Fenagh, County Leitrim, has known settlement since the earliest of times. Among the numerous ancient monuments in the immediate vicinity of the village are a pair of standing stones on its western flank [RMP LE025-090—-] and a trio of standing stones on its eastern flank [RMP LE025-097—-; LE025-098—-; LE025-099—-]. A double court tomb is named as “Giants’ Graves” on the Ordnance Survey [LE029-002—-] while a tomb named as “Dermot and Grania’s Bed” has been described as ‘perhaps the best known and most visually stunning of the megalithic tombs in County Leitrim [and one] sketched by artists since the early nineteenth century’ [RMP LE025-092—-]. Occupying a slight elevation on the side of the road leading south to Mohill are the ruins of two churches which, according to tradition, owe their origins to a monastery founded by Saint Caillin in the sixth century [RMP LE025-096001-]. The lands containing the churches were transferred to the Protestant Bishop of Ardagh in 1585 and The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland (1846) tells us that ‘in the west end, which is vaulted, divine service [was] performed for the Protestant inhabitants until a church was erected for that purpose’.
The “new” church, dedicated to Saint Catherine, was erected in 1787 with the financial assistance of a gift of £360 from the Board of First Fruits, the institution established in 1711 to construct and improve churches and glebe houses throughout Ireland. The first decades of the Board’s existence saw funds diverted primarily to the purchase of glebe lands and the construction of glebe houses. However, from 1777 supplemental grants from the Irish Parliament fostered a nationwide programme of construction, enlargement and repair. Upwards of ninety churches and one hundred and twenty glebe houses were built in the period from 1791 to 1803.
Saint Catherine’s Church (Fenagh), Fenagh, County Leitrim, built in 1787 with the financial assistance of a gift of £360 from the Board of First Fruits (fl. 1711-1833). Having served the local congregation for almost two hundred years, the church was closed in 1974 and fell into disrepair. The rehabilitation of the church has been ongoing since 1988 and has benefitted from funding from The Heritage Council and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Photography by Roslyn Byrne
The typical Board of First Fruits Church is easily recognised by a standard design comprising a simple hall-like nave with a tower at the west end. Saint Anne’s Church (Annaduff), Drumsna; and Killegar Church (Carrigallen), Killegar, are typical examples in County Leitrim. In some cases the tower was a later addition, finished as part of a programme of “repair” supported by the Board. Such was the case with Saint Brigid’s Church (Kiltubbrid) in Corglass where the nave and tower are clearly of different dates; and Drumlease Church (Drumlease) in Dromahair which was built in 1806 and “rebuilt” in 1816.
Tellingly, in his description of the church as ‘a plain edifice without either tower or spire’, Samuel Lewis (1837) makes no mention of recent “gifts” or loans from the Board of First Fruits and Fenagh is one of a small number of churches in County Leitrim that survives more-or-less in its original form with a nave and bellcote-topped porch. Ballinamore Church (Oughteragh) in Ballinamore; and Drumreilly Church (Drumreilly) on the shore of Garadice Lough, are other examples.
A drawing signed (27th June 1863) by James Bell (1829-83) of Dublin titled “Design for Proposed Additions to Fenagh Church – for the Revd. Geo. Beresford” showing (clockwise from top left) the Ground Floor Plan [at] Scale of 4 Feet to the Inch; the Side Elevation of Chancel; the Elevation of East Window; the Longitudinal Section thro Chancel; the Section thro Chancel towards East Window; and the Elevation of Chancel Arch looking East. Courtesy of the Representative Church Body Library
The Board of First Fruits was dissolved in 1833 and its successor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, supported the “improvement” of Saint Catherine’s Church in the 1860s with the additional of a chancel for which designs signed by James Bell (1829-83) of Dublin are in the collection of the Representative Church Body Library. The new appendage allows the observer to see, in one building, the approach to Gothicism over the course of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Where the “pointed” openings on the nave and their Churchwarden tracery fittings speak of the Georgian Gothic or “Gothick” style, Bell’s chancel attempts to convey an archaeologically-correct Gothic with a traceried “East Window” modelled on medieval examples. Indeed, the cusped lancets and trefoil-pierced “Rose” bear comparison with the “East Window” of the nearby ruined church.
