Cork City

St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral

A Church of Ireland. There has been continuous worship on this site since, according to legend; St. Fin Barre himself established a monastery here in circa A.D. 606. There have been eleven churches here since then; since the 12th century, which saw the arrival of the Normans in Ireland, these have been cathedrals. The present cathedral is the third after a mediaeval Norman and an 18th century neo-classical building both of which were demolished.

As well as being Cork’s premier building, St. Fin Barre’s is the diocesan cathedral of the Church of Ireland diocese of Cork. (The Bishop’s residence is directly opposite the cathedral gate). The Church of Ireland is one of many self-governing provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The present St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral abounding in intricate detail was built between 1865 and 1870 in the neo- Gothic style according to the design of the English architect William Burges. The foundation stone was laid on January 12th 1865, thousands of people gathered in the church grounds, amongst them over 500 Freemasons in full ceremonial dress. It was consecrated on St. Andrew’s Day, 30th November 1870, just weeks before the Church of Ireland was disestablished and made an entirely voluntary body, dependant for financial support upon its own people.

Cathedral’s points of interest:

William Burgess himself designed all the fine details inside and outside the Cathedral. Outside, for example, take a look at the statues of the wise and foolish virgins or at the gargoyles above. Inside you might like to try to discover some of the Old and New Testament stories told in the stained-glass windows. Or maybe you would prefer to detect in which of the clerestory windows your sign of the zodiac can be found. Entering by one of the west doors along the north aisle you will notice a number of plaques and coat-of-arms on the wall (which is, incidentally, made of red Cork marble). Among them one with a crown above a harp with the Latin motto Quis separabit (‘Who will separate’) underneath it. This reflects the fact that the isle of Ireland was once part of the United Kingdom. The harp is the Irish emblem and the crown stands for the English monarch. The pulpit, built in 1874 remained unpainted until 1933, rests on marble pillars and has the four evangelists and St. Paul carved around it. The evangelists are depicted with their symbols: St. Matthew with a human figure, St. Mark with a lion, and St. Luke with an ox and St. John with an eagle. St. Paul is sitting on an upturned ‘pagan altar’. The reading stand on the pulpit is made of brass and is held up by the figure of a winged dragon, which symbolises evil taking flight at the sound of the Word being preached. Across from the pulpit is the Lectern, which is also made of brass and is studded with rock crystals. Its top can be swivelled round to facilitate the reader in switching from the Old to the New Testament. The Lectern was originally designed by William Burges for Lille Cathedral. Mounting the steps leading to the Chancel you will find a floor mosaic, which shows the linear progression from chaos to human work as you walk from the choir gates to the sanctuary. Behind the altar rails a net with weights and floats is visible illustrating ‘Jesus’ statement that “the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a net that was cast into the sea and gathered of every kind” (Matth. 13:47). These mosaics are made of marble from the Pyrenees and were laid by Italian craftsmen. Looking back to the west end you will see one of the Cathedral’s Rose Windows depicting the story of the creation as told in the Book of Genesis, it corresponds to the theme of the creation of life from chaos on the mosaic floor of the Chancel. Burges designed all the windows in the Cathedral, they tell the story of the Bible, starting at the west end with the Old Testament, and ending in the Ambulatory with the New Testament. The Bishop’s Throne is carved from Oak and c.40 feet high. A figure of St. Fin Barre is visible in the upper part of it. Near the Ambulatory is the Dean’s Chapel The walls are made of grey Kilkenny marble and are covered by a lot of plaques and coats-of- arms. One of the latter is that of the Du Barry family of Fota House (10 miles from Cork), Fota Island, Cobh. The anglicised version of that Norman name is Barry, and the Barry coat-of-arms, which can be seen on the west wall of the Dean’s Chapel as well as on the gate pillars of Fota House, remind us of that family’s Norman origin: the motto is Boutez-en-avant, which translates as something like ‘Beat you way forward’ or ‘Hit while pushing forward’. It thereby conveys a perfect picture of the Norman way of conducting battles. Needless to say, they usually won. Near the door is the Baptismal Font. The font has an octagonal base and is made of red marble with green and white supports. The words around it read: ‘We are buried with Him by baptism into death’. The bronze vessel used to supply water for the font is placed on the carved head of John the Baptist above the font. A brass plaque set in the floor in front of the alter in memory of Elizabeth Aldworth, the only female Freemason, she seemingly overheard a meeting of the Freemasons that was taking place in the family home, she was discovered at the end of the meeting and in order to make sure she kept their secrets, she was initiated into the Freemasons. There are two field crosses from World War 1, on either side of the Memorial Book, that at one time marked the graves of soldiers killed in France. Inside the Cathedral is an ablutonium, or foot bath, thought to be over 1000 years old that was found by workmen who were digging the foundations for the present Cathedral. It was probably used by pilgrims to clean their feet before they entered the church at that time and more importantly, it was believed by many to have marked the spot where St. Finbarr was buried. Guided tours are available all the year around.

