Forever Building the House of the Lord
“Salve!” greets Father Roland Henry Colhoun. “You’re helping build the house of the Lord.” Following an enthusiastically driven campaign, the Priest is the well deserving recipient of grants from the Irish Georgian Society London and the National Churches Trust, London. Yet his Parish of Ardstraw East lies west of the Bann, County Tyrone, that landlocked rural county, next stop Donegal, a place often overlooked. But not so when you’re such a spirited soul as Father Colhoun.
Earlier that day there would be a visit to Pubble Graveyard. It’s a bluebell and buttercup filled haven 1.25 kilometres west of St Eugene’s Glenock, full of buzzing buzzards and racing hares and the bystanding curious. A stone walled enclosure once part of a Franciscan friary, one of its remaining crumbling gravestones reads: “Erected in memory of Margory of Lower Callon who parted this life 23 March 1873 aged 70 year.” Then there is John McLaughlin’s gravestone: he died aged 91 in 1888. Or Mary Morris who illegibly allegedly died goodness knows what age in 1885. All this history is secreted and nestled below the heavy brown heather of Mary Gray and Bessie Bell hills.
John Gebbie records in his 1968 Ardstraw (Newtownstewart): Historical Survey of a Parish, 1600 to 1900, “In this parish were three 15th century monasteries of the Third Order of Franciscans according to a 1603 Inquisition, ‘Corock, Puble [sic], and Garvagh Kerin. Each had three parts of a quarter of land (120 acres) attached of annual value 1/7 Irish money. But they had just recently been dispossessed and lay ruinous, as they do today.’” Father Colhoun explains, “Pubble is the English transliteration of the Irish word ‘pobal’ meaning ‘people, population, community or parish’. In Irish, one of the most common names for a church is ‘teach an phobail’ meaning the house of the community. The reason the townland of Pubble has its name is that the graveyard originally had a church.”
He confirms there were at least four Franciscan monasteries in west Tyrone: Pubble Graveyard, Newtownstewart; Corrick Graveyard, Plumbridge; Scarvagherin Graveyard, Castlederg; and Omagh Friary in Drumragh parish with lands at Shergrim. “I haven’t located the last one – not yet!” adding, “Pubble and the others in this location lasted around 150 years, from the mid 1400s until the early 1600s. As recently as yesterday, I heard of an archaeologist who says that an aerial drone photograph of an ancient graveyard, if taken during a very dry spell of weather, will reveal the outline of old monastic buildings because the foundations or stumps of walls are below the modern day level of the ground.”
“Our parish has one of the oldest post Reformation churches still in use for Catholic worship in Ireland,” continues this most erudite of priests. “There has been a Catholic church on this site at Glenock since 1785.” Typically for a Catholic church, St Eugene’s lies beyond the nearest town of Newtownstewart, on a country road opposite Holm Field. The Priest regularly takes fundraising historic tours of the area. “After the 1829 Catholic Emancipation the bells of St Eugene’s would be the first to ring in the Catholic diocese since penal times.” But is the current church fit for today’s purpose? “Absolutely,” he smiles, “and no matter where you sit, you can always see me!”
“Until the 1960s churches like St Eugene’s were built to face east. The Ascension of the risen Lord was in the east and He will come again from the east,” says Father Roland. “Around 550 AD, St Eugene established his religious foundation in Ardstraw, which is the origin of this parish. As monastic Abbot, Eugene became Bishop of Ardstraw! His name, which means ‘born under the sacred yew tree’, was added to the church at Glenock in the 19th century, many years after its inception. At present, our project of restoration is the renewal of the church windows. There were never stained glass windows in this building. The windows were replaced and repaired down the years, according to deterioration and need. In 1978 the four windows on the sanctuary wall were replaced. In summer 2021, experts spent two days excavating the boxing casing on every window and Queen’s University plans to carry out carbon testing on many of the wooden structures in the building.” Authentic restoration is paramount to Father Roland. “The octagonal baptismal font in front of the altar dates from as recently as 2016,” he explains. “It had been commissioned by my predecessor to replace the old font which disintegrated beyond repair some years before his tenure. Also in 2016, I designed the octagons and crosses in terrazzo flooring to provide an elegant surround to the font and funereal area. Accordingly, the font stands opposite the resting area for coffins. Alpha and omega: on both occasions you are carried into the church.”
At a glance, Dr Roderick O’Donnell, architectural historian, Pugin expert, Country Life contributor and a Vice President of the National Churches Trust, comments, “This St Eugene’s is a typical Roman Catholic development: an early rectangle which grows wings to become a T plan. The 1834 belfry was enhanced by a timber spirelet of 1904. Note the roundhead and Gothick windows of two storey in height. It’s galleried inside and is an important survival of such a church plan.” More in-depth investigation to come.
“Look at the quatrefoil and circular windows,” assesses Rory. “There was clearly a 19th century façade campaign, a highly conscious decision to Gothicise this vernacular building. The adoption of Gothic is making a statement about history, an historicist reference. This simple Irish and Scottish T plan is compatible with the reformed Catholic liturgy. St Eugene’s is an architectural conundrum: the stairs up from the porch suggest that is the earlier part of the building. The ambitious Georgian sashes are an important survival. Then there’s the slate roofed Victorian porch. It’s all charmingly vernacular. Inside, the original altar rails have been relocated to the upper balcony. I think the original towering timber reredos has been cut down. It was probably a majestic piece of interior architecture. But the current crucifix makes a striking statement. The marble and stone altar is much later 19th century.”
Dr O’Donnell summarises, “To find these elaborate galleries in a country situation is quite rare. They are good pre Victorian joinery, of much better quality than those found in churches in the west of Ireland. The fabric suggests the galleries are the oldest internal fittings in the church. Edward Toye added the spire and I believe he probably reroofed the church. Did he Gothickise some of the windows too?” That Catholic architect was improbably the protégé of Apprentice Boy John Guy Ferguson and together they were responsible for some of Derry City’s finest Victorian and Edwardian buildings.
Edward Toye designed the tower of St Eugene’s Catholic Cathedral Derry as well as what is now The Playhouse Theatre and the bank that would become Shipquay Hotel. The latter two are palazzos-on-Foyle, exhibiting eclecticism typical of that era. He also designed a plethora of local churches including St Patrick’s Church Gortin, just nine kilometres east of St Eugene’s Church. Like St Eugene’s, the Catholic church in Gortin is not in the village centre: it is surrounded by fields at the end of Chapel Lane 0.3 kilometres off Main Street. An external plaque confirms the age of St Patrick’s, “Foundation stone of this church was blessed by Most Reverend J K O’Doherty Lord Bishop of Derry on Sunday 9 October 1898.”
Later conversations will be had. “On Irish Georgian Society London Trustee Stuart Blakley’s question about the pattern of windows on the differing elevations,” Conservation Architect Peter Gallagher will respond, “The glazing bars within the replacement windows will follow the existing patterns, responding to the round headed masonry openings and the pointed arches respectively, repeating what Stuart refers to as the ‘fanlight’ umbrella shaped glazing bars in the first and, in the latter, the pointed Gothick shaped arch with Gothick style ‘trellis’ bars.” In the meantime, there will be an early Sunday morning dew soaked photoshoot from Holm Field. Despite its museum-like aura, resembling one of the buildings transported to the Ulster American Folk Park outside Omagh, St Eugene’s is very much a working church. As Father Roland Henry Colhoun might quote, “Omnibus bene tibi erit.”