08 February 2020

The Unitarian Church on
Prince’s Street claims it is
the oldest church in Cork

The Unitarian Church at 39 Prince’s Street, Cork, is in the heart of the city centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

The Unitarian Church at 39 Prince’s Street, Cork, is in the heart of the city centre, beside one of the entrances to the English Market, but when it was built it was outside the crumbling mediaeval walls of the city.

The church opened as the ‘Old Presbyterian Church’ or meeting house in August 1717 and claims to the oldest place of continuous worship in Cork: although Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland) stands on a much older site, the present building was completed in 1879; the Cathedral of Saint Mary and Saint Anne was built in 1808 and rebuilt in 1828; and Saint Anne’s Church (Church of Ireland), Shandon, was built on the present site in 1722-1726.

Building work on what became the Unitarian Church began around 1711 in an area then called Dunscombe’s Marsh, outside the city walls. It was built as a dissenting Presbyterian meeting house to replace a smaller church in Watergate Lane, now South Main Street, that the congregation had outgrown.

The church claims to the oldest place of continuous worship in Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Hard rock and rubble had to be brought into the area to secure the foundations and reclaim the land, and so it took around five years to build the church.

Like all dissenting chapels or meeting houses, the interior design was simple, lacking the more ornate designs associated with Anglican and Roman Catholic churches at the time. The church was a plain meeting house, designed for the congregation to hear the minister. A balcony ran around three sides of the building, and it could seat up to 800 people. The buildings to either side were the minister’s manse and a school.

The new church opened on 4 August 1717, and the first service was led by its minister, the Revd Samuel Lowthian.

The gallery and the clock inside the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

A document dated 8 January 1719, signed by James Weekes, asks the Bishop of Cork, Peter Browne, to approve the registration of the meeting house on Dumscomb’s Marsh, Cork, under the 1719 Act.

At the time, Presbyterians in Ireland were not organised into one single church body, and by the early 18th century divisions were emerging among Presbyterian ministers over subscribing at their ordination to the Westminster Confession, although the Synod of Munster never subscribed to it.

These divisions would lead to the formation of the Presbytery of Antrim in 1725 and the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster in 1830. These two bodies joined with the Synod of Munster in 1835 to form the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians. The Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland was consolidated in 1910 when the Presbytery of Antrim, the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster and those congregations that had formed the Free Congregational Union formed the General Synod.

By 1910, only three congregations of the original Synod of Munster remained in the south of Ireland, including the church in Cork. Although the Synod of Munster was and remained a member of the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians, it did not formally join the General Synod until 1935.

The Unitarian Church in Cork continues to have a formal association with the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland to this day.

The church on Prince’s Street soon became known as the ‘New Meeting House’ but was also known as the ‘Old Presbyterian Church,’ and was one of the first buildings on reclaimed marsh to the east of the medieval walls of Cork.

A list of ministers in Prince’s Street from 1670 to 1961, notes that five were Unitarian ministers, but 13 were Trinitarian. The House of Lords was told that for many years there were two preachers in the chapel, one Trinitarian and one Unitarian.

The chapel in Prince’s Street was at the centre of debates and divisions within Irish Presbyterianism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Revd Thomas Dix Hincks (1767-1857) was one of the former ministers of the church. The divisions among Presbyterians become more difficult in Cork when Hincks was appointed to the church and came to be debated in the House of Lords. Hincks was a known Unitarian and was appointed an assistant to the Revd Samuel Perrott in Cork. However, the Presbytery of Munster refused to ordain him, and eventually he was ordained by the Presbytery of Dublin in 1792.

Hincks remained in Cork until 1814, and was the founder of the Royal Cork Institute. Two of his sons were Church of Ireland priests: the Revd Dr Edward Hincks (1792 -1866), who is commemorated in a plaque by the church gates, was the Rector of Killyleigh, Co Down, and a distinguished Oriental and Greek scholar; the Ven Thomas Hincks (1796-1882) was Archdeacon of Connor from 1865.

Two other sons were Unitarian ministers: the Revd William Hincks (1794-1871), was a minister in Cork, Exeter and Liverpool and later became Professor of Natural History at Queen’s College, Cork (1849-1853); the Revd John Hincks (1804-1831) was a Unitarian minister in Liverpool (1827–31). The youngest son, Sir Francis Hincks (1807-1885), was a colonial governor.

A memorial at the church gates to the Revd Dr Edward Hincks a distinguished Oriental and Greek scholar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Many of the members of the congregation left to join Trinity Presbyterian Church, a ‘subscribing’ Presbyterian congregation formed in 1830, and popular with Scottish immigrants at the time. The Prince’s Street congregation continued to meet, and to hear various clergy, including Unitarians and Trinitarians.

The Temperance campaigner, Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), signed his famous Temperance Agreement in the Unitarian Church in 1839, and six years later the American social reformer, abolitionist, author and statesman Frederick Douglass visited the church in 1845.

Members of the church in the mid-19th century include Richard Dowden (1794-1861), a Mayor of Cork and uncle of Charles Dowden, Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, and the painter Daniel Maclise (1806-1870).

The church was threatened with closure in the late 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Numbers began to dwindle in the 20th century, and in 1958 Mrs Marjory Thompson of Blackrock Road was described as the only remaining Unitarian left in the city. There were plans to sell the building, and reports a grocery chain was planning to buy it and convert it into a supermarket. But the plan never went ahead because the building was listed.

The building saw little Unitarian activity until the 1990s, when a small group, including Fritz Spengeman and Dr Martin Pulbrook, resumed weekly services. The Rev Bridget Spain was the minister-in-charge from 2007 to 2017. Today the church has its own minister, the Revd Mike O’Sullivan, who was ordained in February 2017, the first Cork man to hold the position in almost 200 years.

The church celebrated its tercentenary in 2017. The celebrations a visit from President Michael D Higgins, an anniversary service attended by civic and religious leaders in the city, and the staging of a specially commissioned play to celebrate the visit Frederick Douglass in 1845.

The pulpit is a gift from the Church of Ireland Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In recent years, extensive cosmetic work was undertaken on the building, including opening the ‘South Chapel,’ where services are held every Sunday. The church received a gift of a pulpit from the Church of Ireland Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.

The features in the church include early 18th-century oval windows, a semi-circular 300-year-old-gallery with its original staircase. The original pulpit was on the west wall facing east and a pillar, door and gate stood perfectly in line from there to the street outside. But the original pews, pulpit and organ were removed in the late 1990s.

The church remains one of Cork’s religious architectural gems, and the church is a growing, vibrant and inclusive community.

‘First Fridays Jazz Vespers,’ an initiative of the Methodist and Unitarian churches in Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The building is used throughout the week by a variety of local groups and for hosting events from experimental rock concerts to craft fairs.

An innovative service is the ‘First Friday Jazz Vespers,’ an initiative of the Methodist and Unitarian churches at 6 p.m. on the first Friday of each month.

Prince’s Street is between Saint Patrick’s Street and Oliver Plunkett Street. Sunday services are at 11 a.m.

Prince’s Street, Cork, with the entrance to the English Market beside the Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Saint Colman’s Cathedral:
a Gothic gem by Pugin and
Ashlin that crowns Cobh

Saint Colman’s Cathedral, the Gothic gem by Pugin and Ashlin is the crowning glory of colourful Cobh and its harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Cobh, Co Cork, this week, a priority for my sight-seeing was Saint Colman’s Cathedral, which is one of the crowning glories of the Pugin heritage in Irish church architecture.

Indeed, it could be said that Saint Colman’s cathedral crowns the harbour town of Cobh, standing on high precipice looking out across Cork Harbour.

This is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cloyne, which covering much of east and north Co Cork. Despite its mediaeval appearance, construction only began in 1868, and the cathedral was not completed for more than half a century, due primarily to steeply rising costs and revisions of the original plans.

Saint Colman’s Cathedral was designed by Edward Welby Pugin and George Coppinger Ashlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The architects were AWN Pugin’s son and son-in-law, Edward Welby Pugin (1834-1875), and George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), who was born in Cork.

Ten years of extensive planning and fundraising in the parishes in the diocese were carried out before the cathedral was built. The Queenstown Cathedral Building Committee, made up of leading parishioners and chaired by the bishop, faced many complex problems.

During the planning years (1857-1867), the committee debated the style of architecture, the approximate dimensions of the planned cathedral, and providing a temporary church.

