NOTES ON THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST NICHOLAS DUNDALK
By H.G. Tempest, M.R.I.A. 1955
The information in this booklet comes from many sources. Much of it is taken from the Minutes of the Vestry, supplemented by records of Episcopal Visitations, D’Alton’s “History of Dundalk,” Leslie’s “Armagh Clergy and Parishes,” and many other miscellaneous sources. In order not to burden a small booklet, references for the various facts have not been given.
Unfortunately, at several periods of importance to the fabric, detailed information does not appear in the Minutes, so that, here and there, speculation, tempered by reasonable probability, has taken the place of definite statements of fact.
The old Minutes, beginning in 1748, contain a great amount of interesting information, but only the entries directly bearing on the structure or furnishing of the church have been summarised in the chronological pages.
I gratefully acknowledge information and help from Rev. G. Mayes, M.A., Mr. T.G.F. Paterson, O.B.E., M.A., V. Rev. Dean Rennison, M.A., Dr. H.G. Leask, M.Arch., Litt.D., Mr. C.E. Turner, who made the plan of the church, Mr. T.U. Sadlier, M.A., M.R.I.A., and others.
The blocks of the old window of the church and of the east window were kindly lent by the Co. Louth Archaeological Society. Mr. Powell helped with the church plan. The photographs of the exterior, interior and the staircase in the Tower are by Mr. Charles Duffner of Duffner Bros., Dundalk.
Just inside the railings the tall granite pillar erected in 1859 commemorates Agnes, a sister of Robert Burns who, under her married name of Galt, was buried in 1834 near the Sexton’s house.
ST. NICHOLAS’ CHURCH DUNDALK
United Parishes of Kane, Baronstown, Castletown, Dunbin, Kilkerley,
Ballybarrack and Faughart
Although the church has had a long history and in its time has suffered great damage and dilapidation, there are still some visible reminders of its past.
At your feet as you stand in the porch you will see a worn tombstone bearing the dates 1582 and 1585; close beside you rises the old tower showing in the window arches of its belfry the impressions of the wicker matting with which the old masons covered the wooden framework on which they built the arches.
The stone stairway to the first two floors rises spirally in the buttress-like S.W. corner continuing in the thickness of the west wall to what would have been a ringing storey.
Inside the church, to the right of the window beside the pulpit, you will notice, framed in the panelling, a little pointed arch over a shallow recess – the piscine for washing chalices and patens belonging probably to a chantry chapel of the old pre Reformation structure.
In the newly formed side chapel of St. Richard in the south transept, under the golden cloth, has been placed the old stone slab which, until 1924, formed the top of the communion table in the chancel and is doubtless the altar slab for the old church or of one of the chapels.
The present shallow chancel dates from late times, probably from 1706; the original chancel extended much further eastwards.
If you walk round outside by the tower you will see that the present south wall of the nave had once been an open arcade connecting the nave with a former south aisle. On the adjoining east wall of the tower you will see the slanting indication of the possible line of the roof of this aisle. It is probable that in 1706 this aisle, or what was left of it, was demolished, the arcading built up and the two early windows inserted in it. There were three of these inserted windows up till the year 1815 when the doubling of the width of the south transept necessitated the removal of one. Where these windows originally stood we have no records to guide us. Even allowing that the level of the ground is now four feet higher than when the church was built, the windows are too tall to have been those of the side aisle. They may have formed part of the old long chancel or choir.
It is tempting to suggest that the nave walls were higher than at present allowing for clerestory windows to light the nave, but no mullion stones or other parts of such windows have come to light.
While passing the south end of the transept, the line of junction where its width was doubled in 1815 is visible. You will notice on the gable-end of the older part, a tall arch in the masonry. Dr. Leask is inclined to believe that this arch shows that there was a further structure to the south of the transept at some early period.
If you continue round to the east end of the church you will find three very old recumbent tombstones, two in a line with the chancel, the third and oldest a little to the north and close to the vestry wall. Running round the edges of these stones are inscriptions – one in Latin and two in English. That two of these stones were inside the chancel when they were placed in position in the second half of the sixteenth century is quite clear form the Bellew-Nugent altar-like monument, where at its south side a small part of the old chancel wall still survives.
This cenotaph was erected by Sir John Bellew of Castletown Castle and Roche, and his wife, Dame Ismay Nugent, in 1588 “for their future burial.” Although a vault with burials beneath this monument came accidentally to light in recent years, there is no doubt that Sir John Bellew and his lady were buried in Duleek. A finely carved arms of husband and wife will be seen on the western end of the plinth.
