18 August 2018

Mullingar Cathedral declares
Catholic triumphalism in
post-independent Ireland

The Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar, Co Westmeath … a landmark building in the Irish Midlands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

The Cathedral of Christ the King in the centre of Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is a landmark building in the Irish Midlands. The campanile towers and the dome dominate the skyline and approaches to Mullingar for many miles around, and the silhouette of the cathedral has become a symbol of Mullingar.

This is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Meath and it stands at the top of Mary Street, at the junction with College Street and Bishop’s Gate Street, towering above the centre of the county town of Westmeath.

Mullingar Cathedral is yet another statement by the Dublin-based architect Ralph Byrne of the confidence of Roman Catholicism in post-independence Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s, like his cathedral in Cavan and his strong emphatic churches in Athlone, Co Westmeath, and Harold’s Cross, Dublin.

I visited both his Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Athlone and his Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar while I was staying at Wineport Lodge outside Athlone earlier this month.

Byrne’s cathedral in Mullingar replaced an earlier cathedral, dedicated to Saint Mary, that stood on the same site from 1836. This was a large Gothic Revival T-plan church, with four octagonal turrets at the west front, and this, in turn, had replaced the parish chapel dating from 1730.

Planning for a new cathedral began in 1920. The building work began in March 1933 and the foundation stone was laid on 6 August 1933 by Thomas Mulvany, Bishop of Meath (1929-1943).

The new cathedral was designed by the Dublin-based architect, Ralph Henry Byrne (1877-1947). Byrne was noted for his academic approach to architectural design. He favoured the classical idiom for much of his church designs, moving away from the Gothic Revival-style, which had been in vogue for Roman Catholic building projects since the early 19th century.

Inside the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Byrne designed the cathedral to look like a basilica in form and renaissance in style. The distinctive twin towers, surmounted by bronze crosses, rise to a height of about 42.6 metres. The nave is 36.5 metres long and 15.2 metres wide. It follows the pattern of great Roman basilicas such as Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

Murphy of Dublin were the builders, while much of the artistic decoration work, including the marble altar goods and the bronze and brass fittings, was designed and fitted by Earley of Camden Street, Dublin, Gunning Smyth’s, and J and C McGloughlin of Dublin, and Oppenheimer of Old Trafford, Manchester.

The cathedral is designed on a complicated regular plan and on a north-south axis rather than an east-west axis. It has a seven-bay nave with a clerestory over and flanking single-storey side aisles, full-height transepts terminated by pediments, a broad apsidal chancel at the north or liturgical east end, and a circular drum with a copper dome above at the central crossing.

At the south side or liturgical west end, the cathedral has a central two-storey block with a pedimented breakfront and with colonnades or loggias at both the first and second floor levels. This is flanked by single-storey blocks on each side supporting the four-storey arcaded campanile towers, each crowned with limestone domes, topped with gilded cross finials.

The main, square-headed entrance has timber panelled double-doors, with a segmental-headed window over, to the centre of the south façade. It is set behind a Venetian-type arrangement of a central round-headed arch flanked by lower square-headed openings, divided by Doric columns in antis.

Albert Power’s elaborate sculpture on the tympanum of Mullingar Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The elaborate sculpture on the pediment or tympanum is in Portland stone by Albert George Power (1881-1945), the leading Irish sculptor of the 1920s and 1930s. It depicts the Virgin Mary handing over a model of the previous Gothic Revival cathedral into the care of Christ the King. There is a number of sculpted panels by H Thompson of Dublin on the front façade above the main entrances.

The cathedral is built of channelled ashlar granite, with extensive ashlar limestone and ashlar granite detailing. There is a variety of window openings, mostly square-headed with metal glazing bars and cut stone surrounds. The ground floor window openings in the nave are set in round-headed recesses. There are pitched roofs.

Inside, the vast open interior of the cathedral is reminiscent of the layout of a Roman basilica and seats over 1,800 people. It is lavishly decorated using different types and colours of marble and has least seven side chapels. There are numerous columns in various types of marble, including colonnades formed of paired Doric columns in Rochambeau marble, separated by high round-headed arches, giving access to the side aisles and to the transepts.

The mosaic in the apse in the sanctuary depicts the Ascension (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The mosaic in the apse in the sanctuary represents the Ascension. The cathedra or bishop’s throne and the chapter stalls were carved in Irish oak in Waterford.

There are seven individual side chapels in the cathedral, dedicated to Saint Patrick, Saint Anne, Saint Joseph and the Holy Family, Saint Therese of Lisieux as patron of Foreign Missions, a mortuary chapel, a Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. Some of these chapels are decorated with mosaics by the Russian artist Boris Anrep (1883-1969).

The Baptistry is now the cathedral shop and the double baptism font has been moved to the top of the west or right-hand aisle.

The Stations of the Cross are in opus sectile and mosaic. The pulpit, of white marble, has carvings depicting the Sermon on the Mount, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Patrick. There is an extensive collection of marble altar goods and a number of bronze fittings and railings.

The new cathedral was formally opened and dedicated on 6 September 1936. At the request of Pope Pius XI, this became the first cathedral in the world to be dedicated to Christ the King. The cathedral was dedicated on 6 September 1936 and was solemnly consecrated on 4 September 1939. The total cost of the building, including decoration, was £250,000 to £275,000, an enormous sum for those days.

The Baptism Font has been moved to the top of the west (left) aisle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The works of art for which Mullingar Cathedral is most noted are the mosaics in the chapels of Saint Anne and Saint Patrick. These are the work of the Russian-born mosaic artist Boris Anrep, a celebrated artist and socialite, best known for his monumental mosaics at the National Gallery, Westminster Cathedral, and the Bank of England in London.

The Saint Patrick mosaic depicts Saint Patrick lighting the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. Saint Patrick is seen lifting the cross with one hand in a vigorous movement, and in his other hand he is holding a torch. The firewood is arranged in a Christogram, signifying the symbolic importance of the fire.

In the Saint Anne mosaic, her name is spelled Anna, and the image of Saint Anne is said to resemble the poet Anna Akhmatova. Anrep had an affair with her during World War I. But the story of Boris and Anna is worth returning to later today.

The entrance porch in the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Byrne was the architect of choice for the Roman Catholic Church at this time and during the 1930s his commissions included the new cathedral in Cavan and the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Athlone, Co Westmeath, during the 1930s.

In Mullingar, Byrne calls on an eclectic mix of architectural styles, drawing on the classical imperial traditions of Rome, the work of Palladio, the Italian Baroque, Webb and perhaps even the neoclassicism of James Gandon and the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens in New Delhi.

Despite Byrne’s seemingly ad hoc use of classical styles, his cathedral in Mullingar is a polished architectural work. The stark cold ashlar granite on the façade contrasts with the opulence of the marble interior. The façade is a complex arrangement of classical elements, giving out a strong message of triumphalism, and is dominated on the upper storey by the pedimented temple with inset Corinthian columns.

The cathedral is set back from a busy junction in the town centre in extensive mature grounds, with the Bishop’s Residence to one side, a school in its own grounds on the other side, north-east and a large forecourt and car park at the front.

Mullingar Cathedral has been compared in terms of architectural style and ambition to the state-sponsored architectural projects built in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the same time. Other critics are kinder when they say this is one of the most stylishly triumphant cathedrals in Ireland, offering visitors ‘an overwhelming experience.’

Whatever you think of it, this massive and extensively detailed cathedral is a monumental statement of the confidence, power and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland in the first decades after Irish independence.

The towers and dome of Mullingar Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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