According to a plaque in the south transept, the total cost of the cathedral was £235,000. The project was supported financially by parishioners in what was then known as Queenstown and by prominent citizens, who are named in the parish records. The Building Fund also received substantial contributions from Australia and the US.

The draft plans by Pugin and Ashlin were approved in November 1867 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The draft plans by Pugin and Ashlin were approved by the Building Committee in November 1867. A new temporary parish church opened for worship by early 1868, The old parish church was taken down in February, the site was expanded and developed for building the cathedral, and Bishop Keane cut the first sod on 25 April 1868.

The sharply shelving hillside posed many problems for the contractors who did not have today’s machinery that makes site-development comparatively easy.

Bishop Keane laid the cathedral foundation stone on 25 July 1868, and laid the first stone of the main building on 30 September 1868. The stone had a container with a parchment recording in Latin details of the ceremony.

Bishop Keane had the architects change the whole character of the work at an early stage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

When the contractors had carried up the external walls to an average of 12 ft, Bishop Keane consulted the architects about having he plans more elaborate plans. The whole character of the work was changed, and, with the exception of the ground plan, none of the original plans were adhered to.

These extra works increased by many thousands of cubic feet of stone the quantity already provided for and substantially increased the cost. Bishop Keane did not live to see the completion of his cherished project, and he died in January 1874. His successor, Bishop John McCarthy, adhered strictly to Bishop Keane’s vision.

Eventually, because of extensive commitments in England and Ireland, Pugin and Ashlin agreed to divide their work, with Ashlin attending to their contracts in Ireland, including Cobh cathedral, while Pugin took responsibility for their projects in England.

Inside Cobh Cathedral, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Long after EW Pugin died in 1875, Ashlin took on the services of a young Dublin architect, Thomas Aloysius Coleman (1865-1950), a talented draughtsman, to assist in completing the project. Coleman, who helped to bring the cathedral to completion, later become Ashlin’s partner, and the partnership of Ashlin and Coleman continued until 1950.

The erection of the limestone spire – the last of the major external works – was to complete the cathedral’s graceful outline. The detailed drawings of Ashlin and Coleman showed an octagonal spire merging harmoniously with the quadrangular tower and its surrounding pinnacles.

The Cork firm of J Maguire began building the spire in 1911. For four years, stone masons worked to complete the gracefully tapering spire. The last scaffolding surrounding the spire was taken down in March 1915, and the work on the cathedral was virtually completed.

Inside Cobh Cathedral, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The clerk of works, Charles Guilfoyle Doran (1835-1909), supervised the project until he died on 19 March 1909, when the cathedral was almost complete. Doran was also a leading figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Fenian Brotherhood.

The cathedral was finally consecrated on 24 August 1919 by the Bishop of Cloyne, Robert Browne, in the presence of the Archbishop Michael Logue of Armagh, Archbishop John Harty of Cashel and Archbishop Thomas Gilmartin of Tuam, with Archbishop Gilmartin celebrating High Mass.

Saint Colman’s is a gem of neo-Gothic church architecture by Pugin, Ashlin and Coleman.

The Gothic grandeur of the interior, the delicate carvings, the beautiful arches and the mellow lighting combine to life the human spirit.

The rose window and the organ in Cobh Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The carvings recall the history of the Church in Ireland from the time of Saint Patrick to today.

The interior decorations include lists of the Bishops of Cloyne, from Saint Colman in the sixth century to Bishop William Crean, who became Bishop of Cloyne in 2013. The names include Thaddaeus McCarthy, Bishop of Cloyne (1490-1492), who died at Ivera in north Italy as he was returning to Ireland from Rome – he was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1895.

Three other bishops also died in exile: Robert Barry (1662) in Nantes; John Sleyne in Lisbon (1712); and John O’Brien in Lyons (1769).

The High Altar in Cobh Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The tower has a carillon with 49 bells, one of the largest in Europe, installed in 1916. An automated system strikes the hour and 15-minute intervals while it also rings the bells in appropriate form for Masses, funerals, weddings and events.

The carillon is also played on special occasions and generally every Sunday afternoon.

Each year on the anniversary day of the consecration of the cathedral, candles are lighted before the 12 crosses on the nave pillars that mark the places where the walls were first anointed with chrism.

The Lady Chapel in Cobh Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

An example of the interior decoration in the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)