04 September 2018
Christ Church Cathedral,
Waterford: the finest 18th
century church in Ireland
Waterford is unique as an Irish city, not in having two cathedrals, but in having two cathedrals, one Anglican and one Roman Catholic, with the same formal dedication and designed by the same architect. On my way to Kilkenny last Thursday [30 August 2018], I stopped in Waterford to visit both cathedrals.
Both the Church of Ireland cathedral on Cathedral Square – Christ Church Cathedral, or more formally, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, and the Roman Catholic cathedral on Barronstrand Street – Holy Trinity Cathedral, were designed in the neoclassical style by John Roberts (1712-1796), whose imagination had given shape to much of Georgian Waterford.
The Vikings first settled in Waterford in the early 10th century, probably by 914, and their first church, Saint Olaf’s, was built in the late tenth century. A church dedicated to Holy Trinity was built on the site of Christ Church Cathedral in 1050 by Reginald, son of Sigtryg (Sitric), who also gave his name to Reginald’s Tower on the quays.
Although the cathedral’s official name remains the ‘Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity,’ it has been known throughout its history as Christ Church, a Scandinavian designation denoting the principal church in a town or city.
Waterford became a diocese in 1096, when Malchus (Mael Ísu Ua hAinmere), a Benedictine monk from Winchester Abbey, was consecrated Bishop of Waterford in Canterbury by Saint Anselm (1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury (1093-1109). Christ Church became the cathedral of the new city diocese.
Malchus attended the Synod of Rath Breasail as Archbishop of Cashel in 1111, when the links with Canterbury was dissolved and Waterford was incorporated as a diocese into the structures of the Irish Church. Malchus appears to have resigned from Cashel later and returned to Waterford, where he died as Bishop of Waterford in 1135.
Less than 100 years after the Viking cathedral was built, it was the venue in 1170 of the marriage of Strongbow, Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, and Aoife, daughter of Diarmaid Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough), the deposed King of Leinster. This political alliance guaranteed Aoife’s father the support of Anglo-Norman forces in his bid to reclaim his throne, and allowed Strongbow to lay claim to the kingdom when Dermot MacMurrough died.
The Anglo-Normans were in control of Waterford by 1210 and built a new Gothic cathedral in the Early English style. This cathedral stood for over 500 years, until 1773. It consisted of a nave and chancel (added in 1220), separated by a screen, and with side aisles but no transepts.
The cathedral was more than 40 metres long, and the nave was 14 metres wide. The nave was separated from the aisles by an arcade of eight pointed arches on each side, supported on clustered columns, surmounted by a clerestory. There was a large Lady Chapel behind the High Altar.
The base of one of the original support pillars of this Norman Cathedral has been excavated, offering a glimpse of what the interior of the mediaeval cathedral looked like.
Meanwhile, as the new cathedral was being built, the early 13th century was marked by a territorial dispute between the Diocese of Lismore and the Diocese of Waterford, each representing a different cultural and ethnic presence in the area and with one diocese seeking to annex the territory of the other.
Bishop Robert I of Waterford was excommunicated by Pope Innocent III in 1203, and his successor, Bishop David, was murdered in 1209. Pope Innocent III issued a ruling in favour of the Diocese of Lismore in 1211, but Bishop Robert II of Waterford took Bishop Malachias of Lismore as his prisoner and placed him in shackles. For this, Bishop Robert II was also excommunicated by Pope Innocent III, who once again rule in favour of Lismore in 1215, and his decision was confirmed by Pope Honorius III in 1219.
But a Norman bishop, Robert of Bedford, was consecrated for Lismore that year, and the two dioceses lived in harmony with each other until they were united formally by Pope Urban V in 1363. Yet, despite this amalgamation, separated cathedrals continued their existence in Waterford and Lismore.
The Anglo-Normans and their successors, the ‘Old English’ mercantile and political families, prospered in mediaeval Waerford. The cathedral was ornamented and expanded as the years passed, benefitting from the patronage of these local powerful families.
