Brief History of this building
The Protestant Church of St. Mary’s in Thurles is the site of the official Pre-Reformation Church of Thurles. The original structure was built by the Normans, in the 12th century, to provide them with a separate and more exclusive place of worship.
Some time after the erection of St. Mary’s church, it, together with the native church and those of Rahealty, Shyan and Athnid were given into the custody of the Abbot of Abbington, head of the Cistercian monastery which had been founded by Theobald Butler. The Abbot became the Rector of these churches. He also received the associated glebelands and tithe revenues. As was the practice, the Abbot paid a vicar or vicars, appointed by the Archbishop of Cashel, to perform the spiritual duties of these local churches.
The newly built St. Mary’s church must have been modestly impressive, at least to the locals. The church had the usual tower feature in Cistercian/Norman religious buildings. Ownership passed back and forth during and after the Reformation, between Protestant and Catholic custodians. It was not securely in Protestant hands until after the Williamite Campaign – in fact, in 1690, the only place for Protestant worship in the town was an old waste house. Because of wars, the building was a ruin as early as 1615, according to the record of a visitation of such buildings requested by King James1st. of England.
St. Mary’s and its chapel of Our Lady were used for burials. Among those early burials we find that of the Rev. Dan Maher, C.C. Thurles, who made his will in 1666, directing that he be buried in some corner of the Blessed Virgin’s Chapel, near the parish church of Thurles, if that church had not been consecrated. If it had, then he desired to be buried where Father Donogh Houlihan was buried. This whole question of the Lady’s Chapel is confusing. It’s difficult to say whether it was a constituent part of, or simply near, St. Mary’s parish church. The reference here is that the church of St. Mary’s would have been ‘desecrated‘ by Protestant service and would need reconsecration or rededication to the Catholic requirements.
Such a ceremony took place in nearby Cashel during the Rebellion of 1641 before the Catholics returned to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the Rock of Cashel. Father Maher’s will seems to imply, therefore, that Father Houlihan was buried somewhere inside the St. Mary’s of that period (Fr. Houlihan was the last Prior of the Carmelites).
Following the Restoration of the Monarchy the Protestant church became the State Church of Ireland in January 1661. Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century the Protestant community must have re-roofed St. Mary’s. Their vestry books of 1746 state that the tower was in bad repair – in danger of falling in; some of it had earlier fallen on the roof of the adjoining church structure. A surviving etching shows the church to have been originally double-gabled.
Pococke, when he visited the town in 1752, mentions a Protestant church built on to the tower of an old church, the east part of which was an arch under that tower. He refers to a chapel east of the tower containing the Archer monument, a tomb still to be seen today. The site has been built on or reconstructed several times. The present modest structure was built in 1812.
The oldest visible monument in the graveyard is the Archer tomb which was erected to the memory of Edmund Archer, ‘Burgess of Thurles‘ and Lord of Rathfernagh, Galboola, Corbally and Kyllienane. There is a tradition that Archer was killed at Raheenrue near Drish bridge by the forces of Elizabeth. The tomb is alter-shaped with the following carvings; the figures of the Apostles, the Archer and Butler (or de la Poer) crests, a representation of the Crucifixion and on the upper slab, the figures of a Norman knight and his lady – representing Archer and his wife – not, as is locally believed, Adam and Eve.
The Grace monument north of the church is a block of masonry twelve feet high, attached to which is an alter-tomb surmounted by a plain slab with incised lettering and bearing the Grace and Purcell crests. This monument was erected in 1683 by John Grace in memory of his wife (nee Purcell) and a year later received his own remains.
Among the more recent headstones we find the names: John Carroll, Drish, died 1701 and his grandson, Pat Carroll of Moycarkey Castle who died in 1801 at the age of 98 years; John Nicholson, Turtulla, died 1784; Ignatius Brown, Ballycurrane, died 1783; Pat Nagle, Clongower, died 1789; John Harty, Thurles, died 1795; Denis O’Brien, Thurles, died 1786 (He was the ancestor of the O’Meara family of Ardfert and land-agent to the Mathews’ of Thurles & Thomastown); Val. Maher, Turtulla, died 1843; John Maher of Tullamaine Castle, died 1850. In a vault nearby are the remains of Dr. W. Maher of Thurles who died 1836, and his brother, Nicholas Maher, M.P., Turtulla, died 1871; Charles O’Keeffe murdered 1839; Tom Ryan, Thurles, died 1818; (Latter was known as the Distiller of Thurles and Rathmanna.) Tom Ryan, Rathmanna, died 1835 and John Ryan, Corbally who died in 1895.
There is a plain sandstone slab near the centre of the graveyard to the memory of Rev. Michael Fihan – 35 years P.P. of Thurles who died 176-, aged 71 years. Rev. Chas Greene, Doctor of the Sorbonne P.P. Thurles, died 1774, Nicholas Morris, P.P., Loughmore, died 1795; (Latter a horizontal slab to right of the church). Father Morris was a native of Thurles and was baptised in 1735 by the Rev. Michael Fihan. The most famous old bones buried in the Lady’s Chapel are those of the mother of the Duke of Ormond, Lady Elizabeth, Viscountess Thurles.
(A recent list of all identified grave markers is available but a review of the ‘Memorials of the Dead’ (published by The Association for the Preservation of Memorials for the Dead, Ireland, published during the years 1888 to 1934) might shed more light on grave-markers no longer legible.)
The church is still used by the Church of Ireland Community today as a place of worship. Current Rector: Rev Peter Massey Cole-Baker B.Sc B.Th. Telephone: (0504) 31175.
The Famine Museum
In 1995 the Thurles Church of Ireland community kindly donated one third of this building to create a Famine Museum to commemorate the many people who lost their lives through disease and starvation during the Great Famine in Ireland of 1845-1850.
The War Museum
In 1997 work began to restore a gallery which previously had existed in the building prior to 1812. On completion in 1999 this new space was allocated to exibiting our collection of war memorabelia which includes the famous and rare Armstrong Collection, presently on loan to this building.