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A Visual Window to Rural Church Settings in Ireland in the 1930s

A Visual Window to Rural Church Settings in Ireland in the 1930s

by Dr Susan Hood

The current Dean of Ossory, the Very Revd David MacDonnell, with whom the Library is collaborating on a number of heritage–related projects, recently discovered a set of 27 lantern slides in the building known as St Canice’s Library (which also served as the residence of the Bishop’s Vicar) adjacent to St Canice’s Cathedral. The collection depicts various churches principally in the diocese of Leighlin, but additionally from the dioceses of Glendalough and Kildare, and one of St Fin Barr’s Cathedral, Cork.

Next he did the right thing – he transferred them to the custody of the RCB Library.

Subsequently we have had them digitized (in collaboration again with our friends in the Irish Architectural Archive) and to give all our followers some visual relief are pleased to present them here for public perusal. There are more churches in the united diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory than any other in the Church of Ireland, and it is a treasure to have discovered a keen amateur photographer at work to capture them visually during the 1930s, or possibly earlier.

 

Who exactly the photographer may have been remains something of a puzzle, but the final image set (the only one to contain identified people) is entitled ‘Canon & Mrs Dudley Fletcher in group at St Laserian’s, 25 June 1931’. It thus appears to capture the canon and his wife beside him, surrounded by five other women, with a partially–hidden cleric behind, possibly at some parish event or cathedral celebration.

‘Canon & Mrs Dudley Fletcher in group at St Laserian's', 25 June 1931
‘Canon & Mrs Dudley Fletcher in group at St Laserian's', 25 June 1931

 

As the full text of his biographical entry in the succession list for the diocese of Leighlin shows below, Canon William Dudley Saul Fletcher (1862–1948) was serving as rector of Leighlin and Wells from 1927 until his retirement in 1946. In addition to this post, he also held various senior clerical posts within the diocese – as Treasurer of Leighlin Cathedral, 1930–35; later as its Precentor from 1935–46; and also as Prebandary of Killamery in the neighbouring diocese of Ossory, 1933–46. He was thus embedded in the lives of both dioceses and likely to have been regularly moving around them, either to preach at services in different churches or at meetings and events with fellow clergy. Perhaps he took a camera with him, or in his leisure time got out with the camera then. His wife was Frances Anne Jane Bellingham, the daughter of Sir Alan Bellingham of Castlebellingham, Co. Louth. Thus we can assume the family had some independent means meaning that Fletcher, or someone within his family circle, may well have been able to afford the relative luxury of amateur photography.

Clergy of Cashel, Emly and Leighlin edited and revised by Canon David Crooks (Belfast, 2012)
Clergy of Cashel, Emly and Leighlin edited and revised by Canon David Crooks (Belfast, 2012)

The result is a sequence of delightful images showing several churches, and three diocesan cathedrals in the relative stillness and tranquillity of rural Ireland during the 1930s. Many of these images are captioned and specifically dated, so we know that they roughly date between 1932 and 1936. Significantly the collection contains six colour images.  In 1935, American Eastman Kodak introduced the first modern “integral tripack” color film or Kodachrome, so it is interesting to see a similar technique in use for some of the photographs in this collection.  For the few slides that are uncaptioned, an attempt has been made to identify them, although one remains a mystery.

First up in the run of 27 is the slide simply–captioned as ‘Aghold Church, Coolkenno, Diocese of Leighlin, 9 May 1934’ which captures the rural setting of most of images that follow.

 

Next are two images depicting another beautiful little church in a rustic setting – this time both an exterior and interior of Myshall church in county Carlow.

‘Myshall Church, Diocese of Leighlin, 4 March 1936', & ‘Interior, Myshall Church, Stratford-on-Slaney, 4 March 1936'
‘Myshall Church, Diocese of Leighlin, 4 March 1936', & ‘Interior, Myshall Church, Stratford-on-Slaney, 4 March 1936'

Image number four is titled simply ‘Mullinacuffe Church’ an undated slide showing the exterior this church peeping through trees in its Co. Wicklow context.

 

In the next shot, taken on 23 September 1936, the church of ‘St John the Baptist Church, Stratford–on–Slaney, Diocese of Leighlin’ is shown.

 

A lonesome sheep provides the foreground for ‘St Peter’s Church, Kiltigan, Co. Wicklow’, on a undated slide.

By contrast, an atmospheric snow–scene depicts ‘St Peter’s Church, Mountrath, Diocese of Leighlin, in the parish of Clonenagh in the winter image taken on ‘15 January 1936’.