Side chapels were added by these families, including one built by James Rice, who was Mayor of Waterford 11 times in the 15th century, between 1468 and 1489. Rice’s Chapel was dedicated in 1482 to Saint James and Saint Catherine, and was provided for the tomb of James Rice and his wife Katherine Broun.
Rice wanted his tomb to be a reminder of how brief our lives on earth are, and of the transient nature of fame, wealth and power. To emphasise this, the tomb displays a badly decaying corpse crawling with worms, with a frog crawling in and out of the dead man’s ribs.
A surviving section of the Latin inscription reads, ‘I am what you will be; I was what you are now.’ Figures of the apostles and saints adorn the panels at the side of the tomb.
This tomb is an important example of a cadaver monument, depicting the horrors of death and the glory of the saints.
This tomb was removed from the mediaeval cathedral when it was being demolished in the 18th century, and stood in the burial ground opposite the west door until 1880, when it was moved to its present place on the north side of the cathedral.
On the south side of the cathedral, a surviving early 16th century tomb depicts a man in full armour. It is known as the ‘Warrior’s Tomb,’ and probably belongs to a member of the Butler family of Ormonde.
After the Reformation, the Lady Chapel behind the High Altar was converted for use as a parish church for the new Trinity Parish.
For a period in the 1640s, before the Cromwellian siege of Waterford in 1649-1650, the cathedral was used by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Waterford, when Patrick Comerford (1586-1652) was Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (1629-1652).
The copes, chasuble, dalmatic and other vestments which Patrick Comerford had used in Waterford, were never been returned, and a later Roman Catholic bishop, John Brenan, claimed the ecclesiastical ornaments of the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore had been taken away to France by Comerford in 1650. The church finery had disappeared for generations.
In the 18th century, Waterford’s progressive City Corporation came to regard the Anglo-Norman cathedral as old-fashioned and recommended building a new cathedral. William Halfpenny from Bristol was commissioned to design a new cathedral in 1739, but his plans were never developed.
At first, Richard Chenevix, Bishop of Waterford (1746-1779), resisted the next set of proposals to build a new cathedral. But it is said a ruse was devised to change his mind: as he was walking through the cathedral, some rubble was strategically dropped in his path, close enough to shock the bishop, who was soon found to favour building a new cathedral.
Finally, the Norman Gothic cathedral was torn down in 1773, or blown down – it was built so strongly that gunpowder was used for its demolition. The chapels demolished along with it included the Lady Chapel, and those dedicated to Saint Saviour, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Nicholas, Saint Katherine, and Saint Anne.
During the demolition work, the mediaeval vestments missing since Patrick Comerford left for France in 1651, were found in the crypt. In a gesture of ecumenical goodwill centuries before ecumenism became standard practice, they were presented by Bishop Chenevix to his Roman Catholic counterpart, Bishop Peter Creagh, and they are now kept in the Museum of Treasures in Waterford and the National Museum in Dublin.
The architect of the new cathedral was John Roberts, who was responsible for much of Georgian Waterford, including the Bishop’s Palace. Once of his great-grandsons was Field-Marshal Earl Roberts (1832-1914).
Work started on building a new cathedral in 1773 and it was completed in 1779, at a total cost of £5,397.
Roberts also designed the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Barronstrand Street, giving Waterford the unique distinction as a city where the Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals were designed by the one architect.
By 1780 – the date Christ Church Cathedral was completed – Irish Protestants were rejecting the Penal Laws as bigoted and unjust. By 1796 – the date of the foundation of the Roman Catholic Cathedral -- most of the important Penal Laws had been repealed in an important step leading to Catholic Emancipation. In that year, Waterford got its first bridge, which bore a plaque marking the end of religious division.
