One of the most beautiful places in Skibbereen town is what is known locally as the Church Meadow. The site of Abbeystrewry Church and Parochial Hall is not a meadow at all of course but it is an oasis of tranquility right in the centre of town.
There has been a church on this site since 1827. A new church, to replace the earlier one, was built on the same site in 1890 and that building is pretty much as it is today.
In William Maziere Brady’s Clerical and Parochial Records of Cork, Cloyne, and Ross, Volume II, the earliest reference to Abbeystrewry is 1634.
The Parochial Records of Cork, Cloyne and Ross describe a chapel at Abbeystrewry in the early seventeenth century. In 1699, the Earl of Ossery leased the parish to Mr Goodkin who allowed the Curate £18 per annum.
A little snapshot from the records of 1700 give an interesting insight to the work of the Rector: ‘Mr Bousfield preaches two Sundays in three at his own house for the parishes of Affadown and Kilcoe. At least a hundred were confirmed on Sunday, 2nd June 1700. Mr. Trix preaches one Sunday in three at Baltimore, or Sherkin and one Sunday in three at Skibbereen chapel, and, sometimes two Sundays in three at Skibbereen, so that he preaches in one place or other once every Sunday’.
Mr Benjamin Bousfield was Curate of Abbeystrewry 1692–1700, and Mr. Ludovicus Trix was Vicar of Creagh 1693–1715.
Rev. Richard Boyle Townsend
Rev. Richard Boyle Townsend was rector of Abbeystrewry for 31 years, from 1819–1850. On 11 June 1819 he was admitted to the vicarage of Abbeystrewry.
R.B. Townsend was the eldest son of John Townsend, Rector of Clonakilty.
For his first few years in Skibbereen, Rev. Townsend held Services in an old church on the quay on the River Ilen behind Bridge Street.
The original church on the present site was erected in 1827 under the guidance of Rev. Townsend. It was described as a plain oblong building, in old English style of architecture, with a tower or belfry, but minus the spire which was to be added later when funds would allow. On 11 April 1827 Abbeystrewry new church was licenced for divine service. This was a substantial building and could seat 360 people but was not very practical in many ways.
By 1842 the oblong building was inadequate to meet the needs of the congregation. Rev Townsend had a wing added, which, while it provided extra accommodation, threw the church out of all architectural order. So ridiculous did this addition make the church appear that Dean Madden gave it the sobriquet of ‘a bundle of absurdities’.
Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837 and said of Abbeystrewry Church: ‘This Church, situated in the town of Skibbereen, is a large edifice in the early English style of architecture, with a lofty square tower at the east end. It cost £1,181. 10s. 9d. British.’
Rev. Townsend also bult a new Rectory on a fifteen-acre site, spending a considerable amount of his own money on the house. That Rectory at Baltimore Road was in use until the early 1960s when it was deemed unsuitable and a new Rectory was purchased at Cork Road. A new school was also built under the guidance of Rev. Townsend.
In 1834 the Protestant population of the parish of Abbeystrewry was 246.
Rev. R.B. Townsend appears prominently in the literature and historiography of the Great Irish Famine (1845–52) in Skibbereen. He was a member of the Relief Committee and was one of those heroic figures who did extraordinary work to help to relieve the suffering of the destitute poor in this area.
Rev. Townsend and Rev. Caulfield of Rath travelled to London in December 1846 to meet members of the British government to appeal for help for Skibbereen. While the two Rev. gentlemen were disappointed with the reception they got in London, their efforts were particularly successful in that it was one of the factors that led to the setting up of a private charity, the British Relief Association. The British Relief Association raised some £400,000 for relief efforts in Ireland.
Rev. Richard Boyle Townsend married Elizabeth Hungerford of Glandore; the couple had no children. Rev. Townsend was rector of Abbeystrewry until his death on 7 May 1850. He died of Famine Fever which he contracted on a visit to the Workhouse in Skibbereen.
There is a beautiful plaque dedicated to the memory of Rev. R.B. Townsend in Abbeystrewry Church.
Canon James Goodman
Another member of the Church of Ireland hierarchy who left a deep-rooted and rich legacy in Skibbereen was Canon James Goodman.
