Major €450,000 restoration works on Tipperary’s St Michael’s Church

To embark on a €450,000 church restoration programme without resorting to parish fundraising is undoubtedly a brave and admirable venture. But conscious that parishioners are living in very difficult and challenging economic times and with high local unemployment, the costly project is a monumental undertaking that Tipperary Parish Priest Archdeacon Matthew McGrath is determined to shoulder to the best of his ability.

To embark on a €450,000 church restoration programme without resorting to parish fundraising is undoubtedly a brave and admirable venture. But conscious that parishioners are living in very difficult and challenging economic times and with high local unemployment, the costly project is a monumental undertaking that Tipperary Parish Priest Archdeacon Matthew McGrath is determined to shoulder to the best of his ability.

The big freeze of Winter 2010 caused severe damage to the Bell Tower of St Michael’s Catholic Church and since then with each passing year causing even further deterioration, Archdeacon McGrath became increasingly aware that urgent action was needed to safeguard the historic building. Encouraged by an enthusiastic Parish Council, a plan of action was set up with the invaluable help of local chartered building surveyor, Gavin McCall, a parishioner with specialist knowledge in the repair and restoration of stonework in such protected structures. St. Michael’s Church is a Listed Building, and as such, according to conservation principles, all repair work must not affect the character of the church.

To draw up a detailed job specification for a task that involved a lot of specialist work, it was also necessary to employ a Structural Engineer and a Quantity Surveyor. Together with Project Manager, Gavin McCall they spent some weeks assessing the nature and extent of the work and preparing a tender document, which contained detailed specifications with regard to scaffolding, removal of defective stone, sourcing of replacement limestone, minute details on stone measurements, the raking and repointing to stone work up to the Louvre windows, the opening for inspection of the church roof adjacent to the south side of the Bell Tower, (it was felt that water ingress over the decades may have damaged some of the timbers). Also included was the repair of some damaged stone down at the gable of the funeral door entrance. The tender process attracted wide interest from contractors based in Dublin, Wexford, Clare, Carlow, Limerick, Tipperary and Scotland. Having examined the tenders in detail, the project team recommended a contractor with proven ability to carry out the specialist work at a contact price substantially lower than the others.

Irish craftspeople

As can be seen from our photographs, massive scaffolding was a priority for safety measures and this project was awarded to local contractor, Sean Curtin of Pallasgreen. The overall works of restoration went to Laing Traditional Masonry Group, with Mullingar man Neil O’Dwyer employed as Site Manager. The LTM Group, a Scottish based company have vast experience in conservation works on built heritage all over Britain, and on securing the 6-Month contract at St. Michael’s Church, have set up an Irish subsidiary company here in Tipperary Town. During a recent visit to the site, LTM Managing Director Steven Laing spoke of his plans.

“Our vision is to continue our Scottish business model into Ireland using Irish craftspeople and management staff that have worked for the LTM Group on various projects throughout the UK over the last two years. Our commitment is to grow LTM Ireland using indigenous resources by employing local apprentices and putting them through our formal internal apprenticeship scheme” he said.

Close links

Site Manager Neil O’Dwyer arrived in Tipp Town with vast experience in conservation work. Possessing a passion for such a career from a very young age, he is greatly appreciative of the hands-on approach afforded him during his years of apprenticeship. Born and reared in Mullingar, Neil has close family links with the Tipperary areas of Rossmore and Lorrha and is delighted to be back in the Premier County fronting the first LTM project in the Irish Republic. Prior to the recession hitting Ireland’s building industry, he was involved in conversation works at Dublin’s Christchurch Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. George’s Church in Temple Street, as well as churches in Cork and various projects in Limerick City. When work began to slacken in his home country, Neil headed to Britain where he worked for four years around the historic city of York, restoring various churches and castles. Two years ago he joined the LTM Group, which has allowed him opportunities to work on several Category A Listed Buildings, one of the most famous being the Marischal College in the centre of Aberdeen City – the second biggest granite building in the world.

Work began on the restoration of St. Michael’s on June 14. However, a short time into the project, Archdeacon McGrath’s worst fears were realised when in-depth inspection threw up further problems than first anticipated. In this case, the stonework around the church spire has shown extensive leakage, which will further shoot up costs.

The Tipperary Parish Priest says that through savings made on parish collections over and above the cost of annual parish financial commitments most of this costly work can be paid by existing monies. While admirable, all parishioners will recognise in these straitened times that exhausting the parish’s savings on this repair work will place it in a precarious position should any further emergencies arise.

Most famous landmark

The consecration of St. Michael’s Parish Church, the first post-Famine architect-designed church in the diocese, took place on Thursday 14 November 1861. The architect responsible for the design of the church was James Joseph McCarthy (1817-82). McCarthy was born in Dublin in humble circumstances and was known as the “Irish Pugin” after the celebrated English designer and architect Augustus Welby Pugin (I812- 52). Pugin is remembered for this pioneering role in the Gothic Revival style; his work culminated in the interior design and “Big Ben” clock tower of the Palace of Westminister. He also designed many churches in Ireland and demanded the highest quality of workmanship from his craftsmen, particularly from the stonemasons. McCarthy would, in turn, create an exceptionally fine church in his design of St. Michael’s. Just how fine a church we have in this parish is described in great detail in Dr. Denis Marnane’s book “The History of St. Michael’s Church” as he leads the reader through the history and significance of both the exterior and interiors aspects of the building. It is also a building described in I994 by the celebrated architectural historian Jeremy Williams, as “one of the finest Puginian churches in Ireland.”

Stepping up to the plate

St. Michael’s Church has over its 151- year history been an important focus of devotion and place of prayer within the parish. Despite Archdeacon McGrath’s reluctance to make a public appeal, and given the historical and religious importance of St. Michael’s Church, there is no doubt that parishioners in a position to do so, will gladly step up to the plate and subscribe to this worthy and urgent restoration project. Furthermore, there are many hundreds of Tipperary emigrants with fond memories of the church, who have done well overseas, and who perhaps could also play an active financial part by making a contribution to help retain this vital landmark in our hometown of Tipperary.

(Rosaleen Ryan)