03 September 2020

Two landmark buildings
in Clonmel bookend each
end of O’Connell Street

The Main Guard, Clonmel … built as the Palatinate Court of the Dukes of Ormond (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

On the way from Cork to Kilkenny, the second phase of this year’s ‘Road Trip’ brought us to Clonmel in south Co Tipperary. The town grew significantly in mediaeval times, and there are many reminders of the middle ages throughout the streets of Clonmel. A small section of the town walls can still be seen at Old Saint Mary’s Church, which dates from the 14th century or earlier.

We arrived into Clonmel through the mediaeval walls at the West Gate, a 19th-century reconstruction of an older building. Originally, there were three gates in the walled town – north, east and west – while the south was protected by the River Suir and the Comeragh Mountains. The area to the west of the town is known as Irishtown.

Two of us stopped for lunch in O’Connell Street, the main street in Clonmel, which is bookended by two prominent, landmark buildings: the West Gate at the west end and the Main Guard at the east end.

The West Gate is an open arched entrance onto O’Connell Street, and the current structure dates from 1831, when it was built by a merchant named Joyce. This is a Tudor Revival style structure and is an imposing feature, dividing the vistas from O’Connell Street and Irishtown.

The West Gate fell into disrepair in the 20th century, prompting local concerns for its restoration. It was re-roofed, the arches were re-enforced with steel beams and the floors were stabilised with steel. Notable features include the crenellations, turret and label-mouldings.

The gate also displays a limestone plaque commemorating Clonmel born author Lawrence Stern, sculpted by Frances Dietrich in 1975.

The West Gate, Clonmel … built in 1831 at the site of one of three town gates (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

At the east end of O’Connell Street, the Main Guard is the former courthouse in Clonmel. It was here that the ‘main guard’ of the troops in Clonmel were once stationed.

During the Siege of Clonmel in 1650, the old Manor Court was destroyed. After the restoration of the Palatinate rights of James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, in Co Tipperary in 1662, he ordered the building of a new courthouse.

This fine, two-storey, symmetrical building, incorporating some elements from works by Sir Christopher Wren, was completed in 1674. The building also included private apartments, a dining room and drawing room. These were used to entertain King James II in Clonmel in 1689. The building was also used as a ‘tholsel’ for gathering tolls, duties or customs.

The Palatinate jurisdiction of the Dukes of Ormond in Co Tipperary was extinguished in 1715. After that, the building was used by the Clonmel Assizes, and it was there that Father Nicholas Sheehy, the anti-Penal Laws agitator, was tried in 1766. He was hanged, drawn and quartered.

When the new courthouse was built in 1810, all trials were moved from the Main Guard and the building became a barracks. Pigot’s Commercial Dictionary noted in 1820 that the building ‘is devoted to the use of the soldiery, possesses a good clock, is known by the name of the Main Guard and stands at the entrance into Main Street,’ now O’Connell Street.

The ground floor loggia or arcade of open arches was converted into shops around then, the basement was excavated and additional floors were inserted, so that the former courthouse became a market house. For a number of years, the arches were hidden, as Samuel Lewis noted in 1837, ‘The ground floor has some years since been converted to shops.’

The Office of Public Works began an award-winning restoration in the 1990s, and the open arcade of sandstone columns and five semi-circular arches is once again an attractive feature of the streetscape.

Today, the Main Guard is a five-bay two-storey building, with an arcaded ground floor and with classical elements, such as the pediment. The columns were recycled from the ruins of Inislounaght Abbey. The building has a handsome clock and bell tower, and the west wall displays the coats of arms of the Borough of Clonmel and of the Ormond Butlers, both bearing the date 1675.

The Main Guard is closed at present, but is normally open to visitors from March to late October.

The Main Guard has an open arcade of sandstone columns (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Church of Christ the King in Cork,
influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright

The Church of Christ the King, Turner’s Cross, Cork … Francis Barry Byrne was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and pioneering in the use of concrete instead of brick or stone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The Church of Christ the King in Turner’s Cross on the south side of Cork, is one of the most striking 20th century church buildings in the city. The architect, Francis Barry Byrne (1883-1967), was strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the large sculpture of Christ the King by John Maguire above the entrance is a landmark work of public art.

As part of the second stage of this year’s summer ‘Road Trip,’ before I left Cork I visited the Church of Christ the King. The was the first and one of the few Irish churches designed by a US architect, and the first Irish church built with concrete instead of brick or stone. It has a seating capacity of 1,200 and has one of the largest suspended-ceilings in any church in Europe.

The church was commissioned in 1927 by Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork and designed by the Chicago-based architect Barry Byrne. The church was built at a cost of £30,000 by John Buckley in 1929-1931 and opened on the Feast of Christ the King, Sunday 25 October 1931.

The Feast of Christ the King was then a recent innovation in the Church calendar. It was first suggested at the end of 1925 when Pope Pius XI published an encyclical, Quas Primas, in which he castigated secularism in Europe and declared that the secular powers ought to recognise Christ as King and that the Church needed to recapture this teaching.

At the time, the entire idea of kingship was quickly losing credibility in western societies, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and a wave of fascism was about to sweep across central Europe.

Since 1925, the celebration of Christ the King or the Kingship of Christ has become part of the calendar of the wider Western Church. It took on an ecumenical dimension from 1983 on with its introduction to Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others through the Revised Common Lectionary.

The large sculpture of Christ the King by John Maguire above the entrance to the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

By the mid-1920s, the South Parish in Cork city had grown in both population and area to a point where it could no longer function with a single church. To address the situation, Bishop Daniel Cohalan of Cork designated Turner’s Cross as the location for a second parish church to serve the growing population.

The Cork Examiner reported that Dr Cohalan originally planned a more standard design by an Irish or British architect, but the cost had proved ‘well-nigh prohibitive.’ He changed his mind when he read an article by Barry Byrne, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Byrne had already designed three Catholic churches in the US, and all had received acclaim and criticism for their bold and innovative designs. He was well-known too for regular contributions on church design to publications such as Commonweal.

Byrne was born on 19 December 1883. His father, Charles Emmett Byrne, a native of Prince Edward Island, was a railroad blacksmith. His mother, Mary Barry Delaney, was from Chicago, with family connections with Co Wexford.

When Byrne visited an exhibition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Chicago in 1902, he was offered a place at Wright’s Oak Park studio as an apprentice tracer. Although he had little formal education, Wright saw in Byrne the same raw love and enthusiasm for architecture he too had experienced in his youth.

Byrne established his own practice in Chicago in 1915. His first large building contract was in 1921 for the Immaculata High School, Chicago. This was followed by the Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle in Chicago.

His wife Annette Cremin regularly drew artist’s impressions of his designs and in some cases designed the interior colour schemes for some of his buildings and churches.

Inside the Church of Christ the King, facing the east end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Ireland must have seemed to be inward looking and very traditional in the 1920s, and the idea of a futuristic design by a foreign architect would have fomented strong opposition. But this was only the first of many problems to come.

The first model for the church was based on a brick exterior and interior, with a suspended wooden ceiling. It was a development of a previous design by Byrne for a church also dedicated to Christ the King in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1926), and represented a more economic solution, typically used in the US.

However, this design was subject to an overall cost restriction of £30,000 with £20,000 allocated for the building and the remaining £10,000 kept for the inner furnishings.

After investigations, the site supervising architect, JR Boyd Barrett, reported that a brick and wood church could not be built on a £20,000 budget and he suggested a complete concrete construction with plaster ceiling would be more realistic.

Although reluctant to sacrifice the brick and wood design, Byrne reworked his solution to use concrete as the main construction material. The result would involve the use of large sections of moulded concrete re-enforced for strength. Decorative features around the doors and windows would all be made from cast stone, and the stone mason was not a consideration.

The reconfigured model was a new departure in Byrne’s style and the Church of Christ the King became the first Irish church ever built from concrete. The innovative design and its use of concrete may have been the first large-scale application of re-enforced concrete construction in Ireland. At the time, ready-mix cement was unheard of, and the project involved a complete shake-up for the building industry in Ireland.

Before building work began, Barry Byrne and his wife, Annette Cremin Byrne, visited Cork to view the site and to discuss the final details of the project with Dr Coholan.

Work began in March 1929 and the foundations were blessed by Dr Cohalan on 21 July. The Initial problems were with the foundation. The soft marsh-like terrain of the site was no match for the heavy foundation. Before any walls could be erected, the building contractor, John Buckley, had to sink foundations 15 ft to reach a solid base, well above the 5-6 ft estimated by Byrne.

Other issues included strong opposition from the Society of Stone Cutters and Marble Masons. Their anger related to the selection of concrete as a base material and they instructed that the foundation stone ‘shall not be worked, as the building of the said Church is detrimental to our trade.’

