Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral


Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral (Irish: Ardeaglais Naomh Fionnbarra) is a Gothic revival three spire cathedral in the city of Cork, Ireland. It is dedicated to the Church of Ireland and was completed in 1879. Saint Fin Barre's is located on the south side of the River Lee, on a site that has been a place of worship since the seventh century, and is named after Saint Finbarr, patron saint of the city. It was once in the Diocese of Cork; it is now the primary of three cathedrals in the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, in the ecclesiastical province of Dublin.

The original seventh-century monastery underwent successive waves of church building until the late-medieval period. Around 1536, during the Protestant Reformation, the cathedral became part of the Established Church, later known as the Church of Ireland. The 18th-century building was widely regarded as plain and featureless. A new building was commissioned during the 19th century, initiated by an Anglican church intent on strengthening its hand after the reforms of penal law. Construction began in 1863, the first major work of the renowned Victorian architect William Burges, who designed the building, sculptures, stained glass, mosaics and interior furniture.

The cathedral is built largely from local limestone. Its exterior is dominated by three spires: two on the west front and a third above the point where the transept crosses the nave. Many of the external sculptures, including the gargoyles, were modelled by Thomas Nicholls in London. The entrances contain statues of saints, while the doorway of the north transept features an ornate sculpted tympanum that shows a resurrection scene. Saint Fin Barre's foundation stone was laid in 1865, and the cathedral was consecrated in 1870. The spires were completed on 23 October 1879.


Finbarr of Cork

The church grounds are located south of the River Lee on Holy Island, on one of the many inlets that form the Great Marsh of Munster (Corcach Mor na Mumhan). St. Fin Barre's is on the site of at least two previous holy buildings, each dedicated to Finbarr of Cork, patron saint of Cork city, and the founder of the monastic hermitage at Gougane Barra.

Finbarr was born in Munster and reputedly given Gougane Barra as a place of contemplation. He later moved to Cork city, where by legend he laid the foundation stones for the "one true Christian faith". Archaeological evidence suggests that the first site at Fin Barre's probably dates from the 7th century, and comprised both a church and a round tower which survived until the 12th century, when it either lost influence or was destroyed during the Norse invasions.

Medieval and 18th century churches

An early reference to the medieval site dates to 1644 and notes that "in one of the suburbs of Korq [Cork] there is an old tower ten or twelve in circumference, and more than one hundred feet high...believ[ed] to have been built by St. Baril [Finbarr]". The building was badly damaged during the Siege of Cork in 1690, when only the steeple remained intact after fire and the impact of a 24-pound shot from Elizabeth Fort in nearby Barrack Street. The cannonball was re-discovered during the 1865 demolition and is now on display in the cathedral.

The church was demolished in 1725 and replaced in 1735 by a smaller building, during a wave of construction and renovation carried out by Church of Ireland in the early 18th century. Other places of worship rebuilt during this period include Christchurch in Dublin and the Church of St Anne, Shandon, in Cork.

Only the earlier spire was retained for the new building. The older part of this church was described in 1862 as Doric in style, attached to a featureless modern tower with a "ill-formed" spire. The building was widely considered aesthetically weak. The Dublin Builder described it as "a shabby apology for a cathedral which has long disgraced Cork", while The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland judged it "a plain, massive, dull, tasteless, oblong pile, totally destitute of what is usually regarded as cathedral character, and possessing hardly a claim to any sort of architectural consideration". It was demolished in 1865.

19th-century build

In April 1862, the Church of Ireland, in pursuit of a larger, more appealing cathedral, initiated a competition for a replacement building. The applicants designers were aware that they were competing for the first new cathedral to be built in the British Isles since St Paul's in London. The following February, the designs of the architect William Burges, then 35, were declared the winner of the competition to build the new cathedral. Burges disregarded the £15,000 budget, and produced a design that he estimated would cost twice as much. Despite the protestations of fellow competitors, it won. His diary records his reaction – "Got Cork!" – while cathedral accounts mention a payment of £100 as prize money.

