Christchurch, known also as the Holy Trinity, sits discreetly in the background of Bishop Lucey Park on Grand Parade. The entrance to Christchurch is located on South Main Street, once the main street of medieval Cork. Christchurch ceased to function as a place of worship in 1978 before the building was acquired by Cork City Council in 1979 to house the Cork Archives Institute. Established in 1970 to safeguard Cork’s archival heritage, the Cork Archives Institute resided in Christchurch before relocating to a new purpose-built building in Great William O’Brien Street, Blackpool, in 2005. Since then Christchurch has remained unoccupied.
In 2008 a €4.8 million refurbishment project was undertaken by Cork City Council, who applied for and was successful in obtaining €2.18 million of European funding from EU Structural Funds 2007-2013, the European Regional Development Fund, and the Southern and Eastern Regional Assembly. Triskel Arts Centre will manage the building on behalf of Cork City Council and will develop Christchurch into a cultural and artistic hub for the city.
Previous Churches on site
Present-day Christchurch is an eighteenth-century neoclassical Georgian building (1720–1726) designed by architect John Coltsman. Coltsman also designed the North and South Gate Bridges, of which the South Gate Bridge has one of the oldest surviving three-centred arches in Ireland. The front of Christchurch was redesigned by George Richard Pain in 1825 and he was later involved in remodelling the interior. The present-day church sits on the site of two previous churches dating back to medieval times.
It is suggested that the original building of Christchurch took place around 1050 and is thought to be of Hiberno-Norse, or Viking origin and that it also may have been the first church built in the city. During this period Cork city consisted of streets centred around North and South Main Street surrounded by a defence wall. Part of the base of this wall can still be seen at the entrance to Bishop Lucey Park. Two parishes existed in medieval Cork, the Holy Trinity or Christchurch and St. Peter’s (present-day Vision Centre, on North Main Street). It is believed that both churches probably existed in 1081 when it was recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters (also know as the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, a chronicle of medieval Irish history), that Cork city and its churches and houses were burned.
There is evidence suggesting that at least two side-chapels once existed at Christchurch, a fifteenth-century ‘Lady Chapel’ to the north, and a sixteenth-century chapel dedicated to St James to the south. Both chapels are referenced in the will of a Cork merchant named John de Wynchedon in 1306. Little is know about the chapels or of the medieval church as nothing remains of the pre-1700 fabric of the church with the possible exception of part of the crypt.
The first documentary evidence for Christchurch is in 1199 when Pope Innocent III refers to it in his Decretal Letter. At this time the Normans had arrived in Ireland and King Henry II had reserved the city of Cork for himself. Despite paying dues to the Holy See in Rome, Christchurch was regarded as a “free royal church” which meant the English Crown claimed the right to appoint the rector or parish priest and the church itself is occasionally referred to as the “Free Chapel of the Holy Trinity”. During medieval times Christchurch was the principal parish church, religious centre and civic church of the city, where thanksgiving and celebrations were given by important members of the city such as the Lord Mayor, Corporation, and other city dignitaries.
Christchurch was the primary location where city officials would gather on all festive and important occasions and was the burial place of some of the chief citizens of Cork, with names such as Fagans, Skyddys, Roches and Ronans. The most well known tombstone within Christchurch is that of Thomas Ronan who was mayor of Cork in 1537 and again in 1549. Ronan who died in 1554 was buried in Christchurch with his wife Johanna Tyrry who died in 1569. The tombstone which is referred to as ‘The Modest Man’ is visible in the porch entrance to Christchurch. Both Thomas Ronan and his wife were members of prominent medieval families in the city.
Some parish legends
Christchurch has many legends attached to its legacy, one being that in 1439 Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, came to Cork. Warbeck, claiming to be Richard, Duke of York was officially recognized by the Lord Mayor of Cork and his councilors and was crowned in Christchurch as King Richard IV of England.