Roberts designed Christ Church Cathedral as an aisled rectangle, 51.8 metres long, 17.6 metres wide, and 12.1 metres high, with a shallow chancel and seating for 1,100 people. It was built in the neo-classical style the was fashionable in the Georgian period, and appears to have been inspired by Christopher Wren’s churches built in London a century earlier.
The exterior is notable for its wonderful tower and spire with its classical detailing. Inside, the cathedral has a fine Georgian interior.
Christ Church is a detached, nine-bay, double-height neo-classical cathedral, built in 1773-1779. It has an eight-bay, double-height nave with a single-bay, double-height chancel at the east end, and a single-bay, four-stage entrance tower at the west end.
The entrance or west front displays high quality local stone masonry, particularly in the carved detailing in the portico. This west front and entrance are designed on a square plan with a pedimented tetrastyle portico at the first stage, a polygonal spire over this, and two single-bay, double-height, flanking end bays.
Inside, the cathedral is well preserved, and includes stucco plasterwork of artistic importance and vaulted ceilings of technical interest.
Inside, there is a diagonal-tiled marble floor, as well as carved timber pews, arcades at the side aisles with Corinthian columns on polished pink marble pedestals, a coved ceiling with decorative plasterwork, timber panelled wainscoting and groin vaulted ceilings in the side aisles with foliate plasterwork, and a classical-style reredos in the chancel.
One of the surviving monuments from the last days of the old cathedral was erected to Nicholas Fitzgerald in 1770. It shows Piety sitting on a sarcophagus of Kilkenny marble, with a medallion showing Nicholas Fitzgerald family depicted as a Roman patrician, and Father Time holding a scythe in one hand and an hour glass in the other.
A fire in the organ gallery on 25 October 1815 devastated the magnificent organ and much of the surrounding woodwork. The cathedral was closed for three years for repairs and rebuilding, Thomas Elliott was commissioned to build a new organ, and the cathedral reopened 200 years ago on 10 May 1818.
A ring of eight bells was installed in the tower in 1872; the spire was demolished two years later, and a new spire was erected in 1880. Further changes were made in 1885-1891 by the Belfast-born architect Sir Thomas Drew (1838-1910). His other works included Saint Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, Rathmines Town Hall, the Graduates’ Memorial Building in Trinity College Dublin, and the Ulster Bank in College Green, Dublin.
In Drew’s restoration, the square pews and galleries were removed and the ground floor windows were blocked up. A new case was built for the organ and it was taken down from its gallery and squeezed into the left-hand corner of the cathedral.
The oak altar was presented by the Goff family in 1924. There is no east window, and instead the east wall is decorated in plaster: three panels below a pediment are framed by egg-and-dart moulding; at the centre of the reredos, a sunburst enshrines the Hebrew letters YHWH, the Hebrew name of God.
A two-light window by AE Child (1875-1939) in the south wall dates from 1929-1930 and is considered his finest work. AE Child was the manager of An Túr Gloine and tutored a generation of Irish stained-glass artists, including Harry Clarke, Ethel Rhind, Catherine O’Brien, Michael Healy and Evie Hone.
This window, depicting ‘Sorrow and Joy,’ was commissioned by the Denny family. The inscription reads, ‘Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning’ (Psalm 30: 5).
The organ was restored by Kenneth Jones in 2003 and a new gallery was built to house it in its original position.
The architectural historian Mark Girouard says Christ Church is the finest 18th century church building in Ireland. A chapter of the Irish Georgian Society was formed in 2014 by the Very Revd Maria Jansson, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, and the Very Revd Paul Waldron, Administrator of Holy Trinity Cathedral, to promote Waterford’s unique twin cathedrals. The chapter was launched on 26 January 2014, marking the tercentenary of the birth of John Roberts.
The cathedral roof was damaged extensively last year during Hurricane Ophelia in October 2017.
Christ Church Cathedral has been a focal point for Christian worship in Waterford for almost 1,000 years. But it costs €125,000 a year to keep this cathedral open.