The furthest east of the stones commemorates John Mortimer, alderman of Dundalk, who died in 1564. In the centre of the slab is a much worn coat of arms.
Nearest to the present chancel, but outside its former extension, you will find lying on the ground the oldest stone of all, with its curious Gothic or “black-letter” inscription in Latin, not everywhere easy to read or to translate. It records that Thomas Feld (Field) “a notable townsman (or burgess) of Dundalk” died in 1536, that he was the “founder of this chapel” and that his wife was Margaret Holyvod (Hollywood). This is a reminder of other vanished parts of the old church. In the early days it possessed three chantry chapels, those of St. Mary, St. Catherine and Holy Trinity. Two of these would possibly have flanked the chancel on either side, while the Lady chapel might have been behind the altar at the east end. Chantry chapels such as these were the gift of some wealthy parishioner or family, who also endowed them with lands bringing in a salary for the chantry chaplain who offered Masses for their souls. The present door from the cancel into the 1807 vestry is set in a very much larger opening in the wall and might have been the way of access to this chapel.
Another line – had it survived – with the early days of the church would have been the elaborate tomb of Richard Fitzralph, Archbishop of Armagh, who was born in Dundalk at the end of the thirteenth century and was eventually buried here after his death at Avignon in 1360. As “Saint Richard of Dundalk” he was known to the people, and many used to throng to his tomb. Among other things he was a renowned controversialist, alluded to by the learned as “Armachanus” – the Man of Armagh. As late as 1624 his tomb, though damaged, still existed, but after that date we have no record, indeed its very site is unknown, though its place would have been in the chancel behind the altar.
In 1945, in commemoration of the life and service of the late rector, Rev. J.J. McClure, a side chapel in the name of St. Richard has been set apart under the south transept gallery.
If you look at the outside of the east window you will see, round the top, a drip-moulding and small carved heads. Many thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth century stones have been built into the walls, divorced from their original purpose and position.
You will also notice that the window has the normal proportion of height to width, and not the unusual shortening visible from the interior, where the wooden panelling hides the lower part.
The little vestry built in 1807, squeezed into the angle between the chancel and the north transept, preserve a sixteenth century window whose former place is a matter of speculation.
Though it did not belong to the church and probably came from the old Sessions House which backed on to the graveyard, it is interesting that the old seal of Dundalk of the same period as the foundation for the church, was found in the churchyard in 1909. Circular in shape and about 2 ½ inches in diameter, it bears the following wording in Latin, surrounding a coat of arms and supporters: “Seal of the New Town of Dundalk.” The original is in private hands but a plaster-cast and a wax impression are shown in the porch.
Dr. Oliver Davies, who examined all the old churches of County Louth in 1945, put the probable date of our church in the thirteenth century and considered that it was the need of a rising seaport which called for its erection. In this connection it is suggestive that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of merchant venturers by sea, and that many sea ports have churches dedicated in his name.
Edward Bruce’s campaign in Ireland brought in its course much destruction. The church probably suffered in this time.
During the troubled times of the Rebellion in 1641-50, when Dundalk was taken by assault, and of the campaigns of Schomberg and James II, 1688-90, the church fabric became sadly damaged. It was re-roofed in part in 1702, as a stone in the vestry records, when Rev. Ralph Lambert was vicar, it was “restored in a new and more elegant form.” What exactly this means we cannot now tell but it probably resulted in the built-up arcading in the nave, the abandonment of the south aisle and the long choir. The north wall of the nave is the thickest in the church. No foundation was found under it at one point, but we not think that its lower part is original. The present windows in this wall did not come into existence until 1805 when the vestry minutes record “opening two new windows in the north side of the church, altering the present one, and to make the three the same as those in the south side. £45 10s. 0d.
The original long chancel was in disrepair in 1695 and we suppose that the present shallower five0sided form was part of this 1706 restoration.
Since Ralph Lambert only became vicar in the June of the year before the inscription about the extensive restoration was cut, one looks to his predecessors as those under whom the important work took place. His immediate predecessor was William Caldwell, who in 1706 exchanged Dundalk with him for the Precentorship of Down. Caldwell was three years here. He came immediately after Thomas Wadman who had become vicar in 1694. Wadman had been headmaster of Armagh Royal School, 1684-90.
