St Bridget’s, Kiltubrid: a quirk of history that has survived

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), News, Volume 16

69_small_1247555905St Bridget’s Church of Ireland church in Kiltubrid was in danger of falling into dereliction when the local community mounted a fund-raising campaign to save the building. Sited on the shores of Lough Scur with its back to the Iron Mountains, the tiny church, surrounded by a graveyard and enclosed by an old stone wall, looks out over the small fields and gentle hills of south Leitrim. Although the Church of Ireland community had dwindled (just two parishioners remain), local people regarded the church as an important part of Kiltubrid’s heritage. What they did not at first realise was its wider historical significance.
St Bridget’s had been bypassed by the wave of church restoration that swept the Church of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, according to Nicholas Prins, a historic buildings conservator and the main contractor for the restoration. As a result it retained its original interior layout of gallery and box pews with only minor alterations. ‘There are only three churches in Connacht with this sort of arrangement left’, says Prins.
Protestant church interiors in the eighteenth century were designed to facilitate those aspects of worship central to the reformed tradition: preaching and Bible-reading. These auditory churches feature box pews for the congregation to sit for long periods in some comfort, clear glass windows so they could read and follow the service, and ceilings to reflect the voice of the preacher.
Elsewhere in Ireland, from the mid-nineteenth century, these interiors were torn out and replaced, but not at St Bridget’s, which has retained a wealth of rare architectural details. ‘It’s a quirk of history that this place survived’, declares Prins. The restoration, he explains, involved ‘minimal intervention’. ‘Anything you do should be reversible’, he says, ‘and you have to use appropriate materials.’

St Bridget’s Church, Kiltubrid, Co. Leitrim has retained its original interior layout of gallery and box pews (below) with only minor alterations.

St Bridget’s Church, Kiltubrid, Co. Leitrim has retained its original interior layout of gallery and box pews (below) with only minor alterations.

The construction of St Bridget’s in 1785 may have been a response to the success of the great reformer John Wesley in recruiting local Protestants to his new Methodist movement. Historian Fr Liam Kelly, who has written a history of the parish, says Wesley is believed to have made a number of visits to the area. He notes that Kiltubrid’s Roman Catholic church, also dedicated to St Bridget, was built around the same time, perhaps in response to the same threat. As a result Kiltubrid has two important eighteenth-century churches, both treasured by the community. The Catholic St Bridget’s was restored some years ago and is a rare example of a barn church. It too is well worth visiting.
Following a three-year €190,000 restoration project, funded by the Task Force for Peace and Reconciliation, Leitrim County Council and the Heritage Council, St Bridget’s Church of Ireland church was rededicated at a special service on Sunday 6 July 2008. Local people and members of the Church of Ireland from throughout Leitrim crowded into the box pews and filled the gallery. The bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh, Kenneth Clarke, told the congregation: ‘We are sitting in a stream of history with the old being brought out in all its glory’.
The minister of state for the Office of Public Works, Martin Mansergh, who also attended, singled out the role of local people in saving the church: ‘Great credit is due to the Roman Catholic community in keeping alive the element of diversity’. The Church of Ireland hopes to use St Bridget’s for occasional services. A permanent exhibition is also on display in the church gallery, highlighting aspects of the history of Kiltubrid. Thanks to the determination of one local community to preserve part of its heritage, the heritage of the nation has been enriched.

Bryan Dobson is the presenter of the Six-One Television News on RTÉ1.

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