14 August 2023

Three cathedrals and
two churches dedicated
to the Assumption

Inside the Cathedral of the Assumption, Thurles … the highly ornate interior was completed by George Coppinger Ashlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow, 15 August, is marked as the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic tradition, and as the Feast of the Dormition in the Orthodox Church.

The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship says the Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary may be celebrated on 15 August or, ‘for pastoral reasons,’ on 8 September. However, if the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on 15 August, the calendar avoids describing this as her death, dormition or assumption.

I plan to reflect on the meaning of this feast in a posting tomorrow (15 August 2023). But in preparation for tomorrow, I thought it would be interesting this evening to revisit five churches or cathedrals in Ireland dedicated to the Assumption: the cathedrals in Carlow, Thurles and Tuam, and the parish churches in Bree, Co Wexford, and Dalkey, Co Dublin.

The Church of the Assumption, Bree, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of the Assumption, Bree, Co Wexford:

The Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the Church of the Assumption, in Bree, south of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, is probably the earliest Pugin church in Ireland.

The church was built by Canon Philip Devereux, thanks to the generosity of the Talbot and Power families, on land given by Colonel Henry Alcock of nearby Wilton Castle in 1837. John Hyacinth Talbot ‘procured’ the plans from Pugin, and – if the laying of the foundation stone is dated to 1837 – then this is the first of Pugin’s Irish churches, although he never actually acknowledged the church as his own.

The plan for the church in Bree basically follows the same plan as Pugin’s design for the chapel of Saint Peter’s College, Wexford, and the design used for the Church of Saint James in Ramsgrange. As an early Pugin church, Bree is a simple Gothic-style building with a long, five-bay nave, with a distinct five-sided apse, both under separate roofs. The apse is decorated in mosaic by an unknown artist who is thought to have been Italian. The three stained glass windows in the apse depict the Assumption in the centre window, with Saint Aidan of Ferns on the left and Saint John the Baptist on the right.

The simple wall post and exposed truss roof was characteristic of Pugin, and this very early example of open roof timbering was once one of the main features of the building. However, it is now covered and no longer visible, and the church was changed drastically during renovations carried out in the latter part of the 20th century.

The church in Bree remains an interesting part of Wexford’s Pugin heritage, and an important church in the light of the other churches in Ireland he designed in the following years.

The Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow, was dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1833 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow:

The Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow, is both the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin and the parish church of the cathedral parish. Located in Carlow town, the cathedral was dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1833. It is known for its beautifully detailed 46 metre spire, one of the highest points in the town.

The Cathedral of the Assumption is the second oldest Roman Catholic cathedral built in Ireland, after the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, Waterford, built in 1793; building commenced on the cathedral 7 April 1828.

The foundation stone of the cathedral was laid on 18 March 1828 by Bishop James Doyle, who dedicated the cathedral on 1 December 1833. Bishop Doyle died in 1834 at the age of 48 and was buried before the High Altar.

Inside the Cathedral of the Assumption in Carlow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The cathedral beside Saint Patrick’s College, Carlow , the former diocesan seminary. The architect Thomas Cobden, who designed much of the college, also designed the cathedral in the Gothic Revival style. The tower and lantern was inspired by the Belfry of Bruges in Belgium. Colonel Henry Bruen of Oak Park supplied granite from his quarry near Carlow town, and supplied the oak for the great-framed roof which came from nearby Oak Park.

The cathedral was refurbished extensively in 1899 under Bishop Michael Comerford. The ‘Comerford Pulpit,’ a carved oak pulpit was designed by CJ Buckley of Youghal, was made in Bruges in 1898. The ornately carved pulpit is now in the Carlow County Museum. The main altar of Sicilian marble replaced the original wooden one. The new altar was consecrated by Bishop Comerford on 25 May 1890. It was made by Samuel Daly and Sons of Cork, and donated by the clergy and religious of the diocese in memory of Bishop James Walsh.

Bishop Michael Comerford was buried in front of the High Altar in Carlow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Bishop Comerford also donated and consecrated the great bell, cast by John Warren and Sons of London. Bishop Comerford is buried in front of the High Altar.

The cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Matthew Cullen, 100 years after it was dedicated, on 30 November 1933.

A parishioner took action in the Supreme Court against the Cathedral Administrator, Father John Byrne, and the trustees of the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin in 1996 to prevent the reordering of the interior in line with the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. The action was unsuccessful and the changes, including the removal of the altar rails and pulpit, went ahead. The cathedral was rededicated on 22 June 1997.

The Cathedral of the Assumption in Thurles, Co Tipperary, was designed by JJ McCarthy and built in 1865-1879 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Cathedral of the Assumption, Thurles, Co Tipperary:

The Cathedral of the Assumption on Cathedral Street, Thurles, Co Tipperary, is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly.

