A history of ancient and modern places of worship in Ahane

St. Patrick brought the Christian faith to Ireland in the fifth Century A.D. According to tradition, he is said to have visited Castleconnell, and blessed the people of Clare from this side of the Shannon River. He is also said to have foretold of the coming of St.Senan to the area. Senan, the son of a Celtic Druid, whose family was converted to Christianity, continued Patrick’s apostolic work of bringing the true faith to the people of Stradbally and from there it spread, to Killinagarriff, present day Ahane.

There has been much documentation on the history of the churches on the Castleconnell side of the parish so in this article we shall deal with the places of worship on the Ahane side of the parish

The stories of St. Patrick and St. Senan, related earlier are based on tradition, but the facts of the Mass rock in Ardvarna, the ruins of Killinagarriff Church, the now non- existent Church in Biddeford, (though still remembered) which pre- dated the present St.Patrick’s Church in Ahane all bear testimony to the faith which those Saints brought to the area. A faith which was factual and was handed down from one generation to the next.

Their respective histories make for interesting reading.

Killinagarriff, a parish described in Lewis’ Topographical, published in 1837, is described as ‘a parish partly in the barony of Owney and Arra, Co.Tipperary, and partly in the barony of Clanwilliam, county of Limerick, two miles South East by South from Castleconnell’. The Church at Killinagarriff was built in the ninth century, by the Ryan clan from Carlow. They built Churches in the areas of Kilvulane, (present day Ballymackeogh) Kilmastola Killoscully Kilnarath and Killinagarriff. This clan provided many men for the priesthood at the time.

The book the Parish of Killinagarriff – in The O’Donovan field book of 1839 – ’40, there is reference made to the Church in Killinagarriff. It reads ‘The old church of this name is constructed of small and large stones cemented with lime and sand mortar.’ The west gable had a ‘small belfry constructed of ‘cut limestone’. In the book Westropp – Ancient churches in Co. Limerick he states (the church) ” is evidently called after a founder” – “Maccon Garbh”. Later he states when describing the fabric of the Church: ” it is of grit -stone inside and limestone outside”.

In actual fact it translates as “the little church of the rough place”.

It was believed that only women could worship within the confines of the Church, as it was so small, and the men remained outside the door.

Joe Carroll and Pat Touhy in their book Village by Shannon relate what happened following “the treatment meted out to the catholic population all over the country. In Killeenagariff which was in the hands of the Butlers and where the O’Heffernans and the Mulryans were the chief families, the Catholics were driven from their church following the defeat of the Mulryans by the British”.

“Thirty years later the Mulryans once again laid claim to the church, but once again they lost it, “Barrington brought his army there and laid siege to the Mulryan stronghold in Killeenagarriff”

There is a popular story told that as the army led by Inchiquin bombarded the church, the priest, Fr. Ryan grabbed the sacred vessels, and hurriedly escaped with the soldiers in hot pursuit. The brave priest believing his capture to be imminent threw the vessels and the bells into the river. That night it rained as it never rained before, causing a flash flood, which changed the course of the river at a place, called Poulanigh. The treasures were supposedly disposed of at that particular spot.

The army never recovered the sacred vessels. Unfortunately for us nothing is known of the fate of that brave priest.

It is believed locally that Fr. Heffernan celebrated the last Mass there in 1648. Sean Spellissy in Limerick the Rich Land continues the story. ” But this is at variance with the Lewis account which refers to it as a church of Ireland church which was destroyed in the war of 1641. It was rebuilt and reused as the Protestant parish church but had lapsed into ruin by 1837″.

The ruined structure of Killeenagarriff still survives to this day, surrounded as it is by a grave – yard, with some parishioners still being buried in its hallowed grounds.

