damien McLellan is a consultant psychotherapist and also teaches in Carlow College.

FURTHER READING
I.W.J. Lumley, ‘Vanishing Waterford (a record of recent destruction and present threat)’, Decies 9 (1978), 3–14.
R.H. Ryland, The history, topographies and antiquities of the county and city of Waterford (London, 1824).

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