St. Enda’s, Spiddal
by Lord Killanin
Originally published in The Furrow, May 1950
The countryman returning home from market in Galway in his slow, rumbling cart, the Gaelic student arriving by bus in the West for the ﬁrst time, and the holiday maker speeding along the road on the North side of Galway Bay cannot avoid observing the unusual, tall, rectangular tower, with its saddle roof and slight batter, which denotes that he is approaching the village of Spiddal.
Spiddal, described in Lewis’s “Topographical Guide” as a hamlet some hundred and ten years ago, is now a ﬂourishing small centre with its church, elementary and secondary schools, Irish college, convent, public houses, shops and fairs. It is in fact the ‘capital’ of Cois Fhairrge, the centre of the Connacht Gaeltacht.
It would appear that there was always, even during penal times, a permanent place of Catholic worship here. Lewis refers to a thatched chapel in existence in 1837, but the church Father Conroy found had been built in 1854 by Father Colm McGrath and opened in 1857. But this article is not concerned with what was at Spiddal, but what there is there now. In 1897 the Rev. Marcus Conroy was appointed Parish Priest in succession to Fr. John Curran who was transferred to Moycullen. His ﬁrst concern was for his parish church, a building, despite its gallery, too small for his congregation. What was worse, the building was in a very bad state of repair, with weeping and peeling walls.
Encouraged by Lord Morris and his family, Father Conroy embarked on collecting funds and in due course some £2,725 was contributed by the parish and Father Nicholas Fegan raised £1,160 in the United States, £600 of which came from Rev. Peter Yorke, P.P., Sacred Heart Church, San Francisco, a native of Galway, and noted for his replies to Dr. Wente. The Morris family donated almost £1,300. The eventual cost was to be £5,581-17-7 and £200 afterwards for extras. How things have changed in the last ﬁfty years! To build this church to-day would certainly cost four times as much.
The question of an architect was of prime importance, and it was decided to ask Lord Morris’s eldest son, Martin Morris, then the sitting member for Galway, to approach his friend, Edward Martyn of Tullira for advice. Besides having already devoted time and money towards the improvement of church music, Edward Martyn had shown great interest in ecclesiastical architecture, especially at Loughrea Cathedral. Martyn suggested that Mr. William A. Scott, A.R.I.B.A., should be given the commission. Scott was then an unknown architect, and perhaps alone at this period was doing for Irish architecture what the group which was to create the Abbey Theatre was to do for Irish literature. He may be called the architect of the ‘Celtic Twilight’: he devoted himself not only, to ecclesiastical work, but also later to institutions such as St. Mary’s College in Galway. His work also includes some private houses such as Killyhevlin, Co. Fermanagh, which is illustrated in Mr. Robert Elliott’s book ‘Art in Ireland,’ published in Dublin at this period. Elliott deals as a contemporary with the very problems which were to face William Scott at Spiddal. Incidentally Scott was later to design my own family home at Spiddal, which was burnt by the Irregulars in 1923 and was rebuilt in 1930 by the late Ralph Byrne, the Architect of SS. Peter and Paul, Athlone and the Cathedral at Mullingar, who was in many ways Scott’s national successor.
Before giving a description of St. Enda’s, it would be well ﬁrst of all to consider some of the problems which would confront an architect building a parish church such as this one at Spiddal. The congregation is predominantly a rural one- small, and often very poor, farmers who will walk long distances to Mass. The climate is damp but never very cold. The congregations are large in numbers and fervent in their devotions. They come to pray and worship God and not to read liturgical manuals —their most frequent devotion is that of the Rosary— in fact the church need not be very bright. The main, and certainly a valid, criticism of Spiddal church is that it is dark. The walls are thick and dry but the windows admit little light. I cannot improve on Mr. Elliott’s summary when he wrote, before seeing the Church but after studying the designs: “Mr. Scott, with his knowledge of good work, took into consideration I fancy (for I have not cared to ask him), the landscape, the material and the type of the people who will worship in his church; who tell beads, and pray simply rather than desire garish light to read bulky manuals of devotion. Necessary walls with a roof and a tower for bells, and a gallery for singing . . . .”
