18 September 2018

Saint Ailbe’s Church
continues 1,500 years of
Christian worship in Emly

Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, Co Tipperary, stands beside the site of the former Cathedral of Alibeus, dismantled in 1877 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

When the Church of Ireland realised the Cathedral of Saint Alibeus in Emly, Co Tipperary, was surplus to its needs and a drain on finances burden, the local Roman Catholic Parish priest, Canon Maurice Power, offered to buy the empty cathedral for £2,000.

However, his offer was rejected by Bishop Maurice Fitzgerald Day … on supposedly legal grounds, although they were never fully explained. These were the days immediately after disestablishment, and the grounds for Bishop Day’s refusal were flimsy, if not a reflection long-time tensions between the two traditions.

The Roman Catholic Church already had a small, pre-famine chapel in Emly, built in 1809, 20 years before Catholic Emancipation, and the cathedral would have provided an appropriate replacement. But the cathedral was demolished in 1877, and in 1880-1883 Canon Power built a new Roman Catholic parish church, dedicated to Saint Ailbe, beside the grounds of the cathedral.

Inside Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, Co Tipperary, designed by Pugin’s son-in-law, George Coppinger Ashlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

In the aftermath of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Emly had an unsettled history from the mid-16th to the early 18th century. In that period, there were only three Bishops of Emly and one vicar apostolic, and one of these had been executed.

Dermot O’Hurley, who was born at Emly ca 1530, spent much of his time working in Leuven and Rheims as a professor of philosophy and then a professor of law. He was still a layman when he was appointed Archbishop of Cashel by Pope Gregory XIII in 1581. He was ordained and consecrated in 1583 and returned to Ireland that year, landing at Holmpatrick Strand in Skerries, Co Dublin.

But he never reached his diocese. Instead, he was arrested in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, imprisoned and tried for treason. He was tortured and then executed in June 1584, and was buried in Saint Kevin’s churchyard in Camden Row, Dublin.

Terence Albert O’Brien, a Dominican friar from Cappamore, Co Limerick, was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Emly, with the right of succession, and he was consecrate an on 11 March 1647 by the Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Rinuccini. At the time, the Papacy did not know Bishop Maurice O’Hurley had already died in office in September 1646.

Terence O’Brien was consecrated bishop on 2 April 1648.He actively supported the military policy of the Confederation of Kilkenny, and was captured by the Cromwellian troops after the siege of Limerick. He was tried before a court martial and sentenced to execution by Cromwell’s son-in-law, General Henry Ireton. He was executed in Limerick on 26 November 1651.

Terence O’Brien was the last Bishop of Emly. Although James Stritch was nominated Bishop of Emly in 1695, he never took possession of the see.

From then on, there were long periods when Emly was vacant or administered by the Archbishops of Cashel. Edward Comerford was appointed Archbishop of Cashel on 14 November 1695 and administrator of Emly and Kilfenora. He lived in Thurles and died in office on 21 February 1710.

He was succeeded by Archbishop Christopher Butler, and in 1718 Pope Clement XI decreed the union of the sees of Cashel and Emly.

The foundation stone of Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, was laid by Archbishop Croke of Cashel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Ailbe’s Church in Emly was designed by Pugin’s son-in-law, George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), and was built of limestone from quarries at Hospital and Knockcarron, Co Limerick, in 1880-1882 by Healy Brothers of Tralee, Co Kerry, at a total cost of £14,500.

The church was built close to and parallel with the site of the demolished Church of Ireland Cathedral of Saint Alibeus. The foundation stone was laid by Thomas Croke, Archbishop of Cashel (1875-1902), on 30 May 1880, and the church was dedicated to Saint Ailbe on 6 January 1883.

Saint Ailbe’s is a robust Gothic Revival church and its architectural quality is seen in its scale, form, features and materials, with an interesting combination of rock-faced rubble limestone and ashlar dressings.

This is a cruciform church with clerestories, a nave, aisles and chancel, and a four-stage bell tower with a spire on the north side. The elaborate composition at the entrance front links the portal doorway and the rose window above.

