A Short History
Rev Christy O’Dwyer.
The success or otherwise of any cathedral, church or other renovation is rightly judged by its fidelity to its original design and significant features. On this score the present renovation of the Cathedral of the Assumption, Thurles comfortably passes the test. Both internally and externally the recent substantial renovation works have succeeded in highlighting and enhancing the beauty of this most impressive Romanesque building which owes its existence primarily to the vision and energetic efforts of Dr Patrick Leahy, Archbishop of Cashel & Emly from 1857 until 1875.
The Cathedral of the Assumption stands on a site which has ecclesiastical associations since the beginning of the 14th century when a Carmelite Priory was established in Thurles. About the year 1730 a humble thatched chapel was erected in the vicinity of the former priory, courtesy of the generosity and goodwill of the local Mathew family. For the next eighty years this simple structure served the needs of a poor Catholic Community then slowly emerging from a long winter of suffering and discrimination. During the years C.1804 -1807, at a cost of over (stg) £10,000.00, Archbishop Thomas Bray replaced the thatched chapel with the very impressive Big Chapel of Thurles. Though not formally constituted a cathedral, the Big Chapel served as the mother church to the archdiocese until Dr Leahy made the courageous decision to substantially renovate and upgrade the building. In effect, the renovation proved so extensive as to constitute a wholly new edifice.
In September 1862 Archbishop Leahy announced his plans to undertake a major refurbishment of the Big Chapel of Thurles so as to transform it into a cathedral worthy of the ancient and historic archdiocese. Unlike most new Irish cathedrals of the period which followed the gothic style, Archbishop Leahy chose the Romanesque model. No doubt, his choice was influenced by his desire to emphasize continuity with the original cathedral of the archdiocese, Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel.
J.J. McCarthy, eminent architect of the period, was engage to draw up the plans and supervise the building project. The design for the new cathedral was “taken in good part from the cathedral of Pisa” in Italy. Barry McMullen of Cork was chosen as builder and J.C. Ashlin, Dublin executed the enclosing walls, railings and much of the furnishings.
In a period of much poverty, distress and wholesale emigration the task of raising the necessary funds was formidable. However, despite some initial reservations from some quarters, the enthusiasm and energy of the Archbishop soon won the enthusiastic support of the people of the archdiocese who contributed ” cheerfully and generously” to the project.
Archbishop Leahy undertook two circuits of the archdiocese promoting the cause of the new cathedral and receiving the offerings of the faithful. The entire cost of the cathedral project amounted to (Stg) £30,000.00. The overwhelming portion of this huge sum comprised the pennies of the poor throughout the archdiocese. A number of priests were sent to the U.S.A. and Canada to solicit funds. Apart from one partially successful mission which yielded about (Stg) £2000.00, the American fund-raising activities proved quite disappointing.
BUILDING THE CATHEDRAL.
Work on the new cathedral commenced in 1865 and lasted considerably longer than originally planned. Dr Leahy took a deep interest in the proceedings and was an almost daily presence on the site. His family’s prominent engineering background was evident in his meticulous attention to detail.
No effort was spared to ensure that only the best and most ornate materials, Irish and continental, were used in the building. The Cathedral of the Assumption is a handsome combination of local limestone – quarried at Leugh, Turtulla and the Green, Holycross - Cork and Galway marble, Aberdeen granite and Portland stone. Pope Pius 1X donated some ancient marble to the cathedral. The magnificent tabernacle, designed by Giacomo Della Porta (1537-1603), pupil of Michelangelo, was purchased from the Gesu church in Rome. An impressive matching altar was erected to accommodate the tabernacle. When completed Archbishop Leahy was, understandably, pleased with the outcome. The high altar, he declared, was “without exaggeration, the finest from this to Rome”.
Though most anxious to see the project successfully completed in his lifetime Archbishop Leahy died in January 1875 as the building work was drawing to a close. His successor, Archbishop Croke, presided over the final stages of the work, raising over (stg) £9,000.00 to complete the task. The Cathedral of the Assumption was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Croke on 21 June 1879.
FEATURES OF THE CATHEDRAL
Besides the impressive tabernacle and altar Thurles Cathedral has many other notable features to capture the attention and admiration of both regular worshipper and passing visitor. The detached baptistery, built in the Byzantine style, resembles that of Pisa. The campanile or bell tower, standing at 120 feet high and 25 feet square, towers majestically over the entire edifice and surrounding area. The Rose Window, designed and erected by Messrs Mayer & Co, Munich is the outstanding stained glass feature in the cathedral.
Thurles Cathedral also boasts two ornate and matching side altars with statues of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady, the work of noted Italian sculptor, Benzoni. In the sanctuary ceiling there is a beautiful painting of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven. Eight tower bells, three Roman arched doorways, an organ dating back to 1826, holy water fonts from the Big Chapel and numerous impressive outdoor statues are all noteworthy feature of the cathedral.
Inevitably, the ravishes of time and clime as well as changing liturgical needs necessitated periodic renovations and alterations to the fabric of the cathedral. Significant renovation work was undertaken in the late 1940s and again in 1979 in preparation for the celebration of the centenary of the cathedral. This latter renovation witnessed significant rearrangement of the sanctuary area as well as the re-roofing of the building. Fittingly a statue of Archbishop Leahy was erected in the cathedral enclosure in 1911.
The present renovation of the cathedral represents the happy outcome of careful planning, good workmanship, expert advice and the generous co-operation and support of the people of Thurles and the entire archdiocese. Messrs Bluett and O’Donoghue, Architects, Clancy Construction and Fr Eugene Everard, Administrator, and team can all feel justifiably proud of the effort made to restore Thurles Cathedral to its present beautiful and sparkling self.
The people of Thurles and the entire archdiocese have good reason to be grateful to Archbishop Leahy for bequeathing this fitting place of worship to the spiritual sons and daughters of St Ailbe. Equally, we should be grateful to all concerned with the present renovation of this noble edifice.
May the faithful of Cashel and Emly continue to sing the praises of the Lord in this beautiful and holy place throughout the century ahead and beyond.
Go gcanaimís le díograis molta Dé in Ard-Eaglais Deastógála na Maighdine Beannaithe sna blianta seo romhainn.