Walking through the parish church amid scaffold and plastic sheeting is a strange experience. I rambled through Drimoleague’s parish church of All Saints recently when I called to see how the refurbishment work was progressing.
The church that I prayed in most days on my way home from the nearby school and where my family went for Sunday Mass seemed a bit desolate while it’s being attended to. The workmen were busy with scaffold and heists as they carefully attended to the various parts of the building. However, as I looked at the almost empty church, my mind and prayers kept wandering back to the people that I associate with the various seats in the church, people I grew up with and people I grew up praying with.
Each community’s church building connects us not just with God but with one another in so many ways. A church has associations with so many people. If the churches in Drimoleague and Drinagh could talk, imagine the amount of history they would tell! Each of them also takes the place of earlier churches which served the generations that went before us. The old churchyard in Drinagh West and the old cemetery in Drimoleague are truly sacred places to visit. They hold the mortal remains of many of our families but they also hold part of our sense of who we are.
There is something special about the continuity and links between the old cemetery in Drimoleague, with the ruin of the former church building, its successor (St. Finbarr’s Church, which was dedicated in 1828, the year before Catholic Emancipation) which was located where the present church stands, and the ‘new’ building which rose out of the commitment and aspirations of the people of the parish over 50 years ago. Between them they account for a long time of unbroken dedication to God by several generations of Drimoleague people.
Church records show that Drimoleague had a church in 1199. This is one of the oldest written records of a church building in a parish in the diocese. It is also recorded that there was a flourishing church there in 1437, but by 1615 this early church was in ruins. This is a result of the Reformation and the suppression of the Catholic parishes in the 1500s.
For some time after this, as in most of Ireland, Catholic worship was without a fixed altar. Mass rocks and portable altars became commonplace and the commitment of the local people is evidenced still in the names of some of the townlands and fields in the parish. Diocesan historians have noted that Mass was celebrated in several places within walking distance of my own native place including Kilscohanagh and Dromadava. Clashduve itself was recorded as having a burial ground.
By 1720, the people in the Drinagh side of the parish had erected their first post-penal church at The Paddock and a 1731 report notes that Mass was being celebrated in Drimoleague in a “Mass house”. This, in turn, was replaced by St. Finbarr’s Church which was built before 1828 under the leadership of Fr. John Ryan PP – a native of Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary, who died in 1850.
The present generation of people from Drimoleague and Drinagh are part of this story but each generation leaves its own mark and has its own opportunities and difficulties. Each time we sit or kneel in the church, we only borrow the spot. It has been occupied before by others — men, women and children from all corners of the parish — and some day we will vacate it again and leave it free for someone else to sit or kneel there. It’s but a temporary resting place but it connects us with our “true homeland” as the scriptures call it. That’s why we respect, value and mind it. Because it’s ours and it’s part of who we are.