Archive of the Month
The Tin Church at Laragh, County Monaghan
By Dr Miriam Moffitt
The next story in the ‘News behind the News’ series brings us to the diocese of Clogher and county of Monaghan to try and unearth the story behind the building of Laragh Tin Church at the end of the 19th century. Laragh Church, a delightful chapel of ease in the parish of Crossduff, is located midway between the towns of Carrickmacross and Ballybay.
The death of his eldest son Henry, a 14–year–old pupil at Harborne School in Birmingham, may have prompted James McKean to seek to erect a church adjacent to his residence and close to his milling industry at Laragh. On 21 March 1890, less than 12 months after the boy’s death, the Revd Thomas Joseph Charlton, rector of Crossduff (1884–1903), placed a notice in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette (forerunner of the Church of Ireland Gazette) in which he appealed for funds to erect a church at Laragh. This advertisement outlined a need for a permanent place of worship and alerted readers to the presence of eight Church of Ireland children in the area. Although the subsequent church was located within easy walking distance of the McKean residence, the family was not mentioned in the appeal, nor was their donation of ‘a site for a church to be built thereon by public subscription and other monies available’.
Subsequent to my work on this story, the genealogist and local historian Roisin Lafferty has kindly provided a transcript of the full indenture, on which the map of Laragh. Click here to view.
Tin churches (also known as ‘tin tabernacles’ or ‘iron churches’) were an inexpensive way of providing rapid–build accommodation and were often replaced by more permanent structures as funds permitted. They were commonly used in the late 19th century, delivered as factory–produced kits to be erected and finished on–site and were regularly advertised in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette. To the best of my knowledge, the only tin church currently used by the Church of Ireland is situated at Lurganboy in County Leitrim (diocese of Kilmore), while two Roman Catholic tin churches are still operative at Sallins in County Kildare and Rearcross in County Tipperary.
The Gazette republished the Revd Charlton’s appeal during the spring and summer of 1890. In April, he suggested the project would cost £150, pleading that ‘Surely no cause could call more loudly upon Churchman, Landlords, and Unionists’, but in July further acknowledged that expenses had increased to £200 owing to Laragh’s distance from the rail network. As the months went by, the notices in the Gazette included the names of donors and amounts contributed, with the most complete list published on 13 June 1890. Although these appeals did not specifically mention the McKeans, over half the subscriptions were channelled through this family. For example, of the £144 listed in identifiable donations, £62 was received directly through Mrs McKean, supplemented by her husband’s donation of £10 plus the plot of land. Mrs McKean’s efforts were particularly successful in the region of the English city of Birmingham, where her family enjoyed a prominent role in society. Subscriptions were also received from all over Ireland; the bishops of Cork, Clogher, Killaloe subscribed, as did the bishop of Argyll and the Isles (and his wife). Additionally, a significant number of contributions were received from the Keady area where the McKeans owned another industrial enterprise. Donations were sometimes given under a nom–de–plume, such as ‘A County Parson’ (5s.) and ‘A poor parson of the Ancient Irish Church’ (2s. 6d.); an unidentified churchman from Armagh funded the church bell, and an unidentified donor gave £150.
The various inclinations of the Church of Ireland membership at the end of the 19th century are revealed in this fund–raising initiative as subscribers sought assurances regarding the theological orientation of the intended church. The Revd Charlton was forced to distance himself from the party of ‘fancy ritualism’ which ‘tended to formalism, without the spirit’, and also from the evangelical party ‘which leads to doing away with all decency in and order in our church services, and oft times, to the desecration of our sacred places of worship’. In spite of his assertions, the fitting out of Laragh church confers on it a distinct high–church feeling in marked contrast to the low–church atmosphere of the parish church at Crossduff, situated five miles away.
Laragh church is an architectural gem sited in a delightful wooded setting beside a river. It was dedicated to St Peter and consecrated by the Rt Revd Charles Stack (Bishop of Clogher 1886–1902) in August 1891. In common with many churches associated with St Peter, its tower was topped with a weather–vane surmounted by a cockerel (signifying repentance). Its pulpit sat atop a chunk of uncarved rock (petris), while an image of the saint holding the keys to heaven occupied a prominent place in the stained glass of the east window. The full–page account of its consecration published in the Gazette of 21 August 1891 described the church interior in detail.
Laragh church reflects two important movements of the late 19th century: the Arts and Crafts movement and the movement to identify the contemporary Church of Ireland with the early Irish church. It is worth observing that the building of Laragh church coincided with the period known as the Celtic/Gaelic Revival which promoted the art and literature of early Ireland. The connection with the early Irish church was made by placing Celtic crosses as finials on all apexes. The Revd Charlton was congratulated for these crosses, proof that ‘his people are neither afraid nor ashamed of this, the emblem of our salvation, which our Roman Catholic neighbours are too frequently allowed to enjoy alone, and which from ignorance is frequently looked upon by Protestants as a badge of Roman Catholicism.’
The interior of the church suggests elements of the Arts and Crafts movement which had begun in England in the 1880s, strongly promoted by persons such as John Ruskin and William Morris. This style featured prominently in the industrial regions of England, especially near Birmingham, the place of origin of James McKean’s wife which may have been an influence. The roof area of the chancel, which is almost totally original, contains Arts and Crafts detail and craftsmanship. The three–lancet east window, which commemorates the young McKean, contains three quatrefoils in which symbols of the Dove, the Agnes Dei, and the Pelican are situated over a prominent picture of St Peter.
Iron or tin churches were generally functional in style, short–term structures to be replaced by more permanent premises as funds might permit. Laragh church, in contrast, was elaborately decorated and built to last. Its windows were filled with cathedral glass with ruby–coloured borders; the chancel floor was covered in mosaic tiles; the pews in the nave were pitch pine; the choir seats were oak, their tops adorned with fleurs de lis; the oak communion table was an ornately–carved construction and the ‘exceedingly handsome’ oak altar–rail was finished with clusters of brass and bronze pilasters. Tin churches were often erected to provide church accommodation in places where the church population was increasing rapidly or had outstripped existing facilities, but the Church of Ireland population in Laragh was small. The mills at Laragh had closed in 1880, a mere 50 members of the Church of Ireland lived there in 1890 and, the 1901 census 11 years later recorded the Church of Ireland population of the district electoral division of Laragh at 34. The reality of a low church population in the Laragh region of Crossduff is confirmed in the parish register of vestrymen. It is difficult, therefore, to reconcile the fact that this church was clearly built as a family–inspired memorial to a deceased son and heir with the reason for its erection proposed in the Revd Charlton’s appeal.
Laragh church operated as a chapel–of–ease to Crossduff parish church for 71 years until its de–consecration in 1962; it subsequently fell into disrepair. A group of local enthusiasts has recently undertaken a sensitive restoration of the building, enabling public access to the building which is used as a venue for concerts and social events. The Church of Ireland Gazette (formerly the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette up until 1900) reports have helped to shine a light on its origins, and these like all of the content of the newspaper from 1856 to 1923 may be explored in full by using the search box on link to the digitized version here
Librarian and Archivist
Dr Susan Hood
Librarian and Archivist