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Medieval church deterioration accelerated by ivy - and Ireland's bad weather

Survey of Co Clare’s medieval churches finds differences in building materials and techniques across the county.

Image: ivy&freckles via Creative Commons

IRELAND’S WET CLIMATE and the spread of ivy are taking a toll on the country’s medieval churches, according to a new survey carried out in Co Clare.

The study of Co Clare’s medieval churches was jointly funded by the Heritage Council and Clare County Council and is the most extensive survey of the buildings since 1839.

Of the 170 churches studied 173 years ago, one-third have disappeared and another third are in dilapidated condition and in danger of disappearing. Just over 50 of the churches were found to be in good structural condition, with eight having partially or fully intact roofs. Some of the buildings have ongoing maintenance which likely helped to preserve their structural integrity.

Commenting on his study, surveyor Simon Large said that increased rainfall in recent years has contributed to the building’s destruction by washing the lime mortar out of the structures and weakening their stability.

He said that one way to tackle this issue is to cap exposed church walls, where possible. “This is only appropriate where the wall or walls are vertical and survive in a good and stable condition,” he added.

Large also said that ivy plays an integral role in destabilising the properties, by forcing its root system into the building structure. The climbing plant can also hide structural damage or flaws that could otherwise be spotted and addressed.

However, simply pulling down the ivy is not always an option: because of the nature of the plant’s growth into the structure, pulling it down can also pull down sections of wall.

“Ivy growth needs to be inhibited,” he recommended, “and kept inhibited by regular and frequent light trimming. The extent of the invasive nature of the ivy needs to be established along with the condition of the building fabric in relation to the ivy and appropriate responses agreed.”

“If this is done, a plan of eradication might be possible,” he said.

The survey also notes a difference in the building materials used to build the churches – and how they were used – depending on their location in the county.

In the south west and west of Clare, shale and flagstone are the dominant materials and, partly because of the construction methods used, these churches appear more stable even when the lime mortar is washed out by rain. In the east and south of the county, dressed rubble limestone is dominant, and these proved the most vulnerable to rain-related damage. In these structures, the walls are usually built with an internal and external facing of dressed rubble stones and a rubble/mortar infill.

The conservation work involved can be expensive given the expertise and materials required. Large told TheJournal.ie that sourcing funding to support conservation projects on these structures is increasingly difficult to find in the current economic environment.

He also said that one of the particularly interesting things he noticed when carrying out his research was the number of churches located in isolated places because of changes to the local population since their construction. When they were built during the 15th or 16th century, the population was high enough to warrant a church being built in that area but has since diminished.

Clare Heritage Officer Congella McGuire said that the survey gives a “comprehensive picture” of the threats posed to the old church buildings by ivy and erosion.

McGuire recommends any local communities considering carrying out any conservation works on these properties first contact the Clare Co Council architectural conservation officer Dick Cronin for advise and assistance because the process can be “difficult and complicated” and involves getting permission from the council and the National Monument Service.

Copies of the report and the related searchable database of medieval churches are available at local libraries across Co Clare. The county libraries have published images relating to the church survey online.

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