Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in June/July 2014 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
In the old Creagh Cemetery, adjacent to the Athlone Road, are the austere remains of an ecclesiastical building. This unprepossessing ruin was once a church that in its time served the religious needs of the local Church of Ireland community up to the early decades of the nineteenth century. Built on the site of a medieval place of worship, it was a humble predecessor of one of Ballinasloe’s architectural gems: St. John’s Church.
Occupying as it does the crest of Church Hill, St. John’s dominates the surrounding countryside and invariably figures in every silhouette of the Ballinasloe skyline. It’s not, though, the only imposing structure to have been located here. Formerly known as Knockadoon (fort hill), Church Hill was conjecturally the site of a motte and bailey. This seems a reasonable supposition, because in the thirteenth century the area around Ballinasloe was held by the Anglo-Normans under Sir Richard de Rupella, who would likely have favoured such a construction at this location.
The motte and bailey was a type of fortification dear to the hearts of those mail-coated warriors. Its purpose was twofold: to house a garrison and overawe the conquered territory. Erected in a commanding position, the motte consisted in an earthen mound surmounted by a wooden tower serving as a look-out post. The structure was linked to an enclosure (the bailey) surrounded by a bank topped by a palisade of pointed stakes and containing buildings for the accommodation of soldiers. These primitive castles had the dual advantage of being both quickly and inexpensively constructed.
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars the original church on the site was built to plans drawn up by John Hampton, a Ballinasloe-born architect with offices in Main Street. Described as having a Doric portico, it was destroyed by fire in the early 1840s. Its spire was salvaged from the ruins and re-erected as an obelisk in the grounds of Garbally House.
Soon after the conflagration a new church featuring the Gothic Revival style of the mid-nineteenth century was built to replace the old St. John’s. Designed by Joseph Welland, a Cork architect who was responsible for the plans of over a 100 churches in the course of his career, this building had north and south transepts as well as lancet windows. According to a contemporary account, it opened for worship in the autumn of 1844. A battlemented turret incorporating a four-faced clock was added in 1879, the cost being borne by Lord Clancarty.
.The building was gutted in a major fire in 1899. It was said that the clock continued to chime until its works melted in the heat. An exquisite stone pulpit carved by James Beegan, a local sculptor, was badly damaged, as was a memorial to the Third Earl of Clancarty. The church, however, was repaired and later expended.
An interior wall of St. John’s displays a framed roll of honour listing 48 parishioners who fought in the First World War, 9 of whom were among the fallen. In the church grounds there is the tomb of the Earls of Clancarty. A portrait of the controversial Archdeacon Charles Trench, who was the first rector in the old St. John’s, hangs in the vestibule. The present incumbent is the Rev. George Flynn who has in addition the pastoral care of several neighbouring parishes.