The cathedral is striking and unusual for its style and stands on the site of earlier chapels that at one time were the only Roman Catholic churches in Thurles.

The cathedral is the fourth church to stand on this site. The first one recorded was a Carmelite church founded by the Butler family in the late 13th or early 14th century. The Carmelite friary was dissolved on 28 March 1540 with the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation, it fell into disrepair and was later demolished.

The second church, known as the ‘Old Chapel’ or the ‘Mathew Chapel,’ was built around the 1730 under the patronage of a the Mathew family, cousins of the Dukes of Ormonde.

The third church, the ‘Big Chapel’, was dedicated to Saint Patrick, and was a spacious, T-shaped building built in 1807-1808 at a cost of £10,000. The Big Chapel served as the cathedral until the early 1860s.

Rome had left the Diocese of Cashel vacant for some years after the death of Archbishop John Brenan before Pope Innocent XII appointed Edward Comerford as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cashel on 14 November 1695. He was also the Administrator of the Dioceses of Kilfenora and Emly, and correspondence indicates he lived in Thurles with the protection of the Matthew family of Annfield and Thurles, and through them enjoyed the patronage of the Butlers of Ormond.

The Nenagh county sessions in Co Tipperary heard on 17 July 1704 that Edward Comerford, who was then 60, was then the Parish Priest of Thurles, but there is no mention of his episcopal claims. He continued as parish priest of Thurles under the protection of the Mathew family, living at Annfield, the home of Toby Mathew.

Archbishop Comerford died in office on 21 February 1710, and was succeeded as archbishop by Christopher Butler (1711-1757), a member of the Ormonde family, and a native of Westcourt, Callan, Co Kilkenny. While he was archbishop, the Diocese of Emly was incorporated into Cashel by a decree issues by Pope Clement XI in 1718. The Mathew family built a large thatched chapel, known as the ‘Old Chapel’ or ‘Mathew Chapel,’ near the friary ruins in 1730.

Archbishop Christopher Butler was succeeded in turn by two other members of the Butler family, James Butler I (1757-1774) and James Butler II (1774-1791).

When James Butler II was appointed by the Pope in 1774, he formalised the move of the archbishop’s cathedra and residence from Cashel to Thurles, where his successors continue to have their seat today.

His successor, Archbishop Thomas Bray (1792-1820) was never able to realise his vision for ‘a cathedral worthy of the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly’ but in 1809 he built the ‘Big Chapel’ that replaced the ‘Mathew Cathedral’ and served as a cathedral.

Archbishop Patrick Leahy (1857-1875) was appointed in 1857, and in 1862 he announced his plan to replace the ‘Big Chapel’ in Thurles, which was being used as a parish church, with a new cathedral.

The cathedral stands on the site of the mediaeval Carmelite priory and forms part of a group the other church buildings on Cathedral Street, including the Bishop’s Palace, the former seminary at Saint Patrick’s College, the presbytery and the neighbouring convents.

The style of this cathedral is informed by North Italian Romanesque architecture, and both the façade and the Baptistry are modelled on those at the cathedral in Pisa. The exterior was designed by the architect James Joseph McCarthy (1817-1882), who claimed the mantle of AWN Pugin.

Archbishop Leahy was an enthusiastic student of Roman history and architecture. McCarthy abandoned his normal preference for the Gothic revival style to accommodate Leahy’s tastes, and designed the building in the Italianate Romanesque style, modelled on the Cathedral in Pisa in Italy, with additional elements of Irish Romanesque and the hybrid Lombardic-Romanesque styles.

The Baptistry in Thurles is modelled on the Baptistry at the Cathedral in Pisa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Work on the cathedral began in 1865 and it was built on a Latin cross plan. The variety of stone and the high-quality masonry in the façade, with its blind arcading, are striking.

The cathedral is oriented on a south-north axis rather than the traditional east-west axis found in most churches. The seven-stage bell tower or campanile on the west (liturgical north) side is 38 metres high and is the most important landmark in Thurles. The clock at the top of the tower was a gift of Archbishop Thomas Croke in 1895.

On the east side (liturgical south) of the cathedral, the free-standing round-plan, Byzantine-style Baptistry is an unusual feature in Ireland and resembles the Baptistry in Pisa and at other European cathedrals. The copper roof was added in 1927, and is topped by a gilt archiepiscopal cross.

The Baptistry in Pisa was completed in the 14th century, when the top storey and dome were added by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. This is the largest baptistery in Italy, and is even a few centimetres higher than the Leaning Tower. It is known for its acoustics, and when I visited in 2012 I was treated to a short singing demonstration of this by one of the guards.

Both the campanile and the Baptistry in Thurles are integrated into the overall composition of the highly-ornate façade.