The East Window in Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, with Bishop Terence O’Brien (left) Archbishop Dermot O’Hurley (right), and their episcopal coats-of-arms below (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Outside, there are limestone cross finials, polychrome limestone walls, a carved limestone chimneystack, a cut limestone plinth course and stepped buttresses. The rose window at the front is set into a round-arch recess with an ornate keystone that supports the projecting base of a pointed-arch recess with statue of Saint Ailbe.

The sculpted tympanum has trefoil-arch recesses with statues over the pair of square-headed door openings, which have moulded architraves, carved recessed shoulders and timber battened doors flanked by colonnettes with dove and floral motifs on the capitals. Colonnettes support the decorative archivolt to the tympanum and all are flanked in turn by a second pair of colonnettes that continue upward to support the archivolt of the overall composition.

Inside, the church has a five-bay nave and four-bay side aisles, double lancet and triple lancet windows, rose windows, cinquefoil windows, and a pointed-arch five-light East Window with geometrical limestone tracery. There are colonettes with dressed stone capitals and floral capitals, and a visually magnificent array of stained-glass windows.

The three-light window by Alfred Ernest Child (1905) depicting the Archangel Michael (centre), the Archangel Gabriel (left) and the Archangel Raphael (right) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018).

The main altar and the side altars have ornate sculpted marble reredoses. The pointed arcades of the side aisles with continuous hood-moulding and with human head stops, over clustered marble columns with vegetal capitals. The decorative marble gallery over the entrance end of the nave is supported on an arcade of brown marble columns. There is a timber scissors truss roof with braces supported on ornate corbels linked by moulded string courses.

The sandstone water font at the West Door is probably the mediaeval font from the early cathedral that stood in the adjoining churchyard.

The stained-glass windows are the work of the Mayer Studios of Munich and Dublin, James Watson of Youghal, Sarah Purser and Alfred Ernest Child, Michael Healy, Catherine O’Brien and other members of An Túr Gloine studios.

The five-light East Window depicts (from left), Bishop O’Brien, Saint Patrick, Saint Ailbe, Saint Bridget, and Archbishop O’Hurley. The episcopal coats-of-arms of Bishop O’Brien and Archbishop O’Hurley can be seen beneath their depictions.

Dermot O’Hurley and Terence Albert O’Brien were among the 17 Irish martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II in Rome on 27 September 1992.

A window in Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, depicting the Visitation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A window in Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, depicting the Flight into Egypt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018).

A window in Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, depicting the young Christ in the family home and workshop in Nazareth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A window in Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, depicting the Last Supper … notice Judas to the right without a halo but holding the purse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A window in Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, depicting the Garden in Gethsemane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A two-light window in Saint Ailbe’s Church, Emly, including Christ the King (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This morning: The Cathedral of Saint Alibeus, Emly, Co Tipperary.

A search in Emly for
the site of the lost
Cathedral of Saint Alibeus

The entrance to the graveyard in Emly, Co Tipperary … the site of the former Cathedral of Alibeus, dismantled in 1877 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

On the way from Askeaton to Dublin last week to catch a flight to Berlin, two of us made an unplanned or unscheduled diversion and ended up in the small village of Emly, 14 km west of Tipperary town, in search of the lost Cathedral of Saint Alibeus.

Although Emly is a small town or village today, Emly once gave its name to a separate diocese. In the Roman Catholic Church, it has been subsumed into the Diocese of Cashel, while in the Church of Ireland Emly has been part of the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe since 1976.

But there is no cathedral in Emly itself, and instead I found the site of the former Church of Ireland cathedral, and an interesting Roman Catholic parish church, designed in the Gothic Revival style by Ashlin and Coleman. Local lore claims Emly was recorded by Ptolemy under the name of Imlagh as one of the three principal towns of Ireland.

Saint Ailbe founded a monastery in Emly in the sixth century, although he is often claimed as the principal ‘pre-Patrician’ saint, alongside Saint Ciarán of Seir-Kieran, Saint Declan of Ardmore, Saint Abbán of Moyarney and Saint Ibar of Beggerin near Wexford.

He is venerated as one of the four great patrons of Ireland, and his feast day is 12 September. However, little that can be regarded as historically factual or accurate is known about Saint Ailbe.

