Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, on Sunday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
This was the late autumn holiday weekend here. After clearing out a few bookshelves and deciding how to pass on some old books – many of them gathering dust for almost 40 years – I headed off to Co Wexford for the rest of the weekend.
It is almost 35 years since I moved from Wexford Town in December 1974, leaving the staff of the Wexford People group of newspapers, where I had been a staff journalist, to join The Irish Times.
For the first few years, I found it difficult to adjust from being a big fish in a small pond to being a minnow in an ocean. I still return to Wexford a few times a year, and if home is the county you want to win the next All-Ireland hurling final, then Wexford still has a hold on my psyche and my understanding of self.
I was staying in Morriscastle, near Kilmuckridge, and on Sunday morning [25 October] I went to church in Saint Edan’s Cathedral in Ferns.
In the Irish understanding of geography, Ferns may be a town. But with a population of about 900 it is more like a village … it is certainly not a cathedral city.
Ferns lies between Gorey (18 km north) and Enniscorthy (11 km south). But traffic on the Gorey by-pass heading towards Enniscorthy, Wexford and New Ross is funnelled straight into Ferns, which could do with its own by-pass so visitors could truly appreciate the historical sites, including the cathedral, the castle, the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, and Saint Mogue’s Well.
Ferns (Fearna, “place of the alder trees,” also Fearna Mór Maedhóg) dates back to the sixth century, when a monastery was founded here by Saint Maedoc-Edan (Mogue) of Clonmore, also known as Saint Aidan (Aed) or Saint Edan, who was the first Bishop of Ferns.
Edan or Aidan was a disciple of Saint David, the Welsh patron saint, who died in his arms. He became Bishop of Ferns in 598, a year after Saint Augustine was sent to England as Archbishop of Canterbury, and an inscription on the cathedral wall says he died on 31 January 632.
Ferns once ranked with Clonmacnoise, Clonfert and Glendalough for its learning, and there are several high crosses and parts of crosses in the cemetery beside the cathedral.
Across the road from the cathedral and Saint Mogue’s Cottage, Saint Mogue’s Well was dedicated to Saint Aidan by Saint Moling (died 697), the founder of the monastery at Saint Mullins on the Barrow River, although the entrance to the well is more recent, having been erected in 1847. Saint Peter’s Church nearby has a Romanesque window in the south wall and the two Gothic lancets in the east wall. However, the church may not have been built until the 16th century, and the windows may have been taken from the mediaeval church at nearby Clone.
Ferns was pillaged and burned by the Vikings and the monks were robbed by Viking raiders on several occasions throughout the ninth and the tenth centuries. When the Kings of Leinster established their seat to Ferns, the town became the capital of their Kingdom of Leinster. In 1158, Dermot Mac Murrough founded Saint Mary’s Augustinian Abbey in Ferns. This is the same Dermot Mac Murrough who as King of Leinster invited the Anglo-Normans to Ireland in 1169.
The cross that is said mark Dermot Mac Murrough’s burial place in the grounds of Ferns Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
When Dermot Mac Murrough died in 1171, he was buried in the grounds of the cathedral and the abbey, and part of a cross shaft with fret pattern decoration at the west end of the cathedral is said to mark his grave.
Ferns Castle, an Anglo-Norman fortress, was built in the 13th century by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke. It was long the residence of the Bishops of Ferns, but has been in ruins since 1649 and only half the castle still stands today.
Bishop John of St John … the first English-born Bishop of Ferns, he built the cathedral in the grounds of the monastery (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2009)
Saint Edan’s Cathedral, also dating from the 13th-century, was built in the monastery grounds by John of St John (1223-1253), the first English-born Bishop of Ferns, who died in 1243 AD, and Saint Edan (Aidan, or Mogue) is said to be buried beneath the cathedral. The original plan was for a cathedral on a scale similar to that of Saint Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny, and Ferns Cathedral originally had an aisled nave, transepts, a central tower, and a long chancel with aisles for almost half its length.
Various Bishops of Ferns tried to move the see to either New Ross or, less frequently, to Wexford, but they were constantly resisted by the dean and chapter. Edmond Comerford – who was both Bishop of Ferns and Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral until his death 500 years ago on Easter Day 1509 [see Comerford Profiles 1: Edmund Comerford (d. 1509): the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns] – probably spent little time in Ferns: by then, the bishops lived at Fethard Castle and Mountgarret Castle, both close to New Ross, although Edmond probably continued to live at Saint John’s in Kilkenny.
Saint Mary’s Abbey was suppressed in 1539 and its property reverted to the crown. Ferns Cathedral was burned by the O’Byrnes in the 1560s or 1570s and was rebuilt in 1577. But that rebuilding was said to be “parsimonious and destructive,” and by 1589 the church was ruined and decayed and the dean and chapter had fled.
In 1600, the impoverished Diocese of Ferns was amalgamated with the neighbouring Diocese of Leighlin. But the cathedral was still in ruins in 1611, and was only re-roofed in 1672, and the tower rebuilt in 1761. Restoration work in the late 19th and early 20th century included a new pitch-pine roof, building a new chancel arch, and laying a new tiled floor in the chancel. The chapter stalls at the west end of the cathedral, underneath the gallery, were moved to the chapter room, and new chapter stalls, originally from Saint Canice’s in Kilkenny, were placed in the chancel.
The Bishop’s Throne commemorates Bishop William Pakenham Walsh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
The Bishop’s Throne in the chancel commemorates Bishop William Pakenham Walsh (1878-1897), whose portrait hung over my desk in Overseas House when I worked for the Church Mission Society Ireland (2002-2006).
The ruins to the east of the cathedral give some idea of the original length and size of Saint Edan’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
The ruined walls to the east of the cathedral may be part of the original cathedral built by Bishop John of St John. However, Saint Edan’s Cathedral today is a small building, half the length of the original structure, and more the size of a comfortable parish church than that of the grand cathedral once planned.
The congregation and the Eucharist on Sunday morning had all the dignity, simplicity and warmth that should be hallmarks of Anglicanism. My friend the Dean of Ferns, the Very Revd Leslie Forrest, invited me to read the Gospel and to assist with the Holy Communion. Afterwards, I went back with some parishioners to Fiona Forrest’s new bookshop for coffee, before heading off to Kilmuckridge for a walk on the beach at Morriscastle.
But more about that tomorrow, and more about Ferns Cathedral later.