St. Mary’s Church, Clonmel, Co. Tipperary

The Church of St. Mary’s is a very ancient and highly picturesque structure. In its present re-edified state it is, perhaps, the most beautiful of the parochial churches of Ireland; and it is to be regretted that while its original foundation seems completely buried in obscurity, so little is known of its after-history down to comparatively recent times. And yet that old church was the scene of some remarkable events – perhaps the most remarkable being the visit of the famous Dr. Brown, Archbishop of Dublin, who came in 1593, and preached before the Archbishops of Cashel and Tuam, and eight of the Bishops, and also in the presence of an immense popular audience, a sermon “advancing the King’s supremacy.” Then there was, in the following century, the enthronement of the famous Bishop Gore, whose valuable bequest in aid of “ruinated churches” was lately rescued from an adverse possession, and secured to this diocese for all time, mainly through the zealous and persistent efforts of the present Rector of Dunmore, the Rev. Thos. Gimlette, D.D.; and latest of all, the very first episcopal election after the passing of the Church Disestablishment Act was held within those walls, when the present Lord Bishop of Cashel, Maurice Fitzgerald Day, was elected.

St. Mary’s occupies what may be termed the north-western angle of the ancient borough; and stands in the centre of an extensive and beautiful enclosure, now overcrowded with “the habitations of the dead.” The churchyard, with its shady avenues of venerable trees, is enclosed on the north and west sides by the remains of the ancient town walls; the recessed arches in these walls are filled in with granite or marble monuments – while with their parapets are connected three of the old watch-towers belonging to the original fortifications. They are rather quadrangular in shape, and are pierced with narrow windows, evidently of great antiquity.

As to the church itself, its age can only be approximately arrived at from a careful inspection of its older parts. Probably it should be ascribed to the twelfth century ; and it is said that St. Mary’s was built just two-and-thirty years before the Abbey of Holycross.

The church was re-edified in 1805, partly by subscription, when the style was totally changed, the chancel, amongst other alterations, having been considerably diminished in length ; while the Corporation Gallery, emblazoned in front with the Clonmel arms, in oak, and erected on the north side, was then swept away.

In 1857 the church was all but entirely rebuilt in pointed style of the thirteenth century, and a new transept was afterwards added, on the north side.

“On entering the interior of the church itself, one is immediately struck with the elegant simplicity of the structure. The architecture is pointed, and, unlike the interior of the old church, the style is strictly carried out in the pillars, arches, and all the mouldings and omaments of the building. The light and elegant proportions of the pillars and arches, with the absence of side galleries, and the height of the open roof, give an effect of simple grandeur that is most impressive. Seven pillars divide the nave from the lateral aisles – which, with the wall of the tower and the terminal walls of the building, support nine arches, a tenth forming the entrance to a small southern transept; which has been opened in the tower. The pillars are of white sand-stone – the mouldings, the shields, and corbels supporting the principals and spandrils of the roof, being all in character. The chancel has not been altered; it is nearly as wide as the nave, but not so lofty, the roof of the latter being 56 feet 6 inches from the floor. The beautiful arches at either side, enriched with chevron ornaments, foliated capitals, and corbelled out with grotesques and sculptured heads; the groined roof, with diagonal and central ogives, and the exquisite tracery of the eastern stained-glass window, form a picture in this building not to be surpassed by any parish church in the country.” – Abbeys, Castles, and Scenery of Clonmel: Hemphill.

Some further improvements have since been made n the body of the church, including a beautiful pulpit, of Caen stone, resting upon a group of dwarf red Galway marble pillars, which has been erected as a memorial of the Rev. F. T. Brady, rector of the parish, who died in 1874.

Of the original architecture now remaining, the most prominent feature is the great eastern window, with its fine Gothic tracery, filled in with stained glass. A strange story is told about this same window. When, early in the present century, they set about pulling down and re-modelling the chancel-cutting off about thirty feet at the eastern end, and taking in at the opposite end that portion of the nave which had been screened off as useless – it became necessary, in the course of these changes, to take down the great old window; but alas! the person to whom this important work was entrusted forgot to make provision for its re-erection; and when the numerous blocks of stone mullions were strewn about, it was found impossible to place them together again in their former position. A timber window was substituted; while the old sculptured tracery lay scattered in all directions, half hidden amongst the graves by the long grass and rank vegetation. Some few years after an English tourist happened to visit our ancient churchyard, and, being struck with admiration at the beauty of these fragments of the old window, procured a skilled architect, who had them collected together, and the window itself restored according to the original design. It was filled in with stained glass during the churchwardenship of Messrs. Robert Romley and Samuel Morton Tuckey.

