22 November 2019

Saint Mary’s Cathedral,
Elphin: abandoned
after a storm in 1957

Saint Mary’s Cathedral was the cathedral of the Church of Ireland Diocese of Elphin until it was abandoned in 1957 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The two cathedrals in Sligo – Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland – serve the dioceses of Elphin. So, it seemed appropriate on my way back from Sligo earlier this week after a family wedding at the weekend that I should stop in the small village of Elphin and visit the ruins of the former cathedral in the small south Co Roscommon village.

Elphin is 18 km from Boyle, 29 km from Roscommon and 14 km from Carrick-on-Shannon. But Elphin (Ail Fionn, ‘the stone of the clear water’) is a quiet place, on no main routes, set in some rolling pastureland.

Tradition says that the site of the former cathedral in Elphin dates back to a monastic house founded by Saint Patrick ca 435-450. Ono son of Oengus gave Elphin to Saint Patrick and Oisin is said to have been baptised near the town.

Saint Patrick is said to have placed his disciple Saint Assicus in charge of Elphin. A pre-historic standing stone and Saint Patrick’s Well are both situated within the Fair Green which forms part of the entrance to the cathedral site.

A standing stone and Saint Patrick’s Well at the entrance to the cathedral site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Assicus is said to have been succeeded by his nephew, Bite (Baethus), but there is no further record of the monastery until the 12th century. The Diocese of Elphin was established at the Synod of Rath Breasail in 1111, when the see for east Connacht was moved from Roscommon to Elphin and Domnall mac Flannacáin Ua Dubthaig become the first Bishop of Elphin.

Máel Ísu Ua Connachtáin was present at the Synod of Kells in 1152 as Bishop of Elphin.

The first cathedral was dedicated to Beatae Mariae Virgini (the Blessed Virgin Mary or Saint Mary the Virgin). It is referred to in 1235, when it was destroyed by fire. It was restored and rebuilt ca 1240.

Inside the ruins of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Elphin looking east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Some mediaeval Bishops of Elphin found it difficult to assert their authority. Máel Sechlainn Ó Conchobair, also known as Milo O’Connor was Archdeacon of Clonmacnoise when he was elected Bishop of Elphin by the majority of the Chapter of Elphin in 1260. He received possession of the diocese on 8 November 1260, and was consecrated bishop later that month. But he was opposed by Tomas mac Fergail Mac Diarmata until he died in office on 9 January 1262.

Tomas mac Fergail Mac Diarmata, a Cistercian monk also known as Thomas Mac Ferrall McDermott, had been elected bishop before 26 January 1260 by the Dean of Elphin and other members of the cathedral chapter, but was not able to take possession of the see. He successfully appealed to the Pope, but did not take possession until Bishop Máel Sechlainn Ó Conchobair died in 1262. He died in office in 1265.

Thomas Barrett, Archdeacon of Annaghdown, became Bishop of Elphin in 1372. He was deprived by the Antipope, Pope Clement VII, in 1383, in favour of Seoán Ó Mocháin, but to no effect, and Barrett continued in office until he died in 1404.

Robert Fosten became bishop in 1418, but spent most of his time in England acting as a suffragan bishop in Durham.

Inside the ruins of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Elphin, looking west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In 1433, Pope Eugene IV ‘granted certain privileges to contributors for the repair and fabric of the Cathedral Church of Elphin, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, which had been greatly deformed by fire.’

Georgios Vranas, who became Bishop of Elphin in 1499, may be one of the few Greek-born bishops to serve the Church in Ireland. He was also known as Georgius de Brana, George Braua, or an-t-easbog Gréagach. He was from Athens and was a member of the famous Byzantine House of Vranas. He was translated from Dromore to Elphin in 1499, had resigned by 1507, and died in 1529.