For the exterior, Burges re-used some of his earlier unrealised plans, including for the Crimea Memorial Church, Istanbul, St John's Cathedral, Brisbane, and elevations for Lille Cathedral. The main obstacle was the building's size. Despite the efforts of its fundraisers, Cork was unable to afford a large cathedral. Burges overcame this by using the grandeur of his three-spired exterior to offset the lesser scale of the remainder of the building. Burges realised early on that he would vastly exceed the budget. The superiority and potential of his design was recognised by the Bishop of Cork, John Gregg, who consistently backed Burges and lobbied for additional funding. Gregg was instrumental in sourcing additional money from a variety of sources, including local merchants such as William Crawford of the Crawford brewing family and Francis Wise, a local distiller. The final total was significantly over £100,000. Burges, having been reassured by Gregg, was unconcerned.

Gregg did not live to see the completion of the cathedral he had fought so hard for. After he died on 26 May 1876, his son Robert undertook the project, and in 1879 ceremoniously placed the final stone on the eastern spire. By then the contractors estimated that the build was nearing its completion, with only a number of pre-designed stained glass fittings left to be installed.

The cathedral holds the book of estimates for the decoration of the West front. Nicholls was paid £1,769 for the modelling, McLeod £5,153 for the carving, while Burges took 10% for the design, above his usual 5%; apparently due to his high level of personal involvement. Its construction took seven years before the first service was held in 1870. During the first building phase, three firms of contractors were employed, owned by, chronologically, Robert Walker, Gilbert Cockburn and John Delany who eventually completed the construction of the spires in 1879. Building, carving and decoration continued into the 20th century, long after Burges' death in 1881, including the marble panelling of the aisles, the instillation of the reredos and side choir walls, and the 1915 construction of the chapter house.

Saint Fin Barre's is described by Lawrence and Wilson as "undoubtedly [Burges'] greatest work in ecclesiastical architecture", with an interior that is "overwhelming and intoxicating". Through his ability, careful leadership of his team, artistic control, and by vastly exceeding the intended budget, Burges produced a building which – though not much larger than a parish church – has been described as "a cathedral becoming such a city and one which posterity may regard as a monument to the Almighty's praise".

20th and 21st centuries

Conscious that the cathedral was unlikely to be finished in his lifetime, Burges produced comprehensive plans for its decoration and furnishing, the Book of Furniture and the Book of Designs. At the end of the 20th century, a major restoration of the cathedral, costing £5 million, was undertaken. This included the reinstatement and restoration of the twin trumpets held by the Resurrection Angel which had been removed by vandals in 1999. The restoration programme also saw the cleaning, repointing and repair of the exterior of the building, including the re-carving of some of Burges' gargoyles, where repair proved impracticable. The cathedral's heating system was also replaced, when it was found the 150-year old system was damaging the intricate mosaic floor.

In 2005, to celebrate the city's election as the European Capital of Culture, an exhibition was held at the Cork Public Museum, to showcase the large collection of restored cartoons Burges and his team had undertaken for the cathedral's stained glass and mosaics. The following year, David Lawrence and Ann Wilson published the first detailed study of the cathedral's history and architecture, The Cathedral of Saint Fin Barre At Cork: William Burges in Ireland.



The cathedral's style is Early French Gothic, Burges' preferred period which he used for his own home, The Tower House, in London. He re-used elements of the unsuccessful designs he had earlier produced for competitions for cathedrals at Lille and Brisbane. The shell of the building is mostly limestone, sourced from near Cork, with the interior walls formed from stone brought from Bath. The red marble came from Little Island, the purple-brown stone from Fermoy. Each spire supports a Celtic cross, a reference to Saint Patrick, seen as a foundational ancestor by both Irish Catholics and Protestants. Thus their inclusion is pointed, but was against Burges' wishes. His initial design included weather vanes, a choice over-written by the building committee, who, according to historian Antóin O'Callaghan, wanted the church to "retain the continuity with the one true faith of the ancient past".

The spires had a troubled construction, technically and in terms of funding. The total cost rose to £40,000 early in the build, with a further £60,000 spent by the time they were fully upright. A number of sub-contractors were hired but dismissed; the work was eventually completed by the Cork Builder John Delaney, who undertook the project in May 1876. By the end of the following year the main and two ancillary spires were complete.


