Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns … the saint became Bishop of Ferns in 598, a year after Saint Augustine became Archbishop of Canterbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
It is 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 in Dublin, 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 each year, and at the end of autumn I spent the October bank holiday weekend in Morriscastle, near Kilmuckridge.
On Sunday morning I was in Saint Edan’s Cathedral in Ferns. Ferns is hardly a cathedral city – it is more like a small town or a big village, which is easy for this one-time small minnow to identify with. With a population of about 900, Ferns lies between Gorey (18 km north) and Enniscorthy (11 km south). It may be just a bit too far south for the commuters to Dublin who moved to Gorey, but traffic is still a problem, and is funnelled from the Gorey by-pass straight into Camolin.
How many motorists think Ferns too needs a by-pass? And how many take time to appreciate Ferns and its historical sites, including the cathedral, the castle, the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, or Saint Mogue’s Well?
Ferns (Fearna, “place of the alder trees,” also Fearna Mór Maedhóg) dates from 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.
As old as Canterbury
An inscription on the cathedral wall says Saint Edan of Ferns died on 31 January 632 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
Saint Edan or Aidan was a disciple of Saint David, the Welsh patron. He became Bishop of Ferns in 598, a year after Saint Augustine was sent to Canterbury, and an inscription on the cathedral wall says he died on 31 January 632.
Nearby, 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.
Ferns 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. But it was pillaged and burned by the Vikings and the monks were regularly robbed by Viking raiders throughout the ninth and the tenth centuries.
When the Kings of Leinster moved their seat to Ferns, the town became the capital of their Kingdom of Leinster. In 1158, Dermot MacMurrough founded Saint Mary’s Augustinian Abbey in Ferns. This is the same Dermot MacMurrough who as King of Leinster invited the Anglo-Normans to Ireland in 1169 – at the time the local bishop was referred to as “Bishop of Wexford.”
The cross marking Dermot Mac Murrough’s burial place in the cathedral grounds (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
When Dermot MacMurrough died in 1171, he was buried in the grounds of the cathedral and the abbey. Part of a cross shaft with fret pattern decoration at the west end of the cathedral is said to mark his grave, while Saint Edan (Aidan) himself is said to be buried beneath the cathedral.
Following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, Ferns was offered to the chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis, but he declined the see in 1185.
Bishop Albin O Molloy, who took part in the coronation of Richard I in Westminster in 1189, excommunicated Strongbow’s son-in-law, William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, for seizing two manors belonging to the diocese. When the crusader earl was buried in the Temple Church in London in 1219, Henry III commanded the bishop to go to his tomb and absolve him. Instead, the Bishop of Ferns said over the tomb: “O William that here liest wrapped in the bonds of excommunication, if what thou hast injuriously taken be restored by the King and thy heir, I absolve thee; otherwise I ratify the sentence that being wrapped in thy sins, thou mayest remain damned in hell for ever.”
Building the cathedral
John of St John (1223-1253), the first English-born Bishop of Ferns, built the cathedral in the grounds of the monastery and is buried at the west end of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Saint Edan’s Cathedral was built in the monastery grounds by John of St John (1223-1253), the first English-born Bishop of Ferns. His 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, central tower, and long chancel with aisles for almost half its length.
John Esmond was Bishop of Ferns from 1349, but was in office for only a year or so when Pope Clement VI decided to replace him with William Charnells, a Dominican friar. Bishop Esmond holed himself up in Ferns Castle to resist his replacement. After a siege, the new bishop captured the castle; Esmond resigned, was arrested, was bound to the peace, and eventually he was packed off as Bishop of Emly.
Later, Bishop Patrick Barrett moved the bishop’s residence from Ferns Castle to New Ross and built Mountgarret Castle as an episcopal seat. Other bishops lived at Fethard Castle, or tried to move the see to Wexford, but these moves were constantly resisted by the dean and chapter of Ferns. 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 – probably spent little time in Ferns, or at either Fethard Castle and Mountgarret Castle, but probably continued to live at Saint John’s Priory in Kilkenny.
Surviving the Reformation
The ruins to the east of the cathedral give some idea of the original length and size of Saint Edan’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Cometrford, 2009)
At the Reformation, Saint Mary’s Abbey was suppressed in 1539. However, Alexander Devereux managed to hold on to office as Bishop of Ferns throughout the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Elizabeth I, and he is regarded as Bishop of Ferns by both Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland historians. His successor, John Devereux, was accused of “confessed licentiousness” by Archbishop Adam Loftus, who said: “An unfitter man can not be.”