Christopher Fisher was Prebendary of Husthwaite, York, at the same time as he was Bishop of Elphin (1507-1511). His successor, Thomas Walsh, also held both these offices at the same time (1511-1524). John Maxey was Bishop of Elphin (1525-1536) at the same time as he was a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of York (1525), Abbot of Welbeck (1520-1536), Prebendary of Ampleforth, York (1528-1536), and Abbot of Titchfield (1535-1536).

Elphin Cathedral was rebuilt by Bishop John Parker (1661-1667) after the Caroline Restoration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The first post-Reformation Bishops of Elphin were Conach O’Shiel (1541-1551), Roland de Burgo (1551-1580), Thomas Chester (1580-1583) and John Lynch (1583-1611).

Elphin Cathedral was partially damaged in the 1641 rebellion, but was rebuilt by Bishop John Parker (1661-1667) after the Caroline Restoration.

Elphin Grammar School was founded later in the late 17th century by Bishop John Hodson (1667-1686). The pupils included the writer Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), whose grandfather was a cousin of Edward Goldsmith, Dean of Elphin (1700-1722); and Sir William Wilde (1815-1876), father of Oscar Wilde.

The cathedral was substantially rebuilt in 1728, when the Bishop of Elphin was Theophilus Bolton (1724-1730), later Archbishop of Cashel and founder of the Bolton Library.

A new palace for the Church of Ireland bishops was built north of this site in 1749. The plan of a central block and flanking pavilions plan was very common in Irish country houses of the period.

Most of the cathedral roof had fallen in by 1757 and the walls were in a dangerous state. A thorough rebuilding was carried out in 1757-1758, when the tower was added. But it remained a modest building, no bigger than a small parish church, with a tall square clock tower at the west end.

Looking into the cathedral ruins from the ruins of the tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

When Dean Jonathan Swift visited Elphin briefly, he wrote about the town and cathedral:

Low church, high steeple,
Dirty town, proud people

Later Bishops of Elphin included Edward Synge (1740-1762), William Gore (1762-1772), later Bishop of Limerick, and Charles Dodgson (1775-1795), grandfather of Lewis Carrol (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), author of Alice in Wonderland.

While John Powell Leslie was Bishop of Elphin of Kilmore (1819-1841), Elphin was united with Kilmore and Ardagh, and he died in office as Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh in 1854.

The apse was added to Elphin Cathedral in 1872 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The final addition to the cathedral was a short apse of Caen stone, built in 1872. The cathedral was an oblong building, about 24.3 metres long, excluding the apse, and 8.5 metres wide. The bishops’ throne and chapter stalls were at the east end of the nave, there was a pulpit on the north side, a reading desk on the south side, a lectern and font.

Later, Elphin was the home town of the songwriter William Percy French (1854-1920). He is said to have written his first lines about a scene he witnessed when he was six-year-old. He saw a mouse come down a bell rope in the cathedral, and wrote:

The mouse for want of stairs,
ran down the rope to say his prayers.

The main block of the bishop’s house was destroyed by fire early in the 20th Century and was later demolished. The ruins of the pavilions survive together with the curtain walls that linked them to the main house.

The supposed site of the bishop’s throne in the cathedral ruins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Mary’s continued in use as a cathedral until it was severely damaged in a storm on 4 February 1957. When the diocesan synod met in Longford a few months later on 11 July, it decided to abandon the cathedral and to move the seat of the Diocese of Elphin and Ardagh to Sligo.

The decision was ratified by the General Synod in 1958, and Elphin Cathedral was formally deconsecrated on 17 November 1958. Saint John’s Church, Sligo, formally became the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist, serving the Diocese of Elphin and Ardagh, on 25 October 1961.

The cathedral ruins were mainly demolished in 1964, and many of the stones were used in building a new school in the village. The ruins were partly rebuilt and restored in 1982 and custody was transferred from the Church of Ireland to Roscommon County Council in 1985. It has since come into the custody of the Elphin Heritage Society.

