The old Catholic church at Ballyduff was erected in 1775 and was the first post-Reformation church in Tullamore parish. It was erected in the remote townland of Ballyduff near the centre of Tullamore parish to minimise upset to the authorities at a time when the Penal Laws were still in force. It appears to have been on the boundary of the Coote estate at Srah and that of the Herbert estate (later Norbury) at Durrow –again designed so as to minimize upset to the authorities.
Now the ruin old church is the location for the celebration of a vigil mass early on Easter Sunday morning.
It was not until 1794 that a site was obtained for the present church in Chapel Street, Tullamore and it was 1802 before the new church was completed. The fine church at Durrow was completed in 1831. Thus the lifespan for Ballyduff was short at little more than twenty-five years. Yet its survival as a ruin testifies to the difficulties encountered by Catholics for almost 200 years from the mid-sixteenth century and how modest was that first post-Reformation building. Even as a ruin it has remained as a poignant reminder on the landscape over 200 years later.
The Reformation had taken place in the mid–sixteenth century and saw the end of tolerated Catholic worship in the parish church at Durrow and the chapel of ease at Kilbride. It was over 200 years before another Catholic church was built in the parish. Its location at Ballyduff meant it was close to Tullamore, a town which was by the late eighteenth century starting to grow and had a population of perhaps 4,000. The Ballyduff church was not so near as would attract unwelcome attention from the authorities at a time when the enforcement of the Penal Laws preventing Catholics enjoying religious freedom had eased. This, the first post-Reformation Catholic church in the Tullamore area was a small T-shaped building some of the walls of which are still standing in the immediate vicinity of what is now Axis Business Park. For us in Offaly History it is close to the new county archives now in course of completion. Unfortunately, little survives in the way of church records for the late eighteenth century (but see our blog on the RC Meath Diocesan Archives, Bishop Plunket and Cogan’s history of the diocese).
By the 1790s further reliefs had been granted to Catholics so that in 1794, Charles William Bury, Tullamore’s landlord, was able to offer free of charge (but without the security of a long lease) the present site at Chapel Street and behind the new William Street which had, in 1790, been laid out for house building. At that time neither Harbour Street nor the harbour had been constructed. The site was in the back of the town in a poor area and away from the finer houses in the town centre and the southern side approaching the demesne of Charleville where the town’s landlord resided.