Early Irish saints seem to have been a turbulent lot. Not for the majority of them lives of quiet contemplation (although they may have claimed a desire for such); instead they were caught up in political feuds and rivalries, sometimes even initiating disputes. The history of Saint Mo Chutu mac Fínaill, otherwise known as Carthach or Carthach the Younger, is typical. Born in County Kerry around the year 555 initially he became a monk under the guidance of St. Carthage the Elder. However in 580 he opted for the life of a hermit and built a cell at Kiltallagh where, despite the wish for solitude, he soon began to attract admirers. This in turn inspired the jealousy of two neighbouring bishops, so he moved to forced him to Bangor, County Down where he spent a year before returning to Kerry and founding a couple of churches. After visiting several other parts of the country, he founded a monastery at Rahan, County Offaly and composed a rule for his monks, an Irish metrical poem of 580 lines, divided into nine separate sections. Unfortunately he then found himself involved in one of the greatest religious controversies of the time: the date on which Easter should fall (the Roman and Celtic churches disagreed on the subject). This led to Mo Chutu’s expulsion from the monastery he had founded, so he and many of his followers moved instead to County Waterford where he established a new monastery at Lios-Mor, today called Lismore.
The origins of the present Cathedral in Lismore bearing St Carthage’s name are unclear, but appear to date from the 12th century and owe their origin to Murtagh O’Brien, King of Munster. Likely of cruciform shape, some remains of the building survive, incorporated into the present edifice such as the Chancel Arch and perhaps portions of the transepts, including the windows. Like so many other religious structures, it suffered abuse in the 16th and 17th centuries, being almost entirely destroyed by Edmund FitzGibbon, the White Knight in the second half of the 1590s when he was serving as Sheriff of County Cork. Within the cathedral, at west the end of the nave, is a surviving tomb of the Magrath family, dated 1557 and elaborately carved-top, front, back, and sides: it is a rare survivor from FitzGibbon’s assault. The building was subsequently restored for Protestant worship and partly reconstructed by Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, who by this time was in possession of Lismore Castle which he made his principle residence. In 1633 he wrote ‘God bless my good intentions and endeavours in this work. This day, I resolved with the assistance of my good God, to re-edify the ancient Cathedral Church of Lismore, which was demolished by Edward Fitzgibbon [sic] called the White Knight, and other traitors in the late rebellion of Mownster. The chancel of the church I did at my own expense, and put a new roof covered with slate, and now have given orders to have the ruins of the body and aisle cleared and to have the same new-built and re-edified as fair or fairer than it ever was before.’
The upheavals of the 1640s put an end to further work being undertaken on the cathedral but after Charles II’s Restoration in 1660, once more the building benefitted from attention, this time under the architectural supervision of Sir William Robinson who from c.1670 onwards served as Surveyor General of Ireland. When Richard Pococke visited Lismore in 1752, he noted, ‘The Castle and Cathedral are on a hanging ground, some of which is covered with wood over the Blackwater: From the Castle and the Warren behind the Cathedral is a fine view of the river both ways, of the meadows on each side, of the wood on the hanging ground and of the Cascade from the Salmon Weir…the Quire part of the Cathedral is very old, built with sort of Pilasters at the corners, and long narrow windows on each side and at the end. It was founded by St. Carthage als. Mocoddy who was driven by King Blathmac out of the Abbey of Batheny in the County of Westmeath. He first founded an Abbey of Canons Regular of St. Augustine, where the Castle now is: He also founded a School or University here, which was afterwards governed by St. Cataldus, who in process of time became Bishop of Tarentum.This cathedral was repaired by Munchus King of Munster in 1130. The body of the church is a modern building, probably of the time of King Charles 2d. The Chapter house is a good room, there are remains of the staircase in it, and signs of a room above in which they might keep the Archives of the Church. In the church are remains of the tomb of a Magrath in 1557 probably a relation of Bishop McGrath.’
Certain residues of the 18th century can still be found inside St Carthage’s cathedral, such as the classical carved oak screen separating nave from chancel which dates from the 1730s and a slightly later oak pulpit on the southern side of the nave. However Nicholas Carlisle’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (published 1810) commented that Lismore’s cathedral, ‘being in indifferent repair, is about to undergo a thorough renovation.’ Clearly the earlier improvements undertaken had proven insufficient, because over the next few decades the building was largely reconstructed. In 1833 the Dublin Penny Journal informed readers that the cathedral in Lismore ‘being in a state of complete dilapidation, was a few years since, taken down and rebuilt from the foundation, under the supervision of Mr Morrison.’ This was Richard Morrison, although a local architect called James Dwyer is believed to have overseen the actual work. This involved the restoration of the nave and transepts and the complete rebuilding of the chancel: the latter in its current form is therefore a Morrison structure with its splendid vaulted roof and arched windows. The east window above the altar contains painted glass executed by Dublin artist George McAlister at some point before his death in June 1812 (he left a commission for Tuam Cathedral’s windows incomplete).
In 1827 the Chapter of St Carthage’s Cathedral agreed ‘That a plan for the erection of a new tower and spire, and repairs of the isle [sic] made by Messrs Payne, to be completed for the sum of £3,500 which has been commenced under the direction of the Dean of Lismore, is unanimously and highly approved by us.’ The Messrs Payne referred to were brothers George and James Pain who had come to Ireland some time around 1811/1812 to supervise the building of Lough Cutra, County Galway (for more on this house, see: Domat Omnia Virtus, January 27th 2014). At Lismore cathedral they were responsible for adding a square tower with corner pinnacles to the west end of the building. Above this climbs a slim octagonal spire supported by flying buttresses. The Pains also worked on the interior of the nave, bringing its appearance into line with that of Morrison’s chancel by adding a fan-vaulted ceiling and giving the windows arches. They also added the gothic memorial to Dean John Scott which simultaneously serves as a doorway at the west end of the nave. No wonder that by the time Thackeray visited Lismore he could write ‘The church with the handsome spire that looks so graceful among the trees, is a cathedral church and one of the neatest kept and prettiest edifices I have seen in Ireland.’ Such remains the case some 170 years later. St Carthage’s, with its further additions such as a Burne-Jones window in the south transept and the Cotton Library off the north transept (see Sapientia in Libris Exsistit, October 15th 2012) remains neatly kept and elegant, and indubitably well worth a visit.