The persecution of Catholics continued for more than a century, but the people remained faithful to the Mass. Local people in Ardvarna set up a Mass- rock which was used by the people of Ahane from 1648 to 1758. There was no fixed time for Mass, but when the people congregated at this Mass rock the priest would come and offer Mass. Local men took up positions around Knocksentry, Ardvarna and Annagh. They used a sheet hoisted upon a hedge to give the signal to the people to disperse if danger approached. Because unfortunately there were people who were willing to take the ‘Saxon shilling’ (a sum of £20.00) to sell their priest ‘as Judas sold his God’

The Mass rock is still to be seen today in Jim Richardson’s farm. One of the hills where the lookouts were stationed is still known as Cnoc an Aifrinn, the Mass hill.

Finally in 1750 Catholics were given permission to erect a Church in Ahane. Even so, it is popularly believed that Mass was still celebrated at the Mass rock until 1758. This is confirmed by Sean Spellissy in Limerick The Rich Land as it reads: ” St. Patrick’s Church at Ahane was described as a new chapel in 1837. This replaced a mud and wattle Mass House which had been erected near Biddiford in 1758.”

The Mass House was situated in Biddeford, and built on a site donated by Richard Bourke. It was a ‘mud and wattle structure, with a thatched roof’, common at the time. The brook gently flowed along the by the rear of the building. The slab at the door of the Church in Biddeford could be seen embedded in the ground with just a carpet of grass on top of it up to fifty years ago. The side door of the Church lay intact for many years after the church’s demolition. So much so that a parishioner Timothy Moloney used it as an entrance to his home in Clyduff.

Lewis Topographical of 1837 informs us that ‘the Roman Catholic chapels of Castleconnell and Killinagarriff are parochially united, and have in attendance the former about fifteen hundred and the latter of about seven hundred.

In 1838, Fr.Crotty announced his plans to build a new church in Ahane, dedicated to St.Patrick. From the reminiscences of some local people it is safe to assume that there was much local involvement in the building of the church. Patsy Hynes once owned the site where the Church now stands. A man named Coughlan from the Mardyke in Limerick built it. The beading, which surrounds the Church door, came from the thirteenth century Franciscan Abbey in Quin Co.Clare.

According to Bridget Graham an elderly parishioner ‘it took a day for three men with horses and cars to draw the stonework beading to Ahane church.” She also recalled the locals drawing the slates by horse and cart from Killaloe. A local politician Francis Spaight, who incidentally won the election that year, donated the timber. At variance with her reminiscences is the assertion in other quarters that Francis Spaight also supplied the slates. There was a slight interruption to the building process when a ‘big wind’ did some damage in 1839. However undaunted work continued on a pace.

The stones for the church came from the local limestone quarry at Ballyvarra, which was owned by Paddy Maher. The Howley family of Rich hill donated the bell, which came from India. Inside the Church, the Nevin family of Mountshannon donated the Stations of the Cross, which are situated on either side of the walls. They were in fact intended for a Convent Chapel in Bonn, having been carved in New York. By a strange twist of fate, they now adorn our Church in Ahane. The Nevin family also provided the Church with a statue of St. Teresa. A solid connection with the church of our ancestors lies in the Holy Water font, which was originally used in the Church in Biddeford. Co-incidentally the first child to be Christened in the ‘new’ St. Patrick’s Church was Tom Moynihan of Biddeford.

The Church was much different to the church we have today. The altar was a wooden structure. Surrounding the altar was a timber altar rail. Inside the railings were two seats, one on either side of the altar. One seat was for the Howley family and the other was for the Graham family. There were two doors on either side of the altar. Over each of these respective doors were what was described as a ‘wooden baton gothic recess ‘ One recess contained a statue of Our Lady with the baby Jesus, or St. Teresa, memories on this vary. The other contained a statue of the Sacred Heart.

Unlike today’s style, the Church in Ahane had three rows of pews. Two side rows of small seats and a row of large seating in the middle. The pews were ‘owned’ by various members of the community. This was seen by many, as a way for the Church to raise some badly needed cash at the time. ‘The church was unable to meet the cost themselves, and asked the people to subscribe for a seat. The people’s names were written on the seats, and they sat in their seats for the duration of their worship’.

