a short history

History Of St. John's Church Clonmellon


St John’s Church in Clonmellon, County Westmeath dates from c.1790 when it was built with funds provided by Sir Benjamin Chapman who lived nearby in Killua Castle. (Note that the last Chapman baronet, Sir Thomas, was the father of T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’). Lying at the end of a long, tree-lined avenue off the main street of the village and in the middle of a graveyard, the building was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a neat structure with a handsome spire.’ Some two years earlier it had been repaired at a cost of £251 granted by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The spire admired by Lewis has long been lost but otherwise the church, at least externally, remains much as he would have seen it. The raised east end suggests the present structure may have been erected on the site of an earlier one, as was often the case. Designed in the simple hall style found throughout the country, the north side of its nave, which is first seen on approach, is completely plain whereas that on the south has three pointed-arch windows retaining remnants of latticed glass. So too does the east end triple-light window while at the west end smaller windows flank the tower in which a door provided access for parishioners. The castellated tower is of dressed limestone whereas the main body of the church was built of rubble formerly covered in render.

St John’s Church remained in active use for 200 years until taken out of service by the Church of Ireland in 1990 when most of its fittings were removed (the altar table was subsequently moved to the Church of Ireland in Ballee, County Down). St John’s and its surrounding land were sold in 1997 but the new owner did little work on the building which thereafter fell into disrepair. A few years ago the family which has long been engaged in restoring Killua Castle also bought St John’s and began work to ensure this key feature of the local heritage was not lost. At some date the exterior had been covered in cement render which did not allow the building to breathe and encouraged damp, as did the loss of slates from its roof. The entire roof has since been restored, using old slates, while the walls were stripped of their cement. Internally some of the plasterwork also had to be removed due to damage, and the ceiling has been repaired.
All this work was done from the family’s own funds, and using the same workmen they have employed at Killua Castle. Their motive was to save St John’s. But what of its future? The present owners propose to complete the task of restoration of the building both inside and out, as well as the surrounding graveyard. They will then offer it free of charge to people in the area for use as an exhibition gallery, meeting hall and any other purpose for which it might be needed, since no such venue currently exists in or near Clonmellon.

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St. Johns Church Clonmellon by Ian Poulton


In 1995, it was decided by the Select Vestry of the Parish of Ballee in Co Down that a new communion table was needed. The communion table itself was no more than a kitchen table, not even polished. Since 1944 it had been covered with a heavy blue damask cloth, trimmed with gold brocade. It had served well for fifty years, but by 1995 was decided to be threadbare. A new cloth would £117 a square yard, just for the material, and a new table would be even more. Not that you could put a new table into Ballee Church; the woodwork dated from the building of the church in 1749 and was well-seasoned.

What was to be done? The church was sustained by a faithful few dozen. The rector raised the matter at a vestry meeting. “Rector”, said a vestryman, “could we not get a table from a church which is closed”. So the Rector made inquiries. Sure enough, the church at Clonmellon in Co Westmeath had closed now the last two faithful ladies had been promoted to glory.

The necessary authorities agreed to the acquisition and one fine day in June 1995, the Rector, with two members of the vestry, ventured down to collect the Clonmellon table.

The table was being kept at Athboy church. It was loaded into a trailer and it was felt that it would be respectful to visit the church from which the table had come. In memory, gaining access to Clonmellon church included going to a pub to ask for the key, but perhaps that is a piece of retrospective fancy. The church was a sad sight: slates missing, panes of glass cracked; the interior gutted. The Rector of Ballee stood and stared at the ceiling. The building had no redeeming features and now had no friends. He thought about the people who had worshipped in this place, the children who had been baptised, those whose lives had been joined together in holy matrimony, those who had followed the mortal remains of their loved ones into the churchyard outside. What had kept them going?

The last two old ladies, worshipping in a building which was gradually falling down, what had inspired them to come to this place on a Sunday? What thoughts had gone through their minds as they stared at the widening patch of damp?

The questions arose again this evening. It is fifteen years since the table at Clonmellon was restored and installed in Ballee church; it is fourteen years since the Rector moved on to work elsewhere.

In none of the memories of that Irish summer’s day is there a camera. Yet amongst a pile of photographs of children in the garden, there was appeared this evening a sequence of pictures of Clonmellon church. As sad now as they were at the time; this place that had been dear to the hearts of its people now dead.

The last interment in the graveyard was marked by a gravestone an inscription which seemed to defy every sermon that might have been preached. Perhaps a warning on abandoning our heritage.

After posting the above, the following was received from the Revd Roy Byrne,

Poor Clonmellon…

Clonmellon church, dedicated to St. John or St. Lucy was built c.1787. Lewis states that Clonmellon church is: “a neat structure with a handsome spire.” He also notes that it was built partly at the expense of Sir. B. Chapman, Bart. of Killua Castle. The church was repaired c.1835 at a cost of £251, which was granted by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The parochial school was built on land provided by the Chapman family, who also built the schoolhouse. Lady Chapman provided £10 annually for the school. Under the will of Sir. B. Chapman, Bart, ten Almshouses were built in Clonmellon for aged and infirm labourers, who had each more than one acre of land, and £2 per annum.

The 1868, ‘Established Church Commission’ lists Kilallon as a permanent union of Killallon and Killua, in the village of Clonmellon under the alternate patronage of the Bishop of Meath and the Marquess of Drogheda. The incumbent is listed as Anthony Blackburne, in whose parish resided 172 members of the Established Church. It seems that the parish was in the process of building a new glebe-house in 1868, according to additional information in the Commission report. The church is small and relatively uninteresting. It is a very simple hall and tower church, with a battlemented tower. The “handsome spire” mentioned by Lewis must have been removed soon after he wrote about the church. The date of construction is also disputed, for the church presents an early 19th century ‘Board of First Fruits’ appearance. It is possible that the tower dates from 1787 and the church itself from the early 1800’s.

The interior of the church is plain, with clear windows – three on the south wall and an east window. The ceiling is coved and every wall and ceiling surface is covered with white plywood panelling. A lean-to galvanised iron vestry adjoins the church at the south-east wall. Following years of declining congregations and a building falling into serious disrepair, it was decided to close the church in 1990. It was later de-consecrated and the furnishings removed. It was sold on March 19th 1997.

 By Ian Poulton https://forthefainthearted.com/

 

 

 

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