Archive of the Month
Geashill parish church
A personal history made possible using resources at the RCB Library
By Sylvia Turner
On a walk recently, listening to the crows squawking, I was reminded of a visit to Geashill parish church, dedicated to St Mary, in the diocese of Kildare and county of Offaly just over a year ago and hearing the same sound from the trees by the path to the church.
I have become very attached to the church as it is where my great–grandparents and grandparents were married and where many of my great–aunts and great–uncles were baptised and buried, sadly in unmarked graves. As the world comes to terms with the Covid–19 pandemic, I think of my grandmother, Elizabeth Kerin née Evans (1881–1967) who was born in Geashill. She lived through the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century that killed her father and ten of her twelve siblings, the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic and the War of Independence (1919–1921), a particularly dangerous time for Protestants such as her remaining family in Geashill and her growing family living nearby in Clara.
My grandmother’s early life up to the 1920s was little known to her children and it is only in comparatively recent years that the tragedy she encountered in Geashill has been fully realised. Her only known relatives were her parents, two sisters and two brothers. Access to further information came to me 16 years ago when I contacted the incumbent of Geashill and Killeigh parish at the time, the Revd J. Leslie Crampton. He transcribed all the births and deaths he had for the family. The information concerning the true number of siblings she had and how many had died of tuberculosis, many as young adults, was truly shocking to my grandmother’s daughters and grandchildren. However, it has enabled us to appreciate all the more that the loving and caring person we knew who was sustained by her family and her faith. We realise now she also held the qualities of strength and resilience.
The incumbent at Geashill at the time of my grandmother’s marriage was Canon W. G Russell. He gave her a bible to commemorate the marriage. It was within its pages she recorded family events like the births of her children and where she kept newspaper cuttings of local events and notices pertaining to Geashill. Interestingly, there were no records relating to her siblings and parents. Maybe their memories were two painful to record or stigma attached to tuberculosis made her fearful of recording these events.
Also, included with my grandmother’s papers is a postcard of Geashill church circa 1900 with an elegy on its reverse appearing to be written by W.G. Russell.
Research about my family has led me to find out far more than personal information about both the parish and church at Geashill. The RCB Library contains a wealth of information for both the historian, theologian and genealogist. The Library holds a number of documents concerning the history of the church. A copy of the handlist is available at this link: https://bit.ly/3jjfXji. The collection includes a pamphlet published in 1964 entitled ‘Notes on the Parish of Geashill and Killeigh’ (to see the RCB Library catalogue record, click here: https://bit.ly/3bI6myN) by former rector the Revd A. Kingsmill Palmer. The source gives a good overview. Kingsmill Palmer explains in this source that the present church was built in 1815 to the south of an old church using a grant from the Board of First Fruits. The old church was sold to a Mrs Kirkwood for 30 guineas. Papers held by the Library show the grant was for £1,500 and was to be repaid by instalments, the first of which was a sum of £90 paid by Lord Digby, the local landlord and patron of the church.
The RCB holds a collection of architectural drawings of 19th and 20th century Church of Ireland churches and cathedrals. Access to this resource is through the following link: https://archdrawing.ireland.anglican.org/. Other drawings, mostly from diocesan architects, were subsequently added to the collection. Those for Geashill parish church are included in the collection.
Geashill church is situated in the heart of the Geashill village. The Digby family have been connected with Geashill, Co. Offaly, since the 16th century. During the late 19th century they developed Geashill as a planned estate village with houses arranged around a triangular green. The Library holds a number of photographs taken in the 1900s depicting the Church, houses and school also built by Lord Digby. The Digby family lived in the Geashill Castle, centrally positioned in the village, but the castle was burnt down during the Civil War in 1922.
Kingsmill Parker explains how Geashill church was unique within the Church of Ireland. It was a church that held a prebend, i.e. an endowment in land, or pension in money, given to the church for the maintenance of an honorary canon of a particular diocese and who served in a parish. The prebend of Geashill was one of the honorary canonries in Kildare cathedral, but not of the chapter and so an appointment by a secular patron not an episcopal one. Members of the Digby family had held the prebend until the early 19th century.
According to the Church Act (1869) which led to Disestablishment in 1871, church patrons received compensation for the loss of their rights. As patron of Geashill church, Lord Digby received a sum of £4000. Clergy also received compensation and could either continue to receive their income or a lump sum based on their expected income. If they wished, this sum could go to the newly formed Representative Church Body at an interest of 4%, in return for a stipend until death or resignation.
Canon McCormick held the prebend at Geashill church for 20 years and resigned in 1887. By that time £11,500 had accumulated. According to Kingsmill Parker, if such a situation arose, the Church Act (1869) implied that the incumbent of Geashill should have all rights and dignitaries which were held before Disestablishment, hence the post of prebend was retained and the right of appointment rested with the patron. It was only broken in 1923 when the then Lord Digby did not appoint for three months which meant the right of appointment passed to the Archbishop. However, the Archbishop found in Lord Digby’s favour in being able to appoint, on condition that if Lord Digby ceased to be patron of the living, the prebend would revert to the Archbishop.
Geashill provides an example of how a church can give an insight into its history through its memorials and the inscriptions on gravestones. However, when supplemented with documentation, more detail emerges relating to church history and previous generations of worshippers whose lives were often marred by poverty and disease. These people are frequently hidden from view, lying in unmarked graves here or overseas where they endeavoured to make better lives for themselves.
Today, Geashill is a pretty, peaceful village. The local Protestant community is small, but Geashill Church, along with nearby Killeigh Church, has a small but friendly and active congregation. As is the case in a number of parishes in recent years, there have been times when the Church has been without a priest. However, in April this year, the Revd Fran Grasham was welcomed to the post as part–time priest–in–charge of Geashill Union. We wish her well.
This Archive of the Month is written by Sylvia Turner, a semi–retired university tutor in Education who lives in Winchester, England. Sylvia has a long–held interest in Irish history and her research relates mainly to Kerry, the home of her grandfather’s ancestors, and Offaly, her mother’s home county.