The Romanesque doorway in Kilmore Cathedral (Photograph © Kieran Campbell, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence)
Last night I was in Saint Feithlimidh’s Cathedral, Kilmore, about 6 km outside Cavan town, for the ordination of the Revd Alison Calvin by the Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh, the Right Revd Ken Clarke.
Kilmore Cathedral is off the main Cavan-Crossdoney road, and can be difficult to find. But the name Kilmore means “the Big Church” and the large cathedral stands on the top of a hill in beautiful, rolling countryside.
It is said that the original foundation can be traced back to the sixth or seventh century, when a church was built by Saint Felim or Feidhlimidh (feast day 9 August), who was probably a hermit and who is claimed as the first Bishop of Kilmore.
However, the present site dates from around the year 1400, when a new big church was built here to replace the diocesan cathedral in Toneymore. In 1454, Pope Nicholas V gave Bishop Andrew MacBrady of Kilmore permission to make the new big church his cathedral, and so Kilmore became the name of the surrounding parish and of the diocese.
In the period immediately before the Reformation, Kilmore had two, sometimes three, rival bishops, each claiming the title of Bishop of Kilmore, relying on the support of competing local clans and septs, and each seeking the approval of Rome. Cormac Mág Shamhradháin, an Augustinian friar, was desribed as Bishop of Kilmore from 1476 until his death in December 1512. Tomás Mac Brádaigh was also Bishop of Kilmore from 1480 until his death in 1512.
The two rival bishops both attended provincial councils called by the Archbishop of Armagh, Ottaviano Spinelli de Palatio, in 1492 and again in 1495, and were both then recognised as Bishops of Kilmore.
A third bishop arrived on the scene when Dermot O’Reilly was appointed to the see in 1512 before Bishop Cormac’s death, although Bishop Cormac was still maintaining his rights to the see at that date.
Bishop Dermot died in office in office in 1530, and his successor, the Augustinian Bishop of Kilmore, Edmund Nugent, accepted the Reformation. A later bishop, Thomas Moigne (1613-1629), renovated the cathedral and built a new see house close-by.
Translating the Bible
The best-known Bishop of Kilmore was Mogine’s successor, William Bedell (1571-1642), who was bishop from 1629 until his death. He is remembered for his saintly life and his work in translating the Bible into Irish. His Irish neighbours called him optimus Anglorum – the best of the English – and his nobility, charity and ecumenism were renowned in an age of tyranny, injustice and bitter division. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called him “the most faultless character in all ecclesiastical history.”
Bedell studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and from 1607 he was the English chaplain in Venice for three years. He came to Ireland in 1627 as the Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. Two years later be became Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh. In 1633, he resigned the See of Ardagh, believing the proper administration of the diocese required a separate bishop.
As Bishop of Kilmore, Bedell endured many difficulties. Shortly after arriving in Kilmore, he noted that “the plantations are raw and the churches ruined; my cathedral is without steeple, bell or font.” He devoted much of his energies to repairing the cathedral and to refurbishing other churches in the diocese, often with the assistance of his Roman Catholic friends and neighbours, and in the face of much opposition he devoted himself to relieving the great hardship and poverty among his people.
Bedell’s greatest achievement was his translation of the Old Testament into Irish, and his devotion to the Irish language was legendary. He avidly studied the language, and spoke it whenever possible, insisting that the clergy in his diocese must be able to speak, read and write Irish correctly, and that prayers were said in Irish in the Cathedral every Sunday.
Despite the mayhem that came with the Confederate Catholic rebellion in 1641, Bedell refused to leave his diocese and sheltered hundreds of fugitives and refugees. As the war unfolded, he continued to minister in his church and refused many offers of refuge, including those of his Roman Catholic counterpart, Bishop Eugene Sweeney.
Finally, Bedell was arrested, along with his two sons, their wives and a step-son-in-law. They were imprisoned in Cloghoughter Castle. Bedell was now 71 year and he died of fever while still a prisoner on 7 February 1642. His last words were: “Whether we live or die we are the Lord.” He was buried alongside his wife Leah, in a grave underneath a giant sycamore tree, still standing, which the bishop himself had planted. The Confederate forces provided a military guard of honour at his funeral and among his pallbearers was the rebel leader Myles the Slasher.
The only Nonjuring bishop in the Church of Ireland was Bishop William Sheridan, who was deposed in 1691 for refusing to take the Oath of Loyalty to William III and Mary. He died in exile in London in 1711.
Rebuilding the cathedral
Bishop Moigne’s house was demolished in 1835 and was replaced by a three-storey classical-style See House, beside the cathedral. By then, the old cathedral was becoming increasingly inadequate for the needs of its diocese and the local parish. In 1858, it was described as “decayed, dilapidated and too small to accommodate the parishioners,” and plans were drawn up to demolish the old cathedral and to build a new one as a memorial to Bishop Bedell. Work began that year, when the foundation stone was laid by Lady Farnham in the presence of Bishop Marcus Gervais Beresford and 50 of the clergy.
The new building, designed by the English architect, William Slater, cost £8,000 and it was completed in 1860. The Cathedral is built in the Early Decorated or Middle Pointed style. Its plan is cruciform, consisting of nave, aisles, transepts, chancel and a central tower which is finished by a four-sided pyramidal roof. The materials used are of a dark limestone, of local origin, with a lighter stone from Dungannon for the dressings. The porch was added to the cathedral in 1869.
A marvellously-carved Hiberno-Romanesque doorway serves as the vestry door. This doorway originally formed part of the Cathedral at Toneymore which was built after the Diocese of Kilmore was first recognised at the Synod of Kells in 1152. When the Church of Saint Fethlimidh was converted into a Cathedral in 1454, Toneymore Cathedral fell into disrepair. The Premonstratensian Order salvaged the doorway and inserted it into the western gable of Holy Trinity Abbey on Trinity Island in Lough Oughter. When the abbey was destroyed in 1570, the doorway was then taken to the old Cathedral in Kilmore, where it was used as the main entrance. Finally, it was moved to its present location when the present Cathedral was built in 1858.
This doorway is one of only two Hiberno-Romanesque doorways of its kind surviving in Ulster. The other is on White Island in Lough Erne. The doorway is widely treasured as a priceless relic of the finest period of native Irish building. It consists of four orders and a beaded hood-moulding. The three outer orders have engaged columns with square bases and capitals. Incidentally, some of the stones have been misplaced in the course of its movements over some seven hundred years.
Happily, the original plans to demolish the old cathedral were reversed. The building was refurbished, and it has continued to be used for parochial and diocesan activities, by Kilmore YMCA, and more recently as the Parish Hall. After Alison’s ordination, as the sun was setting, we made our way back to the old cathedral for a traditional, warm, welcoming reception. As we were leaving, Bedell’s worthy successor, Bishop Ken, tried to persuade us to stay a little longer. “Sure the night is only young,” he told us.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute