Before we departed on the Ireland trip, I looked up “Top Ten Irish Churches,” which is like trying to choose the top ten Trekkies at a Star Trek convention– there’s a ton of them, and each one is way ahead of the curve compared to everybody else. Even the tiny towns we passed tended to have beautiful cathedrals. The Reformation, ironically, made this more dramatic. Catholic Ireland used to have some of the world’s most impressive churches, an incredible statement to their devotion to God, particularly in view of their often extreme poverty. (The tour guide I mentioned on Saturday informed us that until the 70s, Ireland was considered third-world. I’d add to this that for centuries, they also weren’t considered “white,” which meant they were fair game for slavery).
Anyways, the incredible churches which the Irish Catholics built were stolen at the Reformation by English Anglicans and Scottish Presbyterians. So now, the oldest and generally the most beautiful churches in overwhelmingly-Catholic Ireland are almost all Protestant. The Catholic churches, meanwhile, tend to be 19th century or younger, since that’s when it became legal for the Irish to be openly Catholic again. The Irish immediately set about building churches as beautiful as the ones which they’d lost, although they were still ham-stringed by cripplingly poverty. The results are another incredible testament to centuries of staunch Irish Catholicism. In Armagh, for example, St. Patrick founded a church in 435. On that spot, a church has existed ever since, although it’s been rebuilt some 17 times. During the Reformation, the church — now the beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral — was stolen, and given to the Anglican Church of Ireland. Once Catholics were allowed to have churches again, they set about building a new church, stopping for few things (notably, the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, but little else). And they started building on the hill facing the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They named it, of course, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and it’s beautiful (and used to be much more beautiful, prior to some Modernist renovations of the interior, but that’s a story for another time). Side by side with its now-Anglican counterpart, the Catholic church dominates the skyline. Separating devotion to God from devotion to Ireland in these sorts of situations can be sort of tricky, but I can’t help but enjoy the beauty nonetheless.
I wasn’t able to visit most of the cathedrals on the list, but I was privileged to see one which I’d been wanting to see for a while: St. Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, County Cork. Cobh is a beautiful seaside town, built on an island. It’s a mound of a city, with steep inclines and a wall surrounding the old city perimeter. Here’s how the list described St. Colman’s Cathedral:
Built on an artificial bed of sandstone and erected between 1859 and 1919 this cathedral exemplifies the French Gothic style. Rose windows, high pointed arches, octagonal towers and several fine gargoyles combine for a very continental, even Mediterranean effect – as does the whole town of Cobh on sunny days. Especially noteworthy is the Sacred Heart Chapel, decorated with Italian marble and a fine mosaic floor.
It was everything described, and more. This picture sort of captures the incline, the wall, the grandeur of the Cathedral, and the beauty surrounding the island. The pictures, by the way, should be click-able. If they’re not, let me know:
One more picture to suggest some of the beauty of the exterior:
The tiny car makes the cathedral look even more gigantic (remember, it’s Europe, so most of the cars are ridiculously small).
Anyways, as beautiful as the exterior was, I think I liked the interior even better. It wasn’t just big, it was carefully done. It was an overwhelming sense of being surrounded by beauty.
On the trip, I was reading Leonard Susskind’s book “Black Hole Wars,” about the Susskind-Hawkings debate over what happens to matter which gets trapped in black holes, when the black holes dissolve: whether the matter is destroyed, or ultimately escapes somehow. Anyways, Susskind is an atheist who seems almost disappointed at being an atheist. He describes the “cathedralitis” he gets at Trinity College at Cambridge, how it reminds him of the bleakness of the notion that we’re nothing more than the sum of our atomic material and chemical reactions. While I don’t share his atheism, I do share the sense of awe he felt in a beautiful space dedicated to God. It really does raise the spirit towards Heaven, regardless of what we might claim to ourselves about the existence or nature of God.
Beautifully carved stations of the cross, along with ornate decoration which is miles away from being gaudy or over-the-top somehow.
It’s like you can see the faith of the person who carved this so lovingly. It’s just a wonderful, permanent witness.
I’m a sucker for a beautiful rose window. Who isn’t?
Just look at that altar! There’s nothing more that I can say about it, except that I don’t remember the contrast in the light quite that extreme.
The same, but closer. If I have a complaint, it’s that the Tabernacle is sort of dwarfed. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the grandeur that’s here, it’s that I wish the Tabernacle didn’t look like an awkward gold box or an afterthought. I’m not an artist or an architect, so I can’t say what the best solution is, but drawing more attention to It somehow would be nice.
A good final shot. It’s a good shot of the front-left side of the Cathedral. My friend in the background is 6’9″, if that gives a helpful frame of reference. This Cathedral is GIANT. And the detail on each and every saint lining the wall up there struck me as wonderfully excessive. Some artist made statues which he knew only God would be able to see fully. That’s grand.