Figure 1: A view of the East Front of Collon Church, Collon, County Louth. Writing not long after its completion in 1815, Samuel Lewis (1837) described the church as ‘an elegant structure of hewn limestone, in the ancient style of English architecture [and built] during the incumbency of Dr. [Daniel Augustus] Beaufort, author of the “Ecclesiastical Map and Memoir of Ireland”: the cost was about £8,000, of which £3,800 was a gift and £700 a loan from the late Board of First Fruits; the members of the Foster family contributed bountifully towards its erection’
|When driving along the N2 from Dublin towards Derry and Donegal, the traveller will eventually come upon Collon Church, a prominent landmark building that dominates the southern approach to the village of Collon. Commissioned by “Speaker” John Foster (1740-1828) of Collon House, and designed by the talented amateur architect, the Reverend Daniel Augustus Beaufort (1739-1821), the church is in the Perpendicular Gothic style and appears to have been modelled on the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.
Collon and its church are closely associated with the Foster family who arrived in County Louth in the 1600s. Originally tenant farmers of modest means, their status rose in the mid 1700s and by the turn of the eighteenth century the Fosters were significant landowners and held two seats in the Irish House of Commons. In 1764 the Fosters erected the first Church of Ireland church in Collon and a bible inscribed with this date still survives. In 1810 the Fosters decided to build anew on a site immediately to the south of the eighteenth-century church and, begun in 1811, the present church was ready to hold its first service in September 1815.
It is not known why Beaufort chose the chapel of King’s College as the model for his design. While he was active, knowledgeable and much travelled, there is no evidence that he ever visited Cambridge. However, he was related by marriage to the celebrated Edgeworth family who are known to have visited the university town and perhaps he was influenced by their accounts. Alternatively, “Speaker” Foster’s son, Thomas Henry Skeffington (né Foster) (1772-1843), a student at Cambridge, may have had a role in influencing the finished design. In any event, facsimile plans of the chapel of King’s College were already in circulation at the time and may have been familiar to Beaufort. It is notable, however, that Beaufort reproduced the design earlier than any other architect or builder.
Figures 2-3: Portraits of “Speaker” John Foster (1740-1828) and Reverend Daniel Augustus Beaufort (1739-1821), client and architect respectively of Collon Church
On entering the church the first impression is of a large open space devoid of breaks or pillars in the structure. On either side of the central aisle the pews are arranged facing each other in the collegiate style and not forward towards the chancel. The interior is lit by a series of brightly-coloured stained glass windows including the impressive East Window designed by Louisa Catherine Beaufort (1781-1867) in bold semi-abstract patterns with allusions to the sun, moon and stars. Overhead, the stunning plasterwork ceiling is said to be by William Edgeworth (1794-1829), son of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) and brother of the novelist Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849). On closer inspection, there are numerous other engaging details throughout the church.
Figure 4: A view of the impressive interior of Collon Church. Lewis’s description of the church mentions ‘the interior [of] 90 feet by 40, the ceiling beautifully groined. It has five windows of the south side, besides a large east window over the altar. All the side windows are of stained glass, the gift of the present Baron Foster [Thomas Henry Skeffington (né Foster) (1772-1843), second Baron Oriel]; the east window is in course of preparation, being the gift of the impropriator. Under the church is the burial-place of that family, and in it is a marble monument to the memory of Catherine Letitia Foster, widow of William, Lord Bishop of Clogher, which was erected by her daughter, the Countess of Salis’
The system of collegiate seating, while present at King’s College, also bears comparison with the chapel of Trinity College, Dublin. In fact, if one examines Collon and Dublin, one can see how very similar the seating is. We know that both Beaufort and Foster attended Trinity College – indeed, Beaufort preached in the chapel – and it seems very possible that Beaufort used the seating arrangement there as the model for Collon. Collegiate seating enhances the acoustics of a choir. The choir master, standing in the central aisle, can direct the choristers to raise or lower their singing voices to achieve a perfectly balanced sound. Collon Church gives a wonderful acoustic during concerts and services and has been used as a venue for Baroque concerts as part of the Ardee Baroque Festival.