.William Burges (1827-1881):  William Burges died on 20th April 1881, and the centenary of his death naturally stimulated interest in his career and his achievements. J. Mordaunt Crook, the art historian, published a lavishly illustrated biography, and there was an exhibition in Cardiff, Wales, where Burgess is remembered as the architect responsible for the restoration of the Castle.   Born in London in 1827, at the age of sixteen he began his professional training. This was the period when the Gothic Revival, which may be regarded as the architectural expression of the Romantic Movement, was gathering force. In order to make himself familiar with the great building of medieval times he travelled extensively in Europe, and especially in France. It was the Early French style that appealed to him most, and it was this style that inspired much of his best work, including St.Fin Barre’s. He yearned to design and build a cathedral but twice his dream was shattered. In 1856 there was a competition for plans for a cathedral at Lille; and the plans submitted by Burges were adjudged the best. But, in the end another architect was appointed. Three years later he was invited to submit plans for a cathedral at Brisbane: but here, also, the task was entrusted to someone else.

Then, in 1863, his chance came. A group of churchmen in Cork headed by the Bishop, John Gregg, resolved to replace the existing cathedral by one more worthy of the city and the diocese. As at Lille, there was a competition for plans, Burge’s entry was judged the best. But, on this occasion, the committee in charge stuck to its decision. Burges was appointed architect, and he supervised the building of the cathedral, through all its stages, down to its completion in 1879. One of the conditions laid down when plans were invited that the whole building should not cost more than £15,000. Burges admitted frankly that the building he designed could not be built for less than £30,000. The committee found his design so attractive they accepted it. As time went by the changes Burges made were accepted adding to the magnificence of the building and inevitably to the expense. As Mordaunt Crook puts it “Burges managed to turn a provincial cathedral into a project of international importance”. In the end, the building cost, not the original figure of £15,000, nor Burges’s first estimate of £30,000, but £100,000, all of it raised by voluntary subscription. The building of St. Fin Barre’s was a remarkable achievement. It was built in a time when the Church of Ireland was going through the traumatic experience of disestablishment, when the finances of the church had to be reorganised on a voluntary basis and when prudence might seem to dictate the avoidance of all but essential expenditure. He had   very clear ideas of what the relationship between sculpture and architecture should be and he made sure that this relationship was everywhere preserved. When we remember that no fewer than 1,260 pieces of sculpture were built into the fabric of the cathedral, we get some idea of the task he set himself. Later generations have good cause to be thankful that Burges’s soaring design was matched by the courageous generosity of Bishop John Gregg and his supporters. The most striking example of Burges’s use of sculpture in St. Fin Barre’s is the west doorway. Speaking about this while the work was still in progress (1878) Burges declared, “We are doing a work that has not been attempted since the west front of Wells Cathedral”. The claim is typical of the spirit of the Gothic Revival. Burges certainly did not mean that he was trying to copy something that had already been done elsewhere. His aim was to create something new by applying, in the circumstances of his own time, the principles that had guided craftsmen of an earlier age. The all-pervading influences of Burges was due not only to his own meticulous care but also to the fact that St. Fin Barre’s, unlike most great churches, was begun and completed under the guidance of a single architect. If one looks at a ground plan of the building and considers its length and breadth, it is no longer than many a parish church, and smaller than some. Yet both internally and externally it gives an impression of spaciousness far in excess of its actual size. To have created, within such modest dimensions, a building with the unmistakable air of a great cathedral is perhaps not the least impressive of Burge’s achievements.

The Organ:

Early Organs: The earliest definitive mention of an organ at St. Fin Barre’s is in the Chapter Acts of November 1633 where we read: “The Dean and Chapter unanimously decree that the sum of £10 be paid for the completion of a musical instrument, called in English, organs, as is the custom to have in Cathedral Churches.” Soon after this Cork fell to Cromwell in 1649. We can assume that the Cathedral organ, as with all other church organs, was destroyed at this time. However there are several mentions of restoration work on an organ after 1674, and in 1710 a resolution was passed that a new instrument be ordered from one John Baptiste Cuvillie who worked in Dublin. In 1735 the Mediaeval Cathedral was pulled down, and the Cuvillie organ was installed in the new, plain, classical Cathedral in1739. Henry Leffler gives a specification of this organ in 1805 with the maker’s name as Renatus Harris. It is possible the Cuvillie acted as an agent for this important English firm. By the early 19th century this organ was giving trouble and in 1816 a new organ was ordered from Flight and Robson: this organ had a relatively short life-span since in 1865 the classical cathedral was pulled down to make room for the present building, built by William Burges.

The Hill Organ: Much discussion too place regarding the siting of the organ in the new cathedral. Burges may have envisaged two as in many French cathedrals: one at the West end and a smaller organ near the chancel. Buttresses designed to support the Chancel organ and a door leading to a staircase up to it, can be seen in the South Aisle of the Ambulatory. The architect’s design for the Chancel organ case can still be found in the Cathedral archives. Eventually the organ was built in the West Gallery by William Hill of London and was ready for consecration of the new cathedral on St. Andrews Day, 30th November 1870. It had 3 manuals and 40 stops with some form of pneumatic action (possibly Barker Lever) on the Great, and tracker for the rest.

The Megahy Rebuild: The West Gallery position, while excellent for the organ itself, must have posed problems when the choir at the East End had to be accompanied. Eventually Dean Madden proposed that the organ be moved and, to avoid obscuring the stained glass windows and mosaics, a large pit, 14ft. deep, was dug in the North Transept. In 1889 the organ was moved into this chamber by the Cork firm T.W.Megahy so that only the tops of the tallest pipes were showing. He added 3 “pneumatic machines” to the action and 3 new stops – though it is not entirely clear which these were. The organ was enlarged in 1906 by Hele & Co. of Plymouth who added a 4th (Solo) manual. By this stage the action of the organ was pneumatic.

The Walker Rebuild:  In 1965/66 J.W.Walker & Sons of London rebuilt the organ. They overhauled the soundboards, installed a new console with electro pneumatic action, and lowered the pitch to ‘standard’ C= 523. /3. The organ now has 4 manuals, 56 stops, and 3012 pipes. In spite of its unusual position, the organ is one of the finest of its type, being especially suited to the 19th and 20th century solo repertoire. Its excellence as an accompaniment instrument is well demonstrated every week when it is used to support the choir and congregation in their regular Sunday worship.


1677-1698 William Love

1703-1711 William Toole

1712-1720 Edward Broadway

1720-1781 William Smith

1782-1796 Henry De la Maine

1782-1811 James Roche

1811-1860 James Beresford Stephens

1860-1903 James Christopher Marks

1903-1922 William George Eveleigh

1922-1977 Jonathan Thomas Horne

1978-1984 Andrew Paul Padmore

1984-         Colin Gerald Nicholls.

The Bells: The northwest tower of St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral houses a ring of eight bells, which are amongst the finest in Ireland. They were cast in 1751 by Abel Rudhall of Gloucester in England and were hung in the previous Cathedral. It is almost certain that bells have been in every church erected on this site since St. Fin Barre founded it, for they have always been associated with Irish Christian worship.

Hand bells: Neither history nor legend can give us a really true picture of the origin of bells and there is no firm evidence of the use of large ones before the dawn of Christianity. There is no mention made of their use in the Bible but it would appear that they were known in China and India long before the ancient Greeks and Romans refer to them in their writings. It is said that when Patrick, our Patron Saint, first preached here he copied a practice of ringing a hand bell during worship from the native Druids (Pagan Priest’s) and he gave one to each bishop he consecrated as part of his equipment. These were rectangular in shape and made from sheet iron, folded over and riveted and then dipped in molten bronze to improve their tone-often without much success. Many of them are still in existence, including St.Patrick’s own bell, which is preserved in our National Museum in Dublin.

The art of bell founding is obviously a very old one and it is of interest to note that a bishop consecrated by St. Patrick in 448A.D, named Assicus, is described in the Annals of Ulster as a “priest and bell-founder”. He was Bishop of Elphin in Connacht. We do not know where he learned his trade but it could very well have been in a monastery, for until the 14th Century almost all bell casting was done in the abbeys and monasteries.