The nineteenth century was the age of Gothic revival and it is symbolised in Ireland by the work of Pugin. This revival was imported from England and except for the work of Pugin and Gilbert Scott (not to be confused with the architect of Spiddal), was conﬁned largely to England and Anglicanism. Writers, painters and architects must perforce base their ideas on the past, for if they did not make use of what was learned, every generation would have to learn to print, or scrape on the walls of caves or live in clocháns. But there is a difference between making use of the past and copying the past, and my own view after seeing so many Gothic churches and buildings (as well as Elizabethan) of the second half of the nineteenth century in England, is that the effort was to copy and not seek inspiration from the past. The earlier mock Gothic, which is now known as ‘Strawberry Hill,’ was being used as an excuse for caricature, almost for burlesque. This spirit did not continue through the century; the later architects only created bad reproductions such as we see scattered through the provinces of England. Pugin and Gilbert Scott used Gothic, and tried to work from it. Often I fear they come too much under the heading of copyists and I frankly cannot show a blind admiration for them. Frequently the general effect is impressive as at Maynooth, but when analysed and segmented, it loses in quality.
These generalisations on Victorian Gothic bring me to early twentieth century Romanesque in Ireland, for William Scott at Spiddal made use of early Irish Romanesque, as is shown not only by the obvious windows but also by, for instance, the tower situated against the transept, in fact half way up the church. This, too, is the case with Cormac’s chapel at Cashel, where the towers adjoin the junction of the chancel and main church. The main door at Spiddal reminds one instantly of the porch at Kilkenny, and incidentally the ﬂat-topped and stepped interior opes to the windows in the chancel are derived from the stoup at Kilkenny. On the other hand what Scott created at Spiddal was in no way a copy but an original work of art, and while he may have used Early Christian and Mediaeval ideas from which to work, he also used them to suit his own imagination and fancy. The prominent tower has for its principal object that of campanile or belfry, but at the same time each of the four main corners of the nave has little dummy bellecotes, typical of the single bellecotes found during many centuries— for instance at Roscrea. These are purely decorative and not as Mr. Elliott infers used as chimneys, although they could be converted to this functional use if required. To Scott they are really a fantasy of bellecotes antae and minarets.
It is the exterior of the church which the pilgrim or sightseer will observe ﬁrst, but it is best, I think, to begin with the interior. The maximum length of the church from the peak of the chancel to the West wall is ninety feet and the width from the North transept to the outer wall of the sacristy is seventy ﬁve. The shape is cruciform with an apsidal chancel. The ﬁrst impression, as one enters through the porch, which is situated on the North side, for the practical reason that it is on the street, is one of breadth, depth and height, and yet of compactness. The height is given by the trussed rafter roof which is carried from the wall of the chancel arch to the West wall by seven crossing beams, three of which are strengthened by iron supports, springing from stone corbels. The roof is boarded in pine— the wood used throughout for the seats, rails and confessionals.
The altar attracts ﬁrst attention. This is constructed of white, grey and black marble. The canopy above the tabernacle is round, crowned by a gilt metal cross giving a Byzantine effect. The reredos consists of three arched openings on either side. In the centre and at the ends it is carried by the main structure but divided by two round Doric marble columns. The altar table is of grey marbles, all very plain, the Romanesque suggestion being conveyed by the little arches of the reredos. When the altar was ﬁrst erected, there was a marble slab behind the reredos, but the late Canon McAlinney, P.P. removed this in 1924, and I think rightly, to allow light to pass from the East windows. The altar is set just behind the chancel arch, and the chancel or sanctuary is apsidal, unlike the square chancel found in early churches. These early chancels were in the ﬁrst place the actual cell, and then a wider nave or main part was added to the West. Elliott suggests that had Scott designed a round tower, he would then have had the traditional square chancel. That may be the case if the Church is surveyed from outside, but from inside the small apse throws the altar forward almost like a cyclorama, and I feel it was this intention of bringing the altar close to the people which occupied the architect. Aesthetically the apse is more in keeping with the interior balance of the church. There is no aumbrey, a plain table being used.
Behind the altar are three round-headed windows with the usual splay, but the base is lowered so as to form three stone seats. The centre window has a section at the base which opens inwards; this is repeated in other windows in the nave and forms the principal method of ventilation. The glass in these three windows, as in all except the four stained-glass windows, which are noted separately, consists of coloured rectangular panes making symmetrical patterns. The glass is Irish commercial glass, and it is possible to see the stout-bottle brown, poison green and blues, beside pink and white.
The altar rails which go across the east bays of the transept are also of pine, and continue the simple Romanesque trend in their design.
The Chancel arch is of cut limestone in three orders, the last being carried on pilasters which go to a point, and then on to a shallows corbel, reminiscent of chancel arches in several friaries- a mixture of Romanesque and early Gothic. Except for the ornate work around doors and windows, the whole of the interior of the church is plastered a dull grey which allows the brightness in windows, the stations and additional ornaments.