We know that in Wadman’s time the church was roofed (see Chronological Notes) so we feel that he initiated the restoration which probably continued during the three years of William Caldwell until Ralph Lambert was able to put up his inscription as soon as he arrived here.
The church wardens of the time, if they had the same responsibilities as today, took, no doubt, an important practical part in the work. They were John Jones, Joel Hoy, Nathaniel Hornsby, Thomas Leathes, Jacobus Young, Thomas Crosby, Henry Bush and George Low.
At the end of the eighteenth and the early years of the nineteenth centuries the population here, as in many other places, greatly increased. Extra seating in the church was urgently needed. The south transept was then only half its present width. In 1798 a gallery with outside stairs was added to it, and at the same time there were proposals for galleries at the end of the nave and even along its north wall.
As this did not prove sufficient, the south transept was doubled in width in 1815. This necessitated the removal of part of the south wall of the nave together with a window. The tombstones in the part taken in must have been moved to the west, for an applicant for one of the new pews based her claim on the fact that some of her family were buried under it! In the latter part of the nineteenth century the gallery was used at different times by the pupils of the Educational Institution and by the cavalry men of the garrison.
The north transept poses a difficult problem. One cannot but feel that a transept must have existed in the early times, indeed there is a vestry record of 1769 of the expenditure of 10s. 10d. for “glazing the north aisle.” What part, if any, survives to present day is impossible to say with certainty. To Dr. Davies “nothing seemed older than the nineteenth century.” Its west wall does not bond into the nave wall. The only vaults in the church – six in number – lie under it. None of the burials in them are old. The transept may possibly have been only half its present width – witness the reference in 1805 to three windows being put into the nave north wall.
There are records – provokingly vague – of extensive alterations and building here in 1824 and 1839. The money expended was double that needed for the south transept extension, so that the work must have been much more than a mere gallery and stairs. One is compelled to the opinion that this transept was also doubled, resulting in the removal of the third window in the nave. It this is the case we think that nothing old survives in the north transept wall except, perhaps, near the carved reading desk.
Let us look again at the inside of the building and notice things of comparatively recent times. The arms on the front of the north transept gallery are those of the Earls of Roden, former lords of the soil. At the time of the 1824 addition, his lordship was accorded half of the new gallery for his family and retainers.
The double-seated oak Reading Desk with the high back, now unfortunately stained and varnished, is curious, but we do not know to which alteration or re-planning it belongs. The high Pulpit is also unusual. A new pulpit was made in Dublin in 1799 at a cost of £32 10s. 0d. There are endless references in the early nineteenth century minutes concerning a new pulpit and its most suitable position. The vestry even ordered what is described as a “movable” pulpit to be tried out in different positions.
In the wall of the Vestry you will see a stone bearing a Latin inscription. It records that the church, having suffered heavy injury by time and war, was “restored in a new and more elegant form” in 1707, when Radolph (Ralph) Lambert was vicar, Henry Bush and George Low, church wardens. It is likely that this stone was formerly in the chancel before the two windows were inserted in 1814. Lambert later became Bishop of Dromore and of Meath. As before mentioned, it is unfortunate that no description survives of the exact nature of this restoration.
In the north wall of the chancel arch is an interesting carved and painted stone tablet with armorial chargings, recording the death of Ralph Lambert’s first wife in 1707, aged forty. He was the son of George Lambert, possibly of Dundalk, and was born in 1665 “in County Louth.” There are few parish churches in Ireland in which tablets of this nature have survived.
In the chancel walls are tablets to the last Earl of Clanbrassil, to members of the Roden family and to the Rev. Elias Thackeray, a cultured and respected vicar to whom we later refer.
The East Window is more curious than beautiful. What was its shape before 1812 or what glass it contained, we have no certain knowledge, but it seems probable that the glass was plain. We have a record of £3 being spent in 1767 for “new glazing the east window.” What we do know is that in 1812 Lord Roden presented the church with the fragments of old glass – circles and oblongs – one of them commemorating St. Andrew, Bishop of Fiesole. The vestry of the day paid for the setting of these fragments in the window. It is very probable, though we have no record, that the apparent height of the window was reduced at that time by covering the lower part with wood panelling to match as nearly as possible the old chancel panelling which was doubtless part of the work done, under the advice of Francis Johnston, in 1786.
