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18 May 2022

Kildare Local History: A witness to war and peace... Kill church marks its bicentenary

Local historian and author Liam Kenny on the bicentenary in 2021 of St John’s Church of Ireland, Kill, whose spire is a well-known landmark on the N7

Kildare Local History: A witness to war and peace... Kill church marks its bicentenary

St John's Church, Kill

It often been commented by UK motorists visiting Ireland that on leaving Dublin and driving south towards Kildare on the N7 the road margin is dotted with signposts warning them to drive safely, to slow down, and to wear their seat belts. All good, they say, until they cross the Co Kildare boundary at Blackchurch and they come on to a sequence of signs saying ‘Kill’, ‘Kill’, ‘Kill’ — a message seemingly flying in the face of all the road safety advice.

Naturally our visitors from across the Irish Sea cannot be expected to know the nuances of mis-translation from the Irish language into English. The original name was ‘ceall’ meaning a stone-cell occupied by a preacher but through a map-maker’s mistranslation it became ‘Kill’, the name used for the picture-postcard village long by-passed by the main road.

Whatever about bemused English motorists, everybody near and far who passes Kill on the busy treble-carriageway will have glimpsed its two towers — the first, nearer the road, the tower of St Brigid’s Catholic Church; the second — a spire rather than a tower — is St John’s Church of Ireland.

Although different in architecture and in creed, both — remarkably — share a common birthday. It is surely unusual that both churches in the same small village have marked their 200th anniversaries in the same calendar year. It’s a fitting coincidence too, in that it flags the highly-ecumenical nature of the community where there is a strong record of individuals from both churches being the backbone of projects such as the Tidy Towns, where Kill has reaped rewards over the years.

Of the two, St John’s Church of Ireland has the older pedigree in that, while it is celebrating a bicentenary of the present church structure opening, it stands on a site which gives witness to the Christian tradition going back many generations.

In an impressive full-colour booklet commemorating the bicentenary of the church, historian Brian McCabe records that, as early as 1202, there is a reference to a church in Kill when it was granted to the priors of St Thomas’ Abbey in Dublin. This abbey was one of the largest in Ireland in the Middle Ages, but has long gone from the capital’s streetscape.

In the following centuries, occasional references to the church in Kill weave in and out through the fragmentary records of history. The dark days of religious strife in Ireland, when the English crown attempted to gain control of the churches from Rome, generated various enquiries.

One revealed that the tenants of the manor of Kill had to set aside their daily farm tasks specifically for the upkeep of the manor and church of Kill. Donations to the church were measured in the currency of a day’s labour, and so the tenants had to give up to the church the produce of one day’s carting sheaves of grain from the fields and one day’s produce from cutting of turf.

After the dissolution of the monasteries and the forced acquisition by the King of England’s church of what had previously been churches of the Roman creed, new Anglican rectors and patrons were appointed to Kill church. Records are sparse in the following decades and it is not until relatively modern times that Kill church comes into view once more.

About the turn of the 19th century, it was clear that the old structure which stood on the site of very first church in Kill (and named in its earliest years in honour of St Mary and St Brigid) was in need of a complete rebuild. Although most records belonging to the Kildare church are in a Dublin archive, historian Brian McCabe tracked down a letter that had been retained locally, dated May 1820, which gave invaluable detail of the new build:

“The church is now completely finished in the most permanent and elegant manner and the entire of the mason’s work on the tower is done, to the base of the spire. Lord Mayo (from Palmerstown House) was over and expressed, in the most flattering terms, his of the manner in which the work is finished, as did every gentleman who saw it.”

There was more to come — picture-postcard on the outside with its spire and weathercock, the church needed some interior adornment. A redecoration of 1883 gave the opportunity to rectify a liturgical omission — the church had not been consecrated after its building in 1820-21. Thus, on St John’s Day of 1883, the church was consecrated by the Lord Archbishop of Dublin. A newspaper report of the day vividly described the fragrant aspect of the ceremony: “The interior was neatly decorated for the occasion with a quantity of Christmas roses and chrysanthemums, given by the Countess of Mayo and looked remarkably well.

“Significantly, the rededication took place on St John’s Day and from that date, the church became known as St John’s Church.”