Ferns Cathedral was burned by the O’Byrnes in the 1560s or 1570s and was rebuilt by them in 1577. But their rebuilding was said to be “parsimonious and destructive,” and by 1589 the church was ruined and decayed and the dean and chapter had fled.
The impoverished Diocese of Ferns was amalgamated with the neighbouring Diocese of Leighlin in 1600. Robert Grave was consecrated bishop in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, that August, but was drowned with all his family in Dublin Bay as they set out for Wexford at the beginning of October.
Thomas Ram, Dean of Ferns, became bishop in 1605, and when he died in 1634 he was buried in his own private chapel in Gorey. These words were inscribed on the chapel:
This house RAM built for his brothers,
So sheep bear wool,
not for themselves but others.
However, Ram’s building skills were less exercised when it came to his cathedral, and in 1611 Saint Edan’s was said to be in ruins in 1611.
The cathedral was re-roofed in 1672, and the tower was rebuilt in 1761. The bishops of the 17th and 18th centuries included Narcissus Marsh, who later built Marsh’s Library in Dublin; Josiah Hort, who initially was refused consecration because he claimed a BD degree from Cambridge that he had never earned; Arthur Price, who was the patron and benefactor of Arthur Guinness; the self-centred and narcissistic George Stone, who was known disparagingly as “the beauty of holiness”; and Richard Robinson, who later became Archbishop of Armagh, where he built a palace, library and observatory.
Euseby Cleaver, who was Bishop of Ferns during the 1798 Rising, later became Archbishop of Dublin. But, it is said, he had been driven mad after the bishop’s palace and library in Ferns were plundered, and the Archbishop of Cashel was appointed his coadjutor – the only such appointment in the history of the Church of Ireland.
Bishop Percy Jocelyn, his successor, was transferred to the Diocese of Clogher, but his promiscuous indiscretions in a London tavern eventually led to him being deposed and defrocked by a court of his fellow bishops.
The monument to Bishop Thomas Elrington … “without doubt one of the most learned and scholarly prelates to occupy the see” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
Dean Thomas McFall, who wrote a history of the cathedral over half a century ago, says Bishop Thomas Elrington (1822-1835) was “without doubt one of the most learned and scholarly prelates to occupy the see.” Like Bishop Marsh, he was a former Provost of Trinity College Dublin. When he died, Ferns and Leighlin were united to the Diocese of Ossory.
Modern restoration work
The present chapter stalls in Saint Edan’s came from Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
Restoration work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries included a new pitch-pine roof, a new chancel arch, and a new tiled floor in the chancel. The old 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, former Southern Regional Secretary of CMS Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
The Bishop’s Throne in the chancel of Ferns Cathedral 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). A richly carved chair on the north side was a parting gift from another missionary bishop, Bishop Godfrey Day, when he moved to Armagh.
The reredos, with a representation of the Last Supper, dates from 1918 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
The reredos, with a representation of the Last Supper, dates from 1918. A little later, the windows of the east end, including two rare and striking vesicae, were filled with stained glass. The centre light contains figures representing the Four Evangelists, while another window contains a fragment of glass from Coventry Cathedral, donated when the new, post-war cathedral was being built.
The east end windows include two rare and striking vesicae, while the centre light contains figures representing the Four Evangelists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
In the south nave wall, a stained glass window designed by Catherine O’Brien of the Sarah Purser Studio in Dublin shows Saint Patrick. It was dedicated on Saint Edan’s Day 1931 in memory of Thomas Brownell Gibson, who, as Dean of Ferns from 1908 to 1926, reroofed the cathedral, built the new chancel arch, and opened up four pillars that had been walled up by the O’Byrnes.
Saint Patrick’s window in the south nave was designed by Catherine O’Brien of the Sarah Purser Studio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
Although the piscina recess in the south wall of the sanctuary may be modern, both drains are much older. Outside, the ruined walls to the east 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 by Bishop John of St John.
The piscina recess in the south wall of the sanctuary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
From Ferns Cathedral I went back with some parishioners to Fiona Forrest’s new bookshop for coffee, before heading back to Kilmuckridge for a walk on the beach at Morriscastle. The summer sun still seemed to shine on the shores of Co Wexford that weekend, and I could have lingered longer.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the December editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).