10 June 2011

Preaching where Brigid and her heirs were once in charge of the church

The chancel of Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, is mainly the work of GE Street, and the reredos and sanctuary in late Victorian Gothic style are the work JF Fuller (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Kildare last night, to preach at the ordination to the priesthood of the Revd Paul Bogle in Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. As we robed in the vestry at the the west end of the cathedral, a brass plaque reminded us that Archbishop Edward Benson of Canterbury preached his final sermon in Kildare Cathedral on 22 September 1896 – and that he died on 11 October on his way home.

To make matters worse for myself, I sat myself in the archdeacon's stall, in the chapter stalls behind the choir, leaving him without a stall to sit in when he came up after the presentation of Paul for ordination.

But I jest, and afterwards when one of the churchwardens showed me around many of the historical details of the cathedral, which traces its story back to the year 480 AD and the arrival of Saint Brigid in Kildare with her nuns. Saint Brigid died between 521 and 528 AD, and soon after her death a shrine was erected in her honour, with her feast day celebrated on 1 February.

Her body was eventually taken to be reburied in Downpatrick, beside the two other patrons of Ireland, Saint Patrick and Saint Columba. Although her relics were destroyed at the Reformation, her head was rescued and brought to Neustadt in Austria, and from there to the Jesuit church in Lisbon.

For many centuries, Kildare was a unique Irish experiment, where the abbess, styled as comarbae Brigde “Heir of Brigid”) presided over a double community of women and men, in which the bishop was subordinate to the abbess.

Between 835 and 998, the cathedral was devastated on at least 16 occasions. Following the Synod of Raith Bressail in 1111 and the Synod Kells in 1152, the importance of Kildare declined, and the pre-eminence of the Abbess of Kildare was difficult to sustain with the introduction of territorial dioceses.

When Ralph of Bristol became Bishop of Kildare in 1223, the cathedral was virtually in ruins. He was the first Anglo-Norman Bishop of Kildare and he began rebuilding the cathedral, and his work largely completed by 1230, two years before his death.

In 1395, a Papal indulgence was given to those who visited Kildare and gave alms for the conservation of the church. The cathedral parapets of the stepped Irish type may date from this year. The cathedral was enlarged and embellished in 1482.

The cathedral was virtually in ruins again by 1500, and in the 1560s Bishop Alexander Craik exchanged the manor and lands of this ancient see for ready cash. It was said by the late Dean John Paterson, who was Dean of Kildare before becoming Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, that with “this exchange the … See of Kildare was reduced to … shameful poverty” and that Bishop Craik “did more mischief to the See than his successors have ever been able to repair.” By 1615, the cathedral was in ruins; by 1649, it was derelict.

The cathedral was partially rebuilt in 1686 by Bishop William Moreton. From his time, until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in the 19th century, the Bishops of Kildare were also Deans of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

At disestablishment, there were strong arguments in favour of demolishing what little was left of the cathedral. Instead, however, restoration was undertaken by George Edmund Street (1824-1881), who also carried out the restoration of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Street’s work in Kildare from 1875 to 1881 includes the north transept, the chancel and the west wall. He also rebuilt three sides of the square tower. The oak roof, which is supported on stone corbels, was built into the wall buttresses. His work was completed by the diocesan architect, JF Fuller, and Archbishop Edward Benson preached his last sermon at the consecration of the rebuilt cathedral in 1896.

In Saint Brigid’s Cathedral on Thursday evening (from left): the Dean of Kildare, the Very Revd Dr John Marsden; Canon Patrick Comerford, the Bishop of Meath and Kildare, the Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, the Revd Paul Bogle, and the Archdeacon of Meath and Kildare, the Ven Leslie Stevenson

Today, as you view it, the cathedral is cruciform in plan without aisles in the early Gothic style, with a massive square central tower. At first sight, the interior appears very plain, the window splays are not moulded, but the rear-arches, which are, spring from shafts with moulded capitals. These shafts are short and terminate in small curved tails. All the windows are either single or double lancet windows, although there are triple lancets in the four gables. The parapets are of the stepped Irish type, but probably data from around 1395.

In recent years, the cathedral has undergone further restoration, which includes new internal porches, repairs to the internal and external stonework and rebuilding the Conagher organ, which dates from 1898.

Inside the cathedral, it is worth looking at:

● The restored altar tomb of Bishop Walter Wellesley (1529-1539) in the south transept, a superb example of 16th century sculpture, and with a curious Sheelagh-na-gig hidden under one corner.
● The solid oak chapter stalls at the crossing beneath the central tower, carved from oak and with acorn and oak-leaf carvings.
● The bishop’s throne, carved from oak.
● The reredos by Fuller.
● The carved Caen-stone pulpit, with carvings of the four evangelists and red-and-green marble colonettes.
● The Lady Chapel.
● The Saint Luke stained-glass window, by the Czech artist Gerda Schurmann (1974).
● The stone baptismal font, dating from the mediaeval period.
● The east window, a memorial to Dr Samuel Chaplain, who initiated much of the 19th century restoration.
● The west window,depicting the three patrons of Ireland, Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid and Saint Columba, and in memory of Archbishop Benson of Canterbury.
● An altar frontal designed by the English artist, John Ninian Comper, using the symbolism of the story of Saint Brigid.

The altar tomb of Bishop William Wellesley (1529-1539) has been restored and placed in the south transept (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Beside the cathedral is one of the five round towers still standing in Co Kildare: at 32.6 metres, it is the second highest round tower in Ireland. On the north side of the cathedral is all that remains of Saint Brigid’s “Fire House,”an ancient oratory where local lore says Saint Brigid’s Fire was kept alight.To the south-west is a restored High Cross, which is difficult to date.

There was no evidence to support the existence of a castle in Kildare until ca 1185. But there were three abbeys in mediaeval Kildare:

● The Black Abbey was founded by the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem in 1212. The ruins stand in the grounds of the Irish National Stud, south of the town and south of the M7.
● The Grey Abbey was built outside the walls of Kildare, south of the town by William de Vesci, Lord of Kildare, in 1260, and received a royal grant ca 1276. Eight Earls of Kildare are buried in the Grey Abbey; more of them are buried in Kildare Cathedral, and some later generations in Saint Mary’s Church, Maynooth. The M7 now separates the Grey Abbey even further from the town, and its ruins are sadly depleted.
● The White Abbey, west of the cathedral, was founded for the Whitefriars or Camrleites in 1292 by William de Vesci.

From the cathedral, we walked back through the Market Square and down the Dublin Rod to a reception in the Derby House Hotel – which boasts the motto: “Serving with Heart & Faith.”

The names of pubs and bars in the town reflect its pride in its history – the Silken Thomas, the Lord Edward ... Tucked in behind the Silken Thomas is all that survives from Kildare Castle, and a gatehouse of the 12th century FitzGerald Castle, once one of the most important castles in Anglo-Norman Leinster. In the 1790s, Lord Edward FitzGerald lived in a lodge in the castle bawn.

It could be said that as a place of interest both historical and religious importance, Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare, is second only to that of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh.

A Prayer for the cathedral and for its visitors:

Eternal Father,
For this holy and beautiful house of prayer,
We ask your mercy and seek your continual help:
That it may be a home of refuge amidst the storms of this world,
A witness to your eternal truth and goodness,
A light to those who are in darkness,
Hope to the fallen and strength to the weak and faint hearted:
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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