Kerry priest leads renovation of Pugin masterpiece in Derby

Kerry priest leads renovation Pugin masterpiece Derby

When Fr Tim O’Sullivan came to Derby in 1961 there was a PP and three curates. Today it’s just him

Story and pictures Gerry Molumby

Fr Tim O’Sullivan still remembers getting advice from J B Keane in 1961 just before he left his beloved Kerry Father Tim O’Sullivan, the Parish Priest of St. Mary’s in Derby is widely known throughout the diocese of Nottingham, which is the same size of the country of Belgium.

Parts cover many large towns, cities, coastline and copious rural areas spreading out over the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, and Lincolnshire. From the 1830s onwards many catholic churches were being built throughout the UK including St. Mary’s, which was built just a few years after the repeal of anti-Catholic legislation.

The foundation stone of St Mary’s church was laid on 4 July 1838, Queen Victoria’s Coronation Day. The building was completed by 9 October 1839 for a total cost of £1,400. The great era of building Catholic Churches in England, with the signature ornate Augustus Pugin style of spires rising to the Heavens, can best be described in the motto of Fr. Tim’s alma mater, St. Kieran’s College in Kilkenny, which is Hiems Transit or ‘Winter has passed’ from The Song of Songs (2:11) and refers to the ‘winter’ of the Penal Laws era.

What followed were years of a movement towards Catholic Emancipation both in Ireland, led by Daniel O’Connell, and in Britain led by Cardinal Newman and others, which helped to achieve the restoration of the hierarchy in Britain in 1850. Staying with the seasonal theme Newman called England’s direction to Catholic emancipation as “The Second Spring”.

Kerry priest leads renovation Pugin masterpiece Derby

From 1845 onwards, another factor of vastly more widespread importance affected the revival of the Catholic Church in England – the mass immigration of Catholic labourers from Ireland. This migration has continued in varying waves and emphasies up to this present day.


Throughout this time many seminaries were established in Ireland to ordain priests for dioceses in the counties and cities where the Irish had emigrated to in Britain and America.

These were in Thurles, Carlow, Tim’s own St. Kieran’s, while St Patrick’s in Maynooth ordained priests for the home church and is now the only seminary open for any of these purposes. At the time he designed St Mary’s, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was just 23 The builder was George Myers and St Mary’s church marked their first collaboration, beginning a lifelong partnership that would define the ecclesiastical landscape of Victorian Britain.

Pugin was particularly inspired by the English perpendicular Gothic style of the 14th to 16th centuries, which is reflected in the design of St Mary’s. He also provided designs for the decorations and furnishings of the Palace of Westminster and the design of the tower of Big Ben. Look inside the House of Commons and St. Mary’s in Derby and one can see how Pugin envisaged particularly ornate interiors in the Gothic style. Some may regard them as overly ornate but the attention to detail has stood the test of time.

Kerry priest leads renovation Pugin masterpiece Derby


In Ireland Pugin designed St. Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, the cathedral church of the Diocese of Ferns. There has only been one major structural alteration since St. Mary’s was completed in 1839, when the Lady Chapel was added in 1853. The next generation of the Pugin dynasty was to the fore as the altar in the chapel was designed by Paul Pugin, son of Augustus Pugin, who earlier had designed the main church. The restoration in Derby is nearing completion and Fr.

Tim was keen to thank and acknowledge the dedication of the architect Peter Langtry-Langton whom the parish chose “for his extensive knowledge and passion of the Pugin family style and restoration of Victorian buildings”.

Fr. Tim alluded to the various hoops the committee had to go through to bring about the restoration as the chapel is a listed building. Many of Fr. Tim’s current parishioners are from abroad, mainly countries like the Philippines, and have a religious and cultural devotion to the Mother of God and flock to the chapel throughout the week.Kerry priest leads renovation Pugin masterpiece Derby

The Chapel has long been regarded by the wider Christian community in the city and county, as Derby’s own Marian Shrine and was officially designated as such in 1979. It is a spacious chapel, like a small church in its own right. During and after the second world war, 120,000 Poles were given leave to remain in the UK as a ‘thank you’ for their help during the conflict.

Fr. Tim told me “that it was the Polish chapel since World War 2 and we had an icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, until they built their own larger church in Gordon Road in the 70s.”

Any building that has seen 176 years of service is clearly going to require considerable upkeep and maintenance, and St Mary’s Church is no exception. After the first 50 years of use, the Lady Chapel was redecorated in 1901 and then in 1931 another extensive project included replacing the plain glass windows with stained glass.