The cathedral has a three-bay gable entrance front and eight-bay aisle elevations, with side aisles and ambulatory. Barry McMullen was the main builder, and the cathedral was built at a cost of £45,000.

McCarthy was later replaced as architect by Pugin’s son-in-law, George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), who completed the highly-ornate interior.

The High Altar in Thurles was donated by Pope Pius IX (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Inside, the cathedral has the proportions of a basilica, with an aisled nave of four bays, high round arches and a clerestory.

The architectural features in the cathedral include an impressive rose window in the façade, designed by Mayer and Co of Munich.

The 16th century marble Italian baroque tabernacle was designed by Giacomo della Porta (1537-1602), a pupil of Michelangelo, for the Church of the Gesù, the leading Jesuit church in Rome.

This tabernacle remained in the Gesù in Rome for 300 years, until it was discarded during 19th century renovations. It was bought for Thurles Cathedral by Archbishop Leahy while he was in Rome attending the First Vatican Council.

The High Altar was donated by Pope Pius IX. The pulpit, erected in 1878, has carved representations of Christ and the Four Evangelists.

The carved limestone piers are topped with lamps and cross finials, and there are cast-iron gates and railings to site boundary. These too are the work of Ashlin.

When Archbishop Leahy died on 26 January 1875, he was buried in the uncompleted cathedral. The cathedral was consecrated by his successor, Archbishop Thomas Croke (1875-1902), on 21 June 1879.

The interior of the cathedral was reordered in 1979 to meet the tastes of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms and to mark the centenary of the consecration of the cathedral, and the reordered cathedral was reconsecrated on 21 June 1979.

The Cathedral of the Assumption, Tuam, Co Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Cathedral of the Assumption, Tuam, Co Galway:

The Cathedral of the Assumption off Bishop Street, Tuam, Co Galway, is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tuam, which includes half of Co Galway, half of Co Mayo and part of Co Roscommon.

This is one of the finest early 19th century Roman Catholic cathedrals in Ireland and one of the finest church buildings in Ireland. From start to finish, the cathedral design was carried through by the same architect, Dominick Madden.

Dominick Madden or O’Madden was active in Dublin in the early 19th century and in the midlands and the west from 1817 until the late 1820s. In 1802-1805, he was working on several buildings in the Phoenix Park with Robert Woodgate, architect to the Board of Works. In 1808, he succeeded John Behan as measurer to the Board of Works. But he was dismissed in 1810 for irregular conduct, including the theft of furniture from the Vice-Regal Lodge, and was succeeded by Bryan Bolger.

Following his disgrace in Dublin, Madden moved to the West, where he worked for Christopher St George at Kilcolgan Castle, Co Galway (1814), for Martin Kirwan at Dalgan Park, Shrule, Co Mayo (1817-1822), as well as working at Mount Bellew, Co Galway, and Ballyfin, Co Laois.

Madden went on to design three major Roman Catholic churches in the west: Saint Jarlath’s Cathedral, Tuam, Co Galway (1827), Saint Muiredach’s Cathedral, Ballina, Co Mayo (1827), and Saint Peter and Saint Paul Pro-Cathedral, Ennis, Co Clare (1828).

However, Madden was dismissed as the architect of Saint Jarlath’s in 1829, apparently after a disagreement over the design of the east end, and Bernard Mullins (1772-1851) of Birr and Dublin was asked to act as a consultant for the completion of the cathedral.

In an anonymous letter to Archbishop Oliver Kelly of Tuam, his nephew and assistant, Peter Madden, accused the building committee and its chair, Martin Loftus, of treating his uncle unfairly and not paying him.

No more works by Dominick Madden are recorded after 1829. One account says he ‘abandoned his Irish practice to become chief engineer of one of the South American republics.’ But by 1832 he was living in Galway, and he died there in March 1837.

Inside the Cathedral of the Assumption, Tuam … designed by Dominick Madden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After Madden’s dismissal, the architect Marcus Murray of Roscommon was responsible for the ornamentation of cathedral, while the cut-stone work is by his son William Murray. The stucco work is by John Daven of Galway.

The foundation stone of the cathedral was laid by Archbishop Oliver Kelly on 30 April 1827, two years before Catholic Emancipation, and the cathedral was consecrated by Archbishop Kelly’s successor, Archbishop John MacHale (1791-1881), on 18 August 1836.

Throughout the cathedral there are pointed windows with chamfered surrounds and hood-mouldings, filled with stained glass. The nave and transepts have triple-light windows, and there is a five-light East Window. The East Window has elaborate tracery and sculpted hood-moulding with a finial. Madden’s design for most of the tracery in the East Window is based on the Franciscan friary in Claregalway, Co Galway.

The side chapels have small two-light windows with cusped heads and with tracery above, and with sculpted hood-mouldings that have finials.

