Church of St John the Evangelist Coolbanagher



In December 1781, James Gandon the architect was invited to spend Christmas with Lord Carlow and his family at Dawson Court near Portarlington. Lord Carlow had decided that it was time to make improvements on his estate, and he wished to make a start by constructing a new parish church for Coolbanagher near his house.


Lady Carlow wrote in her diary on New Year’s Eve 1781: “ some of our party are broken up already, Mr Dawson  and Mr Gandon being gone. I cannot say I regret them very much.” Perhaps Lord Carlow, Mr Dawson and Mr Gandon had spent Christmas discussing the plans for the church.


According to local tradition, the previous church at Coolbanagher had been burned down on 2 February 1779. Fire was set to the thatched roof, following the locking of the door from outside during the Sunday service. A law suit ensued, the records of which have been lost – perhaps fortunately, as the rector of the time was Anthony Fleury, known as “the crossest man in Europe”.



Lord Carlow was concerned that the new church should reflect the classical good taste of the time, and he was convinced that James Gandon was the architect to do this. Work began in the spring of 1782, and continued until the end of 1783, when Lord Carlow wrote to his wife in London: “The church has been neglected but now gets on apace, and I believe I shall have the whole body of it fit for roofing before the winter sets in. I shall not, however, put on the roof till spring.”


Gandon himself did not visit the site very often, as he was fully occupied with the building of the Four Courts in Dublin and other public buildings. Lord Carlow, a man deeply interested in architecture and the arts, may have had some influence on the final design, and it is generally agreed that the spire may not be as originally designed by Gandon, for it “rises uncomfortably from the plain classical tower”. (McParland)



In March 1785 Lady Carlow wrote to her sister in London:

We are going to have great doings here next week. The new church is to be consecrated on Tuesday; the Bishop and all the clergy in the neighbourhood are to attend, besides all the country, I suppose, and Lord Carlow will ask them all to dinner both on that day and the next, as there are races within three miles of us. I own I am sorry to begin all this sort of work so soon, but there is no help for it.


 Portarlington Mausoleum

A mausoleum was designed by Gandon and later built beside the church. It is inscribed 1788 and Lord Carlow  who died in 1798 (by then the Earl of Portarlington) was buried there.



In 1868 some changes to the barrel-vaulted ceiling were made. In 1963 the parishioners spent £650 on repairs to the steeple and roof, and in 1972 a careful programme of restoration was initiated following an estimate of £7000 for the total restoration of the church. Now, apart from the roof, the church is very close to Gandon’s original design. “Nobly simple” and “calmly grand” are words that have been used to describe Coolbanagher Church.



Urns donated by Mr Cholmeley-Harrison

In 1981, urns, similar to those in the original plan, were placed in the niches by Mr Cholmeley-Harrison who found the empty niches “rather depressing”. He found a firm in Wimbledon in London  - the Francetti brothers - to make ten urns, one of which would be the repository for his

own ashes. Two of these urns were placed in Emo Court.


In the entrance porch to Coolbanagher, there is a copy of an eighteenth century view of the church attributed to James Malton. James Gandon is seen discussing the church with Lord Carlow and Mr Dawson, the rector.



At the back of the church, there is an ancient font which was rescued in 1927 from Emo Park by the Rev Dudley Fletcher, the rector of Coolbanagher. This may date from the 12th century and almost certainly is from the church of Ardea nearby.




Further Reading:

Edward McParland: James Gandon, Vitruvius Hibernicus  (London 1985) pp99 - 102

Hugo Duffy: James Gandon and his Times  (Gandon Editions, 1999) pp146 - 152