04 September 2018
Holy Trinity Cathedral in
Waterford is Ireland’s oldest
Roman Catholic cathedral
The Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity on Barronstrand Street, Waterford, is one of the two cathedrals in the city designed by John Roberts (1714-1796), the great architect of Georgian Waterford, and is the oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in Ireland.
I visited both the Church of Ireland Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, and the Roman Cathedral, Holy Trinity Cathedral, while I was in Waterford last Thursday [30 August 2018] on my way to Kilkenny. Both cathedrals are part of the Georgian glory of Waterford, and Holy Trinity Cathedral is an important landmark on Barronstrand Street in the heart of the city.
A chapel had stood on the site of cathedral since 1700, built with permission of the city corporation at the height of the Penal Laws. But that chapel was hidden behind other buildings on the street, and was accessed from Conduit Lane through a long, narrow passage.
John Roberts had built Christ Church Cathedral, the new Anglican cathedral on the site of Waterford’s mediaeval Gothic cathedral, in 1773, and this was finally completed in 1792. A year later, in 1793, Roberts was invited to build a new Roman Catholic cathedral for the city on the site of the old Penal chapel and an adjoining plot of land on Barronstrand Street provided by the city corporation.
The cathedral was built in 1793-1796, making it Ireland’s oldest Roman Catholic cathedral. It was built while William Egan was Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (1775-1796) at a total cost of £20,000.
Roberts was over 80 when he designed this cathedral. He was a ‘hands-on’ architect and rose each morning at 6 a.m. to superintend the work. But one morning he rose by mistake at 3 a.m., and when he arrived the cathedral was empty. He sat down in the still-unfinished cathedral, fell asleep, and caught the chill from which he died on 23 May 1796. He was buried in the French Church in Waterford.
The cathedral is a detached, six-bay double-height classical-style building. It is basically a rectangle with an apsidal east end. It was built originally on a T-shaped plan, with a six-bay, double-height nave and four-bay double-height side aisles to the north and south.
It was extended in 1829-1837, when the sanctuary was extended with the addition of a single-bay, double-height chancel at the east end.
When William Makepeace Thackeray visited the cathedral in 1840, he thought it was ‘a large, dingy … chapel of some pretensions’ that remained unfinished.
The cathedral was renovated in 1854, when a single-bay, double-height lower apse was added at the east end on a canted plan. There were plans at that time to erect the portico, but it was found the foundations stood on the bed of a reclaimed creek and could not bear the weight.
However, the cathedral was not completed until 1893, when a five-bay, two-storey Ionic frontispiece was added by William Henry Byrne (1844-1917) at the west end, with a three-bay two-storey pedimented breakfront. The moulded surround to the pediment has a figurative tympanum, with statues above, and a balustraded parapet with cut-stone coping.
The cathedral, completed a century after Roberts first began his work, was consecrated 125 years ago on 24 September 1893.
Inside, there are round-headed arcades in the side aisles, and the roof is supported by large Corinthian columns set in groups of four and leaning out of the perpendicular. The interior features of artistic importance include tiled floors, carved pine pews, stained glass windows (1885) by the Meyer Company of Munich, organ (1858), timber galleries and a vaulted roof.
The U-shaped, timber panelled gallery, with a bowed section at the choir gallery in the west, stands on fluted Ionic pine columns.
The marble High Altar by Joseph Farrell and the reredos date from 1881. The decorative baldacchino is supported by five Corinthian columns with gilt capitals, white marble shafts and square red marble bases. The high altar is partly obscured by the modern carved oak altar.
The bishop’s throne, the chapter and choir stalls, and the high pulpit are carved in Irish oak.
The organ, in a bow-fronted gallery above the west entrance, was built by William Hill & Sons in 1858 and was played for the first time by WT Best, the celebrated organist of Saint George’s Hall, Liverpool, at Solemn High Mass on Sunday 29 August 1858. Edward Comerford was the organist at Waterford Cathedral until he died in 1894. The organ was refurbished by Hills in 1910 and extensively altered in 1963-1964.
Patrick Comerford (1586-1652), the 17th century Roman Catholic Bishop of Waterford (1629-1652), who took advantage of the political climate during the Confederation of Kilkenny to take possession of Christ Church Cathedral, is named twice in tablets in Holy Trinity Cathedral.
On one plaque he is listed along with other distinguished theologians, priests and bishops from Waterford, including Peter Lombard, Archbishop of Armagh, James White, the Jesuits Michael Wadding, Peter Wadding and Ambrose Wadding, Thomas Walsh, Archbishop of Cashel, and the historian Geoffrey Keating.
A second plaque lists Patrick Comerford among the Bishops of Waterford, between Patrick Walsh and John Brenan, who accused Patrick Comerford of taking the cathedral vestments with him when left Waterford in 1650 after the Cromwellian siege of the city.
Bishop Patrick Comerford died at Nantes on 10 March 1652, aged 66, and was buried in Nantes Cathedral with full episcopal honours.
Holy Trinity Cathedral was refurbished in 1977 following the Second Vatican Council. A new altar was installed so that Mass could be celebrated facing the people. A gift of 10 crystal chandeliers from Waterford Crystal added to the beauty of the cathedral.
The cathedral was refloored and the sacristy was rebuilt in the early 1990s. Further work was completed in November 2006 with a re-fit of structure, the interior and exterior.
Railings once separated the church from the street, but these have since been removed, and there is a concrete brick cobbled forecourt in front of the cathedral today.
In a small, narrow churchyard on the south side of the cathedral, many of the former Bishops of Waterford and Lismore are buried, including Thomas Hussey who was bishop 1797-1803 and the first Roman Catholic bishop to live in Waterford since Patrick Comerford (1586-1652) left in 1651 after the Cromwellian siege of the city.
In 2000, the square near Barronstrand Street, formerly known as Red Square, was re-named John Roberts Square to honour his influence on the architecture of Waterford.