Inside the Church of Christ the King, facing the west end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A general building trade strike from May to August 1930 caused significant delays for the project. But the church still opened on time on the Feast of Christ the King, 25 October 1931. However, there is evidence of a too-hasty completion: terrazzo panels were missing on the altar reredos, the Stations of the Cross were unfurnished and an external fence was not erected for some time.

When it was completed, the church never provoked much admiration or criticism. Yet, in that years that followed, many buildings influenced by the style of Frank Lloyd Wright were built in Ireland, although church architecture in Britain and Ireland largely ignored these new styles. However, the choice of concrete as a raw material became a major influence.

Byrne was pleased with the results that he never again chose brick as his preferred material. His later churches perfected the use of concrete as a more versatile material and as a cheap alternative to brick.

The original tender submitted by John Buckley was for £20,000. The costs for the internal furnishings, including seats and marble, terrazzo and other fittings, amounted to £7,000, with the total cost at £27,000. A significant contribution of £10,000 from the Geary family foundation provided much needed support to pay off the debts.

A local sculptor, John Maguire, was contracted to build the large sculpture of Christ the King that stands over the entrance. The statue was designed by the American sculptor John Storrs and the final work was based on plaster models shipped from Storrs home in France to Cork. Maguire also worked on the marble altars and gold mosaics.

The marble terrazzo work was carried out by JJ O’Hara & Co. Dublin. This includes the black floor surface and lower wall, beige dado rail and all white marble surfaces in the sanctuary and at the reredos. The terrazzo work is said to be the first of its kind in Ireland.

Piggot & Co furnished the Mannborg Model 40 organ fitted in the concealed choir gallery, glazing and painting work was by JF O’Mahony of Cork, and the bell was supplied by Gillett and Johnston of Croydon.

It is surprising, then, that Byrne never saw the finished building in person, and it remains his only church where he did not personally supervise the construction.

Bishop Cornelius Lucey designated Turner’s Cross an independent parish in 1957. At the same time, five new churches were built in Cork, including a church for the newly formed parish of Ballyphehane.

As for Barry Byrne, he moved to New York in the early 1930s and supplemented his limited work as a building inspector and by writing articles for various publications. At the age of 62, he returned to Chicago in 1945. He died in 1967.

The church was rededicated by Bishop John Buckley on 25 May 2002, at a ceremony presided over by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster. Meanwhile, however, with the formation of new parishes, the Church of Christ the King would never again serve the huge masses for which it was commissioned. However, its design and craftsmanship have stood the test of time, and the church retains most of its original character and layout.

The sanctuary and high altar in the Church of Christ the King (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Searching for memories,
poems and explanations
in ‘Jewtown’ in Cork

In the heart of the former ‘Jewtown’ in Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

I was exploring Cork’s Jewish history and legacy earlier this week as part 2 of this year’s ‘Road Trip’ took me to Cork. Shalom Park is beside the area in Cork known as ‘Jewtown’ is Cork’s equivalent of ‘Little Jerusalem’ in Dublin, between Clanbrassil Street and Portobello.

However, as I wrote last night, it is disappointing that there are no signs in Shalom Park to indicate the significance of the park’s name, and no plaques on houses in the surrounding streets to remember the names of families who once shaped the unique identity of this corner of Cork.

At one time, this area was made up of a number of small streets around the Hibernian Buildings that became home to Lithuanian Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia in the late 19th century.

Local lore says many of these refugees were trying to reach New York, but instead ended up in Cork. This unlikely story says they thought they were in America when they landed, mistaking the call ‘Cork, Cork,’ for ‘New York.’

Many of these new arrivals first started out as unskilled peddlers. But they soon opened their own up shops and small businesses, their own synagogues, and quickly became part of political, social and business life in the Cork. Gerald Goldberg, whose father came from Russia, became the Lord Mayor of Cork in 1973.

Today, there are less than a handful of Jewish people left in Cork city and none in Jewtown itself. The park was founded just beside these houses and it is dedicated to the memory of the Jewish people that lived there.

Simon Lewis recalls many of the stories of this area in Jewtown, (Doire Press, 2016), a collection of 57 brief poems. In these poems, he draws on the experiences of those Lithuanian Jews who settled there in the 1880s and 1890s. His collection includes three Hennessy Award Winning poems, ‘The Zoo,’ ‘Creosote’ and ‘Two Sisters.’

Simon Lewis moved from Dublin a few years ago to take up a teaching post in Carlow. There he joined a writers’ group and was challenged to write about his Jewish and Irish background, leading him to examine Jewish history in Cork.

