Heritage Sites of Co. Kerry

Church of Saints Stephen and John (RC), Castleisland

This striking church is situated on Church Street in Castleisland where it overlooks the River Maine.  Designed in a Gothic revival style by the Cork architect Dominic Coakley (d. 1914), it was erected to replace an older thatched church and built in a number of phases, commencing in 1881, by two builders. Firstly the Cork building firm Butler Brothers was engaged but they went bankrupt a year later and the main church was completed by John Sisk, also of Cork.  The tower and spire is a later addition and was erected in 1910 once funding had become available; this may be to the design of R.M. Butler or may be that of Coakley. In many churches in Ireland the spires were not built due to difficulties in raising money and these churches appear stunted without them.  This is not the case with Saints Stephen and John’s where the spire reaches to just over 50 m in height.

Externally the walls are in two Mississippian limestones: a pale grey fossiliferous variety is used for the dressed and carved stonework and best examined at the entrance doorway where its mottled and blotchy texture is evident, and the second is a darker flintier stone which has been left rough in the snecked walls.  While the sources of these limestones remain as yet undocumented it is likely that they were extracted from quarries between the town and Tralee.  The pale stone is possibly a Waulsortian limestone, which developed as mud-mounds on the seabed, and the darker stone was a deeper water deposit.

St Stephen’s is significant for the use internally of Castleisland Red Limestone, which was used for the first time ever in this location.  The local parish priest was made aware of the stone and saw its potential for decorative. Subsequently, a quarry was opened 3 km southwest of the town at Lisheenbaun, which was operated by Edward Shanahan. The orangey-red lime Mississippian conglomeratic limestone takes a good polish and so is often referred to as a marble.  It consists of lumps of pale calcite set into a matrix of streaked orange to red muds. In places small circular or bolt-like fossils can be seen; these are the remains of the stems of sea lilies, animals related to sea urchins, which lived attached to the sea floor. Castleisland Red Limestone is used for the bases of the nave columns, the pilasters that decorate the chancel arch, colonnettes in the chancel, the doorframes in the upper nave, and the base of the baptismal font. Aside from the Lisheenbaun Quarry the red limestone was also raised in lesser volumes from some other local quarries, as recently as the 1970s.

The stone used for the polished nave columns is a surprise in that it is an unusual but highly distinctive granite from Shap in Cumbria.  While widely used in England it is not often encountered in Ireland.  The stone is a typical granite composed of interlocking crystals of glassy quartz, dare small micas, and feldspars.  The latter are pink in colour, very large and well dispersed in the finer-grained matrix.  They crystallised from a rock melt deep within the Earth’s crust and several phases of cooling gave rise to crystals of different sizes in this granite.  Some columns are twinned, consisting of a larger diameter shaft alongside a secondary thinner column. All support decorative plaster capitals.

The carvings in the church were produced by Charles W. Harrison one of the foremost sculptors of his generation who operated a stone and marble works on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street) in Dublin.  The altar was carved in Cork by Samuel Daly and exhibited at the Cork Exhibition 1883 before its installation.

Further reading:

Geology of Co. Kerry

During the Ordovician period (488-444 million years ago [Ma]) Ireland was south of the equator and the area that now makes up Kerry was under an ocean, which separated two continents. This ocean closed and as it did so mud and sand was deposited into it and these eventually became the mudstones seen near Annascaul. Later during the Silurian period (430 Ma) small volcanic islands, which grew above a shallow sea, erupted lavas and ash in the Clogher Head area. The muddy sediments deposited in the Silurian sea trapped many animals, now seen as fossils near Dunquin and in Derrymore Glen, and the sandy sediments formed sandstone near Dingle and Slea Head. Eventually by the the beginning of Devonian (416 Ma) the ocean closed completely and a large continent formed, which was largely desert.

The Kerry area contained large areas of sanddunes ,which formed much of the sandy Old Red Sandstone that makes up much of the Iveragh Peninsula, and in between the dunes occasionally flowed rivers or flash floods. These produced pebbly coarser rocks called conglomerates that may contain white quartz or red jasper. A good example of a conglomerate is found at Inch. By the end of the Devonian the land in Kerry was flooded by warm shall tropical seas in which corals, crinoids, brachiopods, squids, and even sharks lived and these are now found as fossils in the Carboniferous limestones (350 Ma). Later, the ocean became deeper; muds were carried into it by rivers from the east and north and these became the shales now found in east Kerry and the Stacks Mountains (310 Ma). Much later, during the Cretaceous (146-65 Ma) the whole area was covered by water and chalk and a pure limestone was deposited. A small patch of chalk can be found near Killarney.

During parts of the last million years Ireland has been covered in ice when glaciers formed on mountainsides and in valleys and spread over the lowlands. In Kerry many corries were formed when ice collected on the mountainsides and these now often contain lakes, such as Mangerton Lake near Killarney and Pedler’s Lake near the Connor Pass. When the ice melted it left behind boulder clay containing many different rock types. Good examples can be seen at Fenit near Tralee.

Suggested reading:

  • Patrick Wyse Jackson: The Geology of Kerry (1994) Kerry County Museum, Trinity College, Dublin & ENFO.
  • Matthew Parkes: Valentia Trackway (2002) Geological Survey of Ireland.
Geological map of Co. Kerry

Map legend: Geological Map of Limerick (based on GSI 1:1,000,000 map 2003). Pink: Ordovician & Silurian; Pale green: Silurian; Turquoise: volcanic rocks of various age; Beige: Silurian & Devonian sandstones and conglomerates; Light blue: Lower Carboniferous limestone; Dark green: Upper Carboniferous shales.