23 June 2021

Is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral,
Skibbereen, a cathedral,
or is it a parish church?

Saint Patrick’s on North Street, Skibbereen, Co Cork … is it a cathedral, or is it a parish church? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Skibbereen, West Cork, is the Roman Catholic parish church in Skibbereen, but it is often referred to as the cathedral of the Diocese of Ross.

Cork and Ross is a united diocese. So, is Saint Patrick’s on North Street a cathedral? Or, is Saint Patrick’s a parish church?

During last week’s road trip or ‘staycation’, I spent two nights in the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen, and visited Saint Patrick’s to find out for myself.

Tradition says the Diocese of Ross was founded by Saint Fachtna in Rosscarbery … a window in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Skibbereen, in memory of Bishop Denis Kelly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Diocese of Ross was a separate diocese in West Cork until the Reformation. The main part of the diocese included the towns of Baltimore, Skibbereen, Rosscarbery and Clonakilty, and originally included Glengariff and parts of the Beara Peninsula.

Tradition says the see was founded by Saint Fachtna in Rosscarbery. He died ca 590 and his feast day is on 14 August. In the Church of Ireland, the Dioceses of Cork and Ross were united from 1583, and is now part of the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ross maintained a nominal, separate identity in the 17th century. But the Bishop of Cork and Cloyne was also the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Ross from 1693 to 1747, when Ross was united with Cloyne until 1850.

Inside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Skibbereen, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Catholics in Skibbereen worshipped in an old chapel built in Chapel Lane ca 1750. But this chapel had fallen into an advanced state of disrepair by the early 1800s, and was too small for the needs of the town.

Father Michael Collins became the Parish Priest of Skibbereen in 1814, and by 1818 he had put in place plans to build a new church. A site for a new church was secured from Sir William Wrixon-Becher, MP for Mallow, who later donated the land for the adjacent convent.

There is evidence of a 13th century Cistercian house on the site, and later the site was part of the estate of Sir Water Coppinger, who also tried to make extensive claims in Baltimore before the Sack of Baltimore in 1631. Sir William Wrixon-Becher leased the site for Saint Patrick’s for 999 years at a rent of one peppercorn a year.

Michael Collins started collecting money for the new church in 1818, but had to suspend his fundraising because of two periods of severe shortages in this area in 1816-1817 and in 1822. He said he ministered to about 10,000 people in Skibbereen, and that in the summer of 1822 in one part of the parish more than 6,000 paupers were on the charity list, while in the other part there were nearly 3,000 paupers.

However, by 1824 he had collected enough money to start building. The foundation stone was laid in 1825, and the church was designed as a plain Greek Revival T-plan church by the Revd Michael Augustine Riordan, a priest-architect from Doneraile, Co Cork.

Inside Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Skibbereen, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

At first, the church was a modest structure with plain glass windows, and the floor was of flagstone where people stood or knelt. It was opened in 1826. The original building is said to incorporate much of the stone from the ruins of Dunagoul, a ruined O’Driscoll castle at Ringarogy on the banks of the River Ilen, about 9 km south of Skibbereen. The cost of building was about £3,000.

A plaque on the west gable is inscribed: Deo Opt Max et Beato Patritio Parochus Populusque extruere AD 1826 Venite adoremus et procidamus ante Deum (‘To the great glory of Almighty God and the Blessed Patrick, the parish priest and people built this church in AD 1825. Come let us adore and fall down before God’).

Father Michael Collins was appointed Bishop of Cloyne and Ross in 1831 but died on 8 December 1832. He is buried in the nave at the south side of the church, under a memorial plaque by sculptor John Hogan.

The coat of arms of the Diocese of Ross in a stained-glass window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The church went through several significant modifications over the two centuries that followed. A small Italianate bellcote was added in 1836. A few years later, a new entrance was built at the west end, and the steps leading up to the church were added, using stone from Sherkin Island. Three galleries were built inside the church in the 1840s.

Much of this work was undertaken by Father John Fitzpatrick, who was the Administrator of Skibbereen in 1835-1851. He cleared an outstanding debt of £600 and erected the new handsome stone front at a cost of £900. He was a member of the Relief Committee in Skibbereen during the Great Famine (1845-1852), and he raised substantial funds for Famine relief.

The Synod of Thurles decided in 1850 to dissolve the union of the dioceses of Cloyne and Ross that had been in place since 1748. Skibbereen became the See of the restored Diocese of Ross and Saint Patrick’s became a Pro-Cathedral. William Keane, parish priest of Midleton, became the first bishop of the new diocese, and there were seven Bishops of Ross from 1851 to 1953.

Bishop Keane moved to Skibbereen, and began using Saint Patrick’s as his pro-cathedral and as a mensal parish. However, some priests and people in the diocese felt that the parish church in Roscarbery, built in 1820 and rebuilt in 1880, should have been designated the cathedral.

The apse was designed by George Coppinger Ashlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The most significant improvement to Saint Patrick’s was carried out in the early 1880s, when Bishop William Fitzgerald commissioned AWN Pugin’s son-in-law, the Cork-born architect George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), to design a radical modernisation of the church. Ashlin was also the architect of Saint Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, for the Diocese of Cloyne.

Ashlin gave the cathedral the splendour it displays to this day, and reconfigured the church in the shape of a Latin cross. The east wall behind the original High Altar was opened; a semi-circular apse was added; the apse was embellished by three stained-glass windows; the High Altar, dedicated to the memory of Bishop Michael O’Hea (1858-1876), and the Marian Altar, supplied by Pearse and Sharpe of Dublin, were erected.

The arcade of three arches above the sanctuary and two dividing the transepts from the nave, the polished pillars of granite, the coffered ceiling which they support, all date from 1882-1883.

Ashlin gave the cathedral the splendour it retains to this day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The white marble altar rail was the work of Pearse and Sharp of Dublin; James Pearse was the father of the 1916 leader Padraig Pearse. The wrought iron panels, with their floral and leaflet decoration, were the work of Eugene McCarthy of Skibbereen.

The High Altar was consecrated on the first Sunday in May 1883 and the reconstructed church was blessed and re-opened.

The present Blessed Sacrament Chapel, formerly the mortuary, and the Sacred Heart altar were erected in 1910. Much of the stained glass also dates from the 1920s, seating was provided in the whole church – until then, there was only a few pews at the top of the church – and electric lighting was installed.

Bishop Denis Moynihan added two internal porticos of glass and wood inside both transept entrances in 1950, and the present pulpit was erected.

Saint Paul (left) and Saint Peter (right) in windows in the west porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

After 100 years as a Pro-Cathedral, Saint Patrick’s was granted full cathedral status in 1951 by Bishop Moynihan. But when he was transferred to Kerry in 1953, the Diocese of Ross again lost its independence. Bishop Cornelius Lucey of Cork was appointed apostolic administrator of Ross in 1954, and Ross was officially united with the Diocese of Cork in 1958.

With the introduction of liturgical changes after Vatican II, a new altar was provided in the sanctuary in 1970 to allow the celebrant to face the congregation.

The bellcote, which perches precariously on the west gable, and the statue of Saint Patrick avove the west porch (1882) are the only notable external features. But the bell fell in 1987 and has been moved inside the cathedral, where it stands on a plinth in the north-west corner of the nave, with an inscription, ‘The Cathedral Bell 1835-1997.’

The baptismal font is now in the north transept (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

In later alterations in 2004-2005, the temporary table-type altar and ambo from the 1970s and the pulpit (1950) were removed, and the baptismal font was taken away from the south side of sanctuary. The altar rails (1882) were repositioned, and an altar was salvaged from the former Mercy Convent, which had closed in 2002, and was recondition and altered.

Bishop John Buckley rededicated the new altar and blessed the sanctuary area on 21 May 2005.

The south wall has memorials to three former bishops: the sculptor John Hogan (1800-1858) designed and executed the marble memorial to Bishop Michael Collins; the two other memorials are to Bishop Michael O’Hea and Bishop Denis Kelly.

