Castleisland: The Early Roman Catholic Church

Ecce Nunc In Pulvere Dormiam / Behold now I sleep in dust

– Job ch7 v21

In medieval times, there were several small churches in the Castleisland area.  In Castleisland itself, there was St Nicholas Church.  With the fall of the last Earl of Desmond in the sixteenth century, the church was confiscated and eventually fell into ruins.[1]


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the history of the Roman Catholic church in Castleisland is concealed by the temper of the times. The late Fr Kieran O’Shea, author of Castleisland Church and People, wrote:


We are not sure where the Catholic population went for the sacraments and assisted at Mass though tradition pointed out a number of places where there were mass rocks – at Knockatee and Kilmurry.  With the relaxation of most of the Penal Laws in the later half of the eighteenth century, Catholic churches were again being built.[2]


The first Roman Catholic church in Castleisland town post-Reformation was probably built by Fr Darby O’Shanahan (1745-1781).[3]  There is a tradition that this thatched church burned down, and that people were burned too.[4]


T M Donovan recalled a boyhood experience connected to the history of this church:


Sixty-eight years ago [1867] the late T O’C Brosnan, then a few years older than me, took me to see the thatched school-room in the Presentation Convent buildings.  That thatched schoolroom was the remains of Fr Darby Shanahan’s Chapel.  The convent buildings now devoted to the teaching of Domestic Science were built on the site of the old thatched church; so the pupils must remember that they are working on holy ground, where our ancestors heard Mass kneeling on the earthen floor with a thatched roof overhead.[5]


Sacred Grounds: Remains of St Nicholas Church (left) abut the deconsecrated St Stephen’s Church of Ireland    Right: Presentation Convent, Castleisland


In the early nineteenth century, a new church was in existence, as revealed by a plaque to the memory of Rev Dennis McCarthy, a curate who died in 1810:


Here Lie The Remains of The Revd Dennis McCarthy/Late R. C. Curate of this Parish/The Duties of his Laborious Ministry he Discharged/With Cheerful and Conscientious Fidelity/His Acivity (sic) in Promoting Good order A submission to the Laws/His Compassionate Sympathy for the Miseries of the Distressed/And his Exertions in Raising Funds to Compleat this Chapel/Merited the Esteem of All Ranks/As an Emblem of their Regret and Mark of their High Consideration/The Parishioners have Erected this Montiment (sic)/He Died April 1st 1810 Aged 33 Years.[6]


An anecdote survives about Fr McCarthy.  He was sought to ‘call his flock to order’ when a Methodist minister, James Bell, was preaching in Castleisland in about 1807, and encountered hostility.[7]


Remembering Reverend Dennis McCarthy, who raised funds the complete his chapel.  The plaque is mounted in St Stephen and St John Church, Castleisland


In 1837, the church appeared to be in good order:


The chapel at Castle-island is a spacious cruciform structure, and has recently been repaired and newly fronted with hewn limestone; adjoining it is a dwelling-house for the parish priest, recently erected.[8]


Fr Jeremiah O’Leary (1788-1866)


Ministering at this time was Fr Jeremiah O’Leary, who would spend 52 years serving Castleisland.[9]  In the early years of Fr O’Leary’s ministry, which spanned the period 1814-1866, he collected a considerable sum for the O’Connell fund.[10]


On one occasion he was called to restore order in his church.  A violent affray broke out in the gallery over the rights to a pew.  The altercation became such that the priest had to descend the altar in the middle of mass, ascend the gallery, and part the combatants.[11]


Father O’Leary’s reputation was that of a charitable, compassionate gentleman.  In 1845, he brought the Presentation nuns to the town.[12]  There is little record of the church in the 1850s.[13]


In August 1862, the by now Venerable Archdeacon O’Leary performed the nuptials of Louis Kuhling Esq of Hull to Ellen, eldest daughter of Edward Harnett Esq, of Castle View, in Castleisland church.  The following year, 21 January 1863, he addressed a group of demonstrators:


About one hundred men paraded through Castleisland carrying a large black flag on which was written, ‘Distress – Bread or Work.’  They stopped opposite the residence of Fr O’Leary who addressed them, when they quietly dispersed.[14]


It is said that a tragedy occurred in the church in the 1860s when a warning of ‘fire’ resulted in a stampede to the door, a number of the congregation being crushed and trampled in the process.[15]


The Venerable Archdeacon O’Leary died on 19 October 1866.[16]


Father John O’Connell (1803-1885)


Archdeacon O’Leary was succeeded by Father John O’Connell.  In 1878, Bishop Daniel McCarthy visited the town and the church was found to be in a dilapidated condition with ‘the jagged and irregular and leaky roof, the decayed timbers, the crumbling ceilings.’  The bishop urged parishioners to support their parish priest in his efforts to build a new church in the town.[17]