At that time too, Mass was said in Latin. The boys learned Latin in school, so that they would be in a position to respond to the prayers said by the priest. The priest had his back to the people, for the duration of Mass, (except of course for the sermon) unlike today, where he faces the people for the duration of the ceremony. The pages of the missal was made up of two columns, one contained the prayers in Latin as said by the priest, while on the other side they were written in the vernacular, so that people would understand what was being said.

Three major renovations took place to date in the history of St.Patrick’s Church. One was under the auspices of Canon Devaney in 1940. (There is a plaque erected to his memory on the wall, close by the altar in the Church.). The other in the late ’60’s and the final renovation to date took place in 1977 under the auspices of Fr. Cooney.

When the Church was being renovated in 1940, (the first since the Church was built) Mass was offered in the old school house in Ahane. The Mass was attended by the military that were stationed in Howley’s wood at the time. Stephen Coffey, a parishioner remembers the military kneeling outside the school door as Mass was being celebrated.

With Pope John XXIII came Vatican Two. As was the policy of the time, the statues were removed from the Church. The Mass was no longer said in Latin, but in the vernacular i.e. the language of the people.

Another change which took place in St.Patrick’s Church Ahane during the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, was the removal of the long high wall outside the chapel yard. This wall had rings attached to it, so as to facilitate people who drove horses and cars to Mass. The horses could be tied there, while Mass was in progress. This was no longer necessary in the Ireland of the late ’60’s, as motor cars were becoming increasingly more popular. In the middle of this wall was a dark green gate with two piers. The small wall, which is, still there today replaced this.

Once again, in 1977 reconstruction took place in St. Patrick’s Church Ahane. This time it was under the auspices of Very Rev.John Cooney P.P. The cost of this renovation was £45,000. The chief contractor was Michael Cusack. Local architect P.J. Leyden laid out the plans and specifications for the renovations. The Limerick Leader of the time reads ‘subcontracting was undertaken by local men – Noel Murphy, carpeting and floor covering, Dick Conway heating and plumbing, and Albert Enright did the painting and re decorating’. ‘The electrical installation was by O’Sullivan Ltd. of Limerick, and Watson brothers of Youghal installed the windows’. A new sacristy was erected at this time too. Nuala Egan the choir mistress informed me that Gerry Dillon made a ‘ considerable donation’, towards the cost of the organ, whose sweet music enthrals each time it is played.

A new altar was erected to facilitate the changes enacted, by Vatican Two, where the Priest faces the people, instead of facing the altar. Bishop Michael Harty re-dedicated the Church. During the concelebrated Mass, Dr. Harty referred to the ‘island parish of Ahane’, (Castleconnell), being as it is, the only parish in Co.Limerick to be a member of the Diocese of Killaloe. On that day too the bishop paid special tribute to the choir, saying they ‘were the most beautiful in any rural parish in the diocese of Killaloe’.

As was the case in the 1940’s, while renovations were being undertaken, Mass was celebrated in the national school in Ahane, not in the now ‘old school’ which was a ruin by this time, but in the school at the Cross of Laught.

As with the building of the Church in 1838, 140 years later, the people of the parish, did much voluntary work, to complete the church. That way costs were kept to a minimum.

The storm of Christmas Eve 1997 blew the Cross-to the ground. Once again local people rallied around to help in various ways to ensure that Mass was celebrated on that Holy Night. Ropes cordoned off the damaged area and the candle lit Church was filled to capacity for the celebration of the Eucharist. PJ Noonan and friends duly repaired the damage and a Cross-purchased from Co. Roscommon replaced the one which was blown down on Christmas Eve.

On December 15th 1998 Dan Richardson passed away and bequeathed bells to the Church. Now the Angelus bell rings out twice a day as does the ‘quarter bell’ to call people to Mass each Sunday and holy day.

There you have it. The story of a Parish and its faith, as told by the ruins and the existing Church which have survived the evils of persecution. It survived because the people tenaciously held onto the faith of their fore fathers, as the hymn says ” in spite of dungeon, fire and sword’. Let us hope that we will not be found wanting when our time comes to pass on our dearest possession to the next generation.

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