Minister Malcom Noonan viewing a carved stone, which historian Seamus McDermott tells him is believed to have originated in France or Wales but which was discovered in the old graveyard at St Owen’s Church in Ballymore.

Heritage Minister sees at first hand fruits of Ballymore funding allocations

The Minister of State for Nature, Heritage and Electoral Reform, Malcom Noonan, visited Ballymore on Monday of last week to see at first hand the work that has been taking place at the ruins of the former Church of Ireland church – St Owen’s – in Ballymore.

In the last two years, a total of €205,000 has been allocated from the Department of Nature and Heritage’s Community Monuments Fund for restoration work on the church, which has been overseen by the St Owen’s Church Restoration Group in conjunction with the Westmeath Heritage Office. At present, there is scaffolding around the church tower which is being strengthened and reinforced, and Minister Noonan, together with Deputy Robert Troy, Cllr Vinny McCormack and Cllr Tom Farrell inspected the work done to date.

Minister Noonan, who was accompanied by a department archaeologist and a conservation architect as well as by the Westmeath Heritage Officer, Melanie McQuade, heard of the hopes of the church restoration group that when that the current phase is complete, it might be possible to obtain the funding necessary to reinstall windows in the church tower and to install a new door so the structure can be sealed against the elements .

“I’m hoping eventually we get to restore the nave of the church and stabilise the walls of the main body of the church – at least to stop it from disintegrating or falling into further disrepair,” local historian Séamus McDermott stated.

Mr McDermott explained to Minister Noonan that in 2018, concerned at how overgrown the graveyard surrounding the church had become, locals began clearing the vegetation – a process that marked the start of what has now become a much greater project.

From that group of volunteers was born the restoration group, who since 2018 have deciphered pretty much all the headstones they can, and drawn up a map of the graveyard. An information board showing where the graves are and what the inscriptions say has been erected at the entrance to the graveyard.

Mr McDermott revealed that while the church of St Owen was erected in 1827, the site has a much longer religious history: “We believe this is associated with a 12th century church that stood here,” he told the minister as he showed him an ancient carved stone found in the graveyard.

“It’s not actually an Irish stone at all: the archaeologist from the National Museum says it is Welsh or French, so it was actually brought over by the Normans as part of a church or part of a shrine – we don’t know which,” Mr McDermott said, adding that it is believed there have been three churches on the site: the twelfth century church, a sixteenth century church and the present ruined building which was in use until 1959. Shortly after that, the roof was removed.

Another structure of interest on the site is the Magan mausoleum, although this may actually have been a small chapel.

Although the ruin is of a Church of Ireland church, of the 220 gravestones identified in the cemetery, around 200 were actually of Catholics.