Simonas Vilcauskis describes the history of Scots’ Church, Carlow, an early nineteenth-century temple-like church designed by Thomas Alfred Cobden (1794-1842)
The history of Presbyterianism in Carlow can be traced back to 1655 when, according to Clarke Huson Irwin (1858-1934) in A History of Presbyterianism in Dublin and the South and West of Ireland (1890), Roger Muckle was preaching as an ‘Independent minister…under the Commonwealth’. A congregation established under the Synod of Munster flourished for a time, served successively by Reverend Henry Batty, Reverend James Logan and Reverend David Syms, but was extinct by 1750.
An early nineteenth-century revival was brought about by the arrival of the Hampshire-born merchant, Thomas Cox (d. 1847), who, finding little satisfaction in the services given by the Established Church, made applications to several societies to have the need for gospel preaching in the town remedied. His first application was to the Methodists who met once-fortnightly in Charlotte Street but his request for a weekly service was refused. An application to the Irish Secretary of the Evangelical Society was turned down on the basis that there were insufficient ministers to meet the needs of existing congregations; an application to his English counterpart was initially encouraging but ultimately came to nothing.
Cox, supported by a small group of co-signatories, turned his attentions to the Trustees of the General Fund of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland who in 1817 directed the minister then serving Stratford-on-Slaney to preach as frequently as he could in Carlow and report back on the prospect of re-establishing a congregation in the town. The signs were sufficiently encouraging for the renewed congregation to be placed under the care of the Synod of Ulster and Presbytery of Dublin with the Methodist meeting house providing a temporary setting for services.
Guided by Reverend Henry Cooke (1788-1868) who travelled to Carlow each Saturday, preached on the Sabbath, and returned to Dublin to attend medical classes in Trinity College each Monday, the congregation set about building their own place of worship. The Newry Magazine of Literary and Political Register for 1818 (1819) records that ‘on the 25th of June, 1818, the first stone of a new Presbyterian chapel was laid…by Edward Butler, Esquire, the sovereign of that place [who] stated on the occasion that it gave him great satisfaction to perform the ceremony, not for any new fanatical or superstitious sect, but for a society which had originally emanated from the Church of Scotland’. The site on Athy Road was leased from Nathaniel Proctor at £15 per annum and the church, estimated at £800, was designed by the English-born architect, Thomas Alfred Cobden (1794-1842), who was one of the co-signatories on Cox’s application to the Presbyterians (fig. 1).
The circumstances behind Cobden’s move to Ireland are not known but commissions from a range of clients, ecclesiastical and secular, private and public, sustained a career lasting almost twenty years before he returned to London in 1832. The majority of his work was based in County Carlow, with the occasional foray into neighbouring counties, and he proved equally adept and inventive whether working in the Classical or Gothic styles.
Architectural ecumenicist, equal opportunities employee, Cobden supplied the designs for the Church of Ireland church (1829-33) and the Catholic cathedral (1829-34) in Carlow. Both are in the Gothic style, make extensive use of locally-sourced silver-grey granite, and are identified by spectacular spires with an eye-catching array of pinnacles. However, the Scots’ Church, his earliest church, adopts the form of a miniature temple, its modest architectural ambitions and cost-effective finishes pointing to a small congregation with limited funds at their disposal.
The Carlow Morning Post suggests that work on the church was completed within four months, the cost having overrun by £120 15s. 3d. owing to the inclusion of a gallery, but it was not officially opened for worship until the 12th September 1819.
A History of Congregations in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland 1610-1982 (1982) mentions that, following his appointment to Carlow in 1894, Reverend Joseph Dempster (1855-1914) ‘carried out a major repair job on the church… The roof had become unsafe and it was replaced’. The extent of this ‘major repair’ is not known but it is unlikely that it amounted to a comprehensive reconstruction as is traditionally believed and, with the exception of a loop-like opening on its south side, the church, in plan, survives be more or less as it was depicted in a survey of Carlow published in 1873 (fig. 2). The exterior was probably refaced and certain details, including the raised lettering over the door, bring to mind the Deighton Memorial Hall in Dublin Street which was reworked in 1909 when it was donated by Joseph C. Deighton (d. 1932) to Saint Mary’s Parish for use as a parochial hall.
An austere windowless façade features four stucco pilasters on pedestals supporting a rudimentary pediment: a Reliable Series postcard published in the early twentieth century suggests that the pediment was originally more pronounced with a deeper overhang (fig. 3). A curiously-proportioned lugged doorcase, its ogee-detailed pediment carried on hefty fluted consoles, serves as the primary focal point (fig. 4). Elegantly arcaded openings, three on each side, are fitted with conventional Georgian sash windows given the slightest “ecclesiastical” flavour by sinuous ogee glazing bars (fig. 5).
The focus of the sparse hall-like interior remains the elevated pulpit set within a segmental-arched shallow alcove (figs. 6-7). The timber boarded ceiling, its geometric framework of Canadian pine beams supported by cut-granite corbels, was installed during the repairs carried out in 1900 (fig. 8).
The gates and railings which originally enclosed a small forecourt were removed at a later date, opening the church directly on to Athy Road, but the Scots’ Church otherwise survives intact as the earliest-surviving place of worship still in active use in Carlow.
Simonas Vilcauskis is a studying architecture at Waterford Institute of Technology
Grey, Victor, “The Scots Church” in ed. MacGabhann, Tomás, Carloviana: Journal of the Old Carlow Society 1993-1994 (Carlow, 1993)
Irwin, Clark Huson, A History of Presbyterianism in Dublin and the South and West of Ireland (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1890)
Killen, Reverend W.D., History of Congregations of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (Belfast: James Cleeland, 1886)
Kirkpatrick, Lawrence, Presbyterians in Ireland: An Illustrated History (Booklink, 2006)
The Newry Magazine or Literary and Political Register for 1818 (Newry: Alex Wilkinson, 1819)Back to Building of the Month Archive