13 February, 2015

In loving memory,…a forgotten chantry chapel at Straboe

David McIlreavy discusses the rise and decline of the chantry chapel at Straboe Church, Co. Laois.


Recently while out monitoring a pipeline scheme near Straboe in County Laois I took shelter from a heavy shower in the ruins of a church (LA013-005). Several architectural fragments from the 16th century arch had been arranged on the ground within the nave. My interest piqued, I investigated the literature for the development of Straboe Church and the impetus for ornamental renovations during this period.

In the early 16th century, Gerald ‘Mor’ Fitzgerald, 8th Earl of Kildare and Lord Deputy of Ireland proved a remarkably successful Lord Deputy under the Tudor administration in Ireland.  Fitzgerald had not only brought stability to the Pale, but had expanded English influence into its borderlands.  He had achieved the latter by successful speculation on the borderland ‘lands pledged for monies’ market, and his recovery of claimed FitzGerald castles of Morett and Lea by 1500.

One of the consequences of the Fitzgerald-induced stability was the lay endowment of churches on the borderlands of the Pale.  Ellis (1998) in his general account of the deputyship notes some 36 churches built or renovated in Co Louth; 28 of them within the territory of the Pale. While Lyons (2000) has provided an in depth account of church and society in Kildare during the period, until now little discussion has covered similar developments in Laois.

The remains at Straboe indicate architectural developments on the very western fringes of the FitzGerald lordship. The recorded origins of the church lie in the early 14th century, mentioned in the 1306 Taxation of Pope Nicholas.  The eastern wall of the extant chancel includes a probable mid-14th century red sandstone ogee headed window from this period.  The majority of the current building was heavily altered in the 17th century.  The southern wall of the nave was moved to accommodate a 1m wide ‘pulpit’ aisle, an arrangement also seen in the neighbouring church of Coolbanagher, while a square-headed mullioned window was inserted close to the western wall junction.

A recent graveyard clearance project around Straboe church uncovered a number of interesting architectural remains of probable 16th century date.  These included eight punch dressed and chamfered voussoirs, a small punch dressed and chamfered column stone, and a punch dressed and chamfered probable window surround stone.  On inspection of the extant building, the author noted that a chamfered and punch dressed vertical column, probably from the same period had been built into the exterior of the southern wall.

The quantity of architectural fragments from the early 16th century would suggest that a significant refurbishment of the church had taken place at this time.  The vertical column stone (recorded by the author) is probably part of a cut stone chancel arch, while the majority of the remaining architectural fragments would seem to be part of a chantry chapel.  The chantry chapel, a building solely created for the performance of chantry duties by the priest for a deceased benefactor, was a popular form of endowment amongst the gentry of the period.

The voussoirs recovered from the graveyard would certainly suggest a small arched entry to a chapel annex, whilst the smaller chamfered stone may be part of a statuary niche within the chapel.  However, the most architecturally impressive element would have been the southern window setting, a possible reconstruction of which is provided below.

While the chantry chapel was a significant endowment, even the lower gentry could donate features such as chantry windows.  An example of such a feature may could be seen at St Lawrence’s church, Kerdiffstown, a ‘window…originally of two ogee headed lights, with a framework around it bearing inscriptions in Lombardic and Gothic characters’ (Lyons 2003).  The remains of this window have been lost, although a rubbing of the surrounding script has been recorded.

The impetus for such developments certainly came from the upper echelons of society; such as the Lord Deputy himself.  But extended members of this family, such as the Baron Porlester, Sir Roland FitzEustace (father in law to the Lord Deputy), proved to be almost as prolific as Kildare himself.  The splendid chantry chapel at St Audeon’s church Dublin, built for Porlester, is an example of the scale that such endowments could take.  The reconstruction provided for the chantry chapel at Straboe would suggest that endowment by gentry of relevant affluence, perhaps even relations of the Lord Deputy himself.

What is certain is that the developments at Straboe were relatively short-lived.  The area was engulfed by the 1546–7 war between the O Mores and the English administration.  By 1557 actions by Sir Thomas Radcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter, led to descriptions of Leix Offaly as ‘destroyed and burned’ (Ellis 1998, 272).  Certainly by 1563 the chapel had been destroyed; the church of Straboe shown as ruined on the Commission maps for Queen’s County.  The remains of the chantry chapel may well have been deliberately removed in conjunction with the construction of the O’ More tower house at Shaen; located less than 1km to the east of Straboe.

David McIlreavy, Licenced Archaeologist, dmcilreavy@iac.ie

Further Reading:
Lyons, M. A. 2000 Church and Society in County Kildare c. 1470–1547. Four Courts Press Ltd, Dublin.
Ellis, S. G. 1998 Ireland in the Age of the Tudors 1447–1603: English Expansion and the End of Gaelic Rule. Longman, London.