30 August 2011

Visiting McCarthy’s cathedral in Monaghan

Saint Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan, designed by JJ McCarthy, in I861 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

During my few days in Castle Leslie, from Sunday to Tuesday, I could not resist heading off on the Pugin trail once again, and I spent much of yesterday afternoon [Monday 29 August] in Saint Macartan’s Cathedral, the magnificent cathedral in Monaghan designed by the “Irish Pugin”, JJ McCarthy, in I861.

The cathedral stands high on the town-land of Latlurcan, looking out over the town of Monaghan and across miles and miles of rolling countryside.

Monaghan became the cathedral town of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Clogher in the mid-1800s when Bishop Charles MacNally moved there and proposed building a new cathedral in 1858. The eight-acre site for the cathedral and bishop’s house was bought from Humphrey Jones of Clontibret and the cathedral foundation stone was laid on 21 June 1861.

James Joseph McCarthy (1817-1882), who had been Pugin’s pupil, designed the cathedral in the 14th-century French Gothic style and building began in 1862. Saint Macartan’s Cathedral is regarded by many as the most impressive of McCarthy’s cathedrals and as “one of McCarthy’s best works: an excellent example of the High Victorian ecclesiastical style at its best, rich without ever being over-ornate.”

When McCarthy died ten years later in 1882, he was succeeded as architect by William Hague from Cavan, who continued with building the spire and the gate lodge. In addition to the soaring spire, the cathedral has three large rose windows with elaborate tracery.

Bishop James Donnelly (1864-1893) oversaw most of the building work and he dedicated the new cathedral on 21 August 1892.

The interior of Saint Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Saint Peter and Saint Paul stand in niches on each side of the main west door, the Apostle Peter clutching the keys of authority and the Apostle Paul holding the sword of martyrdom. In the high-relief carving in the tympanum above the west door, Christ hands the keys of authority to Saint Peter.

On the southern face of the cathedral there are statues of Saint Tiarnach, Saint Ultan of Ardbraccan, patron of children, Saint Columcille of Derry and Iona, Saint Dympna of Gheel in Belgium and Tydavnet, Heber Mc Mahon, the warrior Bishop of Clogher, Bishop Charles Mc Nally, who came from Monaghan, holding a partially-built cathedral, and Bishop Donnelly holding the completed cathedral in his left arm.

The statues on the northern face of the cathedral represent five Old Testament figures: Abraham with his staff, Moses with a scroll and tablet, David with a lyre, Isaiah holding the tablet foretelling the birth of Christ, and Jeremiah appealing for help with arms outstretched; the other two figures are Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, the parents of the Virgin Mary. It is said the statue of Saint Joachim bears a resemblance to Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), who was pope at the time the cathedral was being built.

The cathedral is cruciform, 53.9 metres long, 21.9 metres wide in the nave, and 33.5 metres wide at the transepts. The tower and spire on the south side are 74.6 metres high. The nave, with aisles and a clerestory, is only five bays long – originally McCarthy planned seven, but the cathedral was cut short due to a shortage of funds. The chancel has a polygonal apse and double aisles on the north and south sides.

In 1983, Saint Macartan’s cathedral was re-ordered in line with the liturgical changes introduced by the second Vatican Council. But the “modernisations” destroyed the original sanctuary and few of the original fittings are left, apart from some lighting standards and pews.

Most of the original fittings were destroyed during the renovation, when unsuitable modern alternatives installed. One of the remaining pieces is the west end organ loft with its magnificent Telford Organ in front of the rose window.

Perhaps the crowning glory of the interior is the magnificent wooden hammer-beam roof which, like the main part of the nave, remains intact. This elaborate roof is supported on carved corbels depicting saints placed between the clerestory windows.

All of the massive columns in the nave and aisles have carved capitals and the wooden railings between them have original brass light fittings and mounts.

With the exception of the rose windows in the transepts, all the windows contain stained glass by Meyer.

