20 November 2019

Sligo’s Cathedral: the only
Romanesque Revival
cathedral built in Ireland

Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Temple Street, Sligo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I was at a family wedding last weekend in Sligo in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Temple Street, the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Elphin. The cathedral and its tower dominate the skyline of Sligo, and the chimes of its bells peal out over the city, with Ben Bulben in the background.

The Diocese of Elphin is said to date from the fourth century. According to tradition, Ono son of Oengus offered a house to Saint Patrick ca 450, who renamed it Ail Fionn (‘Rock of the Clear Spring’) and placed his disciple, Saint Assicus, in charge.

However, if a monastery survived at Elphin, it was not until the 12th century that Elphin was established as a diocese of East Connacht.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Elphin did not have a cathedral until the mid-19th century, but Saint John’s, a small parish church near the site of the Cheshire Home, had served as the pro-cathedral from 1827.

Bishop Laurence Gillooly (1819-1895) was appointed co-adjutor bishop in 1856 and succeeded George Browne as Bishop of Elphin in 1858. Sligo was then a growing, thriving town, and Bishop Gillooly became the inspiring figure in planning and building a new cathedral there.

Laurence Gillooly was born near Roscommon, studied in Paris and was ordained a Vincentian priest in 1847. In 1859, a year after becoming diocesan bishop, he secured a renewable lease from Sir Gilbert King of two adjacent properties close to the Lungy, and beside Saint John’s Church which would become the Church of Ireland cathedral in 1961. One of these properties, known as the Bowling Green, became the site of the new Roman Catholic cathedral.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was designed by the English-born architect George Goldie (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The cathedral was designed by the English-born architect George Goldie (1828-1887), who also designed Saint Saviour’s Dominican Church, Waterford (1876-1877). Goldie also remodelled the interior and exterior of Saint Saviour’s, the Dominican church in Limerick, and designed the High Altar and reredos in the Redemptorist Church at Mount Saint Alphonsus in Limerick.

Goldie was born in York, the grandson of the architect Joseph Bonomi the Elder. He was educated at Saint Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw, in Durham, and trained as an architect with John Grey Weightman and Matthew Ellison Hadfield of Sheffield, in 1845-1850, and then worked with them as a partner.

Goldie was joined in his architectural partnership in 1880 by his son Edward Goldie (1856-1921), whose work includes Hawkesyard Priory in Armitage, near Rugeley and six miles north-west of Lichfield, built for the Dominicans in 1896-1914, and which I knew in my late teens and early 20s.

Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, looking west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The cathedral was built in a Norman style, and it is the only Romanesque Revival cathedral among the cathedrals of the 19th and 20th centuries in Ireland, built at a time when the fashion was for Gothic cathedrals and churches.

The main contractor was Joseph Clarence of Ballisodare, and Bishop Gillooly took complete charge of the building project when work began in 1869. The cathedral is built of cut limestone and is modelled on a Norman-Romano-Byzantine style.

Goldie designed this cathedral in the form of a basilica. Contemporaries called his design ‘Norman,’ but it is in a round-arched style that includes elements of English, German and Irish Romanesque.

The tympanum over the west door of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The cathedral has a square, pyramid-capped tower, that reaches a height of 70 metres, and supporting turrets at the west end. The tower incorporates the main entrance to the building. The tympanum over the main door has a series of scriptural figures sculpted in alto rellevo.

The three-faced clock tower, designed by Gillet & Bland of London in 1877, is one of the finest examples in Ireland of a 19th-century turret clock, and the carillon comprises nine bells. The largest bell weighs 1,456 kg and is dedicated to Our Lady. All the bells are beautifully decorated with the harp and shamrock and the chimes are a familiar sound to everyone in Sligo.

The arches are supported by 18 massive stone pillars of finely chiselled limestone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The cruciform cathedral is 69 metres long, 20 metres wide at the nave and aisles, 35 metres wide at the transepts, and 19 metres high to the apex of the nave roof.

This is a very spacious cathedral with a clerestory or side gallery on the both sides, a triforium, and a choir loft.

The arches, supported by 18 massive stone pillars of finely chiselled limestone, connect the nave and the aisles, and the aisles continue to form an ambulatory around the apse.

The original High Altar and its brass baldachino have been preserved (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The original high altar was considered one of the finest in Ireland, surmounted by a brass baldachino and reached by six marble steps. The tabernacle was flanked by two carved panels depicting the sacrifices of Abraham and Melchizedek.