In some Irish sources from the eighth century, he is regarded as the first bishop and later patron saint of Emly. Later Welsh sources say he baptised Saint David and some late Welsh sources give him a local Welsh genealogy, making him an Ancient Briton.

Saint Ailbe’s Cross in the graveyard at the site of Emly Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The life of Saint Ailbe is included in the Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, a Latin collection of the lives of mediaeval Irish saints compiled in the 14th century. Professor Richard Sharpe of Oxford suggests the Life of Ailbe was originally composed in the eighth century to advance the claims of the Éoganacht Church of Emly and that the Law of Ailbe (784) may have been a response to the Law of Patrick and the claims of Armagh.

Some accounts say Munster was entrusted to Saint Ailbe by Saint Patrick, so that he is called a ‘second Patrick and patron of Munster’ (secundus Patricius et patronus Mumenie).

Many sources say he died in the year 527, and after his death, it is said, there was a succession of Abbots of Emly, some of whom were consecrated bishop.

Some of those abbots or bishops also exercised secular power at Cashel as Kings of Munster, and the cathedral and round tower were burned or pillaged in successive waves of attacks between 845 and 1192.

Olchobhair Mac Cionoatha, who succeeded in 847 as Bishop of Emly also became King of Munster with the support of Lorcan, son of the King of Leinster. He killed 1,200 Vikings who had plundered the monastery in 845, and another 1,700 Vikings were slain in a subsequent battle in which Olchobhair was killed.

The Diocese of Emly was one of the 24 dioceses established in Ireland at the Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1118. When Moelmorda was Bishop of Emly, the abbey was plundered in 1123 and the mitre of Saint Ailbe, which had been preserved for many ages, was burnt.

The Diocese of Emly survived, however, and it remained the Metropolitan See of Munster until 1152. Its primacy was supplanted by Cashel in 1152, when its boundaries were formally marked out at the Synod of Kells, consisting of a small portion of present-day west Co Tipperary, east Co Limerick and south-east Co Clare.

Bishop Christian, who succeeded in 1236, was a benefactor to the cathedral church. But by 1363, the cathedral was in a bad state of repair. The diocese was neglected in the 15th century, when at least three of the bishops were absentees, spending their time in England as suffragan bishops, including Robert Windell, who was an assistant bishop in the dioceses of Norwich, Worcester and Salisbury, and Robert Portland and Donatus Mac Briain, who both assisted in the Diocese of Worcester.

Bishop Thomas O’Hurley (1505-1542), who swore the oath of Supremacy in 1539, erected a college of secular priests in the cathedral.

Raymond de Burgh or Burke was the last Bishop of Emly (1553-1562) before it was united with Cashel. He was appointed by the Pope in 1552, and he is recognised in both the Church of Ireland Roman Catholic successions. He died in 1562, and the diocese remained vacant till 1568, when Emly was united by an act of parliament to the Archbishopric of Cashel.

The old graveyard in Emly is on the site of the former site of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

After the Diocese of Emly was united with Cashel, the town of Emly, once a market town, gradually declined, until it became a village.

The cathedral was in ruins in 1607, and although an order was made to rebuild it in 1611, not much work had been carried out by 1615. The nave was still in ruins in 1620, further damage was caused during the rebellion of 1641, when the Precentor of Emly, Robert Jones, was robbed of his books and property and dispossessed.

By 1680, the cathedral was still only partly roofed, and by 1693 it was described as being in a bad state of repair.

Once again, an order was made in 1715 to repair the cathedral, including the erection of a pulpit, a throne for the Archbishop of Cashel, and four stalls for the cathedral dignitaries. New windows were inserted in 1780, and a new glebe house was built close to the cathedral in 1782-1784. By then, the floors of the cathedral were well flagged on the north side, but there was an earth floor on the south side, there were no pews, and soon damp was seeping in through the ceilings and the walls and the plaster was flaking off.

The former cathedral font, now at the west doors of the 19th century parish church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Sir Richard Morrison submitted estimates for repairs to the cathedral in 1790, and by 1792 it was said to be in ‘elegant order.’ But the structural repairs were only temporary, and in 1811 the decayed roof and ceiling were beyond repair.