The two chairs inside the chancel rails were made in the middle of last century by Charles Allpress, a brother of the then curate, from wood which had formed part of the church.
A large mural monument in the south transept represents the story of the Good Samaritan. It commemorates Dr. George Gillichan, who died in 1817 at the age of twenty-six, from fever contracted during an epidemic. So much loved and respected was he that on his death a town committee of all creeds was formed of which the R.C. priest and curate were members. We read in the records that at the special wish of the committee the sculptor made the Samaritan a portrait of the doctor.
In the porch, in a case presented by Baronstown parishioners in memory of the late Rev. J.J. McClure, you will find a few objects connected with the church. There is one of the curious long-handled copper collecting pans formerly used by the church wardens to collect the offertory. It bears the inscription “William Woolsey, vicar, Parish Church, Dundalk. Thomas Bolton, John Hamill, church wardens, 1723.” The set, of which this formed one, was in use up till 1879 when they were given to William Woolsey of Castlebellingham, a descendant of his namesake of 1723, in exchange for the wooden plates at present in use. This single pan, the only one which survived the burning of Milestown House, was given back to the church by Mrs. Barrow (nee Woolsey-Butler) in 1954. In the case is a plaster replica and a wax impression of the thirteenth century seal of Dundalk, and other itesm.
On the porch walls are the War Memorial Tablet for both World Wars, two boards bearing the Ten Commandments from the now abandoned church at Louth, a framed plan of the church yard showing all the grave stones. A book containing copies of all the inscriptions decipherable in 1944 is kept in the Vestry and can be consulted on application to the Rector or the Sexton by those interested. Another frame shows copies of the inscriptions on the old sixteenth century tombstones with explanations, while another records the names of those parishioners who gave their time and skill to the repairing and redecorating of the church walls in 1952. There is also a plan of the church.
The Communion Plate does not date further back than 1824. It consists of two chalices, two patens, a flagon and an alms dish, all silver, inscribed “Church of Dundalk, 1824, Elias Thackeray, vicar; Robert Hume, Jno. Hamilton Stubbs, curates; George Shakleton and Richard Bell, church wardens.” The writer of the vestry minutes of the time describes the earlier plate as “part wore out,” but gives no clue to its date or provenance. In addition to the above, there is a chalice belonging to St. Richard’s Chapel, and a modern Irish silver patent presented in 1954 by Mr. Richard Welch.
The Records in the Rector’s custody – in addition to the Preacher’s Book, the General Vestry Minute Book, and the Register of General Vestrymen – are Registers of Baptisms from 1729, of Marriages from 1755, of Burials from 1727 and the Vestry Minute Books from 1748.
The Spire has been remarkable since 1787 when it was erected to the design of Francis Johnston, the famous Armagh-born architect. The copper sheeting on the timber framework had turned a pleasant green colour. Because of this and of the ivy mantling of the tower, the building had received the local name of “The Green Church.” In the course of years a cant in the wooden framework threw the spire somewhat out of the perpendicular: eventually the condition of the sheeting, both of copper and wood, became parlous. Finally in a very violent storm in 1932 it was struck by lightning resulting in such considerable damage that only removal or replacement was possible. A storm-damage insurance policy fortunately made the latter practicable, resulting now in a spire exactly the same in height and shape but supported on a framework of steel. It is once more developing the same green patina.
One of Dundalk’s famous men, Admiral Sir Leopold McClintock, the arctic explorer, used to tell how, as a boy, he was sure that the spire was green marble and how great his disappointment was hen at a later date he discovered his mistake.
On the tip of the spire is a large copper wind vane, which now bears the inscriptions as follow:
- Hic versatilis venti index in nova et forma elegantiori instauratis.
Elias Thackeray, Vicario.
Johanne H. Allpress } Curatis
George Studdert } 1845
James Shekleton, Dundalk, 1845
(This inscription is evidently modelled to some extent on the 1707 inscription in the Vestry. James Shekleton was the owner of a widely-known foundry in Dundalk. The three initials at the bottom may be those of the craftsman.)
- Triton hic antiquua tempore et tempestate consumplus (sic) iterum
Xmas A.D. 1891 redintegratus est.
Josephus Rainsford, Vicario
S.J. Carolin, Curatis
- Hic index iterum diruta tempore et tempestate demptum est ac
respositum in novem pinnam. A.D. 1932
T.F. Campbell, Rector
E.Q. Motyer } Church wardens
M.T. Hesse }