The steeple at the south-eastern angle of the church consists of a square basement of great antiquity, with a narrow spiral stone staircase in the walls, leading to a second storey: and an octagonal superstructure some sixty or seventy feet high, pierced in the upper part with eight louvred openings, in the form of Gothic windows, to allow free transmission for the chiming of the bells hung within. Five of these bells, supposed to have been cast in Clonmel, were placed in the steeple nearly two centuries ago; one of them, however, either fell or was taken down, and sold some time since as old metal – so that but four are now in position. Around each bell a legend is traced in raised but now rust-eaten letters. The names of the donors and the date (1697) are given in the inscription.

AI the north-east angle of the church was the Lady’s chapel, but so altered as to represent a massive embattled structure. At the south-west corner there formerly stood a small building, in correct style, known the private chapel of the White family. It cannot be more than seventy or eighty years since the removal of this chapel, after it had become unroofed, and had fallen into complete decay. The appearance it presented in its ruined stage was described by one,now some years deceased, who remembered to have looked, when a boy, through its broken windows. He saw the long grass and rank vegetation that choked up the interior, hiding partly from view the richly sculptured tombs and tablets which, in silent language, seemed to tell the old, old story – “Sic transit gloria mundi!” Some of these monuments were carried off to enrich other buildings, while the western window in the present porch of St. Mary’s once lighted the ancient chapel of the Whites. Three inscribed monuments belonging to this family, which are supposed to have originally belonged to this chapel, are now laid in the centre aisle of the church, near the chancel. They date from A.D. 1583. Two others were removed eighty or ninety years ago to decorate the little ruined chaple near St. Patrick’s Well. A sixth tablet, containing, the arms and insignia of a “Mayor of Clonmel” (1608), found its way, we are informed, to the Roman Catholic churchyard, Irishtown, long since, where for five-and-twenty years it served as a doorstep; fortunately it lay in a reversed position, with its face downwards, and this kept the inscription and armorial bearings free from becoming obliterated. It is now carefully preserved from injury.

Returning to St. Mary’s Church, there is in the south aisle a finely sculptured slab of fine grey limestone, now partly covered by the flooring of a pew. It bears this inscription :-

” Hic jacet Joannes Stritche burgensis huius oppidi qui obiit 25 Maii, 1622 ; et Margareta Daniel alias Smithe uxor eius qUae hoe monumentum superstes in memoriam dicti Joanis fieri fecit Ao. Dm. 1625 qUae obiit — quoru. animabus propitietur Deus.”

“Here lies John Stritche, a burgess of this walled-in town, who died the 25th May 1622; and Margaret Daniel, alias Smith, his wife, who, surviving, caused this monument to be erected in memory of the said John; who died — : to whose souls may God be propitious.”

The devoted wife left nothing to be added to this inscription but the date of her own death, for which a blank was left: that space has never been filled in.

In excavating the flooring of the church during the course of some improvement works about forty years ago, the entrance to a vault was discovered at the east end of the south aisle, immediately near Stritche’s tomb. Upon further search a skeleton was found enncased in armour, a portion of which was secretly removed. The then rector of the parish, the Rev. J. P. Rhoades, having learned of this sacrilegious act, had the stolen armour returned and replaced in the vault, which was then closed up; the place has not since been opened. We are assured of the truth of this singular discovery by a gentleman (Mr. B. P. Phelan, J.P.), who remembers to have seen the mail-clad skeleton. There are, besides these memorials of the past several beautiful white marble monuments erected within the church – the principal are those of Dr. Jos. Moore, for sixty-six years rector of the parish; and of several members of the Bagwell family of Marlfield.

The parish of Innislonagh, Marlfield, has been added to the Diocesan Synod to St. Mary’s, to form the Parochial Union of Clonmel.

Author : WILLIAM CLARKE. Published in In” Clonmel Chronicle.”
Taken from My Clonmel Scrapbook
Compiled & Edited James White
Second 1000 ; Published E. Downey & Co., Waterford ; 1907 ; No. ISBN