Another legendary figure associated with Christchurch is the poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Local tradition has it that Spenser married Elizabeth Boyle in Christchurch on Midsummer Day, 11 June 1594. It is believed Spenser wooed Elisabeth Boyle in his poem Amoretti and commemorated their marriage with another poem Epithalamion one year later. The following lines of Spenser are quoted as ‘proof’ that the marriage took place in Cork, and since Christchurch was the principal church in Cork, it is believed that the marriage must have taken place there.
Tell me ye merchant daughters, did ye see
So fair a creature in your town before?
Her goodly eyes like sapphires shining bright
Her forehead ivory white,
Her lips like cherries charming men to bite.
The legendary event is written about by playwright D.L. Kelleher (1883-1958) in The Glamour of Cork 1919. D.L. Kelleher was born in Cork and educated at UCC and was associated with the group of dramatists known as the ‘Cork Realists’.
Other famous men who are believed to have gathered at Christchurch include:
Sir Henry Brown Hayes the son of a wealthy Cork merchant who abducted a wealthy Cork heiress. Hayes was shipped to Australia as a convict where he is now accredited with being the founder of Freemasonry in Australia and with building the original house on the historic estate of Vaulcluse in Sydney. Also: Thomas Ronan, Mayor of Cork, the Skiddys, the Coppingers, the Whites, the Galways and many more. Christchurch reflected the lives of the rich and the poor of Cork city with most events in the city leaving their mark on Christchurch. Christchurch continued in strength until the Siege of Cork in 1690.
1690 The Siege of Cork
Cork during the seventeenth century would prove to be a turbulent time. It saw the re-establishment of the power of the crown over Ireland. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the merchant families who controlled the civic government of Cork city were again firmly Roman Catholic. The second half of the seventeenth century saw the forces of the Catholic Confederacy struggling against the English forces.
Cork city was under military governance from 1644 to 1656 when Cromwell granted a new municipal charter to the Protestants of Cork City. The municipal government of the city was to remain firmly in Protestant hands until the reform of the Corporation in the mid-nineteenth century.
The seventeenth century saw a huge shift in the balance of power in the city from the Old English Catholic oligarchy to the New English and Protestant settlers. The restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660 raised the hopes of Catholics, both Old English and Irish, in Ireland. The accession of the Catholic James II as King of England in 1685 served to heighten the fears of Protestants in both England and Ireland. As a result William of Orange was invited to become the ruler of England. James II fled to France to seek help from his French allies. He landed at Kinsale in 1689, hoping to use Ireland as a base from which to regain his crown. The Catholics of Cork rallied to the Jacobite cause. A Williamite army, under the control of the Duke of Marlborough, was dispatched to Cork to regain the city for William.
On 23 September 1690 the Williamite Marlborough landed at Rochestown and marched to lay siege to Jacobite Cork which, under Major MacGillicuddy, had declared itself to be on the side of James. On the 28 September, the Williamite army attacked from both sides of the river, supported by their artillery and by warships which had sailed up the river and joined in the bombardment. Recognizing that the situation was hopeless, MacElligott, agreed to hand over Elizabeth Fort immediately and to surrender the city on the following day. Marlborough agreed to treat the garrison as prisoners of war and to show clemency to the inhabitants of the city. Against an attack by an early-modern European army equipped with artillery, Cork city was practically indefensible, as it was situated on low-lying ground surrounded by high ground to the north and south.
During the siege of Cork 1,300 Protestants were held captive in Christ Church, St Peters, and the Court House. The city fell and the Protestants held captive in the church were released, to be replaced by the Roman Catholics who were then locked up in the Churches. Tradition has it that of the 760 Roman Catholics locked up in Christchurch only 26 emerged alive, and local tradition tells of a mass grave filled with victims of the 1690 Siege of Cork, which was found during the late nineteenth century, but no trace of such a feature was subsequently discovered during twentieth-century archaeological excavations. A pit was recorded and partially excavated in Bishop Lucey Park south of Christchurch. Remains of human bone in the pit were thought to be victims of the siege of Cork in 1690 but no evidence is cited to support this view.
