08 February 2020

Saint Colman’s Cathedral:
a Gothic gem by Pugin and
Ashlin that crowns Cobh

Saint Colman’s Cathedral, the Gothic gem by Pugin and Ashlin is the crowning glory of colourful Cobh and its harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Cobh, Co Cork, this week, a priority for my sight-seeing was Saint Colman’s Cathedral, which is one of the crowning glories of the Pugin heritage in Irish church architecture.

Indeed, it could be said that Saint Colman’s cathedral crowns the harbour town of Cobh, standing on high precipice looking out across Cork Harbour.

This is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cloyne, which covering much of east and north Co Cork. Despite its mediaeval appearance, construction only began in 1868, and the cathedral was not completed for more than half a century, due primarily to steeply rising costs and revisions of the original plans.

Saint Colman’s Cathedral was designed by Edward Welby Pugin and George Coppinger Ashlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The architects were AWN Pugin’s son and son-in-law, Edward Welby Pugin (1834-1875), and George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), who was born in Cork.

Ten years of extensive planning and fundraising in the parishes in the diocese were carried out before the cathedral was built. The Queenstown Cathedral Building Committee, made up of leading parishioners and chaired by the bishop, faced many complex problems.

During the planning years (1857-1867), the committee debated the style of architecture, the approximate dimensions of the planned cathedral, and providing a temporary church.

According to a plaque in the south transept, the total cost of the cathedral was £235,000. The project was supported financially by parishioners in what was then known as Queenstown and by prominent citizens, who are named in the parish records. The Building Fund also received substantial contributions from Australia and the US.

The draft plans by Pugin and Ashlin were approved in November 1867 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The draft plans by Pugin and Ashlin were approved by the Building Committee in November 1867. A new temporary parish church opened for worship by early 1868, The old parish church was taken down in February, the site was expanded and developed for building the cathedral, and Bishop Keane cut the first sod on 25 April 1868.

The sharply shelving hillside posed many problems for the contractors who did not have today’s machinery that makes site-development comparatively easy.

Bishop Keane laid the cathedral foundation stone on 25 July 1868, and laid the first stone of the main building on 30 September 1868. The stone had a container with a parchment recording in Latin details of the ceremony.

Bishop Keane had the architects change the whole character of the work at an early stage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

When the contractors had carried up the external walls to an average of 12 ft, Bishop Keane consulted the architects about having he plans more elaborate plans. The whole character of the work was changed, and, with the exception of the ground plan, none of the original plans were adhered to.

These extra works increased by many thousands of cubic feet of stone the quantity already provided for and substantially increased the cost. Bishop Keane did not live to see the completion of his cherished project, and he died in January 1874. His successor, Bishop John McCarthy, adhered strictly to Bishop Keane’s vision.

Eventually, because of extensive commitments in England and Ireland, Pugin and Ashlin agreed to divide their work, with Ashlin attending to their contracts in Ireland, including Cobh cathedral, while Pugin took responsibility for their projects in England.

Inside Cobh Cathedral, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Long after EW Pugin died in 1875, Ashlin took on the services of a young Dublin architect, Thomas Aloysius Coleman (1865-1950), a talented draughtsman, to assist in completing the project. Coleman, who helped to bring the cathedral to completion, later become Ashlin’s partner, and the partnership of Ashlin and Coleman continued until 1950.

The erection of the limestone spire – the last of the major external works – was to complete the cathedral’s graceful outline. The detailed drawings of Ashlin and Coleman showed an octagonal spire merging harmoniously with the quadrangular tower and its surrounding pinnacles.

The Cork firm of J Maguire began building the spire in 1911. For four years, stone masons worked to complete the gracefully tapering spire. The last scaffolding surrounding the spire was taken down in March 1915, and the work on the cathedral was virtually completed.

Inside Cobh Cathedral, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The clerk of works, Charles Guilfoyle Doran (1835-1909), supervised the project until he died on 19 March 1909, when the cathedral was almost complete. Doran was also a leading figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Fenian Brotherhood.

The cathedral was finally consecrated on 24 August 1919 by the Bishop of Cloyne, Robert Browne, in the presence of the Archbishop Michael Logue of Armagh, Archbishop John Harty of Cashel and Archbishop Thomas Gilmartin of Tuam, with Archbishop Gilmartin celebrating High Mass.

Saint Colman’s is a gem of neo-Gothic church architecture by Pugin, Ashlin and Coleman.

The Gothic grandeur of the interior, the delicate carvings, the beautiful arches and the mellow lighting combine to life the human spirit.

The rose window and the organ in Cobh Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The carvings recall the history of the Church in Ireland from the time of Saint Patrick to today.

The interior decorations include lists of the Bishops of Cloyne, from Saint Colman in the sixth century to Bishop William Crean, who became Bishop of Cloyne in 2013. The names include Thaddaeus McCarthy, Bishop of Cloyne (1490-1492), who died at Ivera in north Italy as he was returning to Ireland from Rome – he was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1895.

Three other bishops also died in exile: Robert Barry (1662) in Nantes; John Sleyne in Lisbon (1712); and John O’Brien in Lyons (1769).

The High Altar in Cobh Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The tower has a carillon with 49 bells, one of the largest in Europe, installed in 1916. An automated system strikes the hour and 15-minute intervals while it also rings the bells in appropriate form for Masses, funerals, weddings and events.

The carillon is also played on special occasions and generally every Sunday afternoon.

Each year on the anniversary day of the consecration of the cathedral, candles are lighted before the 12 crosses on the nave pillars that mark the places where the walls were first anointed with chrism.

The Lady Chapel in Cobh Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

An example of the interior decoration in the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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