28 May 2019

Saint Mary’s Cathedral,
Tuam, is the third
cathedral on the site

The west front of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam, Co Galway … the third cathedral on the site, it was designed by Sir Thomas Deane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The principal ecclesiastical sites in Tuam, Co Galway, include Saint Mary’s Cathedral on High Street, at the west end of the town, Temple Jarlath, which is nearby, and the former episcopal palace, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption and its campus of church buildings and schools at the east end of the town.

I was in Tuam on Sunday for a funeral in the Cathedral of the Assumption, and after a cursory visit to Temple Jarlath two of us walked on west to Saint Mary’s, the magnificent Church of Ireland cathedral of the Diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry.

From the 12th century until 1839, both before and after the Reformation, this was the seat of the Archbishops of Tuam. Most of the present structure dates from the 1870s, but parts of the earlier 12th and 14th century cathedrals survive on the site.

The founder and first bishop of Tuam is said to be Saint Jarlath, who founded a church here about 501. He is said to have died ca 540-550, but before the 11th century only two other Bishops of Tuam are named: Ferdomnach (died 781) and Eugene mac Clerig (died 969).

The mediaeval importance of Tuam develops only in the 11th century when the O’Connor dynasty of High Kings of Ireland made Tuam their seat, moving there from Rathcroghan, near Tulsk, Co Roscommon.

Boarded up windows above the chancel of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The first cathedral on the present site was built in the 12th century, when Turlough O’Connor (1088-1156) was High King. This marked the establishment of Tuam as the seat of an archbishop following the Synod of Kells of 1152.

This first cathedral collapsed in a fire in 1184, with only the stone chancel arch escaping the fire. The site was abandoned for almost 100 years. A small parish church was built in the 13th century at Temple Jarlath, the site of an old monastery.

A second cathedral was built in the 14th century by the de Burgo family, a little to the east of the original building and incorporating the remains of the 12th century chancel and sanctuary. But this chancel arch was blocked up by a stone-and-wooden structure, with a door in its centre. This structure remained in place for over 500 years, when the chancel arch was exposed to the elements.

When the railway arrived in Tuam in 1860-1861 and the army barracks was enlarged, the Anglican population of Tuam more than doubled from 310 to 640, so that the 14th century cathedral was no longer large enough to accommodate the congregation. This inspired Charles James Seymour, Dean of Tuam, to commission a third cathedral on this site in 1861-1878.

The north transept of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This third cathedral was designed by the architect Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (1828-1899) was born at Dundanion, Co Cork, the eldest son of Thomas Deane and his second wife, Eliza Newenham. He was educated at Rugby and Trinity College Dublin. After graduating in 1849, he became a pupil in his father’s office in Cork.

Deane and his father’s assistant, Benjamin Woodward (1816-1861), became partners in the practice of Deane and Woodward in 1851, and set up an office at No 3 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin. They developed a Gothic style based on the principles laid down by John Ruskin, and their practice played an important role in the Gothic revival in England. Their two most important buildings are the Museum in Trinity College Dublin (1854-1857) and the Oxford Museum (1854-1860).

Woodward died in Lyons in France in 1862. Deane was appointed the first Superintendent of National Monuments in 1875. In 1890, Deane was knighted at the opening of the National Library and the National Museum in Kildare Street.

Deane died suddenly in his office at 37 Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, in 1899 and his practice was continued by his son, Thomas Manly Deane.

Deane’s best known works include the Museum Building in Oxford and the National Library and the National Museum in Kildare Street, Dublin, book-ending Leinster House. Four of his buildings are among my favourite works of architecture in Dublin: the Museum Building in Trinity College; No 46-47 Dame Street, built in 1869-1871 for the Crown Life Assurance Co; the Allied Irish Bank, formerly the Munster and Leinster Bank, at 7-10 Dame Street; and the former Kildare Street Club on Kildare Street.

Deane’s other works also include the former Stopford House Hotel, or Invermore, in Courtown, Co Wexford, designed around 1860 for the Earl Courtown’s land agent, and at one time was the home of Eva Mary Comerford (née Esmond) and her daughter Maire Comerford (1893-1982); Rathmichael Parish Church (1863), Co Dublin; Turlough House, Co Mayo, built for Charles Lionel Fitzgerald; the façade of Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin (1866-1869); and the Graduates’ Memorial Building (GMB) in Trinity College Dublin (1899).

Deane’s cathedral in Tuam was consecrated on 9 October 1878, and Robert Gregg, Bishop of Cork, was the preacher.

The tower and spire of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam, are adaptations of the tower and spire of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Deane designed this third cathedral in the Irish pointed style. The building is 46 metres (150 ft) long, and the transepts 23 metres (75 ft) wide.

Deane’s intention – never properly fulfilled – was to complete, to his own designs, the work begun in the 14th century by Archbishop William de Bermingham (1289-1310). To the west of the 12th century chancel he built a choir, north and south transepts, a massive central tower and spire, and an aisled nave of five bays with a clerestory.

