Ireland’s Smallest Chapel

By Cheryl Devaney

Built in 1632 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal houses the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Similarly, on April 22nd, 1879, Edward Costello dedicated the much less lavish Costello Memorial Chapel to his beloved wife Mary Josephine.

Tucked in between two bars, Flynn’s to the left and Armstrong to the right, at the top of Bridge Street in the bustling town of Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim, it would be very easy to miss this diminutive monument. Five metres long and 3.6 metres wide, it is reported to be the world’s second smallest chapel. The Living Water Wayside Chapel built in 1964 in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, is the smallest.

Edward Costello was born in 1823 at Dromore, a short distance from Carrick-on-Shannon, where he was a substantial farmer. Later he moved to the town, set himself up in business and became very successful. He was known as a kind and generous man who, in 1873, was partly responsible for bringing the Marist Order of nuns to Carrick.

He married Mary Josephine and was devoted to her. She came from County Longford and they had no children. In 1877, at the age of forty-six, Mary Josephine died. The Marist nuns embalmed her body and took care of it while Edward purchased the site of a former Wesleyan chapel built in 1820 from the Methodist Trust. Earlier still, this was the site of the old courthouse where in 1798, on Lord Cornwallis’ orders ten men were convicted and sentenced to death.

Charles Cornwallis was the newly appointed Viceroy of Ireland and he wanted to mete out rough justice to those Irish rebels who, with the support of French troops under the command of General Humbert, had taken part in the battle at Ballinamuck. The French captives were put aboard boats on the Grand Canal at Tullamore. Their band was even allowed to play the Marseillaise to the crowds on the bank. They were then conveyed to Dublin, from where they were repatriated. In contrast, the Irishmen were pursued through the bogs and butchered. In Carrick, ten of the rebels were hanged from a tree on Gallows Hill, now known as Summerhill. The remaining Irish prisoners of war were massacred in Ballinalee, County Longford, in a field now called Bully’s Acre.

Edward’s chapel was to be a monument to Mary and a last resting place for both himself and his wife. No expense was spared. The chapel consists of a single room, the two entrance doors being made of wrought iron. There is no woodwork in the chapel, the arched roof and walls being lined with Bath stone.

A beautiful stained glass window can be seen above a richly decorated marble altar. Mayer of Munich made the window. This firm was very popular during the late nineteenth century and was the principal provider of stained glass to Catholic churches. It depicts two standing figures, the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus on the left and Christ the King on the right.

Outside, the entrance way has two stone pillars, each surmounted by a small Celtic cross. There is an inscription on the left pillar, ‘1877 Costello Memorial Chapel’. The Chapel’s front gable wall has a raised Costello coat-of-arms with the motto ‘ Ne te quaesiveris extra’ – ‘Seek not thyself outside thyself’. This is situated to the left of the entrance doors.

When the chapel was dedicated in 1879, a Solemn Requiem Mass was offered and Mary Josephine’s remains, which were in a leaden coffin, were placed in a sunken recess to the left of the entrance and covered with a thick glass lid.

From that time until Edward’s death on March 7th, 1891 at the age of sixty-eight, Mass was celebrated on the first Friday of each month. Edward’s remains were interred in a recess to the right of the entrance. He had the same type of coffin as Mary’s and this was also covered with a thick glass lid.

The Costello Chalice, which was commissioned for the dedication ceremony of 1879, was handed over to St. Mary’s Church, Carrick-on-Shannon, after Edward’s death.

Restored in 2010 by the Carrick-on-Shannon Heritage Group, a visit to this little chapel is certainly a moving experience.