Elphin in winter sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
8, Simon Wiesenthal and
the café in Mauthausen

A sketch by Simon Wiesenthal for ‘Café As’ in the Jewish Museum in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I have decided over these few days or weeks to re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

Throughout the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse, many of the exhibits refer to the work and legacy of Simon Wiesenthal, and a current exhibition is devoted to his studies and art – until this month’s visit to Vienna, I had never thought of him as an artist.

Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005) was a Holocaust survivor, Nazi hunter, and writer, who is closely identified with Vienna. He is remembered for his tireless efforts to bring those responsible for the Holocaust to justice. He was also a trained architect. But when I thought of Wiesenthal and Mauthausen in the past, I did not think of cafés and coffee, cake and croissants, and art.

The ‘Café As’ (‘Café Ace) exhibition at the museum shows how the bright light of creativity and friendship can blossom in even the most trying of circumstances, and the coffeehouse drawings and plans by Simon Wiesenthal tells an implicit tale of survival and friendship.

Simon Wiesenthal was born on 31 December 1908 in Buczacz (Buchach), now in Ukraine but then in Galicia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He studied architecture at the Czech Technical University in Prague, then an important centre of modernism and functionalism.

He moved in 1932 to the Polytechnic University in Lviv (Lwów), then in Poland but now in Ukraine, and once an important city in the Austro-Hungarian empire. As well as working in an architectural practice, he also drew cartoons for a Zionist newspaper, Chwila, and for a satirical magazine, Omnibus.

He was living in Lviv at the outbreak of World War II. He survived the Lwów ghetto, concentration camps in Janowska (1941-1944), Kraków-Płaszów (1944) and Gross-Rosen, a death march to Chemnitz, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Mauthausen (1945).

By chance, Wiesenthal became friends in Mauthausen with the Polish writer, Edmund Staniszewski, a political prisoner who used a bureaucratic sleight of hand to keep Wiesenthal out of the gas chambers and also gave bread to his severely malnourished Jewish companion.

Staniszewski dreamt of opening a coffeehouse (‘Café As’) after the war, and his friend offered to design the building for him.

Even while he was still at Mauthausen, Wiesenthal began sketching out ideas using pens and paper ‘borrowed’ from the concentration camp offices. He worked on all aspects of the proposed café, much in the spirit of famous Viennese architects and designers like Wagner or Hoffmann, designing furniture, advertising, cake decorations, invitations, and even the uniforms of the waiting and kitchen staff.

In the weeks after the liberation of Mauthausen, Wiesenthal turned his sketches into dozens of detailed plans and drawings for Café As. Although Staniszewski never built his coffeehouse, he kept Wiesenthal’s drawings. These are now owned by the Jewish Museum and currently on display.

Selected drawings form the bulk of the present exhibition, with 80 drawings inviting visitors to wonder what might have been had Wiesenthal’s life taken a more innocent turn.

The drawings also provide another symbol of the triumph of perseverance, friendship and humanity in even the most difficult circumstances. And Café As looks like it might just have been the place where I would have found a fine double espresso.

The Café As exhibition also presents biographical details and examples of Wiesenthal’s talents with the pencil.

A section on his architecture studies includes exhibits such as his 1932 student report card from the Czech Technical University in Prague.

Some of Wiesenthal’s sketches of Mauthausen include the poignant ‘Transports,’ in which a giant skeletal SS officer swallows row after row of wagons full of people.

The exhibition also looks at his time immediately after the liberation of Mauthausen, when Wiesenthal worked with US army counter-intelligence. This includes a sweet letter to his wife Cyla anticipating their reunion.

After World War II, Wiesenthal dedicated his life to tracking down and gathering information on fugitive Nazi war criminals so that they could be brought to trial. He played a role in capturing Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. He died in Vienna at the age of 96 on 20 September 2005 and was buried in Herzliya in Israel.

The Café As exhibition, curated by Michaela Vocelka, opened on 29 May 2019 and continues until Sunday 12 January 2020.

Simon Wiesenthal … a portrait in the Jewish Museum in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.