An Act of Desecration


St Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney, County Kerry was originally designed by Augustus Welby Pugin in 1840, its form a homage both to Ardfert Cathedral, elsewhere in the same county and Salisbury Cathedral. Work paused during the years of the Great Famine, but the building was finished in 1855 under the supervision of James Joseph McCarthy. The cathedral’s superlative mid-19th century Gothic interior survived intact until 1973, when then-Bishop Eamonn Casey commissioned what was called a ‘re-ordering.’ This involved throwing out almost all the decorative features and gutting the space back to bare stone walls. Such an act of desecration, which occurred in other Roman Catholic churches throughout Ireland, was supposedly undertaken in order to comply with new liturgical procedure, but oddly enough the same brutal approach was not undertaken in other countries, where churches were allowed to retain their historical interiors. It deserves to be exposed for what it was: the philistinism of a vainglorious prelate.

14 comments on “An Act of Desecration

  1. Diana says:

    Still a glorious space – would be lovely if anyone had pre-73 picture.

  2. Fiona says:

    A lot of parallels with St Michael’s Church in Ballinasloe also attributed to Pugin/Mccarthy. Heart (and soul) of the building ripped out in misguided renovation project a number of years ago. Although the stonework and stained glass have survived and are glorious, the interior of the building is now just a beige space.

  3. Michael Thompson says:

    Quite so.
    Nothing in the documents or decrees of the Secind Vatican Council manadated, let alone required, the re-ordering of existing sanctuaries. New altars in new churches were to be free-standing. Even then the use of altars with the celebrant facing East remains the expectation of the rubrucs ofvthe missal, but facing West is permissible. Liturgical art was to be cherished.
    The same willful philistinism manifested in the wreck of the cathedral by the said vainglorious prelate was duplicated all over Ireland in a frenzy of destruction of high art, elevated music, and liturgical decency. A radical ‘Modernity’ was enforced with all the familiar authoritarianism of the past , a past which the perpetrators claimed to leave behind.
    No lessons have been effective as wittnessed by the recent attempts on Cobh Cathedral – happily thwarted by secular pressure.
    From this destruction, as savage as that of the sixteenth century reformation, no phoenix has yet risen.

  4. John Logan says:

    Thank you for this depressing piece. That desecration was in the unenlightened 70s but your photographs reveal the more recent addition of intrusive security cameras, TV screens, and loudspeakers. Surely it should not be beyond the competence of a good architect to design a less obtrusive installation or are these additions yet another flaunting of supposed trendiness or?

  5. Jonathan Mills says:

    The desecration you speak of was actually magnificent and I believe much of the interior fittings of the cathedral post-dated Pugin’s work. The cathedral interior was destroyed by fire more recently so the first photo in the article showing the beautiful cross suspended in space is no longer in existence.

    • Actually, the photograph in question was taken just a few weeks’ ago, so unless there has been a very recent fire the cross is still in place…

      • Jonathan Mills says:

        That’s very interesting. The Aerlingus Posters were certainly not part of the 1973 work. In later years the locals added frilly bits to the design. I see someone has put a table cloth on the stone altar and the TVs are a horror but trust me it really was magnificent in its 1973 format. I will send photos if I can find them.

  6. Hibernophile says:

    Although I understand were The Irish Aesthete is coming from, and very much agree with most of the comments above, I would caution against using terms such as ‘desecration’. Desecration implies the act of depriving something of its sacred character, and would often be accompanied with a charge of criminal damage.

    However disagreeable and regrettable the results may be, we must try to understand the context in which all this re-ordering took place. This was following the second Vatican council & the priorities of liturgical committees & commissions were very different to what they would be today. Certainly in the case of Killarney & many other examples across the country there was a complete ignorance, lack of respect, and irreparable damaged caused to ecclesiastical interiors. But however ill-judged & severe the changes were (and Hibernophile is no admirer of any of them) , one must remember that the consequences are aesthetic and not sacrilegious.

    • Tim Guilbride says:

      Many would say that, in fact, this sort of ‘modernising’ does strip the building of any sacred character. It is ironic that modern Christianity – of all denominations – seems perfectly happy to throw out both the physical and the liturgical symbols of their history, in a way that would earn any ordinary citizen public criticism and probably a prosecution. In my experience, there is never any consultation with the parishioners, or heritage authorities, the clean-out is just pushed through. The look is curious, too: far from being ‘modern’, both Churches seem stuck in a sort of mass-market Festival of Britain, post Utility look, all stylised wall-hangings and geometric bits of varnished ash. Coupled with the a-tonal music and abstract embroidery beloved of modern vestment-makers, the look is pure 1956, or thereabouts.

  7. I have been to St. Mary’s on numerous occasions and am very interested in both this article and the ensuing comments. Never having seen it prior to 1973, I cannot comment on the change – although like Diana above, I would love to see a photo. Perhaps due to my ignorance, I find the Cathedral elegant in its simplicity. While I certainly wouldn’t agree with any kind of desecration, I do find the natural stone to be beautiful in its own natural way.

  8. Jonathan Mills says:

    When the post Vatican council revamp was done, I believe the interior had already been modified. Secondly that redesign of the interior was then destroyed in a fire I believe early in this century. Certainly the magnificent suspended cross created by Ray Caroll is no longer in the church nor is his altar and tabernacle. All of which, in my view came together to create a beautiful church back in the seventies. The current recreation I suspect was built to a tighter budget and as others have said the addition of loudspeakers etc is not an improvement.

  9. Rory O'Donnell. says:

    WH Byrne the cathedral’s Dublin architects from c1900 – when they completed Pugin’s scheme – refused to do Bp Casey’s bidding,so he went to a…Kerryman.

  10. Charles says:

    To the best of my knowledge this cathedral was built at the height of the Great Famine to inspire the faithful, presumably Bishop Casey thought he could improve on it by stripping away anything that was beautiful, all he left of Pugin’s decoration was the Kenmare chapel where one can glimpse what had been a masterpiece.

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