The double West Door of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
On our field trip today we are visiting three churches in Co Kilkenny that encapsulate or help us to summarise the story of Church architecture in Ireland.
Saint Lachtain’s Church of Ireland parish church in Freshford, Co Kilkenny, is a small village church standing on a monastic site that dates back to the early seventh century, and its Hiberno-Romanesque doorway is almost unique, and worth comparing with a similar though more impressive doorway in Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway.
Our second visit is to Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. Although the site, once again, is an early Irish monastic settlement, this is perhaps the most spending Anglo-Norman Gothic cathedral in Ireland.
Our third visit is to Saint John’s Church, John Street, Kilkenny, an interesting example of an early Victorian parish church that incorporates parts of a mediaeval monastic foundation that were threatened with ruin.
1, Saint Lachtain’s Church, Co Kilkenny
Our first stop today is in the village of Freshford, Co Kilkenny, on the R693, to see Saint Lachtain’s Church of Ireland parish church, with its Romanesque doorway, in the centre of the village.
Freshford is built around a tree-lined square, and the village was once the site of a monastery dating back to the early seventh century. The traditional Irish name of Freshford is Achadh Úr and has been anglicised as Aghour (1318), Achure (1480), Achour (1480) and so on, and survives as Aghour in the prebendal stalls in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.
The Vikings attacked the monastery in a raid in 836 and burnt the Church of Saint Lachtain.
The sandstone Hiberno-Romanesque doorway is all that is left of a successor church, which was built in 1100. This doorway is one of only two such portal designs remaining in the country, the other being at Saint Brendan’s Cathedral in Clonfert, Co Galway.
When the Synod of Rathbreasail delineated the borders of the dioceses in Ireland in 1111, many of the small dioceses were absorbed, and Freshford became part of the Diocese of Ossory, which covered much of Co Kilkenny, Co Laois and Co Offaly.
A short distance outside the village, Uppercourt Manor stands on the site of the Bishop’s Palace built at Aghour in 1225. In 1553, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Ossory, John Bale, came to live at Uppercourt Manor. When five of his servants were murdered while saving the hay, the bishop fled to England and never returned. After him, the Shee family took over the manor and lived in Uppercourt for 100 years.
On the village green, we may have time to see the base of the Freshford Cross. The cross is made of soft sandstone and is now entirely worn away.
However, this cross is not part of the original monastic foundation. The cross was erected at Uppercourt Manor in 1622 in memory of Lucas Shee of Uppercourt Manor by his wife Ellen Butler and once bore an inscription that said: “The noble Ellen Butler, wife of Lucas Shee Esq., got this monument made. Pray, traveller, that the souls of both may have eternal rest.”
The present Saint Lachtain’s Church was built in 1731. At the end of that century, when Sir William Morris came to live in Uppercourt Manor in 1790, he moved the Freshford Cross and had it re-erected on the village green. Uppercourt Manor later became a secondary school run by the Mill Hill Fathers who bought it in 1932. The manor now stands on a stud farm owned by Dr Paul O’Byrne who has restored the house in recent years.
2, Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny
Our second visit today is to Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.
Kilkenny is a largely unspoilt Anglo-Norman mediaeval town, with architecturally beautiful merchants’ houses, alms houses, with their arches, walls and winding laneways intact from the 16th century and earlier. This was one of the most important mediaeval towns in Ireland – overshadowed only by Dublin and, at times, Drogheda, and on occasion the seat of the mediaeval parliament.
For centuries, urban life in Kilkenny carried on between two hills, one crowned by Kilkenny Castle, the palatial homes of the great local magnates, the Ormonde Butlers, the other crowned by Saint Canice’s Cathedral. The area around the cathedral, called Irishtown, is the oldest part of the present city, predating the Anglo-Norman town.
Saint Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower stand on a site dating from the sixth century and named after Saint Canice – the Irish name Cill Channigh means the Church of Canice. The site of this early Christian settlement includes a Round Tower, and the Anglo-Norman cathedral, which is the second largest cathedral in Ireland – only Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, is larger – and a jewel of Irish Gothic architecture.
The view of the full length cathedral from the west end is a truly magnificent vista, and is one of the best-preserved cathedrals in Ireland, with its architectural details and furnishings.