Bell Founding:  To make a bell a “core” or centrepiece was moulded from suitable clay and allowed to harden. It was then coated thickly with wax, and another skin of clay known as a “cope” was placed around it. Some holes were drilled around the lower edge and when heat was applied the wax melted and ran out the holes. The space left between the core and the cope was filled with molten metal. The loops on the crown of the bell, known as “canons” and from which the bells were suspended, were formed from straw coated with the same clay to the required shape. The straw was then set on fire and metal poured in to replace it. The metal used has changed very little throughout the ages. It is composed of pure copper and tin in the approximate proportions of 13 to 4 and is very durable subject only to an initial surface corrosion (or verdigris), which forms a protective coating against further oxidisation.

The Bell Tower: The first mention we have of the erection of a bell tower for the Cathedral on this site occurs in the year 1670, when it is noted that £5 was given for that purpose by John Follit who later became Registrar of the Diocese. Further subscriptions and grants were made, and in 1676 Dean Pomeroy was authorised to build a bell tower, which was completed the following year. We do not know how many bells were in it, but one was sold to the town of Mallow, Co. Cork in about 1680 and another to one Nicholas Fitton in 1766. The bells were originally hung in a wooden frame, which had become considerably decayed by 1802 and had to have extensive repairs. In 1820 another overhaul was needed, while in 1861 the sixth bell (note E) had to be recast at a cost of £82-4-4, by John Warner & Sons, London.

Recasting:  When a bell is recast it had to be tuned to harmonise with the others in the ring. This is no easy task for, far from having only one note, as you would imagine, it has five-the Strike Note, The Nominal (an octave higher), the Hum (an octave lower), the Tierce (a minor third) and the Quint (a perfect 5th). In every bell these five notes must harmonise and, additionally, all five notes must be in accurate tune with the five notes of every other bell in the ring.

Inscriptions:  As the craft of bell casting developed the founders began to put decorations and inscriptions on their bells. Each of ours is marked “A.R. 1751”.

Re-hanging:  On 8th March 1865 the bells were removed to the Customs House Vaults and stored there for five years, while the 18th Century Cathedral was being demolished and the present one erected. As the steeples were not built until some years after its consecration the bells were hung as a chime in what is now our Ringing Room. They were raised to their present bell chamber in 1903, when the first three (C.B.A.) were recast by John Taylor & Sons, Loughborough. All were hung in a steel frame on roller bearings until 1957, when they were re-hung on ball bearings of the most modern type and they are now a joy to ring and to listen to.

