FURTHER restoration work has been undertaken in recent days at what is believed to be the oldest church in use in the Diocese of Killaloe.
A replica of the historical altar, which was removed from the St Vincent de Paul Barn Church in Oatfield, in the 1960s, has made by local man Donal Ryan. The beautifully crafted piece was this week installed and blessed by Bishop Fintan Monahan.
Donal’s daughter is to get married later this month at the church and in advance of the ceremony, he approached the Pastoral Council with a view to installing the altar.
“It was a conincidence that we happened to draw down a grant that enabled us to the preparatory work, just at the right time,” said Michael Tynan, Pastoral Council representative and Oatfield church project co-ordinator. “Donal has great skill and we are delighted now to have the altar in place. The restoration of the church has involved an amazing community effort and we are very pleased to have been able to bring it to this standard.”
The latest development adds significantly the condition of the church which has been carefully restored, through years of community fundraising and painstaking conservation efforts over the last eight years.
The church is one of only three surviving barn churches in Ireland, which dates to the 17th century. It is believed to be one of the best preserved and is still in regular use by members of the local community and is a particularly popular wedding venue.
Barn churches were traditionally thatched barns, which would have been used at harvest time for threshing and storing oats. Under the repressive Penal Laws when masses were banned, they were used for the covert celebration of mass, in a similar way to traditional mass rocks.
The late Bishop John Rogers, at a ceremony in 1966 to rededicate the church to St Vincent de Paul, highlighted the ancient tradition of celebrating the mass in Oatfield, identifying the church’s significance as on a par with Ballintubber Abbey in County Mayo.
The church has a fascinating history, dating back to the mid-1600s. In 1646 a French priest, who we now know as St Vincent de Paul, responded to a request from Bishop Dwyer of Limerick to send priests to work in the city. By 1651 Limerick was under siege by the Cromwellian army under General Ireton, and a plague had broken out. At least five Vincentians came to Limerick at that time. Among them were two Irish priests, Fr Gerard Brin and Fr Edmund Barry CM both of whom had been ordained in Paris. The men managed to escaped from the destruction and
pestilence which was rampant Limerick at that time, and made their way over the hills to Oatfield, where they settled in a little stone house in Derrynaveagh. According to tradition, they
celebrated Mass for the local people in the thatched barn, now Oatfield church.
The thatched barn was reconstructed and consecrated as a church about 1830, at the time when Fr Jeremiah Tuohy was parish priest. On January 6, 1839, the roof was ripped off this building in what has become known as The Night of the Big Wind. In later years the third northern aisle was added,
which gave the building its present cruciform design.
Again in 1952, the church had extensive repairs done to the roof and walls and in 1966, the Vincentian connection with Oatfield was recognised in when the church, previously dedicated to St.
Peter, was rededicated to St. Vincent de Paul, by the late Bishop Joseph Rodgers. A statue of the saint came from Paris and was donated to Oatfield church where it still stands today.
“This was never an ornate, lavishly furnished church and this is how we want it to stay,” said Mr Tynan. “It is a protected building and so we have been very careful to ensure all of the work is carried out with that in mind.”
A new brochure compiled to chart the history of the church and the redevelopment work says, “We aim to provide a simple, yet comfortable, building, which will be a suitable structure to serve the religious and community needs of this area. We believe we can use the history of this church to our advantage, in that its uniqueness will help to generate interest and funding. It is up to us to spread the message of its exceptional heritage. Many people worldwide, especially those of Irish ancestry and people at home in Ireland would feel privileged to have ceremonies, such as weddings, baptisms, renewal of marriage vows, retreats, etc, in such a historic church. Combine the possibility of developing the heritage of this building with the natural beauty of the area and you have an asset second to none.”
The restoration of the building dates back to 2012 when the building, which is a protected structure and recorded monument, was assessed by a team of professional architectural conservationists. In the first phase of works, the roof, which was found to be at risk of collapse, was repaired at a cost of over €80,000. The total cost of the works, which were carried out in two phases, ran to €174,183 funded through sources including Clare County Council, heritage support organisations and intensive community fund-raising.
The generosity of local people was also very much in evidence when, in 2016, the late Mikey McInerney donated land to allow for the development of the church car park and other facilities. A local family loaned money for the installation of new toilets and the Sixmilebridge/Kilmurry Men’s Shed helped with the restoration of the church pews. EI Electronics sponsored the installation of a defibrillator in the church. In 2018, a new heating system was installed, ramps and railings as well as new carpet. Last year, with the support of the community, more painting and landscaping works were completed.
Now that the barn church is very much the jewel in the crown for Oatfield, the community sees it as an idea venue for weddings, baptisms, renewal of vows, retreats and even secular activities including yoga, concerts and musicals. “Most importantly, it will be a focal point for this rural community, along with it being the church, it is also the community centre.”
Future plans for the church include the repair of the bell tower and the installation of a stained glass window of St Vincent de Paul.