Fr Kevin Hegarty
It stands majestically on a hill outside Newport. For a century St Patrick’s Church has minded the Catholic parishioners of the town. There they have come for weekly worship. There they have come in joy to celebrate baptisms, communions, confirmations and weddings. There they have come in sorrow to commend their deceased loved ones to everlasting peace. There they have come privately to seek solace to bind up the wounds of their lives.
Since 1918 the church has been a spiritual lighthouse in a troubled and often treacherous world. To paraphrase the words of TS Eliot, St Patrick’s been a place where prayer has been and is valid.
It would be surprising if, in recent years, there has not been a decrease in regular attendance as with most churches in Ireland. The former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his recently published memoir stated that the most distinctive development in his lifetime has been the decline in religious adherence.
Nevertheless I believe that churches will continue to be relevant. They celebrate important human rituals and seek to attend to the spiritual yearnings that are part of the human condition.
Philip Larkin, in his poem Church Going, caught the everlasting value of places of worship.
A serious house on serious earthy it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies
And that much can never be obsolete
St Patrick’s is not only a place of worship. It is also a work of art. The building of the church started in 1914. It was a project of exceptional ambition for a small community in the impoverished western seaboard in the early years of the 20th century.
A huge donation from a local merchant Martin Carey of 10,000 pounds helped the restoration of the ambition. In today’s money this contribution would amount to approximately €650,000.
The architect was RM Butler, one of the leading practitioners of his day. According to the architectural historian, Jeremy Williams, Newport is the most ‘celebrated’ of the churches he designed. It was designed and built in the Hiberno-Romanesque style that first held sway in the twelfth century. Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel, Co Tipperary is a prime example of the style. In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a renewal of interest in the Hiberno-Romanesque.
There was a reaction against the Gothic architecture that dominated Catholic church building in the 19th century. At a time of resurgent Irish nationalism in politics, sports and the arts, it was criticised as a foreign importation.
Architects were encouraged to look to the Celtic past for inspiration. The defining elements of the Hiberno-Romanesque style are simple rectangular buildings, tall detached towers, conical roofs and semi-circular openings. The wonderful western doorway in Newport Church epitomises the style.
The Church is adorned by a Harry Clarke masterpiece entitled ‘The Last Judgement’. Clarke was a poet who expressed his vision in stained glass. In his short life of 42 years he won a European reputation as an artist.
In 1926 Canon McDonald, the Newport PP commissioned ‘The Last Judgement’. To pay for it he cashed in his own life insurance policy of 800 pounds. That approximates to over €50,000 today.
Clarke’s final years were scarred by the tuberculosis that ended his life. By his death only part of his Newport commission was completed. The remainder of the work was completed by his studio. It depicts Christ surrounded by his angels in the centre light, flanked by Mary and the apostles with the Blessed assembled beneath her and St Patrick with apostles and the damned beneath him. Displaying a macabre sense of humour, Clarke includes his self portrait among the dammed.