In May 1881, the foundation stone of a new church was laid.  However, some months later, a robbery was reported:


On Monday night or Tuesday morning, the foundation stone of the new Catholic Church, now in course of erection, was removed from its place, and a bottle which was placed in the cavity of the stone containing medals, coins, and parchment was broken and its contents taken.[18]


The event was described as sacrilegious:


The foundation stone of the new church was laid last May by the late Right Rev Dr McCarthy, Bishop of Kerry.  The building proceeded rapidly up to this date.  The greatest interest was taken in the work by the parishioners, as well as by the parish priest, the Venerable Archdeacon O’Connell, who built several churches in other parts of the diocese but the new church will be the crowning work of his life – it will be one of the finest churches in Kerry – and the greatest indignation is felt by all classes in the neighbourhood at this detestable act of desecration. [19]


Fortunately, the lost parchment, with inscription in Latin, was transcribed in the news report of the theft:


Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam – Universalem Ecclesiam Gubernanie Leone XIII.  Papa et hanc Parochaim regent Johanne O’Connell, Archidiacono, Ardfertensi; Dominico J Coakley, Architecto; Daniel McCarthy, Epus Kerriensis, infrapositum angslarem Lapidem benefixit.  B.M. V. Sub-titulo; auxilium Christianorum die XXIV Maii, assistente venerabili clero, et multitudine magna fidelis populi frequentante.[20]


The Church of St Stephen and St John continues to serve the people of Castleisland and beyond.  The present incumbent is Fr Maurice Brick.[21]


[1] Castleisland Church and People (1981) by Fr Kieran O’Shea, p42. ‘St Nicholas’s was used by the Established Church as a place of worship; Rev Thomas Ewes was the first rector.  By 1640 it was badly neglected and in need of repair.  This situation had not improved by 1661.’ Other churches were to be found at Kilmurry, Killananma, Cahirnard (Kealgorm) and Kilbannivan. 

[2] Castleisland Church and People (1981) by Fr Kieran O’Shea, p42.

[3] Father Jeremiah O’Shanahan, ‘Father Darby’, born about 1745, ordained 1770 in the church of St Nicolas du Chardonnet, Paris; appointed parish priest of Castleisland c1774.  Probably built the old churches in Castleisland and Scartaglin.  He died in 1781; buried in the old graveyard attached to St Stephen’s church.  On his tomb an inscription in Latin, now mostly obliterated, reads in English translation ‘Behold now I sleep in dust’ (Castleisland Church and People (1981) by Fr Kieran O’Shea, p50).

The inscription in Latin was given by T M Donovan in an article, ‘In the Penal Days An East Kerry Pastor’ (Kerry News, 9 September 1935).  It reads Ecce Nunc In Pulvere Dormiam Job 7 21 / Behold now I sleep in dust Job chap 7 verse 21. 

Donovan was descended from the Shanahans, as revealed in the above essay.  Writing about the grave of his brother, Rev John Donovan, SJ, in St Stephen’s churchyard, Castleisland, he observed that he ‘lies buried in his grandmother’s grave.  This grandmother, Mary Shanahan, was a niece of Fr Darby Shanahan.  Had Father Donovan known that his remains would lie so near his 18th century kinsman it would please him’ (ibid).

Other names from Penal times recorded by Fr Kieran O’Shea were Father Charles Deorane, born in 1667 and ordained in 1691; in 1715 acting in place of Charles Daily, deceased.  Denis Sughrue, ministering c1750, born 1705, captain in French army; John Mallone (1710-1781), ordained at Douai, ministering c1761; Maurice Fitzgerald (1746-1830), ministered from 1781; during his ministry there were outbreaks of whiteboyism.

The church is illustrated on the Ordnance Survey map in the townland of Chapel Quarter.

[4] In conversation with John Roche, Firie, Castleisland, 24 February 2020, who recalled childhood stories told by his grandfather about this church and the fire. 

[5] ‘In the Penal Days An East Kerry Pastor’ (Kerry News, 9 September 1935).

[6] The plaque, which is set in the inside left wall of the present Church of St Stephen and St John, was formerly sited on the floor of the church adjacent to its current situation.  Its preservation is attributed to Sister Alfonsis, great grand niece of Fr Dennis McCarthy, who approached Canon Davy during church restorations in the 1960s that it should be retained in the church architecture. 

John Roche, Chairman of the O’Donohoe Project, advised that his great grandmother, Bridget Owen McCarthy, ‘Biddy Owen,’ was niece of Fr Dennis McCarthy.  At the time of Fr McCarthy’s death in 1810, he was ministering in the parish of Kilcummin.  There is a tradition that differences arose about the place of burial of Fr McCarthy, and that after his burial in Kilcummin, his remains were recovered by his family and reinterred in Castleisland.