The tower and spire are 55 metres high and are adaptations of the tower and spire of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The chancel has two bays and tall walls and two tall pointed windows.

Deane’s design was inspired in many ways by Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. The nave and choir have a stepped and machiolated parapet. The west door is surmounted by an arcade of seven equal trefoil headed windows, with the central window commemorating Deane.

A south door in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Deane’s cathedral incorporates the 12th century Hiberno-Romanesque arch, the only remaining part of the original cathedral built in the reign of Turlough O’Connor.

The arch is built of red sandstone and has been described as ‘the finest example of Hiberno-Romanesque architecture now extant.’ As this arch has no keystone, the columns supporting the capitals of the arch have a slight inward inclination to bear and support the weight of the structure. This means that the columns are not perpendicular, and the space at the base of the supporting columns is wider than at the capitals.

The arch is 6.85 metres wide at the base and 4.88 metres high. It consists of six consecutive semi-circular arches of elaborately ornamented stonework supported on columns. The capitals are richly sculptured with a variety of interlaced traceries, similar to those on the base of the High Cross of Tuam, and there are carved grotesque faces on the jambs.

A damaged window in the north transept (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The west window, depicting the Transfiguration, dates from 1913. Other windows depict Biblical figures, including Moses, David, Solomon, Ezra, Malachi and Saint John the Baptist. Solomon and Ezra were chosen because of their role in building and rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. A window depicting Christ the King is in memory of the architect Deane.

The oak reredos came from Saint Columb’s Cathedral, Derry. The chancel chairs were presented by Henry Browne, 5th Marquess of Sligo. The Bishop’s Throne, pulpit, font and chapter stalls are made of Caen stone and Irish marble and were donated by Thomas Plunket (1792-1866), Lord Plunket and Bishop of Tuam (1839-1866).

The original organ was the gift of Archbishop Josiah Hort in 1742. But it was severely damaged by damp, and a new organ was bought and installed in 1913.

The High Cross of Tuam was moved to the cathedral in 1992. This High Cross was erected in the 12th century by Turlough O’Connor to mark the completion of the first cathedral and the appointment of the first Archbishop of Tuam. The ornamented shaft of another high cross dating from the late 12th century is in the south aisle.

The Synod Hall incorporates the second, 14th century cathedral … the East Window bears a striking resemblance to the East Window in Exeter Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The second cathedral, built by the de Burgo family and Archbishop de Bermingham, became the Diocesan Synod Hall, Library and Registry. The style of what had been the second cathedral in Tuam is English Gothic, which is rare in Ireland. The five-light east window features geometric tracery that includes two quatrefoil windows under a sexfoil centrepiece. This composition bears a striking resemblance to Exeter Cathedral.

The buttresses here on the south and east walls have niches above the first weathering that reputedly held statues of the four evangelists until the Reformation.

The Synod Hall once included stalls said to have once stood in a monastery in northern Italy. After Napoleon destroyed the monastery, the stalls were hidden in a cellar in Turin for 50 years until they were bought in Nice for £3,000 by Edward Joshua Cooper, MP, of Markree Castle, Co Sligo. He placed them in his private chapel in his castle, and presented them to Saint Mary’s Cathedral in 1882. They were sold in 1984 and returned to Italy.

Some major renovations took place in 1985-1993, and a new central heating system was added in 2000. The synod hall was restored in 1985-1987.

The Dean of Tuam is the Very Revd Alistair Grimason, and the chapter consists of the Dean, the Provost, the Archdeacon, Gary Hastings (since 2007), and the Prebendaries of Balla and Killabegs, Faldown and Kilmainmore, Kilmeen and Kilmoylan, and Taghsaxon and Laccagh.

Holy Communion is celebrated at 12 noon on Sundays, and the cathedral is open to visitors on Friday mornings and afternoons during the summer months.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam, seen from the south-east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Temple Jarlath: a direct link
with Saint Jarlath of Tuam

Temple Jarlath on High Street is said to mark the site of the earliest monastic settlement established by Saint Jarlath in Tuam (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Tuam in Co Galway owes its origins to Saint Jarlath or Saint Iarlaithe mac Loga, a sixth century priest and scholar who is celebrated as the founder of the monastic School of Tuam and he is patron saint of the Archdiocese of Tuam.

The four main ecclesiastical sites in Tuam are Saint Mary’s Cathedral on High Street, at the end of the west town, Temple Jarlath, which is nearby, and the former episcopal palace, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption and its campus of church buildings and schools at the east end of the town.

Although Tuam traces its origins as a church and diocese to Saint Jarlath, there is no surviving mediaeval life of the saint. The main sources are references in early genealogies, martyrologies, the lives of Saint Brendan of Clonfert, and a 17th century biography compiled by the Franciscan scholar John Colgan.

Indeed, Irish genealogies record the existence of two saints named Iarlaithe: Iarlaithe son of Lugh (Iarlaithe mac Loga), founder of Tuam, and Iarlaithe son of Trian (Iarlaithe mac Trena), third Bishop of Armagh.