The sanctuary is a now series of chapels, dedicated to the sacramental life of the Church. From left to right they are:

The Chapel of the Holy Oils: The holy oils used in the sacraments – the Oil of Catechumens, the Oil of the Sick and Sacred Chrism – are stored in an aumbry.

The Baptistery Chapel: The granite font is the work of the sculptor Michael Biggs. The tapestry depicts the Holy Spirit descending on the water, nourishing the roots of the Tree of Life.

The sanctuary of the Eucharist (the main altar): this includes the altar, the ambo and the bishop’s chair, all in granite, are the work of sculptor Michael Biggs. The cross on the left is the work of Richard Enda King. The carpet directly behind the altar shows a fish (Icthus, ΙΧΘΥΣ), a mnemonic for Iesous (Jesus) Christos (Christ) Theou (God) Uiou (Son) Soter (Saviour). A gold plate on the bishop’s cathedra or chair, cathedra reads: Haec est sedes Episcopalis Clogherensis – “This is the seat of the Bishop of Clogher.”

The sanctuary tapestries behind the bishop’s chair, designed by Frances Biggs and woven by Terry Dunne, depict from left to right: Saint Macartan (left), the Trinity (centre), and the Annunciation to Saint Joseph (right)

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel: the tabernacle, designed by Richard Enda King, is surrounded by the name Solas Dé (“Light of God”) and it sits on a granite plinth sculpted by Michael Biggs. The tabernacle is shaped like a tent which in the Exodus housed the Ark of the Covenant. The tapestry behind shows the broken bread of the Eucharist inside an unbroken circle. The broken bread represents a broken humanity and the unbroken circle the divinity of Christ.

The Chapel of Reconciliation on the south transept is located to the right of the tabernacle. On the left are the Irish words: Dúirt Íosa leo, ‘mise atá ann. Ná bíodh eagla oraibh’ (Jesus said to them: I am with you. Be not afraid). On the right are the words: Tháinig sé isteach sa bhád chucu agus thit an ghaoth (He got into the boat with them and the wind dropped). The anchor above the door is a traditional Christian symbol of hope.

On the north side of the sanctuary, a cloister linking to the sacristy is lined with the Stations of the Cross painted in acrylic by Frances Biggs in 1990.

Along the corridor to the north exit, the names of former Bishops of Clogher are listed, from Bishop Cináeth Ua Baígill (died 1135) to Bishop Patrick Mulligan (1970-1979), predecessor of Bishop Joseph Duffy. In all, fifty one bishops are named on the panels.

The former Baptistery opens off the north-west aisle and is now the the Lady Chapel. Here is a pieta designed by Nell Murphy and cast by Leo Higgins and Colm Brennan. The words of the Magnificat are woven into a blue background.

Despite the severe alterations of the mid-1980s, the cathedral has two other splendid pieces of modern art: a triptych by the Patrick Pye in the Chapel of Reconciliation; and an icon of Saint Macartan by Luis Alvarez at the top of the south-east aisle.

Patrick Pye’s Triptych in Saint Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

After visiting Saint Macartan’s Cathedral, I strolled around Monaghan, viewing a number of architectural and historical sites including:

● Saint Patrick's, the Church of Ireland parish church in Church Square.
● Joseph Welland’s stately courthouse (1830) on Church Square with its sandstone facade of Doric columns and a pediment with the royal arms of the House of Hanover.
● The monument outside Saint Patrick’s and the courthouse to the victims of the 1974 Monaghan bombing, unveiled by President Mary McAleese.
● The octagonal Rossmore Memorial in The Diamond was built in 1876 as a memorial to the 4th Lord Rossmore, who died in 1874 after a hunting accident at Windsor Castle.
● The Dawson Obelisk, commemorating a Colonel Dawson who was killed during the Crimean War.
● The Bank of Ireland in Church Square, an architectural essay in the Ruskinian-Gothic style.
● The Market House (17992) on Market Square.
● The Westenra Hotel on The Diamond.

I enjoyed a double espresso sitting outside the Squealing Pig on the corner of the Diamond before returning to Caste Leslie in Glaslough.

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