Although the siege lasted only days Christchurch was left with irreparable damage. A canon ball fired from Red Abbey passed through the roof, stained glass windows were torn out, and the lead roof dismantled to provide material for bullets. At the east end of the church, where Hopewell tower was situated, a breach was blown in the city wall and tradition has it that gravestones from the churchyard were torn up and used to fill the gaps. The siege of Cork was over. Its walls, which had stood for centuries were exposed as quite defenceless against the new weapons of war. Many citizens of Cork took refuge in the church during the siege but the church sustained so much damage that it had to be demolished around 1716.
In 1704 the Penal Laws had been passed in Ireland and it was in this setting that the third church of Christchurch was built. In 1707 (until 1735) Rector Philip Townsend became Rector of Christchurch succeeding Rector Edward Synge. In 1716 Christchurch was demolished and on St Patrick’s Day, 8 February 1718, the foundation stone for the new church was laid. Christchurch designed by Cork architect John Coltsman is an early eighteenth-century neoclassical Georgian building (1720 – 1726). The church took eight years to build and originally had a 136ft-high tower at its western end.
The steeple was initially planned to go to a height of 170ft but started to sink due to unstable foundations and was later reduced further to 100ft until it was completely removed during renovations in 1820. The steeple held a clock that served as the ‘Town Clock’ and the bell of Christchurch which still survives was the gift of Mayor Andrew Skiddy. In 1719 the Parliamentary Coal Act was passed which levied a tax of one shilling on every ton of coal and culm imported into the city for the following seven years. The tax served to raise money to build the new church.
The corporation had ordered £150 to be paid towards the building and a further £50 was allocated for the bells. On all important civic and ecclesiastical occasions, the Mayor and Corporation marched in procession and in full regalia to Christchurch where a mayoral throne and seats for the corporation were provided in the western gallery, the throne has been preserved and can still be seen in Christchurch. The principal families at the time all had their own pews.
In the years to follow, Christchurch was subjected to many renovations which were carried out in 1827, 1878, 1937 and now in 2010. In 1825, architect George Richard Pain redesigned the front of Christchurch and was later involved in remodelling the interior in 1828. On 7 July 1827 parts of the north and south walls were taken down and rebuilt while the west wall was completely demolished and rebuilt, an ornate roof was added, various arches in the crypt were repaired and others removed. The work was completed in 1829. Fifty years later in 1878 further works were carried out, an apse, a new pulpit and a new T.C. Lewis organ were added. Work was done on the stained glass windows and new communion rails were added. Renovations were complete in 1879. In 1937 the apse was repaired and strengthened by placing a steel bar on the exterior due to marsh-type ground at the east end of the church.
In November 1979 Christchurch was purchased by Cork City Council for the sum of £20,000 and the church organ was purchased for a further £10,000. The church was used as an archival centre, housing the Cork Archives Institute until its relocation in Blackpool in 2005. Christchurch remained unoccupied until the start of its new lease of life in 2008.
Triskel would like to thank Cork City Library for providing images.
Cork City Libraries
Cork City and County Archives
Cork City Council website: http://www.corkcity.ie/aboutcork/historyofcork
Cork City Libraries website: www.corkpastandpresent.ie
Cork Heritage: http://corkheritage.ie/?page_id=872
National Inventory of Architectural Heritage:
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Folds J. S, Petrie George and Otway Caesar, ‘Modest Man’ The Dublin Penny Journal, Volume II, Dublin,1834
Johnson Gina, The Laneways of Medieval Cork, Cork City Council, 2002
McCarthy, J.P. Christchurch Cork – where the corporation went to church
Cork City Archives, Christchurch Centre Cork,
McKenna Terence J., V.Moore Charles The Modest Men of Christchurch, Cork, 1970
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Cork City Council: http://www.corkcity.ie/aboutcork/historyofcork