Between the ﬁrst bays of the transepts and either side of the chancel arch are two altars of similar designs of grey marble, resting on green columns with white marble cushion capitals. To the north is the statue of the Sacred Heart and to the south that of St. Joseph. The statues are, perhaps the weakest part of the church; being only of white plaster. Luckily they are aesthetically quite inoffensive. If these plaster statues are ever replaced, my own inclination would favour carved wood partially painted such as those from Tynagh, Co. Galway which are now in the National Museum, or limestone relief slabs set in the wall like the St. Francis at Ennis friary, or the Burke efﬁgy at Glinsk, Co. Galway.
The North transept which commences in the East as a continuation of the North wall of the nave, is much lower than the South transept, and is carried in two bays, being covered by a double saddle roof. The entrance from the nave is under the Western archway, the other arch being closed by the altar rails, to form the chapel to Our Lady. The identical Roman arches are in three orders, sprung from the walls of the nave to a rectangular capital on a hexagonal pillar.
The chapel to Our Lady has a small round-headed window on the East and forms half of the transept. The statue, like that of St. Teresa of Lisieux which rests on the altar rail, is white plaster. It is placed on a plain grey marble altar.
In the North transept are two tall stained-glass windows, the work of Miss Sarah Purser’s studio. The colour and design are excellent, but the faces of the ﬁgures are perhaps not so effective. The Westerly window is to Lord Morris and Killanin and consists of a full length ﬁgure of St. Michael facing to the front and holding a spear. He is crowned, and his reddish wings are so designed as to give him an effective background. The green cloak is draped in Celtic tradition and clipped on the shoulder with a type of Tara brooch. On his red shield are the scales of justice, while beneath these can be seen blue chain-mail on a white alb which has Celtic trimmings. Below are two panels, one showing the church taken from the North East with the Hills of Clare and Galway Bay beyond, and in the other are the emblazoned arms of the Morris family with supporters and their crest Si Deus nobiscum quis contra nos. The Easterly of the pair of windows is to the 2nd Lord Killanin, Martin Morris, referred to earlier. Here the bearded ﬁgure of St. Martin faces towards the East as he rests on his downward turned sword. Above, Our Lord is represented showering light on the ﬁgure which is clothed in blue armour with red cloak, with tones of orange in the lining which is repeated in the halo and helmet. The ﬁgure is against a blue sky and green background, while the foreground is grey. As counterpart to the picture of the Church in this case we ﬁnd a charming representation of St. Martin cutting his coat, with the purple hills of the West behind. As a pair, these two tall, narrow windows are effective. At the North West corner of the North transept there is a plain square-headed door leading into the tower, which may also be entered by a round-headed door close to the West junction of the transept with the nave. The base of the tower is also a porch, with a door to the West. Besides a small plain stoup it contains the best window in the church, that to St. Enda, the church’s patron. In this the sympathetic treatment of design and colour is most successful. St. Enda is depicted against sails and a sea in which a rock protrudes. Like St. Michael he wears a green cloak over white and red clothing.
Before discussing the main body of the church it is best to study the South transept. This is higher and covered by a single saddle roof carried on a similar column and arches as the North but raised in order to accommodate a choir-gallery or loft. The Easterly bay is occupied by the nuns choir, the counterpart to the Lady Chapel, and has a door directly communicating to the convent. This bay is lit by two small Romanesque Windows of the same colouring as the East windows, but there the patterns form a white cross with a brown aureole against a green background. The bay is divided from the other by a frosted glass and wooden partition with a pass door. The West bay contains the entrance to the Sacristy, and the steps to the choir loft. It is lit by a window on the West.
The choir loft, a plain, pitchpine gallery is lit by a lunette of Gothic design, the largest single window in the church. This also allows light, when the sun is strong, to ﬂood the sanctuary.
The nave has three windows on either side and three in the West wal. Those in the West wall are set high and consist of a pair of Romanesque windows similar in conception to those at St. Saviour’s, Glendalough, above which there is a circular window. The side windows are Romanesque and those on the South identical in shape, but one of those on the North has a different size on account of the setting of the main door. The most Easterly window on the South side is in stained glass and again by Miss Purser. Blue predominates in this window which is the most striking in the church. It was erected to Lord Morris’s second son, Col. The Hon. George Morris, who was killed in 1914 at Villers Côterèts when commanding the Irish Guards. It depicts the ﬁgure of St. George reaching up to the rays of perpetual light. He stands as if on a cliff showing the forest of Compiègne, while the white riderless horse is to be seen on the right. Across the other side is the coast of Ireland with Connaught cottages and the Cliffs of Moher. It is much larger than the other three described, but, while I like the detail, I am once again troubled about the ﬁgure, which does not have the vigour corresponding to the colour and design. It is seen to best advantage on a sunny day.
