Like so many Corkonians, I have often taken for granted the story, the people and the trials and joys associated with the red and grey building which stands at the junction at the top of Shandon Street. At first glance, it doesn’t evoke the kind of awe or emotion we might associate with the grand gothic and neo-gothic Cathedrals scattered across Europe. Yet, for those who pause to visit, to pray or to be curious, it has its story which is also the story of the people whom it serves.

The first Cathedral on the site of the present Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne was the vision of Bishop Francis Moylan who was Bishop of Cork from 1787–1815. Like many of his predecessors, Bishop Moylan spent time on the continent as a priest during the Penal Laws. When he took up office as Bishop of Cork there was no cathedral, no seminary and no Catholic educational establishment of note. The people who lived on the northern edges of the city attended Mass in local Mass houses and later in the chapel of North Presentation Convent.

Bishop Moylan initiating the building of a cathedral in 1799 and the holy water font inside the lower eastern door (facing the presbytery) has the date engraved on it. There is no knowing how many people have dipped their fingers in this font as they bless themselves on their way in. When the Cathedral was opened in 1808, Nano Nagle’s Sisters were teaching and feeding the poor in the streets of Cork; the Christian Brothers were opening their first schools in Cork, and Daniel O’Connell was arguing the case for Catholic Emancipation in the British Parliament. The Penal Laws were fading fast and Catholic Cork was confident and strident in religious matters as well as other spheres of life.

The Cork Mercantile Chronicle (precursor of the Cork Examiner) reported that the consecration of the Cathedral on August 22, 1808 was done with “a solemnity unexampled in these islands”. Almost all the bishops of Munster as well as the Archbishop of Dublin and the papal representative in Ireland attended the ceremony. The opening of the cathedral, the dedication ceremony, the confident tone of the sermon by Coadjutor Bishop Florence McCarthy were evidence of a new spirit in Irish Catholicism – one which was hopeful of leaving behind the era of repression which had preceded.

The Cathedral was opened as the parish church of the single parish then on the north side of the city — hence its local, popular name: the North Chapel. It was built on the site of a chapel which was built by a bishop who was on the run! Bishop Tadhg McCarthy (Bishop of Cork 1727–1747) flaunted the penal code and built a chapel in his parish in 1730 on part of the site now occupied by the present Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne. It was described in the 1731 “The State of Popery” as a “large and sumptuous Mass-house”. It was popularly known as the “Bishop’s Chapel”. The foundation stone of the chapel bore the year 1730 and the bishop’s initials. This stone was inserted into the northern wall of the present building but was plastered over during extension work in the 1960s.

The entire 1808 building only enjoyed a short life because in June 1820 the Cathedral was burned during the night in what was believed to be a malicious act. Bishop John Murphy, one of the famous brewing family, wasted no time in calling a meeting to help restore the Cathedral. The people of Cork generously rallied to the call.

The task of rebuilding was given to architect George Pain, who later designed Blackrock Castle, the Courthouse and St. Patrick’s Church. The interior of the present day Cathedral, including the ornate ceiling, owes much to his creative gifts.

Bishop Murphy commissioned a young sculptor to carve a series of wooden statues for the reredos (the backdrop to the altar) in the sanctuary. John Hogan’s carvings of saints and apostles were a feature of the altar area until the 1960s. John Hogan went on to become a renowned sculptor, and his statues in pine of saints and apostles now keep watch from the arches of the main aisle. Hogan’s other amazing ecclesiastical art in Cork is the “dead Christ” in the altar of the South Chapel in Dunbar Street.

Since the renewed Cathedral was re-opened in 1828, hundreds of thousands of people have prayed here, been married here, have brought relatives here for their funerals, and stopped in for a prayer on their way to and from town.

The baptismal font is also part of the original Cathedral. There is no knowing how many babies have been brought here for baptism. The late Bishop Michael Murphy, who suggested the 1990’s reordering of the Cathedral, always wanted to highlight the importance of Baptism in the life of the Christian. St. Paul says it is our entry point into the Christian life and into the Church. Now the baptismal font is located near the main door of the Cathedral.

The first priest to be ordained in the Cathedral was John England. Fr. England was ardently opposed to interference by the British Parliament in matters religious and frequently pronounced on the topic from the pulpit of the North Chapel. He drew the wrath of the government establishment in Cork, who complained to Bishop John Murphy, who in turn removed Fr. England from the Cathedral and transferred him to Bandon. Fr. England was later to become one of the first priests to minister to Catholic migrants in the developing southern states of the US. He was appointed the first bishop of the then extensive Diocese of Charleston.

The next major alteration to the Cathedral was undertaken when Canon Daniel Foley who was the Cathedral Administrator from 1864–1867 set about building a tower in the 1860s. His zeal and enthusiasm were not matched by engineering skill! In an attempt to save money, he undertook some of the building himself but soon discovered that the local sandstone would not take the stress of a high tower and it began to crumble.

Bishop William Delany (Bishop of Cork 1847-86) proposed a major expansion of the Cathedral and with the support of Cork’s citizens he commissioned Sir John Benson to draw up plans. Benson’s detailed proposal was never fully acted upon but the construction of the tower was eventually completed and he added the great Western Door — now the main door of the Cathedral. The tower is ten feet higher than its more famous neighbour: St. Anne’s Church, Shandon, home of the much-played bells.

The Cathedral has its own set of nine bells hanging on two levels which were installed in 1870. All but one is silent now and it is rung electronically.

Almost 100 years later, after the Second Vatican Council, then Bishop of Cork and Ross, Cornelius Lucey, added a further major extension at the other end of the Cathedral. The design by Boyd-Barrett architects was to include a completely new sanctuary and a smaller tower and added capacity to the church which served an area with a rapidly increasing population.

However, while the external modifications were somewhat in character with the original, the changes to the interior were dramatic. In 1994, major problems were discovered in the roof, ceiling and other fabric of the building, and Bishop Michael Murphy decided it was time to renovate the entire interior of the Cathedral. The task was entrusted to architect Richard Hurley whose plan for the new interior saw a greater unity being achieved between the sanctuary and the rest of the floor area, and the new altar occupying the central place of prominence. The reordering and renovation was completed in 1996 at a cost of £2.5m and Bishop Murphy presided over its rededication — his last public function before he died a week later.

When the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, represented Pope Benedict at the bicentenary Mass on Sept 25th this year, he was surrounded by the Catholic bishops of Munster. In the congregation were Bishop Paul Colton, representing the Church of Ireland Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross; Rev Geraldine Gracie, representing the Methodist Church and Rev John Farris representing the Presbyterian Church. The parishes and religious communities in the diocese were represented by parishioners, clergy and religious. Participants in the ceremony included people from China, England and Nigeria.

The ceremony had an air of completeness about it; the building, which started as the vision of Bishop Moylan, has served many generations and there was an air of confidence and hopefulness that it will also serve many more as it witnesses from its lofty crossroads to all who pass by.

(Published in the Dec 2008 Holly Bough, Cork.)