St Nicholas Church, Carrickfergus
Construction of St Nicholas Church
St Nicholas Church, in the centre of the town of Carrickfergus, was built in 1182AD. It was commissioned by the Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy, whose castle is just 200m away.
It is believed that an earlier religious building was originally on this site attached to St Mary’s Abbey. St Nicholas at over 800 years old, not surprisingly, has had a tumultuous and interesting history.
The original design was cruciform in shape and constructed on Cistercian lines. It had Norman arches opening up on to side aisles. In 1306 the Church was enlarged by Robert le Mercer. This resulted, unusually, in the chancel being twice as long as the nave.
“John Cantock, rector, let off this church for 3 years to Robert le Mercer, at an annual rate of 45 marks. In this indenture, which is dated at Dublin, Mercer is bound to complete the repairs to the chancel, as he had begun it; and to pay papal tythes, and all other charges”Record Roll Office Dublin 1303
After the Reformation the Church changed from Catholic to Church of Ireland. At this time it was not only the spiritual centre of the town but also served as the Mayor’s courtroom and the porch as a business place to conduct deals and financial matters.
The Church was repaired by Sir Henry Sidney in 1568 at a cost of £94.9.6. However, attacks on the town in the 1570’s left St Nicholas roofless, and semi-derelict.
In 1614, after a request by the mayor of Carrickfergus, Sir Arthur Chichester employed the master mason Thomas Paps to rebuild the Church. The roof was restored and the original Anglo-Norman pillars enclosed in new walls (these were not rediscovered till 1907). A tablet on the south wall of the nave is inscribed:
‘This Worke Began A.D. 1614, Mr Cooper then Maior, and wrought by Thomas Paps Free Mason, Mr Openshawe being Parson, Vivat Rex Jacobus’
A new Clock, Bell and Steeple
St Nicholas Church continued to alter and adapt as ecclesiastical trends changed or repairs were required. In 1678 a new clock was added to the tower. In 1683 the mayor, Andrew Willoughby, donated a bell to the Church. This rang daily at 6am to get the town’s inhabitants out of bed and again at 9pm when curfew began and the town’s gates were bolted. It also chimed for the Saturday market and for funerals.
In 1754 the chancel roof was repaired by James Bashford of Belfast and in 1778 the old steeple was replaced with an octagon spire.
During the night of the Big Wind 1839, the weather-cock on top of the steeple was blown down; it was replaced with a ball and cross.
In the 1870’s the noted architect Sir Thomas Drew was employed to carry out necessary restoration work. He noted evidence “opposite the two east ward arches on each side would appear to have been lateral chapels, two on the south and two on the north” – giving rise to the assumption that the original St Nicholas Church was larger than today’s building.
More recently in 1932, the bell tower was renovated through the generosity of congregation members William and Lily Young. It is in memory of those men from Carrickfergus who never returned from WW1. There is also a memorial within the Church dedicated to local men who died in both World Wars.
The Church Interior
The interior of the Church is known for its crooked aisle the ‘skew’. This was a deliberate act on the part of the builders to reflect the figure of Jesus on the Cross with his head slumped to the right.
The Chichester Vault
The most notable artefact in St Nicholas Church is the Chichester vault.
It has been described as ‘the finest Jacobean Memorial Monument in Ireland’. It shows Sir Arthur Chichester, his wife Lettice Perrott and their baby son in a casket. Beneath is a smaller statue of Sir John Chichester, brother of Arthur, who had been killed at the Battle of Alfracken in 1597. He was decapitated by one of the MacDonnell clan.
The sculpture was made by Italian craftsmen in 1625 and is composed of alabaster and marble. At the entrance to the monument are two ornate wooden screens also from the seventeenth century.
Sir Arthur’s wife, Lettice, was the daughter of John Perrott and Jane Prust. She was born c1563 in Haroldstone, Pembrokeshire, Wales. She married Arthur Chichester (her third husband) on 8th April 1605.
Arthur was the first Baron Chichester and served as Lord Deputy of Ireland 1605 – 1616. The couple had one child, also Arthur, who died at one month old. Lettice died on 27th November 1620. Arthur Chichester died 5 years later in London from pleurisy. His remains were brought to Carrickfergus and entombed in the family vault underneath the memorial.