An 1881 estimate by the local stonemason McLeod suggests that Burges had worked on some 844 sculpture for the building, of which around 412 were for its interior. The total of some 1,260 works includes 32 gargoyles, each with different animal heads. Burges oversaw nearly all aspects of the design, commanding from his office in Buckingham Street and on numerous site visits. Most modern scholars agree that his hold over the design of the architecture, statuary, stained glass and internal decorations, lead to the cathedral's unity of style. He considered sculpture as an "indispensable attribute of architectural effect" and, at St Fin Barre's, believed he was engaged upon "a work which has not been attempted since the West front of Wells Cathedral". In the designs for the pieces decorating the cathedral, Burges worked closely with Thomas Nicholls, who constructed each figure in plaster, and with R. McLeod and local stone masons, who carved almost all of the sculptures in situ.

Burges' designs for the western facade were based on medieval French iconography. He considered this wing to be the most important exterior feature as it would be lit by the setting sun and thus the most potentially dramatic. The overarching theme is The Last Judgement, with representations of the twelve Apostles bearing instruments from their martyrdom, the Wise and the Foolish Virgins, the Resurrection of the Dead and the Beasts of The Evangelists.

The copper gilded "resurrection angel" facing eastwards on the main spire is locally the cathedral's most iconic feature. It was designed by Burges and erected in 1870 free of charge as his gift to the city, with the humorous intention being that Corkonians, forewarned by the angel blowing his two trumpets, would be the to first realise the end of days and make an early entrance into heaven. Burges was moved by the city's willingness to fund his original design, and positioned the sculpture in place of an intended wrought-iron cross.

The imagery of the tympanum is taken from the Book of Revelation, with the divine on the upper register, and mortals below. It shows an angel, accompanied by St. John the Evangelist, measuring the temple in Jerusalem, while beneath them the dead rise from their graves. Of these sculptures, the Victorian critic Charles Eastlake, writing in A History of the Gothic Revival, considered that "no finer examples of decorative sculpture have been produced during the Revival".

Burges found it difficult to enact some of his original designs; a number of which were intended to be nude, including the figures of Adam and Eve, the dead rising from their graves and the welcoming angels, were intended to be fully nude. Some of the committee members were uncomfortable with titillation, and Burges was asked to provide clothed designs, or modesty providing loin cloths, or strategically placed foliage and books.


Notable interments include those of archbishop bishop William Lyon (d. 1617), Richard Boyle (d. 1645), and in a family vault, the first "Lady Freemason", Elizabeth Aldworth (d. c 1773–75).


Plan and elevation

The cathedral's plan is conventional; the west front is opened by three entrance doors leading to the nave, with internal vaulting, arcade, triforium and clerestory, rising to a timber roof. Beyond the nave, the pulpit, choir, Bishop's throne and altar end in an ambulatory. The small floor-plan drew criticism both at the time and in later years. The building is relatively short at 180 feet length, but contains all of the traditional elements of a cathedral of much greater size. A contemporary critic, Robert Rolt Brash, wrote; "the effect of this is to make the building look exceedingly short, and disproportionately high". Although modest in size, the compact design makes the most of the small footprint. The three spires allow the illusion of interior height.

Main features

Burges designed the majority of the interior features, including the mosaic pavement, the altar, the pulpit and the bishop's throne. The marble nave, made from red and puce stone, is very narrow and unusually high, supported by massive columns supporting the central tower and spire. The exterior gives the impression of an overall large structure, which is at odds with the reduced size of the interior, where the choir, sanctuary and ambulatory take up almost half of the floor-space. The interior is filled with colour, most especially from the stained glass windows. This aspect of the interior is in marked contrast to the uniform and austere grey of the exterior.

The cylindrical pulpit is located near the entrance and was completed in 1874, but not painted until 1935. Like the baptismal font, it is placed on four sculpted legs. It contains five stone relief figures, assumed to be the four evangelists, and Saint Paul sitting on an upturned "pagan" altar, and a winged dragon below the reading stand. The baptismal font is located near the entrance. Its ledge is decorated with a carving of the head of John the Baptist. The font's bowl is of Cork red marble, is 6 inches wide, and supported by a stem, also red marble, and by green marble shafts, resting on a white marble shaft of sculpted capitals and an octagonal base. Brass lettering reads "We are buried with Him by baptism into death".

