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Building of the Month - February 2011

Saint John’s Catholic Church, DROMAGH Td., Coolclogh, County Cork

Saint John's Catholic Church, Coolclogh 01 - Representative View 

Figure 1: A view of Saint John's Catholic Church, Coolclogh, the lasting legacy of a fruitful alliance between Reverend John Barry (d. 1836) and Charles O'Connell.  Shortly following its completion the church was described by Samuel Lewis (1837) as 'a spacious and handsome structure, originally built on a site presented by the late Mr. Leader, who also contributed £150 towards the building; it has been recently rebuilt, in the Gothic style, under the superintendence of the Reverend J. Barry, PP, and has now a handsome front of hewn limestone, with a spire rising 80 feet from the ground' (Lewis, Samuel, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland Volume I (1837), 509)

The gradual dismantling of the Penal Laws in the later eighteenth century fostered a modest spate of chapel building across Ireland.  However, Emancipation under the Catholic Relief Act, 1829, 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 contacted to supply a design for the new parish church.  Thus the second quarter of the nineteenth century produced a wealth of ecclesiastical architecture in Ireland, the building boom curtailed by the economic upheaval of the Great Famine (1845-9).

In the parish of Drumtarriff, near Kanturk, the Reverend John Barry (d. 1836) responded to the need for a new parish church in 1833.  Barry obtained a site from Nicholas Philpot Leader MP (1773-1836), proprietor of the 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 (fig. 1).

Saint John's Catholic Church, Coolclogh 02 - West Front 

Figure 2: A photograph of the West Front showing the eclectic mixture of the Classical, Gothic and Romanesque styles

Although a simple "barn" structure, Saint John's Catholic Church is distinguished by its imposing, if not mildly eccentric West Front (fig. 2).  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 the keys to heaven (fig. 3); the papal arms of Pope Gregory XVI; winged angels (fig. 4); and a superbly crafted Mememto Mori [Reminder of Mortality].  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.

Saint John's Catholic Church, Coolclogh 03 - Saint Peter Saint John's Catholic Church, Coolclogh 04 - Winged Angel

Figures 3-4: Finely chiselled details embellishing the façade include a portrait of Saint Peter clutching the keys to heaven and a winged angel

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) (fig. 5).

Saint John's Catholic Church, Coolclogh 05 - Interior 

Figure 5: A view of the comparatively sober interior, stripped of some of its finer furnishings following the Second Vatican Council (1962-5)

Reverend Barry's life was cut short at the age of 38, only three years following the completion of his church.  To commemorate his exertions for the parish O'Connell was commissioned to design and construct a three-tiered memorial, which, like the adjacent church, blends features of the Classical and Gothic style, the lengthy eulogies on the second tier surmounted by a depiction of Barry (fig. 6).

Saint John's Catholic Church, Coolclogh 06 - Reverend Barry Memorial 

Figure 6: A view of the esoteric memorial erected as a testimony to Reverend John Barry (d. 1836), which, like the adjacent church, is the work of Charles O'Connell and is regarded as a masterpiece of folk art

Further examples of O'Connell's work in County Cork can be seen in the churches at Dernagree and Kanturk and in graveyard monuments in Kanturk, Kilbrin, Mallow, and Newmarket.  Nowhere, however, does his art flow more freely than at Saint John's Catholic Church, which remains one of the finest examples of folk art in Ireland.

Click here to view the record for Saint John's Catholic Church, Coolclogh, in the NIAH North Cork County Survey

Figures 1-2, 5-6 photographed by Shannon Images for the NIAH publication An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of North Cork

Saint John's Catholic Church, Coolclogh 07 - Introduction 

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