Figure 5: A detail of the stained glass East Window designed by Louisa Catherine Beaufort (1781-1867) featuring in its uppermost section an abstract representation of the sky at night with the moon shown in two cycles, planets, stars and golden-tailed shooting stars
Louisa Catherine Beaufort’s East Window is unusual in that it is quite secular in theme with no obvious religious references. The uppermost section conveys an abstract representation of the sky at night, perhaps an indirect allusion to Heaven, and is filled with blue glass dotted with clear stars. The moon is shown in two cycles – the Full Moon and the Crescent Moon – and there are also two planets with Saturn identified by its ring. The daggers are filled with golden-tailed shooting stars and, unusually, some stars are shooting down and others shooting up!
The splendid ceiling is a lath-and-plaster reproduction of a vaulted stone ceiling and is clearly modelled on the chapel of King’s College. On a recent visit to Collon Church, Professor Bruce Campbell of Queen’s University, Belfast, suggested that Beaufort may originally have planned a flat ceiling with fan-shaped pendants similar to the ceilings at Charleville Forest (1800-12), County Offaly, by Francis Johnston (1760-1829). However, while work on the church was well underway the design was altered and it was decided to attempt, so far as was possible, a replica of the King’s College ceiling. This change of heart may have been influenced by Richard Lovell Edgeworth and it is believed that his son, William, was responsible for the design which, due to the narrower dimensions of the nave at Collon, is a variation on, rather than a faithful facsimile of the Cambridge ceiling.
Collon Church is substantially unchanged since it was finished in 1815. The only period of significant alteration was in the 1880s when it was decided to dismantle the original three-tiered pulpit. There is a charming anecdote about this pulpit which may strike a chord with the modern builder. When the pulpit was first installed, Beaufort is said to have asked the builder to climb up to its top tier and say a few words to see if he could be heard clearly from all corners of the church. The builder complied and, having reached the summit, cried out: “When can I expect my money?”
|Figure 10: Among the many memorials lining the interior is a gilded monument dedicated to Letitia Dorothea North (née Foster) (d. 1852), niece of “Speaker” Foster and wife of John Henry North MP (d. 1831). According to local legend, the young Foster visited Rome in 1815 with her sister, Henrietta, and received a marriage proposal from Count Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti (1792-1878), an officer in the Papal Guard. Letitia refused her admirer whereupon he entered the priesthood and enjoyed a distinguished career that culminated in his being elected Pope Pius IX in 1846||Figure 11: Among the many headstones in the surrounding churchyard is an obelisk-topped granite monument commemorating Second Lieutenant James Samuel Emerson VC (1895-1917) of The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, a posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the face of the enemy. Emerson’s actual resting place in unknown and his name is also inscribed on the Cambrai Memorial to the Missing near Doignies, France|
Figure 12: On the south side of the church is a group of three Russian Orthodox Cross headstones marking the graves of a family who fled the October Revolution in 1917 and who eventually settled in Collon in the 1930s. One headstone commemorates Nikolai Ivanovich Couriss (1896-1977) and a second his wife Ksenia Nikolaevna Couriss (née Bibikova) (1895-1966) who is reputed to have been a lady-in-waiting to the last Czarina. A colourful rumour once circulated that Couriss taught Russian to intelligence agents and, although never substantiated, photographs exist which are said to show George Blake (b. 1922), the double agent, at Collon
Collon Church is an eccentric and engaging building. We happen to know a great deal about the church whether by studying the building on its own; studying the buildings associated with it; or studying the large amount of surviving original documents relating to it. The church is a continuously evolving archive that allows one to construct a living history of life in Collon, County Louth and Ireland in general in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is hoped that those entrusted with Collon Church will secure its future for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come.
John Rountree is a local historian from outside Ardee, County Louth. He is the chairman of a local group who are helping to maintain and preserve the historic Collon Church