History of St. Fin Barre:  St. Fin Barre was the son of Amergin, of the tribe of the Hy Briuin Ratha of Connaught. Amergin, having left Connaught, came to Munster, and settled in the territory of Muskerry, in the county of Cork, where he obtained an inheritance and land at a place called Achaidh Durbchon, near the spot afterwards known as Gougane Barra, at the sources of the River Lee. He was chief smith to Tighernach, King of the Hy Eachach of Munster, who lived at Rathlin, in the neighbourhood of Bandon. In the King’s household was a young woman whom Amergin married in defiance of the King, and a child having been born from this union they returned to Achaidh Durbchon where the boy was baptized, by a bishop named MacCorb, who gave him the name Luan, or Lochan. When Luan was seven years old three clerics of Munster- Brendan, Lochan, and Fiodhach- returning from a pilgrimage to Leinster, happened to stop at the house of Amergin, and admiring the boy for the grace of the Holy Spirit which seemed to shine in his face, were allowed by his parents to take him away to be educated, and have his named changed. The cleric who cut his hair is said to have observed, “Fair (Irish=Finn) is the hair (Irish=Barra) of Luan”. “Let this be his name”, said another, Barr Finn, or Finn Barr”. They proceeded on to Pilach Gathran, now called Gowran (Gowran Park is a well know horse racing park) in the County of Kilkenny, where he stayed and diligently pursued his studies. Parting at eventually from his tutors he went to Cuil Caisin, in the barony of Galmoy (Co, Kilkenny), where he founded a church, and thence to Aghaboe, where he blessed the church and stayed for awhile. Finally Fin Barre went on to Corcach Mor, or the “great marsh”, now Cork City, where he was granted the site of the present cathedral, and here he finally settled. Here he built his church, and seminary, which he founded in 606. Thousands of students travelled to Munster to study here, and meet St. Fin Barre, and around this area the City of Cork arose. Seventeen years after the foundation of Cork, feeling that his death was near, he went to visit Cormac and Baithin at Clonenagh, (Co. Laois) and shortly after his arrival, he was taken ill. St. Fin Barre patron saint and first Bishop of Cork died peacefully. His remains were brought back to his own Cathedral of Cork, and it was here in the grounds that he was buried in the southeast corner of the graveyard. His remains were taken, sometime during the turbulent 9th century, to a place called Cell na gClerioch, which is supposed to be near Ballincollig, which is approximately 5 miles away. His remains were said to have been destroyed during a conflict in the 11th century. St. Fin Barre, who died in 623, is remembered on his day the 25th of September, it being according to an old calendar, “the festival of the loving man, the feast of the Barre of Cork”.  The monastery and its lands were in the area bounded to the north by Bishop Street, to the west by St. Finbarr’s Road, to the east by Keyser’s Hill and to the south by the area between Dean Street and Barrack Street. The centre of the monastery would have been on the site of Saint Finbarre’s Cathedral. St. Finbarr was succeeded as Bishop of Cork by St. Nessan. Little is known of the early churches that have stood on this site from the 12th century, except for some documentation and drawings of them in the early maps of Cork which can be somewhat confusing. Most of the 17th century maps show a round or watch tower in the grounds, this tower was believed by the people of Cork at that time to have dated back to the monastic site founded by St. Finbarr. A French visitor to Cork in 1644 described this tower as being 100 feet high and about 12 feet in diameter. It may have been badly damaged during the Siege of Cork as it stood between the Cathedral and the Elizabeth Fort, and was possibly used by the Crown forces to fire on the Irish forces that occupied the Fort. It is not shown on most maps following 1690, adding to the theory that a lot of damage was inflicted on it during the conflict. The Cathedral preceding the present one is well documented both in print and in photographs. A series of photos were taken in 1865 just prior to and during its demolition. It was built in 1735, although the tower dated around to around 1676 and was part of an earlier Cathedral. The ancient Gothic doorway of this tower was said to have come from the old Dominican Friary on Crosses Green, it was saved during demolition and has been re-constructed in the wall on Dean Street. Another arch was discovered during the demolition of the old vestry room; it was below floor level and was a separate entrance to the tower. This arch has also been re-constructed in the wall along Dean Street; it is opposite Vicars Street and is now blocked up. When the tower was being taken down, there was found in its masonry a 24lb cannonball, which had been fired during the Siege of Cork in 1690 from the Elizabeth Fort and it now hangs from a chain in the present Cathedral. Some of the plaques around the walls inside the present Cathedral were also taken from the previous one. The magnificent sculpture of “Eloquence”, known as the Tracton Monument, by Bacon was originally in St. Nicholas’ Church on Cove Street, it went from there to the former Cathedral, then came back to St. Nicholas’ again and can be seen today in the Crawford Art Gallery, Emmet Place.

The Deanery: Located in Dean Street, Cork beside St. Finbarr’s Cathedral, it stands on approximately 2 acres of grounds and gardens in one of the most historic parts of Cork City. This residence was originally home to the deans of St. Finbarr’s Cathedral. In the late 1960s the City of Cork Vocational Education Committee (V.E.C.) purchased the building, and it was used by the Crawford College of Art and the Rural Science section of the Cork RTC for a number of years. Since 1989 the building and gardens have been home to a Further Education course for early school leavers known as Youthreach and more recently a Back to Education Initiative for Adults. Over the years the gardens have been restored and are set out in two sections; a leisure garden and a kitchen garden. There is evidence of occupation in the main house since the 1700s, although the location in the grounds may have changed. The Old Deanery formed part of what was church property all around the vicinity of St. Finbarr’s Cathedral which included the Choristers House (next door) and the Library House in the grounds of the Cathedral.

Opening hours: 9am – 5pm

Carraigbarre House: Bishop Street is located opposite the entrance to St. Finbarr’s Cathedral and next to the Bishops Palace. The original building dates from the early 1700s with alterations at roof level (the house was originally gabled to the street) and a garden elevation bow-front being added dating from the late 18th or early 19th century. Recently restored it is now used as private accommodation. In its current form it is a terraced three-storey structure set behind iron railings. Retaining many of its original features including its attractive 1730s style staircase with plaster-panelled walls, panelled doors and architrave. Many of the original sash windows still contain early glass. The building is important not only for its fine interior but also because of its historical location set between St. Finbarr’s Cathedral and the 18th century Bishops Palace to the west in one of the most historic areas of the city.

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