James Goodman was born in Ventry, near Dingle, County Kerry in 1828, where his father was Rector. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. Canon Goodman was ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland in 1853 and was appointed to Creagh Parish, just a few years after the Famine had completely devastated that area. In 1858 he was appointed curate of Killaconagh in the Beara peninsula. It was while living in Ardgroom that Canon Goodman compiled much of his great collection of Irish music. He was appointed Rector of Abbeystrewry and Canon of Ross in 1867.
In 1890 Canon Goodman undertook the building of a new church. The old building of 1827 was taken down, with the exception of the tower, and re-erected on its present north-south axis. The new church was opened for worship on 18 December 1890.
By 1891 the total amount that had been spent on the new church was £3,500. It was quite extraordinary then that by September 1891 the debt had been completely wiped out. The final fundraising push was a Church Bazaar, held on 26, 27 and 28 August which raise an incredible sum of £308, which allowed the outstanding balance on the building to be cleared. It should be remembered that Canon Goodman made a very substantial contribution to the building fund from his own private resources.
It was terribly unfortunate that within two weeks of Canon Goodman announcing that the dept on the Church had been cleared, the roof of the building was badly damaged. That occurred when what is now the ‘Cutting’ in Skibbereen was being cut to allow for the expansion of the Skibbereen to Baltimore Railway line. A number of houses were also damaged by the blasting to clear the rock. Following this incident, it was deemed too dangers to continue with explosives to clear the rock and much of the ‘Cutting’ was cleared by manual labour.
In the early 1880s Canon Goodman was appointed Professor of Irish at Trinity College Dublin. He used to spend six months in Dublin and six months in Skibbereen with curates to help in Skibbereen.
Canon Goodman was a devotee of Irish music and played the flute and uillean pipes and is remembered as one of the great collectors of Irish music. He married Charlotte King and their three children were born at Creagh. Canon James Goodman died at Abbeystrewry Rectory, Baltimore Road, on 18 January 1896. He is buried at Creagh churchyard.
The Skibbereen Eagle reported: ‘The funeral … was of enormous dimensions, the procession, composed of all classes and creeds in the community, being a singularly sad and imposing one. Signs of universal grief were everywhere observable, all the shops being shut and shuttered, as a mark of respect to the memory of the venerated deceased, who had endeared himself to all by his charity, humanity and kind disposition’.
There is a very comprehensive article on Canon James Goodman, written by Jim Byrne, in the Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal, Vol 1, 2005. The Journal is available to purchase online at https://www.biblio.com/…/coolim-books-skibbere…/shj/39607814.
It can also be read online at https://www.corklocalstudies.ie/collections/show/21.
The ornamental archway over the entrance to Abbeystrewry Church from Bridge Street is dedicated to Canon Goodman. In 2006 a new statue of Canon Goodman was unveiled just inside the entrance gates.
In the early 2000s a major programme of restoration work was carried out at Abbeystrewry. That included substantial work on the bell tower and the casting of a new ring of six bells. The new bells, cast at Whitehapel Foundry in London, first rang out on 8 November 2002.
There are many interesting features in Abbeystrewry, but just to mention two. A plaque dating back to 1847 and relating to the Famine is fixed to the exterior wall of the church. This plaque, which is now difficult to read, was erected by ‘British munificence … in token of their gratitude of His Divine and Sparing Mercy for their rescue from the horrors and sufferings of the Famine and Pestilence’. It was rather premature, however, as the Famine was far from over when it was erected; people were still dying of hunger and disease in this area until 1852.
If you ever visit Abbeystrewry, take time to look at the pulpit. It is dedicated to the memory of John Francis Levis. Skibbereen people have reason to be very thankful to this man.
In 1876, local colossus Timothy McCarthy Downing, then a very prominent MP, proposed that the name of Skibbereen should be changed to Ilenmore or Ilentown. Initially, it appeared that no one was going to go against the wishes of McCarthy Downing. However, John Francis Levis was brave enough to take a stand he and appealed for the old name ‘Skibbereen’ to be retained. After much acrimonious debate, McCarthy Downing relented and John Francis was successful in saving ‘Skibbereen’.