TARQUIN BLAKE HAS a fascination with old Irish buildings – specifically if they’re abandoned.
Blake said his interest in abandoned churches was sparked after repeatedly noticing “half-ruined spires sticking out from behind trees and hedges”.
“I investigated them and thought they were worth exploring,” he recalls.
When he began his research, Blake discovered all of the churches were Protestant.
Under the 1801 Act of Union, the Church of Ireland was united with the Church of England. Following this about £1 million (€100 million in today’s money) was spent building over 700 Protestant churches, mostly on sites of centuries-old religious significance.
In most cases the activities carried out in various churches was not very extensive. For example, Kilkishen Church in County Clare in its active life of about 150 years performed a grand total of 20 marriages, 40 baptisms and 22 burials.
The Church of Ireland was the established church and Protestantism the official religion here. However, most of the population remained Catholic. As Protestant congregations declined in the 19th and 20th centuries an attempt was made to keep churches open by uniting parishes.
Eventually non-existent congregations forced the closure of many churches. Valuables were removed, and churches deconsecrated and abandoned.
Blake notes that the church “fought for years trying to keep these places open”, but “stayed on in the business of saving souls, not buildings”.
According to the 2011 census, there are 3.86 million Catholics in the Republic of Ireland (84.16% of the population) and 129,039 members of the Church of Ireland (2.81% of the population).
The result of Blake’s two-year labour of love is fascinating insight into the history of religion in Ireland that showcases an amazing array of derelict gothic ruins.
“The surprising thing is that they’re still very accessible to the public, that’s why I’ve included the GPS co-ordinates. They’re great places to go and visit,” Blake tells us.
Blake says the book was “easy to photograph” but “very hard to research” given the fact there was so little written information about the churches. Many of the buildings only had a lifespan of 100-150 years and most of their records were destroyed.
Through his research, Blake discovered some interesting tales about the buildings, such as:
Rathronan Church, County Tipperary
On 2 July 1854, 18-year-old Eleanor Arbuthnot was nearly abducted by 43-year-old John Carden, whose marriage proposals she had repeatedly turned down. Eventually Carden was beaten off by Eleanor’s companions and other onlookers.
When he was later arrested, he had two bottles of chloroform and a bottle of valerian in his possession – evidence he planned to drug the young woman. It was also discovered he had organised relay teams of horses along the way to Galway where he had chartered a boat to take her off to sea.
St John’s Church, Ballymoe, Galway
A curious case was described in the 1838 book Dialogues of Prophecy, in which the niece of the Catholic Bishop of Elphin, Mary Anne Burke, had attended some lectures given by Reverend Welden at Ballymoe Church and intended to convert to the Protestant faith.
Fr O’Connor and some of Mary’s relatives locked her up in a room with the shutters nailed closed to exclude light for a period of four weeks, and then starved her for two days in an attempt to force her to attend Catholic mass. Instead Mary fled to Castlerea where she was put under the protection of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Lackagh Church, Kildare
On the outside of the east wall of the church a commemorative plaque hangs to remember the grim events of 1655 when all the Irish people of the parish were seized by the government under suspicion of being involved in the murder of two soldiers.
Conor Birne, Teige Horan, James Beacon and Tirleach Dunn were sentenced to death and hanged from a tree near the church. Some 38 others, including a number of priests, were deported as slaves to Barbados.
Derralossory Church, County Wicklow
The graveyard that surrounds the church contains the grave of the fourth President of Ireland, Erskine Hamilton Childers, who died in 1974.
Abandoned Churches of Ireland is published by Collins Press and is available now.
All images used courtesy of Tarquin Blake.