Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Happy New Year to all our readers

Apologies for the lack of posts in recent times. I've been having some Internet issues since Christmas which has left me without any online access. I do hope to be up and running though within the next few days.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, John Street, Sligo

This impressive Catholic cathedral is one of the largest and most significant churches in the west of Ireland. Dating from the 1870s, it is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of Mary and is the cathedral church of the diocese of Elphin. The diocese was formally established in the twelfth century at the Synod of Rathbrasil, but its Christian heritage is significantly more venerable, St Patrick first appointing a bishop there in the fourth century. Under this first bishop, St Asicus, the monastic community at Elphin earned a reputation as a great centre of learning, and became renowned for its promotion of arts and craftsmanship. For centuries this monastic community was the centre of the life of the Church in the area. In the wake of the Synod of Rathbrasil, which reformed the Church along Roman lines, a new mother church of the newly created diocese was built. This first cathedral was erected around the year 1200, and continued to serve the diocese until the late seventeenth century. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation the cathedral passed into the hands of the newly formed Church of Ireland, and remained in use in its medieval form into the eighteenth century. 

From its suppression as a Catholic place of worship until the erection of a new cathedral in the 1870s, the Catholic diocese of Elphin was essentially deprived of a cathedral for over two hundred years. As the political climate for Irish Catholics improved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries new chapels and 'pro-cathedrals' were built. Many were temporary buildings, often devoid of architectural embellishments. By this stage it had been decided that the Catholic bishops of Elphin would reside in Sligo Town, and not in the village of Elphin. Therefore, a new pro-cathedral was erected there sometime in the 1820s. Dedicated to St Patrick it served as the diocese's mother church until 1871. As the nineteenth century progressed, the hopes and desires of the Catholic community grew, longing for a more befitting and noble cathedral. Their wishes were realised when the foundation stone of the new cathedral was laid on 6 October 1868 by Bishop Laurence Gilhooley.

The style chosen for the new cathedral was Norman. This was a somewhat unusual choice: by and large Irish churches tended to be built in the Classical or Gothic styles. In fact the cathedral at Sligo is the only standing Irish cathedral in the Norman style. The architect chosen to build it was none other than George Goldie. An Englishman, Goldie designed Catholic churches throughout Ireland and England, and is considered one of the most important ecclesiastical architects of the period. At 275 feet in length, and just over 200 feet at its highest, the cathedral makes a dramatic impact on the local landscape. It was officially opened in 1874, although work continued on it until 1882. Goldie's cathedral comprised of an aisled nave, transepts, and a semi circular apse. Its most imposing addition was of course the great west tower.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

St John's, John Street, Kilkenny

The medieval city of Kilkenny boasts a number of historic churches. The most famous is of course the Church of Ireland cathedral, St Canice's. One of the lesser known, but equally historic buildings is St. John's. While the present day church is itself early nineteenth century, it stands on the site of a medieval priory dating back to the 1200s. The original priory belonged to the Canons Regular of St Augustine. Long since extinct in Ireland, the Augustinian Canons were once spread throughout the island; at their height in the thirteenth century they had over 100 houses. The priory at Kilkenny was founded largely thanks to the efforts of the first earl of Pembroke, Sir William Marshall, a leading figure in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. Long since abandoned, the remains of this priory were partly incorparted into the nineteenth century church and are clearly visible to visitors. 

Henry VIII's dispute with Pope Clement VII over his marital situation with Queen Catherine ultimately led to Henry founding two national churches (the Church of England and the Church of Ireland), of which he was supreme head of both. Henry's reformation in England was largely successful, while in Ireland it was on the whole unsuccessful in converting large numbers of the native population. Many confiscated Catholic churches soon became derelict and unused. Funds were generally not forthcoming to erect new Protestant churches, apart from in towns and cities where the Protestant population was larger. This remained the case until the early nineteenth when the Board of First Fruits embarked upon a wide scale programme of church building in the 1810s. Thus many towns and villages received a new church, including Kilkenny, whose rebuilt St. Johns was a typically 'First Fruits' church:plain gabled hall with a square tower built on the west end.