Where the “pointed” profile of the original openings speaks of the contemporary Georgian Gothic or “Gothick” style, the new chancel designed by James Bell (1829-83) of Dublin attempted to convey an archaeologically-correct Gothic with a traceried “East Window” modelled on medieval examples. Photography by Roslyn Byrne
The “improvement” of Saint Catherine’s Church was a show of optimism for the status of the Church of Ireland community in Fenagh. However, having peaked at 121 in 1846, the Protestant population had dwindled to 53 in 1901. By 1911 that number had fallen further to 26 including the family of the Reverend William Welwood of the nearby glebe house; James Ormsby Lawder of Lawderdale House; and the Booths, the Crawfords and the Wilsons of Knockmullin and Tully. A reorganisation of the parishes of the Diocese saw the church eventually close in 1974.
Having fallen into disrepair following almost fifteen years of disuse, the rehabilitation of Saint Catherine’s Church began in 1988 when it was taken over by a local development committee. The graveyard, densely overgrown, was cleared and its boundary wall mended with missing sections of vertical stone coping reinstated. Some of the pine trees felled were put to good use as timber for the repair of the roof. Existing beams that were still in good order were retained and restored, as was the slate finish which required only a small number of new slates sourced from Donegal. Apart from a new door, donated by the Knott family whose burial plot is in the graveyard, all of the original timber fittings were retained, including the characteristic Churchwarden windows. The repair of the bell completed the restoration of the exterior although work on the interior continued including the replication of stencil work based on a template made from the original design.
The restoration of Saint Catherine’s Church is ongoing and in 2015 the committee was successful in its application to the Heritage Council for funding under the Community Based Heritage Grant Scheme. The funding meant that the floor could be replaced and the work was completed in late August 2015. In the process, impediments to the ventilation system that were causing the walls to become damp were rectified and the building was left for a year to dry out thoroughly.
|Liaising with Leitrim County Council, the committee set out a schedule for the further restoration of the interior and, in 2016, successful applications for funding under the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Built Heritage Investment Scheme (BHIS) and Structures at Risk Fund (SRF) allowed for the conservation and protection of the historic stained glass. There was a great sense of excitement on the 20th July 2016 when the windows, restored to a jewel-like intensity, were installed by Abbey Stained Glass Studios of Dublin. The windows, particularly the “East Window”, served as a perfect backdrop to a concert of medieval music held in the church later that month. A carol service, the first church service in twenty-one years, took place in December 2015 while the first wedding in a generation took place on the 22nd April 2017.
Reverend Linda Frost; Julie Marshall, Secretary Saint Catherine’s Church Committee; and John Moran, Treasurer Saint Catherine’s Church Committee, supervising the installation of the restored stained glass windows by Abbey Stained Glass Studios in July 2016. Courtesy of Saint Catherine‘s Church Committee
A view of the Beresford Window on the left side of the chancel prior to its restoration by Abbey Stained Glass Studios. The restored window saw the Beresford coat of arms reinstated. The meanings of the initials on this window (“SAO’R”) and its counterpart on the right side of the chancel (“HTB”) have yet to be determined. The restoration of the stained glass at Saint Catherine’s Churchwas made possible by funding from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs under the 2016 Built Heritage Investment Scheme and the Structures at Risk Fund. Courtesy of Saint Catherine‘s Church Committee
Saint Catherine’s Church is open to visitors who can observe its ongoing restoration. The key to the church is available at the Fenagh Visitor Centre. Visit www.fenagh.com for further information.
The restored interior of Saint Catherine’s Church dressed for the Harvest Festival Service in September 2016. In addition to the restored windows, a suite of plaques sees the church double as a de facto memorial to the Beresfords with one erected by Major General George de la Poer Beresford (1830-1913) commemorating his father Reverend George Beresford (1801-69) and mother Elizabeth (née Nisbet) (c.1830-47). A plaque unveiled in May 2017 remembers General James Maurice Primrose (1819-92), ‘SOLDIER – ARTIST – DIARIST’, and Reverend George Beresford’s son-in-law. Courtesy of Saint Catherine’s Church Committee
Julie Marshall is Secretary of the Saint Catherine‘s Church Committee
NOTE: To explore more of the ancient monuments in and around Fenagh enter the relevant RMP number into the National Monuments Service dataset in the Historic Environment Viewer