The baldachino and high altar recall, in beaten brass, the artisanship of Asicus, the first Abbot-Bishop of Elphin and Patron of the Diocese.

The Bishop’s Chair or cathedra has a prominent place in the sanctuary set against a double pilaster, with the corresponding pilaster on the opposite side displaying the diocesan coat of arms in marble.

The two side altars in the transepts are dedicated to the Sacred Heart and to Saint Joseph.

The baptistry in the apse was originally intended as a mortuary chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The baptistry in the apse was originally intended as a mortuary chapel, but was never used for this purpose and was converted into a baptistry in 1975.

Bishop Laurence Gillooly (1895), Bishop John Clancy (1912) and Bishop Bernard Coyne (1926) were buried in the crypt beneath the baptistry.

One of the attractions of the cathedral is the stained-glass windows by Loblin of Tours in France. Gillooly’s choice of Loblin instead of the popular Meyer of Munich was probably influenced by his education in Paris.

A carved wooden statue of Saint Assicus, the legendary founder of the Diocese of Elphin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A carved wooden statue of Saint Assicus, the legendary founder of the Diocese of Elphin, was found in an antique shop in London and presented to the cathedral in 1962.

The cathedral was solemnly opened on 26 July 1874 by Cardinal Paul Cullen of Dublin, was consecrated on 1 July 1897 and dedicated to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The cathedral might have been dedicated to Saint Assicus or Saint Patrick, who associated with the stories of the foundation of the Diocese of Elphin, or to Saint John, continuing the name of the old pro-cathedral. But the cathedral in Elphin was dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin, and Gillooly, who had been a vocal defender of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I, was strongly influenced by French devotions to the Immaculate Conception.

Since it was built, the cathedral has undergone extensive renovations on two occasions. The most recent remodelling of the sanctuary in 1974-1975, to meet the needs of post-Vatican II liturgy. This is the work of the architects William H Byrne & Son and Patrick Rooney & Associates, and included extending the sanctuary at the level of the high altar.

A new altar, occupying a central position on a raised dais, is of cut limestone and complimented by a matching ambo and presider’s chair. The original high altar has been preserved, along with its brass baldachino.

The cathedral was reconsecrated on 7 December 1975 and solemnly opened the following day.

The present Bishop of Elphin is the Most Reverend Kevin Doran, who was appointed in 2014.

The cathedral was reconsecrated and reopened in December 1975 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
6, Sir Moses Montefiore and
a decorative Torah Mantle

A Torah Mantle from the Bethaus Montefiore or Montefiore Prayer House in the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I have decided over these few days or weeks to re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

A Torah Mantle and Torah finials in the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse come from the Bethaus Montefiore or Montefiore Prayer House. The Torah Mantle was dates from the 70th birthday of the Emperor Franz Joseph in 1900.

As well as impressive synagogues, 19th century Vienna had a number of smaller prayer houses and prayer rooms in apartment buildings. One of these was the Montefiore Prayer House at Taborstrasse 38. It was founded by the Association of Nordwest-bahnhof Baggage Porters and was endowed by the philanthropist and financier Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) and his family.

The Montefiore family is descended from a line of wealthy Sephardi Jews who were diplomats and bankers throughout Europe and who originated in Morocco and Italy.

After the Alhambra Decree against the Jews in Spain in 1492, some members of the Montefiore family stayed in Spain, although they remained secretly Jewish. During the reign of Philip II of Spain, one of them became governor of a province of Mexico, where he and his family were denounced by a political rival and tortured by the Inquisition. Two teenaged girls were burned alive, in Mexico City while a son escaped to Italy and changed his name to Montefiore.

The 19th century international financier and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore was born on 24 October 1784 in Livorno, Italy, while his parents were visiting their Italian family. The Montefiore family returned to London where Moses grew up, was educated, and began his career in business.

He became one of the 12 ‘Jew Brokers’ – Jewish merchants who had the right to trade on the London exchange. In 1812, he married Judith Cohen, whose sister married Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836), a banker and financier and Austrian baron. The two brothers-in-law became successful business partners, until Moses Montefiore retired from business in 1824 and began a civic career.

After retiring, he devoted his life to philanthropy and assisting Jews around the world. He invested much money and effort to helping Jews around the world, travelling to Syria, Italy, Russia, Morocco, and Romania to protect Jews from blood libels, pogroms, and other troubles.

He was a member of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, and president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in 1835-1874.

