An important restoration project is underway to preserve part of a monument to Kilkenny heritage.
St Mary’s Church stands proudly in the centre of Callan town where it has presided over the comings and going of locals for more than 700 years. It hosted some religious ceremonies until the 1970s.
However, the ravages of time were starting to take their toll on the compound, especially in recent years on the railings and walls surrounding it, on the Green Street and West Street sides.
Originally erected in the 1800s, work is now underway to repair and preserve some of those walls and railings.
The start of the work might have come as a surprise to local people. It also came as a welcome surprise to Kilkenny County Council’s Architectural Conservation Officer, Francis Coady when funding was allocated for the work when the council had initially been told their application was not successful.
Mr Coady explained that the early 19th Century boundary has a gateway and railings. The gateway, onto Green Street, has a pair of finely worked, limestone piers and wrought iron double gates with cast-iron finials (points).
These railings of wrought iron are positioned on limestone ‘ashlar chamfered plinth’ - plinth stones that are finely worked and have right-angled edges.
The boundary railings and stones of Saint Mary’s Church were in an advanced state of deterioration and required immediate attention to stop further decay, Mr Coady said.
A Condition Report was commissioned by the Conservation Office of Kilkenny County Council in 2019. This, in turn, provided the necessary information to apply for funding for the repair works.
Funding for the project was applied for under the Heritage Council’s Historic Town Initiative, early in the year.
Senior Executive Engineer with Kilkenny County Council, Declan Murphy, said that the renovation of the stones and railings was one of the projects included in the Callan Town Plan. When funding was first allocated under the Historic Towns initiative the Callan project was not successful. However additional funding was allocated in September and the St Mary’s project was lucky this time round.
The Green Street railings and stonework will be included in this project, the Mill Street facade is not included in this funding.
The late funding allocation brings with it challenges, Mr Coady said. All work on the project has to be completed before the end of the year, that included procurement of consultants and skilled craftsmen as soon as funding was allocated.
Materials also had to be sourced. Cast iron and wrought iron are used in the railings. Sourcing cast iron is not an issue but finding wrought iron is a little trickier. It’s brought in from the UK and a combination of covid regulations and a glut of pre-Brexit work is making it scarce. It’s also a rare material and much of what is used these days is recycled anchors and chains recovered from the sea bed!
The stone being used is Kilkenny limestone. Various parts of the plinth and piers had cracked, split and delaminated over the years. Curiously, it is thought that a plinth stone used under the railings was not originally used at the Callan site, but it’s not known where it might have been repurposed from.
Expert stonemasons, O’Dwyer Masonry in Westmeath, and Dublin’s Bushy Park Ironworks were appointed to the work, as was archaeologist Colm Flynn to monitor the soil and excavations.
It is hoped to have the stonework completed by the end of November, and the railings reinstalled before Christmas.
Stonework is being mostly completed on site by the masons who also worked on the Medieval Mile Museum, while the railings have been removed to a workshop where they will be stripped down and repaired.
The project presents challenges but is not insurmountable, Mr Coady said. He welcomed the allocation of funds to the Heritage Council by the government. The Historic Towns Initiative is a joint undertaking by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Heritage Council which aims to promote the heritage-led regeneration of Ireland’s historic towns. Matching funding of at least 20% of total project expenditure is required from Kilkenny County Council.
St Mary’s Church was first built in the 13th Century, however, 200 years later a lot of the original building was knocked to make way for the present building.
Much of the current structure dates to the 15th and 16th Centuries. Only the West tower from the original church remains.
The chancel continued as a Church of Ireland place of worship until the 1970s. The late gothic building is a designated national monument.
The railings were erected around the churchyard in the early 19th Century, much later than the original building. This was a common practice at the time, Mr Coady said.
The current church is a detached seven-bay double-height rubble stone medieval parish church, comprising three bay double-height nave with four-bay double-height chancel to east having single-bay double-height lower vestry to south, and single-bay three-stage tower, to west on a square plan.
A popular local heritage attraction, St Mary’s welcomes visitors during the Summer, when keys to the gates are available in Callan.