Jarlath of Tuam is said to have belonged to the Conmhaícne, the ruling family in the greater part of what would become the parish of Tuam. The other Iarlaithe is said to have belonged to the Dál Fiatach in east Ulster. He is identified as the third Bishop of Armagh, succeeding Saint Patrick’s heir Benignus, and the Annals of Ulster and Innisfallen record his death in the year 481.

In John Colgan’s memoir of Saint Jarlath in his Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae (1645), Jarlath is said to have studied at Kilbennen under Saint Benignus, a disciple of Saint Patrick.

Later, he founded his first monastery at Cluainfois (Cloonfush), near Tuam. His monastic school is said to have attracted scholars from throughout Ireland, including Saint Brendan of Ardfert and Saint Colman of Cloyne. Despite his fame, Jarlath left Cloonfush to study under Saint Enda of Aran around 495.

A poem ascribed to Cuimmín of Coindeire recalls Jarlath’s generosity and piety: ‘300 genuflections every night, and 300 genuflections every day.’ In Ó Cléirigh’s Martyrology of Donegal, he is said to have predicted the names of his successors, including those of three ‘heretical’ bishops.

In the mediaeval Irish Lives of Saint Brendan of Clonfert, Saint Brendan is said to have visited Connacht to study under Saint Jarlath. One day, when Jarlath was in his old age, Brendan advised his mentor to leave the school: ‘Go and where your chariot wheels break, there shall be the site of your new monastery and the place of your resurrection.’

Jarlath’s travels did not take him very far: he had travelled 4 km east when the shafts of his chariot broke at Tuaim da Ghualann (‘Mound of two shoulders’), the site of present-day Tuam, ca 526-527. There Jarlath died, ‘full of days,’ on 26 December ca 540, aged about 90.

The curving enclosure wall to the east along Church Lane and to the south along Sawpit Lane probably preserves the line of an earlier ecclesiastical enclosure (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Temple Jarlath on High Street is said to mark the site of the earliest monastic settlement established by Saint Jarlath in Tuam. However, the Vikings may have plundered this foundation, and little is known about Saint Jarlath or his early church, although it survived in some form into the 11th century.

The exact location of the saint’s original foundation is not clear. The proliferation of religious houses and ecclesiastical foundations in the town under the patronage of the O’Connors of Connacht adds to this confusion and uncertainty.

According to the Archaeological Survey of Ireland, the curving enclosure wall to the east along Church Lane and to the south along Sawpit Lane probably preserves the line of an earlier ecclesiastical enclosure.

Tony Claffey, author of the Tuam Historic Towns Atlas, believes that the site of Temple Jarlath was probably chosen for a re-established settlement built by Áed Ua Conchobair (O’Connor), or ‘Áed of the gapped spear’ in the 11th century.

King Turlough O’Connor extended the site at Temple Jarlath westwards to provide space for the new Saint Mary’s Cathedral. Despite the legends and the myths, Tuam only became the principal see in Connacht only at the Synod of Kells-Mellifont in 1152, while Annaghdown became an independent diocese at the Synod of Dublin in 1192.

But the ruins in the enclosure at Temple Jarlath are of a much later date. They include the ruins of a late 13th century parish church with a fine pointed triple light transitional east window and a later tower to the west, all on the east side of a raised, D-shaped graveyard. A late mediaeval tower stands at the west end of the church.

Following the Reformation, the church at Temple Jarlath was neglected and fell into ruins. However, it as used as the Roman Catholic parish church of the town until a new church was built in Chapel Lane in 1783. The 18th century O’Connor Donellan chapel is attached to the north wall. The surrounding churchyard continued to be used as the town graveyard until it was been closed for burials in 1885.

A late mediaeval tower stands at the west end of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A large steel and wooden tower has been built on High Street to enable access to the ruined church and graveyard. However, although a sign says the site is opened daily during the summer months, it was locked when I visited on Sunday afternoon. The sign said contact details for the caretaker were available through the Galway County Council offices ‘across the road’ … but it was Sunday, and they were closed too, of course.

Today, depending on your point of view, the graveyard and church look abandoned or like a haven of peace in the heart of the town, with its lines of large yew trees and worn gravel paths.

Saint Jarlath’s feast day is celebrated on 6 June, the date of the translation of his relics to a church specially built in his honour at the east end of Tuam. There, at Teampal na Scríne or the Church of the Shrine, his remains were encased in a silver shrine, and the church became a perpetual vicarage united to the Prebend of Kilmainemore in 1415.

It is said that the relics of Saint Jarlath were hidden after the Reformation but were unearthed by workers threshing corn in 1625. Later, Loughlin O’Connor and his descendants of Kilclooney, Tuam, were appointed custodians of the relics. They remained in the possession of this family ‘until 1831, when they disappeared and were never recovered.’

Saint Jarlath’s broken wheel has become the heraldic symbol of Tuam, and is used by many local organisations, including Tuam Town Council.

The graveyard looks like a haven of peace in the heart of the town, with its lines of large yew trees and worn gravel paths (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)