The Dean and Chapter decided to pull down the old cathedral and replace it with a new building. The old cathedral was pulled down, and services were held in the rectory while the Limerick-based architects, the brothers James Pain (1779-1877) and George Richard pain (1793-1838) rebuilt the cathedral in 1826-1827.

This was ‘a handsome structure of hewn stone, in the later English style, with a lofty spire’ at a cost of ‘£2,521.11.9., defrayed from a surplus of the economy fund, which had been for several years accumulating for that purpose’ (Samuel Lewis).

The work on the Pain brothers’ cathedral was supervised by the Tipperary-based architect Charles Frederick Anderson (1802-1869), who also designed Saint Patrick’s College, Thurles. He later became a Roman Catholic and emigrated to the US.

In the first half of the 19th century, the chapter of Emly consisted of a dean, precentor, chancellor, archdeacon, treasurer, and the four prebendaries of Dallardstown, Killenellick, Doon, and Lattin, and the diocese had 17 benefices, of which nine were unions of two or more parishes, and eight were single parishes.

Saint Ailbe’s Well in the former cathedral grounds in Emly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Under the Church Temporalities Act, Cashel and Emly was united with Waterford and Lismore in 1833.

But Emly Cathedral was damaged in a storm in 1839, and although it was repaired in 1853, it was no longer functioning as a cathedral or even as a regularly used parish church.

The last Dean of Emly was William Alexander (1824-1911), who was dean in 1864-1867. However, this was a sinecure, and he and his wife, the hymnwriter Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), never lived in Emly, living instead at their rectory in Strabane. He resigned as Dean of Emly in 1867 when he became Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, and was a strong and vocal opponent in the House of Lords of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Later he became Archbishop of Armagh (1896-1911).

Meanwhile, no new Dean of Emly was appointed, and by 1876, the cathedral was completely disused.

Duhig House, once the cathedral sexton’s house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The local Roman Catholic Parish priest, Canon Maurice Power, offered to buy the empty cathedral for £2,000, but his offer was rejected by Bishop Maurice Fitzgerald Day. Instead, the cathedral was demolished in 1877, and in 1880-1883 Canon Power built a new Roman Catholic parish church, dedicated to Saint Ailbe, beside the grounds of the cathedral.

With the reorganisation of dioceses in the Church of Ireland in 1976, the Diocese of Emly was transferred to the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe.

I found last week that there is very little to see of the former cathedral today. Rising ground in the old graveyard beside Canon Power’s church marks the site of the cathedral.

In their book The Parish of Emly, Michael and Liam O’Dwyer write, ‘Despite the complete obliteration of the layout of the original site we may presume that the monastic enclosure coincided with the present graveyard. The presence of a well and an inscribed cross, both tradition ally associated with Saint Ailbe, and the fact that successive cathedrals occupied the area near the middle of the graveyard, are sufficient evidence for this assumption.’

In the churchyard is a large sandstone cross with a rough marking is known as ‘Saint Ailbe’s Cross’ and is said to mark the saint’s grave. A well, called Saint Ailbe’s Well, is completely encased by a concrete cover and a manhole, but was once the focus of a local ‘pattern’ on 12 September.

The fragments of the O’Hurley monument, once in the cathedral, are set in the boundary wall separating the parish church and the graveyard (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Fragments of the mediaeval cathedral were brought back to Emly in 1960, including a stone tablet with the coat-of-arms of Sir Maurice Hurley, which had been erected in the cathedral in 1632 but removed in 1877, a memorial with a Latin inscription of 19 lines, and the former Baptismal font, which now stands outside the west doors of the church.

Built into the wall beside the gates into the graveyard, a stone inscribed in Latin reads: Locus in quem intras terra sancta est 1641 R Iones Pcent (‘The place you enter is holy ground 1641 R Jones Precentor’). Today’s Precentor in the joint chapter of the diocese had found evidence of one of my predecessors.

The carved stone set in the wall of the cathedral churchyard by the precentor, Robert Jones, in 1641 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This evening: Saint Ailbe’s Roman Catholic Parish Church, Emly, Co Tipperary.