It is said that Saint Canice (ca 525-ca 599, feast day, 11 October), a Pict from Co Derry founded built a hermitage or cell on this hill in the sixth century. However, there is no mention of Kilkenny in the lives of Cainnech of Aghaboe, Ciarán of Saighir, or any of the early annals of Ireland, suggesting that in those times it was not of great importance.
The Annals of the Four Masters record the wooden church on this site was burned down in 1085 or 1087 (“Ceall-Cainnigh was for the most part burned”) and again in 1114 (“Cill-Cainnigh ... were all burned this year”).
After the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, the See of Ossory, which had been moved earlier from Seir Kieran to Aghaboe, was moved from Aghaboe to Kilkenny in 1120s, although no new cathedral was built to mark the move.
At the beginning of the 13th century, Bishop Felix O Delany had a vision for a new cathedral church on the site of Saint Canice’s monastic settlement. He realised the significance of the Anglo-Norman settlement in the region and established the foundations of the cathedral, hoping the Anglo-Norman lords of Kilkenny would sponsor the work.
Bishop O Delany died in 1202 before his vision became reality. The present building was begun by the first Anglo-Norman Bishop of Ossory, Hugh de Rous (1201-1218), soon after his appointment, and the chancel may date from this period. The chancel and transept aisles are the work of his successor, Bishop Hugh de Mapilton (1251-12600, and the whole cathedral was completed by Bishop Geoffrey St Leger (1260-1287).
Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny … looking towards the west end from the chapter stall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)
The architectural style of the cathedral is Early Gothic. But the different dates of building work are represented by the different stones: the dressings and ornamental features of the transepts are of sandstone; those of the nave are limestone; the nave arcades rest on quatrefoil columns that echo the theme of the quatrefoil clerestory windows above.
On 22 May 1332, the original tower, which was 9 to 12 metres higher than the present tower, collapsed, collapsed, falling on the side chapels and damaging the west end of the cathedral. Restoration work began in 1354 under Bishop Richard Ledred (1317-1361), better known for his connection with trials for heresy and witchcraft, and further repairs were carried out by Bishop David Hacket (1460-1478).
In the Red Book of Ossory, 15 pages dating from about 1324 contain 60 Latin verses, or Cantilenae, written by Richard Ledred, Bishop of Ossory. In the Red Book, Bishop Ledred wrote these verses “for the Vicars Choral of Kilkenny Cathedral, his priests and clerics, to be sung on great festivals and other occasions, that their throats and mouths, sanctified to God, might not be polluted with theatrical, indecent, and secular songs.”
The cathedral was restored between 1844 and 1867 without the removal of any important medieval features, so that despite this 19th century restoration, the cathedral has been carefully preserved in its original style and form.
Viewing the cathedral
We enter Saint Canice’s Cathedral by the south porch. The cathedral is built of local limestone rubble in the Early English, or English Gothic, style of architecture, with a low central tower supported on black marble columns. The cathedral is cruciform in shape, with an aisled, clerestoried nave of five bays, a south porch, transepts, and a partly aisled chancel. The exterior walls, apart from the gables, are embattled, and there are two small spires at the west end. The cathedral is 64.62 metres long, and its width along the transepts is 35.66 metres wide across the transepts.
Inside, high pointed arches form entrances from the nave into the choir and the two transepts. Between the nave and each aisle is a row of five black marble clustered columns, with high moulded arches. The nave is lighted by a large west window and five clerestory windows, while the aisles each have four windows. The choir has a groined ceiling with fine tracery and a central group of cherubim.
The baptismal font, made of Kilkenny marble, is mediaeval, and appears to be the original font from the cathedral built in the mid-12th century.
Saint Canice’s Cathedral is richly endowed with stained glass windows, including the East Window, consisting of three great lancet windows, which is a replica of the original 13th century window. The cathedral also has two windows from the Harry Clarke Studio in Dublin.
The ancient stone for the enthronement of the Bishops of Ossory is still under the seat of the mediaeval throne known as Saint Kieran’s Chair, in the North Transept, where to this day the bishops are enthroned.
