03 June 2019
Saint Brigid’s Cathedral,
Kildare, stands on a site
over 1500 years old
While I was visiting Co Kildare at the weekend, I spent some time visiting the Cathedral Church of Saint Brigid, one of two cathedrals in the United Dioceses of Meath and Kildare in the Church of Ireland.
I had been invited by Archbishop Richard Clarke, then Bishop of Meath and Kildare, to preach in the cathedral in 2011 at the ordination to the priesthood of Paul Bogle, now the Dean of Clonmacmoise. But my visit on Friday was my first opportunity to spend some extra time in the cathedral, exploring its history, architecture and heritage.
Saint Brigid is one of the three patrons of Ireland, alongside Saint Patrick and Saint Columba. She is said to have lived at Faughart, near Dundalk, Co Louth, and that she arrived in Kildare with her followers in the late fifth century, perhaps in the year 480. She was assisted in the rule of her house by an abbot or bishop named Condleth.
Saint Condleth may have died in the year 520 and Saint Brigid in 523. For many centuries, Kildare maintained a unique Irish experiment: the abbess ruled over a double community of women and men, with an abbess, and abbot and a bishop. The original abbey church may have been a simple wooden building in the sixth century.
The cathedral was devastated perhaps 16 times between the years 835 and 998, and Kildare declined in importance from the 12th century. When the Anglo-Norman Ralph of Bristol was Bishop of Kildare in 1223-1232, he found the cathedral was virtually in ruins, and began rebuilding it.
The cathedral was enlarged and embellished in 1482, but later bishops paid less attention to the building. It may have been semi-ruinous by 1500, and it fell into disrepair in the 16th century after the Reformation. The roof was pulled down and parts of the chancel, tower and north transept collapsed, and Bishop Alexander Craik (1560-1574) sold the cathedral manors and lands for cash.
Bishop William Pilsworth (1604-1635) found the cathedral was ruined when he arrived in the diocese, and he failed to recover the lands sold off in the previous century by Bishop Craik. During the Irish Confederate Wars in the mid-17th century, the central tower and the north transept were severely damaged in a military attack, the chancel, nave and south transept were left roofless, and the cathedral was derelict by 1649.
After the restoration, Bishop Thomas Price (1661-1667) refused to spend anything on rebuilding the cathedral, although later it was partially rebuilt in 1686 by Bishop William Moreton (1682-1705), who was also Dean of Christ church Cathedral, Dublin, rebuilt the chancel and had it consecrated for use as a cathedral.
But the building continued to deteriorate and decay. The west wall of the nave was still standing in 1738, but it too had fallen by the mid-19th century, when it was replaced by a modern wall.
The fabric of the cathedral was in such a condition by the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 that there were proposals. Instead, however, a complete restoration of the building was carried out by George Edmund Street (1824-1881). He started working there in 1875, and this work continued after his death in 1881 until it was completed by James Franklin Fuller (1835-1924) in 1896.
The late Victorian restoration by Street and Fuller included a new north transept, new chancel, and new west wall as well as rebuilding three sides of the square tower. A new oak roof, supported on stone corbels, was built into the wall buttresses.
The restored cathedral was consecrated on 22 September 1896 by Archbishop Plunket of Dublin, who was also Bishop of Kildare. The sermon was preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward Benson, who died three weeks later.
More recent restorations have included new internal porches, repairs to the internal and external stonework and rebuilding the organ.
The cathedral is an imposing building but is primarily of late 19th century construction, incorporating the fabric of the 13th century church and later reconstructions. The cathedral is built in the Gothic Revival style and successfully incorporates the earlier fabric to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish between the various phases of construction.
It has a six-bay, double-height nave with single-bay, double-height north and south transepts, a two-bay double-height chancel at the east end, and a single-bay, three-stage tower at the crossing on a square plan with a battlemented roof and a parapet wall.
The cathedral is built in rubble stone with cut-stone dressings and is a fine example of the high quality of stone masonry traditionally practised in the area. This is seen especially in the carved detailing, including the surrounds to the doors and windows and its decorative motifs such as gargoyles to the parapet walls.
