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St David’s 1212-2012: eight hundred years at the heart of Naas.

The year 2012 has been a bumper year for centenaries of all kinds.  The spring saw the most hyped centenary of modern times – that of the sinking of the Titanic – threaten to submerge all other candidates for centennial honours. Fortunately once the nautical  commemorative convoy sailed out of sight there was space in the public arena for other historic landmarks to stake their claim. Closer to home the town of Newbridge has this month marked with festivity the bi-centenary of its establishment when a lease signed by the British war department in September 1812 gave the town its modern form and status.  However trumping all of these is a place of worship at the heart of the county town of Naas which this year marks not merely 100, nor even 200, but a whopping 800 years of documented existence.  St David’s Church, hidden to many yet located just a hundred paces from the main street, can be traced in a written record dated to the year 1212.
Thence it is understandable that its congregation and many locals who appreciate the antiquity, sanctity, and tranquility of this old site are excited at the thought of this weekend marking it’s the 800th anniversary of its recorded existence. 
Archaeologists who study stone and structure are confident that a church existed many centuries prior to 1212 on the site. A granite water font is evidence of an early Christian site. Early accounts of the life of St Patrick speak of him spending time to Naas on his mission to bring Christianity to the people of mid-Leinster. Perhaps it was he who established an early stone church on the site. Or another more enigmatic figure may have been involved, St. Corban, a saint whose story is lost in the mists of time.
The Norman barons arrived in Naas in the 1170s following their invasion of Ireland from Wales and enlarged and rededicated the existing church on the site and named it after the patron saint of their home country, St David of Wales.
It is shortly after the Normans – famous for their record keeping - arrived on the scene that the first documented reference to the church occurs when it is listed in 1212 as being in the possession of the Hospitallers of St. John, an order of knights who gave succour to pilgrims on the Crusades. 
Fast forwarding the chronology brings the story to 1606 when St David’s was featured in the Inquisition of James 1 where it had grown to contain three chanceries or side chapels – The Holy Trinity, St Mary’s and St Katherine.
Thomas Drew, an architect writing in 1878, conjectured that the Protestant settlers established in Naas by the Duke of Ormond in 1648 probably altered the church in many respects.  In 1789 – the same year as the French revolution -- the sum of £118.11s3d was expended on the roof. 
So well hidden is St David’s in its sylvan churchyard just yards away from the main street of Naas that the only part of the building visible from a distance is the castle-like tower which at first glance looks to have all the credentials of a fortification from the middle ages. But far from being a mediaeval bastion it might best be described as a landlord’s folly.  Lord Mayo, the extremely wealthy landlord of Palmerstown, wanted to give Naas church a tower which would match the great cathedrals of Dublin . In 1780 he set his men to work with barrow and pulley hauling stones into place. However like many over-ambitious developers, past and present, his project ended prematurely and only got as far as the second storey. Earlier, when things had been going well he had erected a plaque worded in Latin which still exists and translates as “I found this a ruin and I left it a steeple”. Ironically he had found some kind of an existing steeple at St David’s but left an even bigger –albeit picturesque – ruin behind him. A story doing the rounds suggested he had fallen out with the Naas vestry or church committee and had abandoned his tower and headed to Kill where he fulfilled his ambition by commissioning the fine steeple on St. Johns church in the village. 
Today Mayo’s truncated steeple at St David’s accommodates a bell dated to 1674 making it one of the oldest bells in Ireland which is still rung on Sundays. Moulded on the bell is wording in Latin which translates along the lines of “In the church of St. David of Naas I give glory to God.”
Like most old buildings St. David’s harbours many secrets and one of the most surprising was the discovery of a crypt during significant renovations in 1989/90. A sharp-eyed builder noticed some bricks at the base of a wall which when carefully penetrated revealed an L-shaped crypt. Further investigation by an archaeologist revealed a number of coffins within the crypt: three males, a female and a child. Their burial in an impressive crypt suggested that they were from a family of considerable status. In time their remains were sensitively reinterred in Maudlings Cemetery.
On Saturday morning the crypt and the many other treasures of St. David’s will be open as  part of a weekend of church and civic events to mark 800 years of this spiritual gem at the heart of old Naas.  Series no: 298.

St David’s Church, Naas, can be traced in a written record dated to the year 1212, writes Liam Kenny in his Looking Back series no. 298.

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