Derbyshire Martyrs

The “red” windows show the six Derbyshire Martyrs, three of whom – Nicholas Garlick, Robert Ludlam and Richard Simpson – were described by Fr. Tim as “Christians who suffered and died for their faith here in Derby in 1588”.

The most recent redecoration of the Lady Chapel took place in 1978/9. The quality and detail of the restoration to date can be seen when you look at the beautiful motifs in the ceiling panels, which were uncovered and restored with some very careful paint removal by Nigel Leaney; a member of the Diocesan Historic Buildings Commission. Some of the panels were so layered with varnish that they were beyond restoration. These can be seen over the sanctuary altar and show clearly the old and new contrasts.

Also, as we are late into the second decade of the 21st century, the lighting and sound system needs to be brought up to date. Having visited and photographed in the chapel we retired to the Rectory for the ‘cup of tea’. Fr. Tim and I caught up on our mutual friend the actor Niall Toibin, whom Fr. Tim had visited in Dublin, recently and said “he is getting on fine”.

He told me that Niall often stayed with him when for three years in the 1980s when Toibin was playing John Lively in the comedy series Stay Lucky for Yorkshire TV. Niall and Fr. Tim met through their mutual friendship with Kerry playwright J.B Keane (1928-2002) and when talking to a Kerryman it never takes long for the name John B’s name to come up.

Fr. Tim had known him most of his life as he came to Nottingham Diocese with another priest from Listowel parish, Father Kieran O’Shea, and before they boarded the 1.45 diesel train from Killarney on 20 August 1961 they had earlier been given some parting advice by John B: “We arrived in with our big brown cases stacked with theology books resplendent in our black suits and Brylcreemed hair to be told by John B to “go easy with those lads over there and don’t be bothering them too much about such things as not eating meat on a Friday. They are away from home and lonely and being in England will be a new experience for them”.

Fr. Tim, originally from near Killarney, told that his first appointment as a priest in Britain was to St. Mary’s in Derby where there was a parish priest and three fellow curates. Today he is on his own. His first parish priest was an ex-military priest, Fr. Wilson, who ran the presbytery with military precision.

He told me: “So for me it was great to get out and about in the city and meet up with my own people many of them my age.” His friend Fr. Kieran went to Grantham and, as he was only ever on loan to the Nottingham diocese, eventually returned to Kerry and finished up as parish priest of Knocknagoshel, becoming a lifelong friend of John B.

Funeral mass

Fr. Tim visited Kieran over the years and together they met John B on many occasions. Fr. Kieran was the priest who said J.B’s funeral mass in 2002.

We spoke of John B’s healthy disrespect for the power of the clergy in Ireland in his time but agreed that he was a spiritual man as reflected in his great writings. Fr. Tim told me “Mary (his wife) would leave two pints for John in the snug when they closed the pub and he would work there for hours on his writing into the early hours. He would then go for a walk through the town and down by the river where he said he heard things that proved to him that Ireland needed to protect women more”.

In his years as a priest in the East Midlands Fr. Tim has served in Scunthorpe, Mickleover, and his longest tenure – seventeen years – was in Newark. He will serve out his ministry as parish priest and was recently appointed Canon in St. Mary’s. I asked him if he has he like many an Irish priest abroad any ‘monuments’ to his record.

He joked that he was busy enough with the restoration but on further questioning owned up to building a new school, church and social centre for the Catholic and wider community of Newark, having moved entirely from Parliament Street to Boundary Road.

He regaled me with some of the Irish artistes he booked to perform in Newark: “We had Paddy Reilly, the Wolfe Tones, and Johnny McEvoy. Back in 1968 I booked Christy Moore, Ireland’s wandering troubadour, he came in his van, performed and slept in his van overnight, for a fee of £12 and 10 shillings.” Fr. Tim O’ Sullivan is a traditional priest, not conservative though, and has a proven record of compassion for the people he serves, and he has ploughed a furrow for the Irish in Britain.

In Derby he is a great supporter of the Irish Centre and St. Patrick’s Day Festival, The Rose of Tralee, and hosts many Irish entertainers and acts at St. Mary’s Parish Centre. Having known Fr. Tim for a while and following our long chat today I am reminded of the words of J. B himself.

“Being a Kerryman, in my opinion, is the greatest gift that God can bestow on any man. When you belong to Kerry you know you have a head start on the other fellow. In belonging to Kerry you belong to the elements, to the spheres spinning in the Heavens. You belong to History and Language and Romance and Ancient Song. It is almost unbearable being a Kerryman and it is an awesome responsibility”.


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