St Nicholas Church Windows
St Nicholas Church is renowned for its beautiful stained-glass windows, in particular the Main East Window. This window representing St John the Baptist, is the work of Irish artist Thomas Jervais. It was completed in the eighteenth century and previously adorned the private chapel of Dangan in County Westmeath. It was presented to the Church by George Burleigh of Burleigh-Hill Esq.
There are also several stained-glass windows installed as family memorials. For example, a window depicting St Peter, St James and St John commemorates the Rev George Bull, Dean of Connor. While a window portraying the Ascension is in honour of Charles Arthur Wellesly Stewart Esq. Another decorative window displaying the virtues of faith, hope and charity was erected in memory of deceased members of the Dobbs family.
The baptistry features a window of St Nicholas, dressed in red. This was installed in 1952. St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, children and the poor.
The Leper Window
Another window of interest is in the chancel and is known as the ‘leper window’.
This is a long, low opening. Those afflicted with the highly contagious disease of leprosy (incurable in those days) were permitted to sit outside the window to listen to Church services and receive Communion.
The patients came from St Bride’s leper hospital, situated at the northern Spittal Gate just outside the town. Spittal, from the Irish word ‘spideal’ is the medieval word for hospital.
The Church Fonts and the Priest’s Door
The old stone baptism font is a fascinating historical relic. It is believed to have come from the twelfth century St Mary’s Abbey at Woodburn. Another font in the church is made of high-quality Egyptian porphyry. It was cracked during the French invasion of 1760 but is still used today.
Other medieval remnants include the Priest’s door. This is a blocked-up doorway in the south chancel. In olden times it was the entrance the monks passed through for daily prayer.
Other Notable Artefacts
There are also 2 grave slabs. These were originally sandstone coffin lids.
The Communion table and chairs are carved from ancient Irish bog oak.
Near the Holy Table is a piscina, a stone basin with a drain for holding water. This apparently, was once used to ward off witches.
In the vestry are an old gable cross dated 1164 and a cannon ball fired by the Duke of Schomberg’s army during the siege of 1689.
There is also an intricately carved chair decorated with a harp and compass dating to 1685 which was discovered buried under the chancel table in 1740.
Commemorating the Elite of Carrickfergus
Above the doorway in the gallery is the coat of arms of James 1. Within the body of the Church are several grave tablets commemorating local wealthy families and over the north door are arms of Carrickfergus.
There are several other reminders of Carrickfergus’s elite for example the Wills aisle refers to the Wyles family who owned property in the town in the 1560’s. Also the Thomas Couper memorial – Couper held the office of mayor twice and was an alderman of the town. He died in 1625.
The ‘Freeman aisle’ indicates were the freemen of Carrickfergus sat on Sundays. They were required to attend church to give good example to the local populace.
The early baptistry which was originally designed as a porch also had a dual function as a Coroner’s Court. It is interesting to note several scars or grooves on the cornerstones of the room. It is told soldiers frequently used to sharpen their sword blades on the stone.
One of the rectors of St Nicholas Church was John Frederick MacNeice, father of the poet Louis. Bishop MacNeice was rector of Carrickfergus from 1908-31.
Surrounding the Church is a walled cemetery with many ancient graves and family memorials.
Archaeological digs which took place in 2010-11 by Queens University found human bones and 12 complete skeletons in the Market Place area of the town.
“The excavations showed that the Medieval graveyard associated with St Nicholas Church once extended beyond the Church’s present boundaries perhaps as far south as Market Place and even as far east as North Street”Dr Emily Murray and Dr Ruairi O’Baoill
No-one knows when the cemetery took on its current shape, but the wall we see today is depicted on a map from 1596.
This is can only provide a brief outline of the story of St Nicholas Church. There are many more artefacts to see and histories to be told in this stunning church. St Nicholas Church continues to serve the people of Carrickfergus. Its bells ring out today as they have done for many centuries.
Contact: St Nicholas Church, 3 Market Place, Carrickfergus, County Antrim BT38 7AW
Tel: 028 93360061
Facebook: St Nicholas’s Church Carrickfergus
Click to enlarge photos
Samuel McSkimmin, History of Carrickfergus, 1814
Ruairí Ó Baoill, Carrickfergus: The Story of the Castle & Walled Town, 2008
Carrickfergus Castle is named for Fergus Mór, King of Dalriada (Dál Riata). His kingdom covered areas of north-east Ulster & western Scotland
In 1839, Ireland was hit by a hurricane that caused devastation throughout the country. Nothing before or since comes close to the “Big Wind”
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