His great-grandmother was born in Cork, and he says many Irish Jews can trace their journey through this small area of Cork City.

The tenth poem in his collection, ‘Tashlich,’ is read by David Goldberg in the new ‘Virtual Walk’ through Jewish Cork launched last month by the performance artist Ruti Lachs, who is active in the Munster Jewish Community.

The virtual tour, which I used as I explored Jewish Cork earlier this week, is presented by Ruti Lachs and Marnina Winkler, includes interviews, stories, and music, and this poem by Simon Lewis.

Streets in the heart of the former ‘Jewtown’ in Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

‘Tashlich’ refers to the symbolic casting away of sins into a river or flowing water during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The anonymous narrator in ‘Tashlich’ recalls his dangerous escape from Tsarist antisemitism and recounts his present poverty in Ireland. But he also expresses relief at feeling free from physical danger in Cork:

I toss breadcrumbs in the river
and pray to God for forgiveness:
for the food I stole from the houses
in empty shtetls, the lies to the soldiers
at every checkpoint all the way
to the harbour at Riga, and the evenings
when I could barely breathe,
questioning my faith, broken from the day.
This year, I thank God for a mattress
on a dirt floor, a small knob of butter
melted in mashed potato, to be able
to walk without looking behind me.

‘Bromide,’ the poem immediately after ‘Tashlich,’ however, makes it clear that the Jewish immigrants were not entirely assured of physical safety in Cork, either. The anonymous narrator speaks to her husband, who has been beaten and harassed:

You make up a tale
of how you tripped on Albert Quay,
gave yourself a fine big shiner,
grazed your brow or chipped a tooth,
or you make a joke about staying off
that Irish whiskey or smile, tell me
I should see the other guy
before you limp off to our bed.
It’s only in the darkness I feel
every punch, slap and threat.
If you aren’t stirring
or jerking, I try to find a bruise
and press it. Sometimes a wince
is as good as sleeping pills.

There is no explanation at Shalom Park of the significance of the name of the park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The synagogue at 10 South Terrace, built in 1896, closed in February 2016. Simon Lewis’s final poem in Jewtown, ‘The Last Sabbath at South Terrace Synagogue,’ describes one of those final services. Here, Simon Lewis also recalls Freddie Rosehill, the last chair of the trustees of the Cork Hebrew Congregation:

Shipped in from Dublin, the men gathered like beetles
around the orange glow of the gas heaters, grumbling
as the Sabbath candles were lit. Above them, the women
looked down from the crumbling balcony at the ruins,
the walls twinkling with dew, the rot chewing the panels
and the blue velvet table covers airbrushed by damp.
The men shifted in the pews as their knees stiffened
and they mumbled along to the cantor’s funereal chants.
At the front of the Shul was Freddie, his silver crutch
rooted to the carpet bearing the weight of his body,
of the synagogue, of one-hundred and twenty years
of peddlers, grocers, directors. His face, red with the strain,
gave in by the first Kaddish, drooping back into the pew,
knowing he was part of the furniture, ready to be moved on.

Freddie Rosehill died within 10 months of the synagogue closing, at the age of 88.

The Cork Hebrew Congregation has also been the subject of a poem, written in 1987 by the Cappoquin-born poet, novellist and critic Thomas McCarthy, ‘The Dying Synagogue at South Terrace.’ In this poem, he moves from contemplation of the synagogue’s shabby exterior, its chocolate-coloured paint peeling off, to thoughts of the Irish government’s refusal to help Jews trying to flee the Holocaust and current animosity towards the state of Israel in Ireland:

We who did nothing for you, who
remained aloof with the Catholic world
and would have cried Jew! like the others—
David forgive us—
we who didn’t believe the newsreels,
preferring hatred of England to love of you,
we might shut our hypocrite mouths,
we want a West Bank but not a Stormont.
We have no right over your batons,
having made nothing for you but L. Bloom.

L. Bloom is, of course, Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, the character most associated with Jews in Irish literature.

Simon Lewis’s poems in Jewtown received the 2015 Hennessy Poetry Prize. His second poetry collection, Ah! Men, was published last year (October 2019).

Thomas McCarthy from Cappoquin says of Jewtown: ‘It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this jewel of a poetry book. Jewish life in Cork, the life of just four hundred souls, has already had its chroniclers in David Marcus, Gerald Y Goldberg and Louis Marcus, but this suite of poems lifts the narrative of that now lost community to a new intensity of poetic thought.’

The ‘Walking Tour’ page can be found HERE

The synagogue at South Terrace closed in 2016 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)