21 November 2019

Saint John’s, Sligo:
from mediaeval parish
church to cathedral

The Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist … the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Sligo since 1961 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Saint John the Baptist Cathedral, Sligo, or more properly the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist, is also known as Sligo Cathedral and is one of two cathedral churches in the Church of Ireland Diocese of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh – the other cathedral in the diocese is Saint Fethlimidh’s Cathedral in Kilmore, Co Cavan.

I visited the cathedral last weekend while I was attending a family wedding in the neighbouring Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Saint John’s Cathedral on John Street is almost certainly built on the site of a mediaeval hospital and parish church, founded in the 13th or early 14th century and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Some of this 13th century work is likely to be incorporated in the west tower of the present cathedral.

A royal visitation of Sligo in the early 17th century reported the church was ‘recently repaired.’ However, during the armed conflicts later that century, the church was used as the military headquarters of insurgent forces.

Richard Cassels rebuilt Saint John’s Church in the 1730s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

When the German-born architect Richard Cassel (1690-1751), came to Sligo in 1730 to design Hazelwood House for Colonel Owen Wynne, he was also commissioned by the new Rector of Sligo, the Revd Eubele Ormsby, to rebuild Saint John’s Church.

Cassels was considered one of the greatest archiects working in Ireland at the time. He was responsible for designing of many prestigious buildings in Ireland at the time, including Leinster House, Dublin; the Dining Hall in Trinity College, Dublin; Powerscourt House, Co Wicklow; Russborough House, near Blessington, Co Wicklow; Carton House, Co Kildare; Westport House, Co Mayo; and the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. But he designed only three churches in Ireland: Knockbreda Parish Church, Belfast, the now-demolished old Parish Church of Castlebar, Co Mayo, and Saint John’s Church, Sligo.

The mediaeval church in Sligo was demolished, and in his designs for a new Saint John’s Church Cassel was greatly influenced by the basilica pattern in early Roman architecture.

Saint John’s Church was remodelled in a Gothic style in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In subsequent building modifications in 1812 and 1883, the external appearance was substantially altered. The original Romanesque windows, with their round arches, were replaced, battlements and small towers were added, and the chancel was extended.

Some of the former Romanesque windows may still be seen in the west tower, but the church looks more like a fantasy Gothic castle.

The grave of William and Elizabeth Pollexfen, grandparents of William Butler Yeats, in Saint John’s Church churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This was the parish church attended by William and Elizabeth Pollexfen, grandparents of the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and the painter Jack B Yeats (1871-1957). William Pollexfen was a well-known shipowner who also ran mills in Sligo and Ballisodare, and the family lived nearby in Merville.

William Pollexfen was originally from Devon and he married Elizabeth Middleton of Rosses Point in Saint John’s Church, Sligo, on 4 May 1837. Their eldest daughter, Susan Mary, married John Butler Yeats, father of the poet and the painter, in Saint John’s Church on 19 September 1863.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the village of Elphin, south Co Roscommon, suffered severe storm damage in February 1957. A bill passed in the General Synod in 1958 moved the seat of Dioceses of Elphin and Ardagh to Saint John’s Church, Sligo, and the wrecked cathedral in Elphin was abandoned by the Church of Ireland in 1961.

Saint John’s Church, Sligo, became the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist on 25 October 1961. The former choir stalls were removed to make way for a new bishop’s throne and chapter stalls, the only indication of the building’s status as a cathedral.

An exhibition board outlining the history of the connection between Saint John’s and Bram Stoker’s mother, Charlotte Thornley, and her family, was unveiled in the cathedral by Dacre Stoker, the great-nephew of Bram Stoker, last month [23 October].

In deference to tradition, the dean is not known as the Dean of Sligo, but is still styled ‘Dean of Elphin and Ardagh.’ The Very Revd Arfon Williams has been the Dean of Elphin and Ardagh and Rector of Sligo since 2004. The other churches in the Sligo group of parishes are Saint Anne’s, Strandhill, and Rosses Point, Co Sligo.

Saint John’s Cathedral seen from the grounds of its neighbour, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
7, Theodor Herzl and
the cycle of contradictions

Theodor Herzl’s bicycle 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.

Wherever you go in the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse, it is impossible to ignore Theodor Herzl’s bicycle, which hangs suspended high in the atrium.

Although anti-Semitism was rampant throughout Vienna at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, prominent Jews in the city included the founder of modern political Zionism Theodor Herzl, the father of modern psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the composer Gustav Mahler, and the author, dramatist and medical doctor Arthur Schnitzler.

A portrait of Theodor Herzl in the Jewish Museum in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) was born in Pest in east Budapest and claimed to be a direct descendant of the Greek Kabbalist Joseph Taitazak, who was expelled from Spain with his family by the Inquisition in 1492, and moved to Thessaloniki where he was a rabbi in the 16th century. The family moved to Vienna in 1878, and Theodor Herzl lived there for the rest of his life.

An exhibition in the Jewish Museum illustrates how Theodor Herzl ‘is a good illustration of the contradictions of the time.’ In 1896, he formulated two visions that could not have been more dissimilar. In a feature article, he enthused about cycling in Vienna, which for him was a symbol of progress and freedom.

His optimism about progress and freedom gives no indication that at the same time he was questioning the idea of Vienna as a place that he could call home.

His book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) had appeared a few months earlier. Zionism was his answer to the pervasive anti-Semitism in Vienna and throughout Europe in those decades.

One of Herzl’s closest friends and advisers was the Anglican priest in Vienna, the Revd William Henry Hechler (1845-1931), who had spent time in a parish in Co Cork, where he married Henrietta Huggins, before becoming chaplain to the British embassy in Vienna (1885-1910).

Herzl’s bicycle in the exhibition was modern for the time, and he used it during his summer holidays in Altaussee around 1900-1902.

Herzl was introduced to cycling by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), whose novel Der Weg ins Freie (The Road Into The Open) describes not only the cycling boom in Vienna, but also the unbearable anti-Semitism of the time.

The principal character in Der Weg ins Freie is an aristocratic young composer Georg von Wergenthin-Recco who has talent but lacks the drive to get down to work, and spends most of his time socialising with members of the assimilationist, artistically sensitive Jewish bourgeoisie of Vienna and other non-Jews like himself who enjoy their company.

The plot centres on his ultimately unhappy affair with a Catholic lower middle class girl, Anna Rosner. The novel’s reputation rests not on the story of this affair, however, but Schnitzler’s brilliant description – based on first-hand acquaintance – of the milieu he describes and the topics that interest it. These include the arts, the psychology of love, and the anti-Semitism that was coming to dominate so much of life and politics in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Theodor Herzl’s bicycle hangs above the atrium in the Jewish Museum in Vienna (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’.