In many ways, St John’s was fortunate because of the wealthy patrons who lived in the big houses within the parish limits. Adornments donated, and in some cases, crafted, by the lords and ladies of the big houses included “a very handsome altar cloth, the gift of Lady Maria Ponsonby (mother of the Countess of Mayo) which was done by the Countess herself” while, at a later stage, the Kildare Observer newspaper reported that the Countess of Clonmel from Bishopscourt House had presented an altar backdrop of ‘Gesso’ work while a handsome sanctuary carpet had been presented by the Hon Gerald Ponsonby.

Not to be outdone, the Countess of Mayo presented a carpet for the vestry of the church — a reflection, perhaps of her association with the Naas Carpet Factory based at Millbrook, in the town which once made carpet for the Titanic.

Parish life for the Church of Ireland community had many facets as well as adorning the church building.

At Christmas 1913, the Countess of Mayo entertained the parish schoolchildren at her Palmerstown mansion. A contemporary report conveyed the seasonal delight of he occasion: “ An abundance of good things was provided, and prettily arranged on a Christmas tree, and delighted the little ones. Afterwards they had a plentiful supply of tea, cakes etc. The Countess was assisted by Misses Amy & Ruth Adams”.

The Adams sisters were of the household of the Rector of Kill, Canon James Adams and his wife and, no doubt, they enjoyed the fun of helping out with the Christmas festivities at Palmerstown House. However, it is indicative of the ruthless unpredictability of history that within a few short years their happiness, and that of many other households in the locality would be turned to grief arising out of the carnivorous continental conflagration which began in 1914 and later became known as the First World War.

The first to answer the call to arms were the sons of the country houses, who were mostly of the Anglican persuasion. Among then was Maurice Adams, son of the Rector, and of the same family as the young women who had helped out at the Christmas party, who was killed in an attack on Messines Ridge in Flanders in May 1917. His father, as Rector of Kill, had the sad task of conducting a memorial service in St John’s at the unveiling of a memorial tablet to commemorate men from the parish who had perished in the war including his son.

Nothing was quite the same in the post war years and the congregation of St John’s would have been worried by incidents which took place in Kill during Ireland’s troubled years that followed the war.

The burning of the Lord Mayor’s seat at Palmerstown House in January 1923 was the most dramatic of a number of incidents which made life uncomfortable for the established congregation. However, the congregation of St John’s — not for the last time — drew on their wells of resilience and managed to retain church and congregation through the austerity of the early 20th century.

The 1960s ushered in an era of cross-community co-operation in pastoral matters with Kill and Rathmore Church of Ireland congregations being standard bearers — as were their Catholic counterparts in Kill and Eadestown parishes — of this practical ecumenical spirit. The Kill Gymkhana became an attractive fixture on the social calendar of mid-Kildare, the proceeds from is its successful annual iterations being divided between the Catholic and Church of Ireland in Kill.

There were still challenges to be faced and St John’s might not have survived to its bicentenary were it not for the fortitude of a prominent parishioner with a little help from this newspaper.

In the late 1980s a Church of Ireland Commission reported that the Church had too many churches for its modest numbers nationwide, and that a number of churches should be closed — Kill being one.

While there may have been some logic from an accountant’s viewpoint in such a course of action, the Commission had reckoned without the formidable energies of Mr Ernest (Ernie) Lyons of a prominent and long-established family in the parish.

A champion motorcyclist in his younger years who had set the bonfires blazing in Kill in 1947 when he won the Isle of Man TT race, Ernie Lyons masterminded a campaign to fight off the prospect of closure of his beloved St John’s.

One of his strategies was to contact this newspaper requesting an article making the case for keeping the church open given how it symbolised the strong community spirit and excellent ecumenical relations in Kill.

The Leinster Leader duly obliged and, according to anecdotal reports, the resulting article mobilised concern well beyond the small Church of Ireland congregation.

Indeed, it was said that the matter was raised at a meeting of Kill GAA and a letter of protest sent to the Bishop — surely a rare example of a GAA club seeking to influence the temporal business of the Church of Ireland.

St John’s was spared closure in the Church of Ireland reorganisation and, happily, has remained with its doors open to celebrate its bicentenary in the strange Covid year of 2021.

*Acknowledgements: Great credit to Brian McCabe, Dermot Gillespie, Terence Gillespie, Stephen O’Byrne, Jackie Challoner, Mabel Lyons, Tony Keane, and Reverend Philip Heak, and other talent contributors, for their production of a colourful booklet which celebrates the bicentenary of one of Kildare’s community and heritage gems.

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