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String of Novel Ideas Helped to Convert Church into Library

Irish Examiner, Tuesday, 23rd January 2001

Valerie Sweeney looks at the hope and inspiration behind this ambitious community project in Sixmilebridge village.

The imposing tower of the newly converted Sixmilebridge church of Ireland, is visible from every angle of the village of Sixmilebridge. From the outside, it looks just like a church, but the interior has been converted with impeccable taste, into a state-of-the-art library that any city would be proud of.

Picture of interior of Kilfinaghty library
Librarian Irene McNamara takes care of another reader at the newly converted Kilfinaghty Library in Sixmilebridge.
The conversion is the result of several years of committed community effort. When the cost of the conversion, which was to include the original restoration of the church's important features, was totted up, it reached a staggering £500,000. A huge undertaking for such a small community. A fund-raising committee was set up and local people were asked for their ideas. The cost of acquiring the church was £5,000 and this was raised in a matter of months, through sales of work, and other imaginative events. A further £5,000 was raised over the following few months, to enable the clean up of the premises to begin. The internal clean up of the building and the storing of valuable woods for re-use was done voluntarily at weekends by members of the local community.

The church, which is named Kilfinaghty Church, was built in 1733 and was in use until the mid sixties, but by 1995 it had fallen into a state of dereliction. The committee realised that the task was so daunting, they decided to look for partners for the project. Clare County Council agreed to support them and to join as a partner. "Every time we seemed to hit a brick wall, something positive happened", explained David Deighan, the chairperson of the Church Conversion and Restoration committee. "The County Librarian, Noel Crowley, was of enormous help, as he was totally committed to seeing the library in such a prestigious location. FÁS also agreed to come on board, with a manager and apprentices.

Librarian stocking bookshelves in Kilfinaghty library
Librarian Irene McNamara stocks
books on the shelves
of a unique book- keeping experience.

In 1996, the committee came up with a novel idea to generate funds. "We approached the Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, and asked him if he would be prepared to sign two hundred copies of his valuable collection, Station Island. He agreed without hesitation, and we then sold the specially inscribed and numbered books for £50 each. Each subscriber was asked to sign a specially designed bookshelf poster, which will be displayed in the library for its official opening, which will be held on 2nd February. "The response was amazing", said David. "The novel idea gained widespread publicity, which resulted in a huge swell of pride among the local community". The book sale achieved £10,000 and the galley of the library is now known as the Seamus Heaney Gallery.

The following year another problem presented itself. "The roof needed total replacement. We appointed a specialist slate roofing contractor and the cost of this was met in full by Clare County Council". The same year the project won the AIB Better Ireland Award, which brought further honour and external recognition to the community for their significant conservation initiative.

When the internal clean up and roof repair was finished, the FÁS Community Youth Programme was initiated, to supply labour for the conservation work. A supervisor, Tim Casey, who had excellent experience in the type of work required, was appointed. Five trainees from Sixmilebridge were recruited for the work, which really pleased the committee. A new floor was laid and the crypts were preserved. This important preservation was overseen by an archaeologist from the National Museum of Ireland. 

members of the public in Kilfinaghty library, Sixmilebridge
Book worms get
a look in.
The committee then had another stroke of luck. The Georgian windows needed refurbishment and replacement and a local specialist craftsman offered to do them free, saving the committee an estimated £12,000. "He did an absolutely brilliant job", enthused David. "He was so meticulous to the conservation in every little detail, that the windows have already been lauded by conservation specialists".

The Boart Longyear Company in Shannon Industrial Estate offered to donate the magnificent stained glass window, which is a stunning feature and illuminates the interior of the library with a special glow. "It was a magnificent gesture, which we really appreciate. "The window was designed by the Dublin artist, Danny Grace, and it tells the story of the former church, the conservation work and of the library. These are depicted by the sun for the spirit of hope, an image of the church, images of workmen restoring the church, the salmon of wisdom and the book of learning". Two Boart company logos are discreetly attached to the window. The Dublin stained glass artist, Danny Grace, made the Church Conversion Committee a gift of the beautiful window design. The window is now known as the Boart Longyear Stained Glass Window. The original gothic stained glass window of the church is now proudly displayed in Tuamgraney Heritage Centre, which is very appropriate, as it's the oldest Church of Ireland church, still holding services in Ireland. It's also used as a heritage centre.

Everything appeared to be going according to plan until June 1999. "After an inspection and assessment, the Upper Tower was determined as dangerous", explained David. "It would require specialist work in order to make the tower safe. We costed the project at £20,000, which seemed to be much more than we could afford. However, our ingenious committee came up with the novel idea of setting up The Friends of Kilfinaghty Public Library Project. They gathered over 50 special friends from the community and around Ireland, who contributed financially and also generated fund-raising and resources, which helped and enhanced the project. We decided to borrow the money for the roof restoration and then realised that a Government Library Tax Benefit Scheme had just been launched. We were the first to apply for this tax relief on the project and we were thrilled to receive £16,000. The remaining..."

Another picture of the interior of Kilfinaghty library
The inspiring vista out over the library floor in the converted church of  Ireland house of prayer.

A huge sigh of relief went up when the restoration and conservation were completed late last year. Clare County Council decided that their involvement would be a Council Millennium Project. The Minister of the Environment allocated resources for the fitting out of the library and, amid great rejoicing, the library opened its doors to the public six weeks ago.

The original entrance door to the church has been used in the restoration, as have the original floor timbers, which were taken away and treated. The original beams were also treated and are used in an extremely imaginative way, highlighting the Seamus Heaney Gallery, which is the study and computer area, housing eight computers with internet access, which are all free to the public. The books are laid out in shelves which were specially designed to tone in with the church interior. Every single book in the library is new. There is also an imaginative children's section and a lovely little area where they can sit and peruse their chosen books. Several crypts are still inside the church, but they amazingly blend into the whole scheme.

The community of Sixmilebridge are understandably thrilled and proud of their amazing achievement in so short a space of time. And so they should be. The County Librarian, Noel Crowley, is extremely proud of the Sixmilebridge library. "This is a wonderful achievement both by the community of Sixmilebridge and Clare County Council", he said. "The restoration work is superb and nothing has been taken from the character of the building".

At night the tower of the church is now illuminated. It shines like a beacon of hope and achievement, telling other communities that if such a mammoth task could be achieved by such a small community like Sixmilebridge, what could larger communities do, to conserve important buildings in their own areas.