He also donated large sums to help industry, education and health among the Jewish community in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. He built Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish neighbourhood outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Yemin Moshe neighbourhood was named after him.

Montefiore was in the Damascus affair of 1840, when 13 Jews from Damascus were accused of murdering a monk for ritual purposes. Following these charges, the accused were tortured and riots broke out against the Jewish community.

The affair drew international attention, and Western leaders and personalities, including Sir Moses Montefiore, petitioned the Sultan in Constantinople to free the imprisoned Jews and to stop the blood libel accusations.

Montefiore visited St Petersburg in 1846 to meet the Tsar following an imperial decree to exile Jews to the Russian interior. The decree was later cancelled, and Montefiore went on to visit Eastern Russia to examine the situation of the Jews there.

Montefiore became involved in a case in Rome in 1858, when Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy, was seized from his Jewish family in Bologna by the Pope’s soldiers after a servant, Anna Morisi, said she had baptised the boy when he was dangerously ill.

Papal law forbade Christian children being raised in non-Christian homes, and Edgardo was taken by the Church to be brought up a Christian. The affair caused international outrage, and many world leaders, including Montefiore, petitioned the Pope to return the child to his family. However, the Pope refused to meet Montefiore, and despite many attempts he returned to London unsuccessful.

Mortara remained a Christian and was ordained in France at the age of 21. He spent the rest of his life outside Italy – in Austria, France and Belgium – and died in Belgium on 11 March 1940, at the age of 88.

Montefiore was also involved in a case in Morocco in 1863, when a Jewish boy was tortured and confessed to the killing of a Spaniard. The Jewish community appealed to Montefiore for help. Following his intervention, the Moroccan sultan granted a proclamation protecting the Moroccan Jewish minority, and the prisoners were released along with a Moroccan who was unjustly accused of killing two Jews.

Montefiore was renowned for his quick and sharp wit. An apocryphal anecdote tells how Montefiore was seated at a dinner party beside an aristocrat who was a known anti-Semite. The aristocrat told Montefiore he had just visited Japan, where ‘they have neither pigs nor Jews.’ Montefiore responded immediately, ‘In that case, you and I should go there, so it will have a sample of each.’

A photograph of Sir Moses Montefiore published in Vienna in 1884 celebrated his 100th birthday. A wreath around his portrait bears the names of places where he helped Jews: Jerusalem, Damascus, Constantinople, Morocco, Rome and St Petersburg.

Underneath his portrait, Montefiore’s coat of arms shows him as both a patriotic Englishman and a proud Jew. This coat of arms features a lion, a deer, two Stars of David, a cedar tree, and some small hills. The lion and deer are holding flags bearing the word ‘Jerusalem’ written in Hebrew. At the bottom is his motto, ‘Think and Thank.’

His signature appears underneath the image, and the caption in German reads: ‘To celebrate the 100th birthday of Moses Montefiore, 1884.’ He died on 28 July 1885 at the age of 100.

The Jewish cemetery in Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin, is dedicated to Montefiore. But there is another, interesting Irish connection. Sir Moses Montefiore is a great-great-uncle of Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore, the Cambridge historian, television presenter and author of popular history books and novels. His father was Stephen Eric Sebag Montefiore (1926-2014) and his mother was (Phyllis) April Sebag-Montefiore, nee Jaffé (1927-2019).

April Jaffé comes from a Lithuanian Jewish family of scholars. Her parents fled the Russian Empire in the early 20th century. They bought tickets for New York, but were cheated and were dropped off at Cork. Following the Limerick boycott in 1904, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s grandfather, Henry Jaffé, left Limerick and moved to Newcastle upon Tyne.

But Henry Jaffé’s parents, Benjamin and Rachel Jaffé stayed in Limerick and were living in Catherine Street in 1911. Marcus and Leah Jaffé also lived at the same address, and Marcus Jaffé was still practising was a dentist in Limerick in 1925.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s non-fiction include: Catherine the Great and Potemkin (2001); Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003); Young Stalin (2007); Monsters: History’s Most Evil Men and Women (2008); Jerusalem: The Biography (2011); Titans of History (2012); and The Romanovs 1613-1918 (2016).

His television documentary series include: Jerusalem: The Making of a Holy City (2011); Rome: A History of the Eternal City (2012); Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities (2013); Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain (2015); and Vienna: Empire, Dynasty And Dream (2016).

A photograph of Sir Moses Montefiore published in Vienna in 1884 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.