St John's interior was also typical of the First Fruits' churches: a relatively small, aisleless hall, with some Gothic features. The plain stained glass window bears the inscription: 'The Bread of Life'. The church is still in use, and is joined in a union of parishes with nearby St Canice's Cathedral.

The picture above shows the ruins of the medieval priory to the left and rear with the newly built church to the right. 

Monday, 9 September 2013

St Malachy's Church, Belfast

A stone's throw away from the hustle and bustle of Belfast's Donegall Square is one of the city's quaintest and most historic churches. St Malachy's is a wonder, unlike nearly any other church in Ireland. To passers-by its Tudor exterior might even suggest a medieval hall or as one commentator unkindly put it, 'a Victorian waterworks'! St Malachy's is, however, very much a religious building, one of the oldest Catholic churches erected in Belfast. Since its expansion in the late sixteenth century Belfast had been a largely Protestant town. In the nineteenth century its population expanded rapidly, primarily thanks to a thriving industrial sector. The successes of Belfast's industries lured a growing number of Catholics to the city from rural Ulster. By the 1830s the city was served by two Catholic churches: St Mary's, Chapel Lane, and St Patrick's, Donegall Street. However, these soon proved inadequate to cater for the burgeoning Catholic community, and a new church was needed. 

The early nineteenth century was a period of renewal and reform for the Catholic Church in Ireland. Now free to erect noble and more permanent buildings, many dioceses embarked on building cathedrals. Down and Connor, the diocese to which Belfast belonged, had initially foreseen the new St Malachy's as the diocesan cathedral. Thus grand plans were laid for the new building, which would be capable of accommodating some several thousand worshipers. Thomas Jackson was chosen to design the new church. Jackson, a Quaker born in Waterford, had made a name for himself in industrial Ulster, going onto design  Belfast Town Hall in 1871. The outbreak of the Famine in 1840 severely curtailed the original plans for a grand cathedral: instead the already built sanctuary and chancel were to be completed as a much scaled down parish church. 

St Malachy's interior was rather unusual in the fact that it was considerably wider than it was longer. This was of course because of the revised design: what we see above was originally planned as the sanctuary, giving some idea of the scale of the proposed church. To maximize the capacity the church was given galleries on three sides. The interior's crowing feature was its wonderful plaster Tudor roof. A favourite of the poet Sir John Betjemen, St Malachy's was chosen to receive a £3.5 million renovation in 2010. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

St Colman's Cathedral, Cloyne, Co. Cork

One of the earliest posts on this blog featured the diocese of Cloyne's Catholic cathedral in Cobh, Co. Cork. The splendid Gothic edifice towers over Cobh Harbour, and is surely one of Ireland's most glorious ecclesiastical buildings. Less well-known, however, is the Church of Ireland cathedral, situated in the village of Cloyne, some ten or so miles to the east. This more venerable building is also dedicated to the local saint, Colman. Cloyne has an ancient ecclesiastical heritage dating back to the sixth century when St Colman founded a monastery there. While virtually nothing survives from the Early Christian period in the cathedral itself, the wonderful and relatively intact round tower bordering the cathedral still stands. The monastery and cathedral church were ransacked by Viking raiders on separate occasions in the ninth century. The cathedral itself eventually was essentially rebuilt in the late thirteenth century.

To the right of the cathedral stands the ancient round tower. The round tower at Cloyne is slightly different from most Irish round towers in that its top is not conical but rather is adorned with battlements. This change came as a result of an eighteenth alteration in which the round tower was used as the cathedral's bell tower.

The cathedral's interior is relatively simple: an aisleless nave and chancel with trancepts to the north and south. Much of what can been above was as a result of significant alterations that took place throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Typical of most rural Church of Ireland cathedrals, St Colmans is small, simple, uncomplicated yet dignified and graceful. It contains a monument to its most famous incumbent: the philosopher, George Berkeley (1685-1753).

