When it was sin to honour thy neighbour’s faith

County View

John Healy

Christ Church in Castlebar was once again the fitting venue for the town’s ecumenical carol service on Monday last, when Castlebar Concert Band and the Parish Choir did full justice to those well loved airs which make Christmas so special. And once again, a capacity attendance enjoyed the acoustics for which this ancient place of worship is so particularly noted.
For Christ Church is the preferred performing space for so many visiting choral groups and musical ensembles. The Seven Towers choir from Ballymena, who performed there last year, marvelled at the tone and resonance which the building was able to capture.
But as we streamed out after the carol service, I was struck by the casual observation of one old lifetime resident, now well into his seventies, who confided in me that this had been his first time ever to set foot in Christ Church. When he was growing up, he reminded me, those of the majority religion were not allowed, under pain of sin, to attend a service or a ceremony - or even to enter out of curiosity - at the Protestant church.
And my mind went back some half a century to one famous occasion when Castlebar was hosting a local society wedding. The bride was the daughter of Brigadier Denis Browne, then owner of Breaffy House, who was marrying a young titled army officer from Surrey. The marriage was, naturally, taking place in Christ Church, and the wedding invitations had been issued to the town’s leading lights - the top members of the legal and medical profession, the bankers, the army top brass, the leading merchants and the big landowners. And all duly gathered in their finery and morning dress and stood on the pavement outside the Church gates while the nuptials were conducted inside, until finally the bridal party emerged to receive the congratulations of their Catholic guests, prior to all being whisked away to the reception in the grand marquee on the lawn of Breaffy House.
It was said that a number of the invitees had earlier sought clearance to attend from the parish priest who declined to give permission, before they approached the Bishop, who gave a similar answer.
That old animosity - and today’s generation would find that story hard to believe - has long since disappeared (although the statue of General George O’Malley, just inside the Christ Church railings, did suffer a black paint daubing from some misguided republicans during the troubles of the seventies). When Christ Church required re-roofing some few years ago, the Catholic community was not found wanting, and the proceeds of the Sunday Mass collections were duly donated to meet the cost of the restoration works.
And so indeed it should be. Christ Church is central to the history of the county town. Castlebar’s oldest building, for the best part of 300 years it has stood sentinel over the townscape, its quarter hour chimes pealing out over the streets, its clock face the town’s most recognisable landmark.
It has seen war and famine and pestilence. Inside its main gate is the plaque naming and commemorating the six members of the Frazer Fencibles who were killed as General Humbert’s French troops stormed Castlebar. Inside is the pew with the brass plate inscribed ‘Earl of Lucan’, reserved for the man who is unlikely ever to come back.
And on the back wall, the burial tablet with the intriguing message that ‘in a vault near this place, lyeth buried with his ancestors Sir Henry Bingham, died the first of July, 1714’.
But where that vault is, none can say.