800-Year-Old Church in Ireland Survives Viking Presence, an English Invasion and War
St. Mary's Collegiate Church is a stunning medieval church located in the 13 th century town of Youghal, in the eastern part of County Cork, the southernmost county of Ireland. When you enter the Church, you walk in the footsteps of 800 years of inhabitants of the town, as well as mariners who visited to give thanks for a safe arrival. It is the largest surviving medieval Parish Church in Ireland and one of only five in continuous use for religious worship.
1,600 Years of History
The 800-year-old building that stands as it is now is the third church on the site. It started off as a monastic settlement of St. Declan of Ardmore, an early Irish saint, in the 5 th century AD, but that church – built of timber – burned down in a fire. The second was a stone church, but that was destroyed in a storm in the 12 th century. The current church was constructed in 1220 AD and has remained strong ever since.
The Chancel, inside St Mary’s Collegiate Church. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The Beginning of St Mary’s Church
The earliest entry in the vestry book of Youghal is a statement of parish accounts for 1201. Additionally, on the current church’s West Door is the list of clergy serving the church, which can be traced all the way back to 1221.
It was during this time, 1220, to be more exact, that the church’s Great Nave was erected. The roof of the Nave is styled in a form typical of 13 th century Gothic architecture and has been radiocarbon dated to 1250AD, making it the oldest church roof in Ireland
The roof of the Nave in St Mary’s Church, the oldest church roof in Ireland. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
One of the more unusual features that appears inside the church, is what first appears as an upside-down cross, which in recent times is viewed as an anti-Christian or Satanic symbol. However, it is not as it seems. The upside-down cross is actually a sword rest. Dating back to 1684, the rest was used to hold the sword of the sword bearer, who proceeded the Mayor into the Church for ceremonial occasions.
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The sword rest in St Mary’s Collegiate Church. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Famous and Infamous Visitors
Some historical personages associated with St. Mary’s Collegiate Church include Sir Walter Raleigh, Oliver Cromwell, John Wesley, the Earls of Desmond and Ormonde, the Duke of Wellington, and many famous travellers and writers.
Sir Walter Raleigh arrived in Ireland in 1579 to fight against the Irish for Queen Elizabeth I, and was rewarded handsomely for his efforts – he was granted the beautiful town of Youghal and the farms around it and was elected Mayor of Youghal in 1588. Things didn’t end too well for Raleigh. After the Queen died, King James I didn’t take too kindly to Raleigh and had him imprisoned, believing he was plotting to kill him. Later, in 1618, the King ordered Raleigh’s execution by beheading. His wife was so heartbroken that she carried his head around in a velvet bag for the remainder of her life.
Life was good for Sir Walter Raleigh, until the Queen died ( public domain )
English military leader Oliver Cromwell was one of the church’s least welcome visitors. He made Youghal the base for his Irish campaign, which lasted from 1649 to 1650. Cromwell didn’t think much of the church and used the graveyard outside to stable his horses. On Sundays, he would march his soldiers and horses up through the town and into the church, where, as a puritan he would give fiery sermons about heaven and hell. According to local folklore, Cromwell delivered a funeral oration from the top of a chest, which is still kept today in the church.
Vikings in Youghal
The Vikings also paid a visit to Youghal, and their mark has been left on a stone slab dating to between 850 AD and 1050 AD – a Viking longboat can be faintly seen etched into the slab, which is now on display in St Mary’s church. The Annals of Youghal record that a site was first inhabited in 853 AD. The Vikings later built a fortress there and laid the foundations of a commercial sea-port.
An engraving of a Viking longboat, dating to between 850 and 1050AD can be seen faintly etched into the surface of this stone slab. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
St. Mary’s Collegiate Church is also notable for its irregularly-shaped historic graveyard, which is situated in the north-western corner of the town walls. The names of those buried in this graveyard have been meticulously recorded in the parish records, which is a useful resource for those who would like to find more information about burials there. The earliest grave dates to 1632 and reads “Here lyeth the body of John the son of Richard Nicholas who died Febry the 25 th 1632”.
The oldest gravestone at St Mary’s Collegiate Church. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
One of the most unusual features of this graveyard is the so-called ‘pauper’s grave’. This is a coffin-shaped recess in the town wall, which, according to tradition, was a resuable grave built to hold a coffin for burials of the poor. Those who could not afford a coffin would be placed temporarily in this one for the funerary rites. After the deceased was placed in a grave, the coffin would be brought back to the recess.
The pauper’s grave can be seen against the back wall as a coffin-shaped recess. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The Elaborate Tomb of Sir Richard Boyle
A stark contrast can be seen between the ‘pauper’s grave’ and the tomb of Sir Richard Boyle, which is located within the church. Boyle was an Englishman who lived between the 16 th and 17 th centuries. He served as the Lord Treasurer of the Kingdom of Ireland, and was created Earl of Cork in 1620. Apart from being a politician, Boyle was also an entrepreneur, and he is said to have been the richest man in the known world at the time of his death in 1643. Boyle was interred in a monument that he made for himself and his family in the church. Apart from Boyle’s effigy, those of his two wives, his mother, and 9 of his 15 children may also be found on this lavish monument.
The tomb of Sir Richard Boyle. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
St Mary’s church in Youghal continues to yield new discoveries. In 2014, a burial vault was discovered beneath the church when the floor’s subsidence was investigated during a restoration project funded by the Heritage Council of Ireland. The vault was used to inter a high-status individual / family. Apart from that, the archaeologists also uncovered evidence of subterranean flues from the 18 th century that carried heat from fires lit inside the church, as well as a system that transported water from a furnace via earthen channels.
A stone grave now on display in St Mary’s Collegiate Church. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The Collegiate Church of Youghal is a building of historical importance for Ireland. It is now classified as a National Monument of Ireland and is under the care of the government, by way of a lease between the Church of Ireland Representative Church Body, and the Youghal Urban District Council.
Top image: St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Youghal. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
By Wu Mingren
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