Ballyduff and Tullamore post-Reformation Catholic churches 1775-1902. By John Wrafter and Michael Byrne

The first post-reformation Catholic Church in Tullamore parish was completed in 1775. Recently an architectural fragment from that church was presented to the Society. Ballyduff chapel was a small T-shaped building the remains of which are still standing and used to be glimpsed from the roadway between the former Wrafter’s farmhouse and the Carroll Meats factory. It is now in the grounds of Axis Business Park and easy to access.

The architectural fragment from Ballyduff first RC post-Reformation church of 1775 presented to Offaly History by John Wrafter.

 The credit for the building of this church can go to Fr Pat Geoghegan who was appointed parish priest of Tullamore in 1773 in succession to Anthony Nowlan who was transferred to Drogheda.[1] What is surprising is how late in the century it was before the Tullamore church was built. A church had been erected at Mullingar in 1730 which was described c. 1731 as remarkably large, with aisle, three galleries, and a spacious altar-piece, painted, and set off with images, flower pots and gilded candlesticks.[2] Father Geoghegan was young man who been ordained in 1768 in Flanders at the age of 22.[3] The church was, even at the time of its construction, too small to cater for the needs of the parish, especially the growing town of Tullamore.

Ballyduff church in the 1970s and today

The old Ballyduff Tullamore chapel today

The works in hand in the 2005-7 period with the new Axis units in the background

In 1795 the then owner of Charleville Estate, which included the town of Tullamore, Charles William Bury, presented a site for a new chapel (the present site) off what is now Chapel Street and Harbour Street. At the time it was green field site to the back of  the new houses in William/Columcille Street. Bishop Plunkett while on his annual visitation of the parishes in the Meath diocese noted in his diary at 14 September 1795:

This day I went to the ground destined for the new chapel at Tullamore and spent the remainder of the day at the pastor’s house.[4]

Father Geoghegan did not live to see the opening of the new church. Cogan states that he was hunted from his home by the yeomen in the wake of the 1798 rebellion and caught a cold while hiding in a field of corn, from which he never recovered.[5] His tombstone at Durrow Abbey cemetery records only that the Revd. Mr. Patrick Geoghegan was the late pastor of Durrow and Kilbride and died 15 March 1799. There is a tradition that the congregation was expelled from Ballyduff chapel by Orange Yeomen in 1798 and that people then attended Mucklagh chapel which was protected from the Orangemen by one Constantine Molloy, probably of the Ballinamire family and leading Catholics in the Tullamore areas.[6]

            On the death of Father Geoghegan the bishop appointed Revd James Murray, the parish priest of Rahan to Tullamore and moved a Tullamore curate, Revd. John O’Hara (remembered in St O’Hara’s well at Cloonagh) to Rahan as parish priest.[7] Some three years later, in June 1802, Bishop Plunkett recorded in the diary of his visitation:

Compliments on the new chapel paid to Lord Charleville who gave the ground  plot  and handsomely  contributed; to the Protestants who subscribed on the occasion; to the  Catholics who liberality raised so good a house of worship.[8]

The RC church, Harbour St, Tullamore, 1802-1902. The view of the chapel from Harbour Street.

Further  improvements  were made to the church  in 1805  and again in 1808.  An example of fund-raising methods in 1808 may be seen in a letter than the parish priest of Tullamore, Revd. Michael Kearney, wrote to the directors of the Grand Canal Company. (The Grand Canal was constructed to Tullamore in 1798 and extended to the Shannon in 1804.  A canal hotel was erected in 1801 as Tullamore was the terminus until 1804) Fr. Kearney told the directors that he[9]is called on by his flock to solicit benefactions from those whom principles of liberality or community of interest should render anxious for the necessary enlargement of his chapel. That the principles, on which he makes bold to solicit aid from your honourable board, are that the enlargement of the chapel has in part become necessary form the great number of people that resort to it, in proceeding to your passage boats, more particularly  from the province of  Connaught, and also  the large portion of laboring poor employed on your works, whose morals, if not attended to, might become so depraved as to endanger the security of your extensive works; which tho’ executed with great judgement, are still vulnerable in many parts. That your petitioner, knowing  your liberal sentiments as indviduals, hopes you will as directors consult them in a case that involves the interest and public character of the Company; in a case also so singular, that no person can claim from it as precedent.

