EAST Clare Heritage Centre at St Cronan’s Church, Tuamgraney, has closed but the Church of Ireland has vowed to keep the building as a place of worship.
St Cronan’s has the distinction of being the oldest church in continuous use in Ireland and is linked to Brian Boru and his family.
East Clare Heritage chairperson, Ruth Minogue, confirmed its 21-year licence to operate its heritage centre out of St Cronan’s Church has expired and that they left the building last weekend.
“The Church of Ireland wanted to take over the church again to use it more as a church but they would be quite open for it to be used for talks and tours,” Ms Minogue said.
The licence expired in October 2013, with an agreement to extend it to October 2014 to facilitate both parties. In August, East Clare Heritage advised the Church of Ireland they would be leaving the premises.
In this correspondence, they said, “We wish to express our disappointment that, despite a number of meetings and correspondence between various directors of East Clare Heritage and representatives of the parish over the past 18 months, we have not, as yet, received any offer of a renewal of the licence agreement under which we have operated in the church over the past 22 years”.Ms Minogue said the group has struggled to keep the doors of the centre open, since the Clare County Council maintenance grant was cut in 2009.
“It has been a very hard struggle. We hope to still work as a heritage group within the East Clare community and hope we would be able to use the church for events into the future. I suppose it does [leave us homeless as a group].
“I would hate to see the building become derelict but the church seem to want to use it. That function is important, as it is the oldest church in continuous use in Ireland,” she said.
“We were told in discussions that they [the Church of Ireland] wanted the building and we had no paperwork forthcoming from the Church of Ireland and, without a licence for our insurance, we can’t operate,” she continued.
“Our financial position is precarious and, with the costs of running heating and lighting in a church, we would need financial support to keep going. Up to 2009, we got around €10,000 a year and, once that was gone, it was a huge loss. Without some kind of State support, we wouldn’t be able to continue there.”
In the coming weeks, the group will meet and discuss the future of East Clare Heritage but Ms Minogue stressed it has not disbanded.
Mike Witherly, treasurer of Mountshannon Church, was involved in the negotiations with East Clare Heritage, prior to the appointment of a new dean in Killaloe.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do with the church and we didn’t feel that it could continue in the way it was going, so we offered them a year’s extension to get them through the Brian Boru millennium and give them time to organise themselves, if they wanted to find new premises, which they had indicated they wanted to do, and to give us a chance to get the new dean in and to make a decision about what he wanted to do with the church,” Mr Witherly said.
Dean Gary Paulsen came to Killaloe last December and his preference was to have the church used as a place of worship, not a heritage centre.
“It is a beautiful church and that’s how we want to maintain it and to use it for religious purposes. There has never been any suggestion that it would close. We are very grateful to East Clare Heritage. They have put money into it, they got a good government grant, which covered them for work inside. A lot of the remedial work was done by them and we don’t deny that. It was part of their business plan but the licence has expired.
“We still have this beautiful building, which the heritage company still have an interest in and the heritage company are more than welcome to come and visit and run talks, run lectures, anything they want to do in there within reason, because it is a church. All they have to do is contact us.
“We certainly are not trying to stop them or block them in any way and we will give them all the help we can but we did not want to go ahead under the conditions that were imposed on us by the old licence. We did not want the occupation of the building,” he said.
Dean Paulsen said, “We haven’t pushed them out. It is a worshipping church. We will continue to use it for worship. They were in there for 20 years. They had a licence and that has come to an end. They sent us notice that they were going to be moving out, so we have accepted that as their decision. That’s where we are,” he said.
Asked if there were discussions about entering into a new licence, Dean Paulsen said, “Yes.”
He expanded, “I said we should meet and talk about the future but, before we met to talk, they went ahead, so we have taken it back as a church and we will use it as a church in the community. It was their decision to move out and they sent us a letter telling us they were moving out on October 1. Then we just wrote a letter back saying we acknowledge the letter.”
He stressed that the church has no intention of closing St Cronan’s or selling it on and it was his intention to also use it ecumenically, to honour its history with both the Anglican and Catholic community.
Local historian and founding member of East Clare Heritage, Gerard Madden said he was disappointed to be leaving the church. He highlighted that the group put a lot of work into the church over the years, including installing a stained glass window worth €1 million, an oak lobby, windows and a heating system.
“It was really sad to do what we had to do but, look, we have to get on with it. I took seven van loads out of there. We must have done something right, if we were there for 25 years. We are in the same position since 2009. Not a cent have we got, we were left high and dry. We are completely ignored along the Shannon. There is no way a voluntary group can survive there.
“We were totally dependent on donations and it is impossible to run a community initiative at the moment,” he concluded.