The marble memorial on the south wall to Bishop Michael Collins is work of the sculptor John Hogan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

But the question remains whether Saint Patrick’s is a cathedral or a parish church. When Bishop Denis Moynihan (1941-1953) returned from a visit to Rome in 1951, he declared Saint Patrick’s had full status as a diocesan cathedral.

However, he was moved to Kerry some months later, and in 1958 a papal bull united the dioceses of Cork and Ross ‘in an equally principal manner.’ It spoke of Ross as ‘illustrious in its antiquity and glory.’ But, among the reasons for this unification, the Bull referred to the ‘small boundaries’ of Ross, and said the diocese ‘lacks a cathedral church’ – which contradicts Bishop Moynihan’s declaration in 1951.

But Saint Patrick’s is still known throughout Skibbereen as Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and is so described in the small guidebook on sale inside.

Saint Patrick’s is still known throughout Skibbereen as Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
25, San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

San Giorgio Maggiore is a landmark building in Venice just beyond the entrance to the Grand Canal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

My photographs this week are from churches in Venice. This morning (23 June 2021), my photographs are from the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

The white marble of San Giorgio Maggiore gleams above the blue water of the lagoon and forms the focal point of the view from every part of the Riva degli Schiavoni (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

San Giorgio Maggiore can be seen clearly from Saint Mark’s Square. It is a landmark building just beyond the entrance to the Grand Canal, yet it is visited by few tourists during their brief stay in Venice. But this 16th-century Benedictine church on an island that shares the same name is of architectural importance and was designed by the great architect of Venice, Andrea Palladio.

The church, which was built between 1566 and 1610, is a basilica in the classical renaissance style. Its white marble gleams above the blue water of the lagoon opposite the Piazza San Marco, and it forms the focal point of the view from every part of the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The first church on the island was built about 790, and in 982 the island was given to the Benedictine order by the Doge Tribuno Memmo. The Benedictines founded a monastery there, but in 1223 all the buildings on the island were destroyed by an earthquake.

The church and monastery on the island were rebuilt after the earthquake. The church, which had a nave with side chapels, was not in the same position as the present church, but stood farther back at the side of a small campo or square. The cloisters in front were demolished in 1516, and from 1521 the monks began planning a new church.

Palladio arrived in Venice in 1560, when the refectory of the monastery was being rebuilt. He made improvements to this, and in 1565 he was asked to prepare a model for a new church.

His model was completed in 1566 and the foundation stone was laid in the presence of the Pope that year. The work was not finished before Palladio died in 1580, but the body of the church was complete by 1575 apart from the choir behind the altar and the façade. The decoration of the interior was completed later and the choir was built between 1580 and 1589.

Work on the façade began in 1599 and was completed in 1610.

The campanile or bell tower is a landmark on the skyline of Venice, but was not designed by Palladio. It was first built in 1467, fell in 1774, and rebuilt in neo-classic style by 1791.

The façade of the church is a brilliant white and represents Palladio’s solution to the difficulty of adapting a classical façade to the form of this church, with its high nave and low side aisles. On either side of the central portal are statues of Saint George and of Saint Stephen, the patrons of the church.

Two very large paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto, ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘The Fall of Manna,’ depict the institution of the Eucharist. In the Cappella dei Morti or mortuary, a second painting by Tintoretto depicts ‘The Entombment of Christ.’

A chapel associated with the Morosini family, who gave their name to the Morisini fountain in Iraklion in Crete, is dedicated to Saint Andrew. Here a painting by Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto depicts ‘The Risen Christ and Saint Andrew with Vincenzo Morosini and members of his family.’ Other works in the chapel are by Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto and Leandro Bassano.

San Giorgio Maggiore can be seen clearly from Saint Mark’s Square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 7: 15-21 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 15 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.’

The campanile or bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore is a landmark on the skyline of Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (23 June 2021, International Widows’ Day) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for resolution to the injustice that widows face, particularly in Africa and Asia. May we support the United Nations in its efforts to bring this issue to light, and that justice may be done.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The church and monastery were built by Palladio in the late 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org