[7] The Grand Tour of Kerry (2001) Compiled by Penelope Durell & Cornelius Kelly, pp52-53.  Extracted from A Sketch of the Life and Experience of James Bell held in the library of New-York Historical Society – an account of Bell’s life given to his sons, Thomas and John Bell, when they sailed from Ireland for America in 1815.  James Bell was born in 1765 in Ballyshannon and preached the gospel, sometimes in Irish, throughout Ireland.  In 1807-1809 he and his family were based in Cork.

He wrote: ‘About 2 o’clock in the evening [Mr Andrew Taylor and I] stood upon the street, numbers assembled and as a detachment of the Longford Militia commanded by Captn Armstrong were in town, and many of them very friendly to the Gospel, they attended.  A Clergymans servant of the Established Church was resolved to stone us when a private of the Longford, a Romanist Batn, Reynolds, struck the person with his fist.  I saw a Corporal Smith drawing his bayonet as the crowd encreased & requested he would not, he said it was only to intimidate them.  A Soldier ran off to the Barrack and I soon observed Captn Armstrong coming out.  He met Dennis McCarthy the young priest and told him to call his flock to order, if not said I will bring them to order by calling the soldiers out of the Barrack.  Mr John Williams, a respectable Local Preacher from Blennerville – Being present – told the Priest, Sir said he, I am informed you said you would soon silence all the Methodist Preachers.  I am one of them, and now Sir, I will answer you, the other said he would scorn to reason with him, although the other was a gentleman of property and he was a Carmans son 14 Miles from Cork on Kerry Road – The mob ceased shouting. – But about 10 o’clock at night we were informed 21 Men prepared themselves with Arms for the purpose of attacking us, about One O’clock at night in our lodging so one of our friends in the Army got a gun prepared which was to be fired if we were attacked.  This signal was in order to call out the Guard at the Barrack – However it was very remarkable it blew a Tempest.  The rain fell in torrents, about that time of night the Centinels box was blown down by the wind.  Indeed we slept little that night – But above all Our Shepherd had his providential over and his Everlasting Arms underneath!’

A few anecdotes about Rev Bell are recorded in A Memorial of the Ministerial Life of the Rev Gideon Ouseley Irish Missionary (1848) by William Reilly in which Rev Bell was described as ‘a man of peculiar simplicity, remarkable for his sweetness and devotion of spirit; he loved his country, and wept over its miseries; and sought to lead its erring children from darkness to light.  He preached in the Irish tongue with fervor and effect.  Very often he did more to convince gainsayers of the truth and power of the religion of Christ, and disarm his persecutors, when under their savage treatment, by dropping the tear of pity for his enemies, and gently wiping the blood and dirt off his face, than by the strength of argument or the force of persuasion.’ 

[8] Lewis, 1837.

[9] Fr O’Leary was born in 1788 and educated at Maynooth where he was a classmate of Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam.  He was ordained in 1812 and taught in Bishop Sughrue’s seminary in Killarney for two years.  He was appointed curate of Castleisland in 1814 and parish priest on the death of Fr Maurice Fitzgerald in 1830. 

[10] Father O’Leary submitted the sum of 25l, 10s to the National Annuity to Daniel O’Connell in 1838, ‘the remittance announced from Castleisland justifies the assertion that outstanding parishes in Kerry will make returns in due time.’

[11] Kerry Evening Post, 19 October 1842.

[12] On Sunday 18 August 1861, Very Rev John Mawe, Vicar General of the Diocese, delivered a powerful discourse in aid of the Presentation nuns to pay off a debt incurred in building an industrial school (Kerry Star, 20 August 1861).  At this period, Rev William O’Leary and Rev Michael O’Sullivan were curates. 

A charity sermon was preached by Very Rev L C P Fox OMI in January 1868 towards additional building works on the Presentation Convent schools.  Rev John Burke was curate in this year and also Rev John O’Sullivan, curate, ministered at about this period for in 1869, he subscribed to the building fund for a new church at Brosna. 

[13] In February 1859, there was an announcement of the marriage, in St Stephen’s Church Castleisland, of John C Leane, draper of Listowel, to Kate, eldest daughter of Castleisland merchant, John Harrington, performed by the bride’s uncle, Rev T Brosnahan, RC curate of Millstreet.

[14] Freeman’s Journal, 24 January 1863.   The oppression of tenant farmers was described in a letter to the editor of the Kerry Star, 6 February 1863 from ‘one of the oppressed tenant class.’  In the same issue, the editor remarked that here ‘we have another illustration of the state of helpless dependence in which the farmers stand with regard to their landlords in this county.’  In October 1861, a correspondent of Castleisland had reported that ‘famine with all its hideous consequences is about to stare us in the face’ (Kerry Star, 29 October 1861).