The exterior retains most of its original features and materials, while replacement fabric has been installed in keeping with the original integrity of the building.
The cathedral is cruciform in plan without aisles in the early Gothic style with a massive square central tower. All the windows are lancet windows, singles or doubles, but triple lancets in the four gables.
The design features include arches that span from buttress to buttress in advance of the side walls. The parapets are of the stepped Irish type. They have been much restored, but probably date from about 1395, when a Papal relaxation was given to those who visited Kildare and gave alms for the conservation of the church.
Inside, the cathedral is plain, the window splays are not moulded, but the rear-arches are moulded and spring from shafts with moulded capitals. These shafts are short and terminate in small curved tails. The construction of the lancet arches at the crossing, which have retained their original shape, together with the exposed timber roof construction, are also worth noting.
The cathedral has a rich collection of carved cross slabs, grave slabs, effigies, tombs a decorative tiled floor, stained glass windows and an ornate reredos and arcading by Fuller in the chancel.
One of the most striking features is the altar tomb of Walter Wellesley, Bishop of Kildare, who died in 1539. This altar tomb is an example of 16th century sculpture and was originally at Great Connell Priory. It was moved to the cathedral in 1971 for preservation.
The cost of restoring the tomb was largely funded by the Duke of Wellington on behalf of the Wellesley family.
An effigy of the bishop lies on the mensa or top piece. At each end are carvings of Christ the Man of Sorrows (Ecce Homo) surrounded by instruments of the passion, and the Crucifixion with images of the Virgin Mary and Saint John; on the sides are some remaining figures of apostles and saints.
On the underside of the mensa is a small but stunning female exhibitionist figure. It is often referred to as a sheela-na-gig.
The chapter and choir stalls are of solid oak, with acorn and oak leaf carvings.
Also worth seeing are the Bishop’s throne, the carved Caen Stone pulpit with carvings of the four evangelists and Irish marble columns (1887), the brass eagle lectern (1896) and the organ built by Conacher in 1898.
A font made of solid granite is said locally to have been the font in which Saint Laurence O’Toole was baptised in 1123.
The east window above the high altar is a memorial to Dr Samuel Chaplin (1829-1891), the Kildare county surgeon who played a crucial role in the cathedral restoration.
The west window is dedicated to the three patrons of Ireland, Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid and Saint Columba, and is a memorial to Archbishop Edward Benson of Canterbury, who preached at the consecration of the cathedral in 1896.
The stained glass window of Saint Luke (1974) by the Czech artist Gerda Schurmann is a memorial to George Frederick Graham, Dean of Kildare (1938-1952).
The north transept, known as the Lady Chapel, has a modern window depicting (from left) Saint Paul, Christ in Majesty and Saint Peter.
To the north-east the cathedral is one of five round towers in Co Kildare. At 33 metres, it is the second highest in Ireland, and is open to visitors to climb. It is built of Wicklow granite and local limestone. It dates from ca1150, which is comparatively late for an Irish Round Tower, although it may have replaced an earlier tower.
The plain granite high cross in the grounds of the cathedral is 3 metres tall with a damaged ringed head and a tapering shaft mounted on a square base. Because it lacks decoration, this High Cross is difficult to date. The base is massive for such a slender shaft and head and may not be the original.
According to local lore, Saint Brigid’s Fire was kept alight in an ancient oratory known as Saint Brigid’s Fire House. The shape of this oratory and the thickness of the remains of the walls and foundations are evidence of its antiquity.
To the south-east of the cathedral, a disused burial chamber is known locally as ‘Saint Brigid’s Kitchen.’
Some critics 19th century critics said Street’s restoration had spoilt ‘a beautiful ruin.’ But without Street, Kildare might have no cathedral today.
Until 1846, the Deans of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, were also Bishops of Kildare. The Diocese of Kildare was united with Dublin in 1846, and since 1976 Kildare has been united with the Diocese of Meath.