St.Bridget's Church and Plaque, Athenry - Prof. Etienne Rynne


All of about 300m. due south of the south-eastern corner of Athenry's Medieval town-wall is an ivy-covered ruined stone wall, now about 7.90m. long, 1.00m. thick, and 6.00m. high.  It is in the townland of Bawnmore, in the front 'garden' of Ivymount House, and is marked on the Ordinance Survey 6-inch scale sheet no.84, at a point 42.5cm. from the western margin and 10.5cm. from the southern margin; not named on the 1st edition when surveyed in 1833, but indicated as "St. Bridget's Church (in Ruins)" on the revised editions of 1892 and 1927-28.  Built of roughly coursed-mortared rubble, the presence of very short lengths of even more dilapidated walls to its north and south show that it is the west gable of the building. It is featureless, showing that the doorway into St. Bridget's church must have been in either the north or south wall.  As the remaining west gable starts to narrow inwards at about 3m/ height it is clear that that was the original height of the church's sidewalls.

The fact that this ruin was a church is confirmed by a copy of a map of Athenry in the Down Survey of 1657, where it is described as a "ruinated chapel" with walls then standing.  Whether it was a pre-or post-Reformation building is not clear, but it is unlikely to be much more than four hundred years old.  Its siting outside the town-walls indicate that it was an Irish church, clearly not built for the urban congregation within the walls who would have worshiped in either St. Mary's parish church or the Dominican Priory, a fact borne out by its dedication to an Irish saint.

That the dedication to St. Bridget, as is indicated on the maps, is correct is strongly supported by the inscription on an interesting, if unrecorded and generally unnoticed carved limestone plaque, now built into the northern jamb of the small gateway, 6.00m. from the Southwest corner of the church and leading from The Pound Road to the front door of Ivymount House.  It measures 44cm. high by 33cm. wide by 13cm. in thickness.  The carving is sunken by about 2cm. leaving a raised frame about 3cm. wide around it; the bottom part and also the lower half of the right side of the frame are now badly damaged and partially missing.  All the carving is in low relief.

The upper third of the slab is carved with two figures ; one of the crucified Christ and the other of a large kneeling, rather buxom female figure, who may be St. Bridget, but has more the appearance of a medieval donor and may, therefore perhaps be Mary Hynes, widow of Thomas O' Kelly (see below).  While the figure of Christ has radiating nimbus or halo, the kneeling figure has not.  She, in fact, seems to be wearing a sort of diadem or crown, though this is by no means certain - it may be merely a band encircling the top of her head to retain in place a hooded (hairy? fur?) cloak she is wearing.  She prays with clasped hands raised towards the crucified figure.  Centrally placed between the two figures are the letters IHS, with a cross rising from the cross-bar of the H - there are several interpretations for these letters, including In Hoc Signo [vinces] meaning 'By this Sign' [you will conquer], In HAC[Cruce] Salus, meaning 'In this [Cross] is Salvation',Jesus Hominum Salvator, meaning 'Jesus Saviour of Men(=Mankind)', and perhaps most likely the monogram made up from the first three letters of the Greek form of Jesus, namely Iésons, the Greek capital é being like H - but they are often popularly thought to stand for "I Have Suffered"!

The lower two-thirds of the slab is carved with the inscription below- in places difficult to read even after a careful rubbing, e.g. the name at the end of the second line is certainly O'Kelly, while a letter seems to be missing at the end of the fifth, sixth and seventh lines; some of the letters are ligatured (joined):

PRAY.FOR.THE.SOUL
OF.THOMAS.OKELLY
HIS.WIFE.MARY
HYNES.&.THEIR.POS
TERITY.WHO.EREC
ED.THIS.IMAGE.IN.R
MEMBERANCE.OF.SA
NT.BRIDGET.1728

Finally, it must be mentioned that a not-easy-to-read INRI is carved in raised letters (only the first two and part of the third are visible) on the frame's level above the crucified Christ's head. That one can make out two names, apparently but by no means certainly IOHN.ROYEN, on the frame's level at along the bottom. I.N.R.I., of course, is what one would expect above the head of the crucified Christ, being Pilate's inscription (according to the Gospel of St. John, chapter 19, verse 19) representing Iesus Nazarerus, Rex Iudaesium, meaning 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews'.
But what about the name Iohn Royen, if that is what it is.  It is probably the name of the carver of the plaque, and it is interesting that in the Dominican Priory, a rather difficult to read graveslab dated to the 1690's (last digit is very unclear) which commemorates a William Royne, his wife and children, and which also bears the added name of James Royan.  Is this the same family name as on the plaque?  Merely another version perhaps - spelling was not always consistent in those days.  Is Ruane the modern version? And is this the name associated with the nearby townland of Caheroyan?

As can be seen, the Bawnmore plaque is a most interesting and unusual one.  It deserves to be kept cleared of the ivy  which tends to regularly cover it and to be properly marked as an historic monument and as a fine piece of early 18th-century Folk Art.
 

Professor Etienne Rynne for "The Athenry Journal", December 1999

   

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