The Parish – A Brief History

The Parish of Oranmore dates back to the foundation of the parish system when the early monastic norm, as epitomised by the massive monastic site at Roscam, changed after ecclesiastical reform following Church synods in the twelfth century and new diocesan boundaries came into existence. One of the earliest references to the parish came on 1485 when Oranmore and Maree were added to the wardership established in the previous year in Galway. From then until the abolition of the wardenship with the foundation of the Galway Diocese in 1831, Oranmore looked to this unique ecclesiastical system for the appointment of clergy and other administrative and cannocial functions.

At that time the Parish of Oranmore was even more extensive than today, extending from Rinville in the south across eastwards to Frenchfort and Oranbeg before expanding stretching north to Carrowbrowne and Lough Corrib. It reached Menlo and continued via Ballydooley, Twomileditch, Doughiska and Merlin Park to Murrough and Roscam on Galway Bay. Later boundary changes, such as the creation of Castlegar Parish, saw a diminution of its territory.

Significant changes occurred in the parish in the sixteenth and seventeenth century with the religious reformation and the imposition of the Penal Laws. For example, in the official registration of ‘Popish Parish Priests’ in 1704, Fr. Murtagh Fahy who was ordained in 1666 was listed as the Parish Priest of Ballinacourty and Oranmore while two priests are recorded as having received Holy Orders in ‘the Catholic Chapel of Oranmore’ in 1677. There is evidence that, despite state-sponsored repression of Catholicism, the faith remained strong in the parish with church buildings constructed at Balinacloughy and Kilcamin. There is also a record of Mass being celebrated in a private house at Frenchfort and in a small thatched chapel at Gurraun.

Meanwhile the village or Oranmore had, at this time, a small church, which, by the end of the eighteenth century had fallen into disrepair. In 1803 a large, impressive church was completed in the middle of the village, twenty-six years before Catholic Emancipation in 1829. This impressive structure, with a bell-cote above the front door, a finely carved baptism font and a magnificent ceiling, served the people of Oranmore well for nearly two hundred years as a place of worship and continues to play a central role in the life of the community as a library.

This church was in service when Fr. T. E. Gill was appointed as Parish Priest by Most Rev. Dr. George Brown, the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Galway. Fr. Gill served from 1833 until 1856.

The ‘Night of the Big Wind’ hit Oranmore hard. On January 6th 1839 the roof of the church was lost and many houses in the parish destroyed. A long restoration project began with much fund raising in Britain and the United States of America. Fr. Gill travelled extensively preaching and seeking support from Irish communities in these countries. Unfortunately, in his absence, his substitute – Fr. James Hughes OFM – contracted fever as a consequence of his hard work throughout the parish during the Great Famine. He died in 1847.

Fr. Gill died in 1856 and Fr. Bartholomew Roche was appointed Parish Priest, coming from St. Patrick’s Parish in Galway city. Like his predecessor, he also travelled in Britain collecting funds. These monies were used to complete St. Patrick’s first parish church. Fr. Roche is also remembered for his tremendous across the parish in the aftermath of The Famine when the parish was riven by emigration and poverty.

Due to the cost of on going repairs of the old church and the demands of a rapidly growing population, the need for a new church in Oranmore became increasingly obvious. Work commenced on the new Church of the Immaculate Conception in 1972, on a substantial site donated to the parish by the Presentation Sisters. The Parish Priest at the time of this development was Canon William Moran, Patrick Sheehan was the architect of the new church and Kilraines were the builders. The fine, bright, modern church, which seats over 700 people, was consecrated by Bishop Michael Browne on 31st March, 1974. A most important feature is that it retains in use the original 1803 Baptismal Font from the old church. In this font have been baptised the children of Oranmore for over two hundred years.

The ‘nuns’ first came to Oranmore in 1861 on the request of Bishop MacEvilly, using a £2,000 school foundation grant from City Councillor John Blake. From the outset, with the initial arrival of four nuns under superior Mother M. Catherine Martyn, the Presentation Sisters provided education for the poor. They were to the fore throughout the hard famine years of the 1880’s, supplying food and clothing to the hungry and destitute under the guidance of Mother Joseph Oliver. Expansion of their primary school facilities in 1889 led eventually to the establishment, in 1946, of a girls’ boarding secondary school, named after St. Joseph Calasanctius. Boys were admitted to Calasanctius College in 1973, the boarding school closed in 1987, the Presentation Sisters withdrew from teaching in 1994 and a new modern mixed secondary school with over 800 pupils was completed, on the shores of Galway Bay, in 2006. The parish now has four primary schools and Calasanctius College, giving a school-going population of almost 2,500 young people.

The people of the Maree peninsula have also always kept the faith through the centuries. A church was first constructed on the site of the present one in 1858, following Fr. Gills very successful fund-raising travels at home and abroad. This building replaced the humble thatched chapel at Gurrane which had served the faithful for over a century and which had also lost its roof during the Night of the Big Wind in 1839. Like in Oranmore, the church in Maree became difficult to repair and was too small for an expanding population. A decision was made to demolish the old church and build a new one on the same site. Designed by architect Cyril Bowman, costing £250, 000, built by James Farragher and Co from Tuam, with sanctuary furniture designed by artist Ray Carroll, this beautiful building retains the Stations of the Cross and the Baptismal Font from the older church.