“Bare ruin’d choirs” and the future of the Church

Abandoned Churches of Ireland

by Tarquin Blake

(The Collins Press, €27.99)

Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings, 1789-1915: Building on the Past

by Niamh NicGhabhann

(Four Courts Press, €55)

Here, in their different ways, are two contrasting books. For the pessimistic reader one imagines a past of ruined churches, long left by their congregations, a prophecy some might think of what is to come for the Catholic Church. The other book, however, suggests that there is always life to be found both in old buildings and what is done in them. 

Tarquin Blake is the author of a book on the ruined mansions of Ireland, and this book forms a sort of companion to that title. Essentially this book is built around its magnificent and sadly evocative photographs. He has selected some 82 abandoned and often ruinous churches. These are inevitably those of the Church of Ireland.

In his succinct introduction he explains how largely in the first decades of the 19th Century, the Board of First Fruits (a fund derived from the income tax paid by clergy men, found through the influence of Swift in 1711), was used to build or repair some 697 churches. These were often in remote rural places with a mere handful of Anglicans. 

The expected rise in numbers (to be derived it was hoped by some from the conversion of Catholics), never came. 

After Disestablishment in 1869 and then after Irish independence, these communities declined and vanished. Hence the plethora of abandoned churches, often designed by such eminent architect as John Semple. Each of his churches has a short essay devoted to it with photographs of the insides and exteriors. 

It is a sad chronicle, but Tarquin Blake does full justice to these romantic sites. Those interested in local history around the country will be delighted to have this book as an addition to their store of books.

Niamh NicGabhann approaches church buildings from another direction. She too picks up on ruins in the landscape, but they are of abbeys and churches that suffered in the post-Reformation era.

The restoration of St Patrick’s and Christ Church in Dublin for full use is well known, but her focus is on rural Ireland. 

She instances the churches at Killmaloch and Adare, in which the old fabric was restored to Protestant use, while the Catholic population was served by a large new church.

The taste for Gothic became part of the universal taste of the Victorian era, but it also produced a style for new buildings, such as those by Pugin. How and why the buildings were restored or preserved became an important part of the emerging idea of protecting our ancient buildings.

But hand-in-hand with this went political and social attitudes which were focussed on the nature of the emerging Ireland. Her book ends in 1916 on the eve of a revolution which would again affect the nature of ecclesiastical buildings across Ireland, as described by Tarquin Blake.

Niamh NicGhabhann’s book is a deeply researched scholarly work, but is well worth reading in tandem with Tarquin Blake’s more accessible, more atmospheric album. 


The Church of Ireland may have retreated from the countryside, but it flourishes in the towns and cities, especially in the areas around Cork and Dublin. What seemed an evitable decline has been stemmed to some extent.

As Catholics now contemplate the closing of more inner city churches and the grouping of parishes, all of which hints at its own decline, many will take heart from their fellow Christians persistence in an era which does not always warm to religion.