The three-light stained glass north window in the north transept depicts the Ascension of Christ with eleven apostles and attendant angels. It was designed and manufactured by Joshua Clarke (1858-1921) and the Harry Clarke Studios (1889-1931) of 33 North Frederick Street, Dublin, in 1907-1908. The window was commissioned by John Healy (1841-1918), Archbishop of Tuam (1903-1918).

The design for this window was also used for stained-glass windows commissioned by the Revd J Cole for Saint Patrick’s Church or Saint Paul’s French Church, Portarlington, Co Laois, on 30 November 1907, and by the Revd J Kenny for Saint Patrick’s Church, Glenamaddy, Co Galway.

The Church of the Assumption on Castle Street, Dalkey, Co Dublin … first built in 1840-1841 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of the Assumption, Dalkey, Co Duiblin:

I have been in the Church of the Assumption on Castle Street in Dalkey, Co Dublin, in recent years for a nephew’s wedding and for the funeral of Maeve Binchy.

The Church of the Assumption stands opposite Dalkey Castle and the ruins of Saint Begnet’s Church, and beside Archbold’s Castle. It is a Gothic Revival, granite Roman Catholic Church, at the west end and on the south side of Castle Street. It was built in 1841 and reordered and partially rebuilt 50 years later, is set on a north-south axis with the chancel located at the north end or Castle Street side.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Catholic population of Dalkey increased due to quarrymen and workers providing granite for the pier at Dun Laoghaire. The Dublin to Kingstown Railway in 1834 brought more worshippers.

After Catholic Emancipation, Canon Bartholomew Sheridan (1787-1862) became the first Parish Priest of the newly-formed Parish of Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) from 1829 to 1864. This has been described as ‘a mini-diocese which ran from Kingstown to Little Bray.’

Canon Sheridan called a meeting of Dalkey residents in March 1840. A site opposite the ruins of Saint Begnet’s was leased from Thomas Connolly, and a new church was built in 1840-1841.

Later, Thomas Connolly’s son, Canon James Connolly, Parish Priest of Saint Kevin’s, Harrington Street, Dublin, would donate the site on Castle Street to the new church in Dalkey.

The church was dedicated on 26 September 1841. It is a simple Gothic Revival structure in local granite and render with a square bell tower. It is on Castle Street opposite the ruins of the tenth century Church of Saint Begnet, woman and abbot, who also gives her name to the church on Dalkey Island.

At first, the church consisted only of the present nave, the altar was where the gallery is today, and the main door was 10 metres back from Castle Street. The humble walls were pebbles, mortar and earth, coated in plaster.

As Dalkey grew in the 1880s, Canon George Harold, Parish Priest of Dalkey (1880-1894), decided to extend the church out towards Castle Street and to relocate the sanctuary at the north end. Cut granite was used to build the new transepts and sanctuary, and the handsome, three-stage, stone bell tower was added at the south end of the church.

The roof was raised, and a fan-vaulted ceiling was put in place. A gallery was built and fitted with a two-manual organ by the Dublin organ-builder, John White.

The High Altar, altar rails and baptismal font were designed in 1900 by AWN Pugin’s son-in-law, George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), and the work was carried out by Edmund Sharp (1853-1930), who at this stage was producing altars at the rate of almost one a week in his workshop at Brunswick Street, Dublin.

Two angels by Mayer of Munich flank the reredos. Side shrines with statues of Our Lady and the Sacred Heart in white marble are dated 1897. The mosaic work on the sanctuary floor was carried out around 1915 by Ludwig Oppenheimer. The marble panels in the sanctuary were added in 1932.

The Last Supper in marble relief on the front of the altar by Ashlin and Sharp has survived the post-Vatican II liturgical changes.

The stained-glass windows over the altar are French in origin. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which gives its name to the church, is in the centre. Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid, the patrons of Ireland, flank her to left and right. These windows were restored by Abbey Stained Glass of Kilmainham in 1991.

Above the fine marble baptismal font is a painting of the Baptism of Christ executed in Rome in 1911 by G Bravi.

The plaster Stations of the Cross were restored to their original colour in 1991 by Sean McDonnell. He also sculpted the timber relief of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who lived at Mount Salus in Dalkey during the autumn of 1854 while establishing the Catholic University in Dublin. He wrote, ‘Tastes so differ that I do not like to talk, but I think this is one of the most beautiful places I ever saw.’

In the same niche is a plaque with the closing words from a sermon Newman preached on 19 February 1843, two years before he became a Roman Catholic:

May he support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes; and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in his mercy may he give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last.

The church was renovated in 1991 for its 150th anniversary, and the porches and sacristy were re-ordered.

The proximity of this church to Castle Street and its relationship with the nearby mediaeval buildings, as well as its three-stage stone bell tower, give a unique historic character to this part of Castle Street.

Inside the Church of the Assumption, Dalkey … the church was redesigned and reoriented in the 1880s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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