We should also take time to look up at hammer-beam roof and to note the continental carvings on the choir stalls, which were carved in Bruges from Daubian oak and added to the cathedral in 1904.
The sanctuary is tiled with four types of marble from the four provinces of Ireland: black from Kilkenny (Leinster), green from Connemara (Connacht), red from Kerry (Munster) and grey from Tyrone (Ulster).
A niche in the north wall of the sanctuary probably contains the monument of Bishop Richard Ledred, the only Franciscan Bishop of Ossory.
The cathedral has some of the finest 16th century monuments in Ireland. The memorials stretch right across the social spectrum from the great figures of the Ormonde Butlers of Kilkenny Castle to local shoemakers and carpenters. A local family of stonemasons and sculptors, the O Tunney family, carved some of the tombstones, many of them unique to the cathedral and to Kilkenny.
On the eastern side of the south transept is the consistory court, built by Bishop Richard Pococke (1756-1765), with the chapter house to the north of it. (Bishop Pococke’s successor, Charles Dodgson ((1765-1775) was the grandfather of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland.) From the north transept a dark passage leads into Saint Mary’s Chapel, where the services of Saint Canice’s parish were once held, and a later parish church next to it holds the tomb of Bishop Christopher Gaffney (died 1576).
Beside the cathedral is the ninth century, 30 metres high Round Tower – the oldest standing structure in Kilkenny City and is one of only two round towers that can be climbed in Ireland. It may once have been a watchtower and a refuge. The summit gives a clear view of Kilkenny and the surrounding countryside.
To the north-east of the cathedral, the former Bishop’s Palace is a Georgian house, built in 1736-1745, but standing on the site of the mediaeval palace dating back to the time of Bishop Richard Ledred, and retaining a 14th century keep.
The 17th century Deanery is to the south-west of the cathedral, and south of the cathedral is the Library Registry with a rare collection of 3,000 books dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
3, Saint John’s Church, John Street, Kilkenny
Saint John’s Church in John Street, Kilkenny, was once known as the ‘Lantern Church of Ireland’ because of its magnificent windows, and many of the tombs in the church grounds date from a time when the Augustinian abbey on this site was at its height.
The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine founded their first house in Kilkenny near Green’s Bridge at the end of the 12th century. However, in 1211, they moved to a new site across the bridge given to them by William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, who built Kilkenny Castle.
Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new abbey on the Feast of Saint John, 27 December 1220. But it was more than a century for the buildings were completed in 1325.
The 14th century was marked by continuous conflicts between the Priors of Saint John’s and the Bishops of Kilkenny. The prior and community were imprisoned in 1331, and between 1361 and 1405 the bishop excommunicated the prior and placed the priory under interdict.
Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny … once known as the ‘Lantern Church of Ireland’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the Tudor Reformation, the priory was suppressed on 21 March 1540. The priory and its estates were granted to the Mayor and Corporation of Kilkenny, and the Prior, Richard Cantwell, became the curate and chaplain of the new parish church of Saint John.
The former abbey buildings may have continued standing for the next two centuries. By 1645, it had been passed to the Jesuits, who used it as seminary, but they were driven out during the Cromwellian era in 1650. It was later used by the Capuchins and by the Jesuits again, but fell into disuse after 1690.
In 1780, the nave of the conventual church – the church that had been used by the Augustinian canons – and the domestic buildings attached to priory were demolished and the stone and rubble was used to build a military barracks on the site of the Evans Home.
In 1817, the Lady Chapel of Saint John’s was reroofed and restored for use as a Church of Ireland parish church. Until the second half of the 20th century, the church was also used regularly by Kilkenny College – founded in 1538 and the alma mater of Jonathan Swift and George Berkeley – until it moved from John Street to a new site on Catlecomer Road in 1985.
At first sight, the interior of the church looks like a typical early Victorian parish church, with its panelling and balcony, and its ‘blind’ north wall. But look carefully for the abbey windows and their frames in the south wall, and we shall look too at the remaining ruins of the once magnificent abbey church.
Saint John’s remains a healthy inner city parish, with regular services and a vibrant life of its own that is quite distinct from that of the cathedral.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a fieldtrip on the Church History module (TH 7864) with MTh students on 9 March 2013.