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, Belfast, Co. Antrim

Carlisle Circus is located to the north-west of Belfast city centre. Resembling more a modern day roundabout and flanked mostly by modern buildings, the area suffered badly during the Blitz of 1941. It does, however, contain one building of outstanding beauty and historical importance: the Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church. The church owes much of its history to a Belfast merchant, James Carlisle. Carlisle, who came humble origins in Co. Derry, made his fortune in the building and linen trades. He and his wife had two children, Mary, born 1840, and James, born 1852. Tragically both died, in 1874 and 1870 respectively. Stricken by grief Carlisle decided to erect a church as a fitting tribute to their memory. To do so he employed the services of William Henry Lynn, a local architect who had worked extensively throughout the United Kingdom. Lynn's commissions were primarily in the Gothic style, which was to be case for Carlisle's new church. Building commenced in 1875, and took only little over one year to be completed. It could seat over 1,000 people, unusually large for many Methodist churches, and was designed in the Gothic style, with transepts and a tall decorated spire. Its imposing appearance was enhanced by the use of local granite and sandstone, giving it a bright red look. 

Here is a view of the church before the erection of the adjoining Sunday school.

A view of the church's interior looking towards the chancel.

Like many inner city churches, Carlisle Memorial was a victim of shifting demographic patterns in the post-war period. While in many cities church closures came as a result of large swathes of the population leaving city centres for new suburbs. In the case of Carlisle Memorial the reasons were, however, a little different. Situated in north-west Belfast, it was located in an 'interface area', bordering both Catholic and Protestant populated areas. Sectarian violence led to a decline in the local Protestant population throughout the 1960/70s. This led eventually to the closure of the church in 1982. Initially it was thought that the church might be converted into social housing, but these plans went by the wayside. The church now lays in a perilous state, severely decaying. Hope maybe at hand though, with the church being placed on the World Monuments Fund list, with plans afoot to turn it into a 'shared heritage resource'.

This image shows Carlilse Circus, with the Memorial Church on the right and the Presbyterian, St Enoch's to the left. Erected in the early 1870s, it was one of the largest Presbyterian churches in all of Ulster. The church was lamentably demolished in the 1980s, having been the victim of fire. 

Monday, 15 July 2013

Holycross Abbey, Co. Tipperary

Readers of this blog, and indeed anyone enjoying an interest in Ireland's ecclesiastical heritage, may have already noticed a very clear difference the buildings of the the two main churches: the Catholic Church and the Protestant, Church of Ireland. Put at its simplest Catholic churches tend to be less venerable than those of their Reformed colleagues. Thanks to the spread of the Protestant Reformation and the expansion of royal power throughout Ireland the Catholic Church gradually lost the majority of its churches, with many being given to the new state church or indeed simply abandoned. Thus the vast majority of Catholic churches in Ireland are nineteenth or twentieth century, with a tiny handful of eighteenth century and earlier survivors. One of these survivors happens to be the glorious Holycross Abbey in Co. Tipperary, a rare example of a medieval working Catholic church. Founded originally in the twelfth century, the abbey that we see in the pictures here dates largely from a rebuilding in the 1400s. Home to a community of Cistercian monks, Holycross took its name from a relic of the True Cross that was held in the church. Indeed it was the relic that attracted the hoards of pilgrims whose alms helped pay for the splendid fifteenth century renovation. Falling gradually into a state of dereliction since the mid-seventeenth century, the abbey was finally restored in the 1970s. Having been designated a national monument in 1880, an Act of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament) was required to be passed in 1969 so that the abbey could be designated a Catholic place of worship. The subsequent restoration was completed in 1975, and the abbey was designated the new parish church.

Holycross was endowed by Donal Mór O'Brien, a Gaelic-Irish king of Thomand in 1180. Generally regarded as the last king of Munster, O'Brien had in his possession a relic of the True Cross, which he bestowed upon the newly founded abbey. Holycross was an abbey of the Cistercian order. Founded in the late eleventh century, the Cistercians were known for their strict observation of the Rule of St Benedict. In the sixteenth century the abbey was suppressed and given to the Earl of Ormond, Thomas Butler, thus commencing the ultimate period of decline.

This arcaded monument is most probably where the relics of the True Cross were displayed for public veneration.

This picture was taken looking west, from the chancel (where the altar is situated) down the nave towards the great west window. The church by this stage had been derelict for sometime, with burials taking place within the nave. The ornate monument on the left is called a sedilia. Literally meaning 'seats', sedilia was where the priest and his assistants sat during the Mass. A common sight in medieval churches, it was customary that they be recessed into the wall.

The view towards the altar and chancel on the left, with the entirely unroofed transept in the background.