St Marys Church of Ireland and the Town Hall
As we head further into town, you will encounter the handsome Church dedicated to Saint Mary. This protestant Church of Ireland is believed to stand on the site of an earlier church. Local folklore suggests that the original church might go back as far as the ninth century. It is believed that this early medieval church may have been founded on a place sacred to the pre-Christian people who originally lived here. Trees appeared to have played an important role in pre-Christian Irish society, and the name Killarney may come from this early Church which was known as; Cill Airne, which means ‘the Church of the Sloes’, or the ‘Church of the Blackthorn’. A later church was thought to have been founded here in the twelfth century.
This fine church that we can see today was built in 1812. It was badly damaged by a fire in 1888, though it was restored again, and a beautiful organ built by Conacher & Co of Huddersfield, was installed. The funds to purchase the organ came from a grand bazaar held at Muckross House.
As you enter the church, you will see a list of former Vicars of Killarney, including Arthur Hyde, who was great-grandfather of Dr Douglas Hyde, who became the first President of Ireland. The church’s interior decor is late-Victorian and has beautiful floor-tiles and stained-glass windows. Of particular note is the reproduction of Holman Hunt’s famous picture ‘Light of the World’.
There are also several memorials to members of the Herbert family, who came to reside in Killarney in 1770. One of them, the Right Honourable A. Herbert, MP, built Muckross House, where he entertained Queen Victoria and her family during their 1861 visit to Killarney. Herbert was Lieutenant for Kerry and he also held the post of Chief Secretary of Ireland.
As you leave St. Mary’s Church of Ireland, you will be facing the very fine Town Hall, the former seat of Killarney Town Council and current offices of Killarney Municipal District Council. Built in the 1930s, the architecture of the building reflects the Art Deco style that was at its height of fashion in Europe at the time, with its curving side walls, pilastered entrance and decorative motifs over the porch.
Behind the Town Hall you will discover St Mary’s Holy Well. Traditionally, holy wells have been a place of pilgrimage and prayer on certain days referred to as ‘Pattern Days’. Every year, on August 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven, local people came to walk around the well while reciting prayers. The waters of many wells are reputed to cure different illnesses and it was usual to drink the water and take some home to bless the cattle and the land. The veneration of naturally occurring springs and wells is thought to have originated as a pagan tradition which was later Christianised.
Leave the well, town hall and church and head south along East Avenue Road towards the Cinema. You will walk alongside the stone wall known locally as the Ha-Ha, as it stands on the site of a Ha-Ha ditch. These steep sided ditches were once a common feature of grand estates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ditches prevented deer or cattle from entering the gardens of the stately homes without the need for high walls that may have obstructed the view over the landscape. Further along on your right, you can see the fine marble statue of Christ the King. Funding for this statue was raised by the people of Killarney in 1936. The Gaelic inscription reads, “my kingdom is not of this world”.
An archway through the International Hotel exterior leads to Brewery Lane, which was home to at least one brewery during the nineteenth century. For many years, hops used to grow along the walls of this lane until it was developed into a shopping area.
The brewery buildings provided studio accommodation in 1936 for the making of Ireland’s first indigenous feature film with sound, entitled, The Dawn, which was the brainchild of a local cinema owner; Thomas G Cooper. While the film industry was still in its infancy in Ireland, a group of 250 locals, including actors, technicians, cameramen and a local writer, produced this remarkable film, based loosely around the Irish War of Independence.
The area was also home to Killarney-born tenor, John O’ Sullivan. Upon the death of O’Sullivan’s father, his mother took the young family to live in Paris to be near her sister. It was there that O’Sullivan’s voice first attracted attention and he became the lead boy soprano in the choir at the Madeline Church. O’Sullivan went on to become one of the leading tenors of the early 20th century. His career was greatly helped by James Joyce who lived in Paris at the time and was also a gold medal-winning tenor.
This area was also the base of the Killarney Electric Light Company, which supplied power to the town from a mill on the nearby Flesk River. This provided electric street lamps for Killarney before they were even in use in the city of London.