[15] In conversation with John Roche, Firie, Castleisland, 24 February 2020, who advised that his grandmother was a child in arms during this tragic incident.

[16] Father O’Leary’s nephew owned the Victoria Hotel, Killarney, and there the reverend died on 19 October 1866 (O’Shea, p50). 

‘We were not surprised during the past days to see the sorrow that was manifested by the crowds that surrounded the bier of the holy Ecclesiastic who now lies in his grave in front of the altar where he ministered and broke the Bread of Life for so many years.  Half a century ago Archdeacon O’Leary, or as his people affectionately called him, ‘Father Darby,’ came to Castleisland after completing a most successful collegiate career in Maynooth where he had as his contemporaries such men as the illustrious Archbishop of Tuam, the late Archbishop of Calcultta, Dr Carew, Dr M’Sweeney, late President of the Irish College, Paris, besides other distinguished ecclesiastics, of whom we often heard him speak in the most affectionate terms.  In his days, Maynooth had many distinguished Frenchmen filling its chairs, Delahogue, Auglade, Dare have left after them a flame that will not die with their students who are quickly passing away.  Before his appointment as curate to Castleisland Father Darby filled a professor’s chair for two years under Dr Sugrue in the old Seminary of Killarney.  But preferring the active life of the mission, he had the good fortune of commencing his career under the guidance of the Reverend Maurice Fitzgerald who was remarkable for his piety and learning, and whose memory is still green with the people of Castleisland.  For many years Father Darby had a difficult mission to fill, as the country was in a very lawless state, yet his great prudence and amiable temper enabled him to surmount many difficulties.  During these years of trouble he gained for himself innumerable friends and never made an enemy.  Though Protestant ascendancy ruled Kerry at the time, Father Darby’s word had weight with all the gentry that possessed the rich valley of Castleisland and many of them were men of high name and lineage.  For while he never deviated from his high and sacred duties – his manner was always that of a refined gentleman scholar, his requests were reasonable and made with becoming respect.  This same polish and kindness of manner was observable in his relations with the humblest even his reprimands were delivered in the most paternal and loving manner.  For forty years he served and loved his people, and they loved him, and of all the souls confided to his care we feel sure not one ever harboured an unkind thought against him.  He was so attached to his flock, we believe, we are in correct in stating that he never, during the past fifty years, spent a month consecutively away from them until his last painful illness obliged him to change the air.  One of his great works during his long life in the ministry was the introduction of nuns of the Presentation Order, who have done much for the education of the locality, but who now feel as orphans deprived of the best of fathers.  Within the last ten years of his life he had two missions given in his parish, the last of which was held in June of this year, and though just completing his 78th year, he laboured as continuously in the confessional as the youngest priest present.  He descended to the grave after having enjoyed the confidence of the three distinguished prelates who governed this diocese, during his ministry, and from our present reverend bishop he received the dignity of Archdeacon, and Rural Dean, which proves how highly his lordship esteemed him’(obituary and funeral report, Tralee Chronicle, 23 October 1866).

[17] Castleisland Church and People (1981) by Fr Kieran O’Shea, p45. The following was reported in the Kerry Evening Post, 26 March 1879 (extracted from the Cork Examiner): ‘We are glad to perceive from the ‘Builder’ that out of seven designs sent in for the Castleisland new Catholic Church, that of our talented young townsman, Mr D J Coakley, has been selected.  The proposed new building will consist of nave, aisles, transept, chancel, and two side chapels, with vestries and music choir communicating with the existing Convent.  A tower and spire 160 feet high are to be placed at the south-western corner of the building.  The style is in the early geometric Gothic – the native arcade will be supported on Aberdeen published (sic) red granite columns with Bath stone carved caps, the exterior in the limestone.  The cost of the building will be £8,000.’

[18] Kerry Evening Post, 26 November 1881.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. 

D J Coakley, Civil Engineer, of Charlotte Quay, Cork, invited tenders for erection of tower and spire in 1901.  A new bell for the church tower built by Matthew Byrne, Fountain Bell Head Foundry, Dublin, under supervision of Mr Butler, architect for the church, was blessed by Most Rev Dr Mangan, Bishop of Kerry, in 1911.  It weighed 30 cwt.  See report of blessing of the bell, Kerryman, 18 February 1911.

[21] Archdeacon John O’Connell (1803-1885) built the present parish church of St Stephen and St John, completed by his successors, Fr James Irwin (1823-1894) and Fr John O’Leary (1821-1918).  Fr John O’Leary was followed by Fr John Casey (1853-1936), Fr John Browne (1863-1954), Fr Daiti Ua Conchubhair (1892-1966), Fr Laurence Duff (1890-1972), Fr Michael Herlihy (1908-1994), Canon Denis O’Mahony (1931-2019), Rt Rev Msgr Dan O’Riordan (retired 2019).