Breaking up the proceeding run of local churches in Leighlin, next is a single shot of a very familiar view of ‘St Finbarr’s Cathedral, Cork, from S. Gate Bridge, 4 July 1935’, taken across the River Lee.

After Cork, the run returns nearer home with a set of three images of Shillelagh parish church, c. 1932, the last of which shows a newly erected cut–stone gate entrance to the churchyard, that according to the caption was in memory of a Dr F.J.G. King.

‘Shillelagh Church, Co. Wicklow, Diocese of Ferns, 1932', ‘Shillelagh Church, Co. Wicklow'; and ‘Gateway erected at W. entrance Shillelagh Churchyard, Co. Wicklow, in memory of Dr F. J. G. King'
‘Shillelagh Church, Co. Wicklow, Diocese of Ferns, 1932', ‘Shillelagh Church, Co. Wicklow'; and ‘Gateway erected at W. entrance Shillelagh Churchyard, Co. Wicklow, in memory of Dr F. J. G. King'

Next the photographer captions his shot of the Abbey Church in Baltinglass as: ‘A glimpse of St Mary’s Abbey: Baltinglass’, where it is well hidden behind its boundary wall.

In a shot taken in 1934, there is site of a lonely figure and broken wall on the road into the village of Tullow, with the spire of ‘St Columba’s Church, Tullow, Diocese of Leighlin’ visible in the distance.

A bare landscape with few surrounding trees provides the context for ‘Kilcommon Church, Tinahely, Co. Wicklow’, on a date unknown.

Again providing strong evidence that Canon Fletcher may be the photographer is the next image showing the original gates and boundary wall at ‘Coolbanagher Church, Diocese of Kildare, [on] 5 December 1933’. Prior to his appointment as rector of Leighlin, Fletcher served as the rector of Coolbanager for 20 years, from 1907 to 1927.

 

The sequence then moves well north–east to ‘Enniskerry Church, Powerscourt, [in the] Diocese of Glendalough’ on a date unknown, which appears more exposed than it is today, with few surrounding trees.

Staying within the diocese of Glendalough, the photographer then captures ‘Castledermot, Co. Kildare, [with its] round tower’ and bare landscape.

After which he is on to the diocese of Kildare, and ‘Lea Parish Church, Diocese of Kildare, [captured on ] 6 December 1933’.

Following Lea, there are two images showing Kildare Cathedral, one with the building and its adjoining round tower in the distance from the perspective of a street in the town of Kildare, and the second bringing the viewer up close to the immediate setting of the building.

Two shots of Kildare Cathedral entitled: ‘St Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare, and Round Tower, 8 February 1935' and ‘St Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare'
Two shots of Kildare Cathedral entitled: ‘St Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare, and Round Tower, 8 February 1935' and ‘St Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare'

The next image is the only one in the collection not captioned, and thus an unidentified church but very striking neo–Gothic building.

 

Representing a very strong direct connection with the parish of Leighlin, of which Canon Fletcher was rector, another set of three images depicts the cathedral church, taken on various dates in 1934, 1935 and 1937.

Images captioned variously: ‘St Laserian's Cathedral, Old Leighlin, from the S., 24 November 1935', ‘St Laserian's Cathedral, Old Leighlin, interior looking W., 29 May 1934' and  ‘St Laserian's Cathedral, Old Leighlin, interior, 24 June 1937
Images captioned variously: ‘St Laserian's Cathedral, Old Leighlin, from the S., 24 November 1935', ‘St Laserian's Cathedral, Old Leighlin, interior looking W., 29 May 1934' and ‘St Laserian's Cathedral, Old Leighlin, interior, 24 June 1937

The final two images depict the soothing interior of the larger cathedral of St Canice’s in Kilkenny, followed by an unusual view of the pulpit of St Lazarian’s cathedral back in Leighlin. The pulpit image appears to have been taken before the shot of the interior of the cathedral above. In the interior shot, the render has been stripped from the walls but in the pulpit shot the render is still intact so it makes an interesting contrasting view. The east window of St Lazarian’s was installed in 1934. 

The collection concludes with the main group shot of Canon & Mrs Dudley Fletcher and their group ‘at St Laserian’s, on the 25 June 1931’ on what is clearly a bright summer’s day.

Having viewed the St Canice’s lantern slides, Dean David MacDonnell concludes:

This set of lantern slides offers us a charming glimpse into the gentler times of 1930s rural Ireland. I am delighted that this collection, which has long sat on a dusty shelf in the cathedral library, may now be enjoyed by a wider audience online.