At their meeting on 16 November 1808, the board considered Father Kearney’s petition and granted the sum of £50 and at a meeting of the parishioners of Tullamore on 27 November 1808 it was

Resolved unanimously that our unfeigned thanks, our all and perfect satisfaction be made known and are hereby conveyed  to the directors of the Grand Canal Company for the above liberal vote  and that we feel as if conferred by as individual on each of us personally.

That the feelings of respect esteem, excited by the vote of the present directors, shall render us more anxious for the prosperity of the Company, the preservation of their works, the decent accommodation of their passengers in our chapel, and shall animate us forming ardent wishes that members under the influence of such liberal principles rather than short-sighted parsimony, may ever preside at a Board so closely connected with national character and prosperity.

The several extensions to the Tullamore church were noted by the contributor to Lewis’

Topographical Dictionary (1837) who said that the Tullamore chapel was large building, to which several additions have been made in various styles of architecture.[10] A more useful description of the old church is given by Thomas Lacy who visited Tullamore in 1855 Lacy wrote:[11]

The Catholic Church is situate in this section of the town, and is a large structure, upon which improvements have been made from time to time, which had the effect of interfering to a considerable extent with its original style. Its main features, as they appear at present, are those of the Grecian style of architecture. It is 120 feet in length, by 75 breadth, and is entered in the south side, beneath a lofty arch, which is supported externally by strong buttresses; the internal moldings springing from double clustered columns with ornamental capitals. This noble arch, which serves as a portico, was intended for the base of a campanile, but it was considered that the foundation was not sufficiently safe for such a building. From this point to the western extremity of the church extended a series of light Doric columns, forming a colonnade. A square tower rises on each extremity of the eastern or chancel end of the church, the lower parts constituting the sacristy and vestry, and the upper forming the approaches to the galleries, which are within the transepts. The altar stands within semi-circular recess, formed between the two flanking towers, in each extremity of which appears a fine stained-glass window, that sheds its subdued and agreeable light up on the altar. There are two handsome Gothic windows in each transepts, and three of the same character in each side other nave. The side altars, as well as the centre one, are elegantly fitted up, and decorated with angelic figures. In the rear of the gallery, in the western end of the nave, is the sweet-toned organ. The residence of the parish priest immediately adjoins the church. The convent of the Sister of Charity [Mercy] – a fine substantial building, constructed of hammered limestone, with quoins, windows edgings, frames, and mullions of granite – may also be said to adjoin the church. The school of the pious and devoted sisterhood faces the canal, while in front of it and the nunnery, extends a nice area, enclosed by a cut stone boundary 220 feet in length, within which are planted shrubs and beauteous flowers, which give an air of agreeable freshness to this very interesting and invaluable institution. 

            This is by far the best account of the church which stood for one hundred years until its demolition in 1902 when work commenced on building the Church of the Assumption.

            Mass was said temporary structures in the Durrow area including a garden in the townland of Kildangan. The first post-reformation church erected in this part of the parish is that which is still in use  and was erected in 1831  on a site of two acres  given by  the  on a site  of two acres given by the Norbury family for a church  and burial ground. The church was erected in the Gothic style and is considered one of the finest of the early Catholic churches in the country.[12]

The late Charlie Molloy helped with taking off the ivy at Ballyduff chapel in the 1970s

[1] Brady, The parishes of Ardcath…..Tullamore, p. 141.

[2] Ibid., p. 98.

[3] Ibid., p. 141

[4] Cogan, Diocese of Meath, ii, p. 272.

[5] Ibid., p. 549.

[6] Brady, The Parishes of Ardcath…. Tullamore, pp 141-42 and see Rice “The Churches of Rahan and Lynally”, loc. cit., p. 31.

[7] Cogan, The Diocese of Meath, ancient and modern, iii (Dublin, 1870), p. 301.

[8] Ibid., pp 324-35.

[9] This reference will be found in a pamphlet by John Brady described as “A short history of the diocese of Meath 1864-1941”, no 11 (Navan, 1941), pp 369-70. The pamphlet covers only the parishes of Eglish, Kilcormac, Rahan and Tullamore.

[10] Samuel Lewis, A topographical dictionary of Ireland (London, 1837), ii p. 652.

[11] Thomas Lacy, Sights and scenes of our fatherland (Dublin, 1863), pp 157-58.

[12] William Garner, “Churches and houses of architectural interest in County Offaly. An unpublished report prepared for the Offaly Historical Society (1985).