Between the windows on the South are two small alcoves built out like the cailleach so often found in counties Mayo and Galway. These accommodate the confessionals and avoid any interference with room in the nave. Each confessional has a small circular window like those at Cashel.
The seating is arranged with a central aisle, the custom being for the women to be on the South side and the men on the North.
At the West end, surrounded by a wrought iron grill designed by Scott and executed by Beatty Bros., Galway, is an octagonal black marble font resting on eight square green pillars, the gift of Col. Courtenay, a Protestant, in memory of his mother, a sister of Lord Morris. It is a handsome piece of work, made of Galway marble. Near the porch there is a solid, circular, black stoup.
The sanctuary lamp is suspended in a circular metal chandelier of brass and copper, decorated with Celtic motifs in ﬁligree. It hangs from the most Eastern beam. This was designed by Scott and executed by John Smyth & Sons, Dublin. Recently the candles have been replaced by electric bulbs in an effective manner. The whole church is now lit by the E.S.B., and this has been done by using flood lights in the chancel, bracket lights in the transepts and discreet semicircular vertical lights on the bottom support of alternate roof joists.
A description of the interior of the church would not be complete without reference to the Stations of the Cross— mosaic of painted glass, technically called opus sectile. They are more effective than wall paintings, which are subject to atmospheric conditions. These stations are to my mind the best to be seen in the country. They were erected by Canon McAlliney between 1916 and 1918, and were, like the windows, designed by Miss Purser’s studios, but the placing and proportions were in the able hands of the architect. They cost £20 per station.
The title under each station is in Irish, as befits a Gaeltacht church, and to my knowledge there are no inscriptions in English in the church; those not in Irish are in Latin.
From the outside the seventy-four foot tower is the most noticeable feature. The tower has four courses and like all the church is of cut granite, and the windows are all dressed in limestone. It is patterned according to traditional architecture. Just above the third course is a long projecting eaveshoot to take the water from the belfry, and there is another one between the two gables of the North transept. These are the only two projections in the whole building. The windows which are staggered up the tower are rectangular, as found in round towers, but most of the other windows are Romanesque or circular and in most cases they have dripstones. The slate roof projects for a foot over the walls, and rests on stone corbels, one of which, between the tower and main porch, is carved with intertwining birds. It may have been the intention to carve all the corbels, but I think this was left as a craftsman’s trick or fancy as so often occurs in mediaeval churches. The only other carving is a small inset of the Crucifixion directly above the main porch. This looks to me like sixteenth century work, and was placed in 1850 on the new church by Fr. Colm Nugent, who removed it from the old church in the graveyard thus giving a link of continuity.
The whole appearance of the grey church is most effective; I feel the photograph which accompanies this article speaks for itself without further elaboration on the exterior.
Here at Spiddal we have a good example of what can be accomplished by a parish priest and his ﬂock to the satisfaction of all, and it may well serve as an example, now nearly ﬁfty years from the date of the laying of the foundation stone, to further attempts in this direction.
If it had not been for the efforts of Fr. Conroy the work would never have been commenced or ﬁnished. In 1914 Fr. McAlliney came to Spiddal and tended the Church with great care and affection. As I have stated, he was responsible for the Stations; I remember as a boy seeing him putting them into the wall himself. In I931 Fr. Nicholas Donnelly was appointed parish priest and once again Spiddal has been lucky in a priest who really appreciated his exceptionally ﬁne church. Under his guidance the church and its surroundings are kept in perfect condition, and to him is due the credit for the lighting of the church with electricity, which was, of course, unthought of in 1900.
Throughout the early building the Most Revd. Dr. McCormack, Bishop of Galway encouraged the venture in every way and sanctioned the plans. In 1901 the contract was advertised; it was signed in 1904 with Thomas Griffin & Sons; in 1907 the foundation stone was laid, and on 9th October, 1908 the church was dedicated- eleven years after Fr. Conroy’s arrival in Spiddal.
Among those present in addition to Dr. McCormack, were Dr. Clancy, Bishop of Elphin and Dr. O’ Dea, Bishop of Clonfert, Lord Killanin and Edward Martyn, who with the parish priest, had acted as Mr. Scott’s advisers and critics throughout, were also present.
Today a tradition, perhaps inspired by Dr. McCormack and Edward Martyn still exists in the West of trying to improve church art and architecture. Dr. Michael Browne, Bishop of Galway, whose task it is to give Galway a cathedral for posterity, keeps the most observant eye on alterations and additions to the churches in his diocese and has been responsible for a continued and revived interest in the embellishment of our churches.
Before concluding I must apologise for perhaps too frequent mention of my own family, but that is inevitable in view of their close connection with the building of a church where we still, and I pray for many generations will continue to worship.