The lectern (reading desk) is made of solid brass, from a design Burges had originally intended for Lille Cathedral. It is decorated with the heads of Moses and King David. There is a "Heroes Column" (War Memorial) by the Choir, at the Dean's chapel. It contains the names of 400 men from the dioceses killed in battle during World War I. A processional cross, completed in 1974 by Patrick Pye, is located in front of the Dean's chapel. The 46 foot 'Great Oak Throne' of the Cork Dioceses Bishop was installed in 1878, alongside a statue of St. Finbarr and a kneeling angel.

Stained glass

Burges conceived the iconographical scheme for the stained glass windows, designed the individual panels for the each of the 74 windows, and oversaw every stages of their production. According to Maurice Carey, "in consequence, the windows have a consistent cohesive style and follow a logical sequence in subject matter". The panels were cartooned by H. W. Lonsdale, and manufactured in London between 1868–69 by William Gualbert Saunders, who had worked in Burges' office before forming his own firm of stained glass makers. Doctrinal objections to some of the figures, particularly of Christ, lead to a delay of four years, with their eventual installation occurring between 1873–81. Four windows remain incomplete. Lonsdale's cartoons are still extant, and kept at the cathedral.

Many of the figures in the stained glass are taken from Christian iconography, and echo figures in the tympanum, including, in the ambulatory a window showing God as the King of Heaven overlooking representations of the Apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In the panel, Matthew takes human form, Mark is depicted as a lion, Luke as an ox, while John takes the form of an eagle. As elsewhere in the cathedral, the illustrations can be divided between the divine, wise and foolish.

The scheme begins and ends with two rose windows, at the west front and south transept respectively. The west rose window shows God as the creator resting on a rainbow and in the act of blessing. He is surrounded by eight compartments, each inspired by the scenes from Book of Genesis, beginning with the creation of light, and ending with the birth of Eve, and Adam naming the animals. The south transept rose window, known as the "Heavenly Hierarchies", places Christ the King in the centre, with the compartments containing a series of angels, archangels and Cherubim. Separate glass sheets containing building tools are placed between each angelic compartment.

The nave windows contain signs of the Zodiac. Each lancet by the arcade contains a grisaille panel. These scenes are mostly for the Old Testament, while those from the transepts onward are of prophets who foretold Christ's coming, or from the New Testament. The clerestory panels above the high altar depict Christ reigning from his cross alongside His Mother, John, the Three Marys and various disciples. The windows around the ambulatory include scenes from the Life of Christ, culminating in a representation of heaven at worship from the Book of Revelation.

Pipe organ

The organ was built in 1870 by William Hill & Sons, consisting of three manuals (keyboards), over 4,500 pipes and 40 stops. The action on the main organ was derived from a form of pneumatic action (possibly Barker lever), with tracker for the other two manuals. The organ was in place for the cathedral's grand opening on Saint Andrews's day, 30 November 1870. Originally positioned in the west gallery, the organ was moved to the north transept in 1889, to improve acoustics, maximise space, and ensure that it would not interfere with the view of the windows. A 14 foot pit was dug in the floor beside the nave, as the new location for the organ.

Since then the upkeep of the organ has been the most expensive part of the cathedral's upkeep. It was overhauled in 1889 by the Cork organ-building firm, T.W. Magahy, who added three new stops. As part of these works, the organ was moved from the west gallery (balcony) down to a pit in the north transept, where it sits today. Most of the choir organ is housed in an enclosure attached to the console, the lid of which can be raised or lowered electrically by the organist. The next major overhaul was in 1906 by Hele & Company of Plymouth, who added a fourth manual (the Solo). By this stage, the action of the organ was entirely pneumatic. In 1965–66 J. W. Walker & Sons Ltd of London overhauled the soundboards, installed a new console with electropneumatic action, and lowered the pitch.

By 2010 the organ's electrics were failing and it was considered unreliable. Trevor Crowe was employed to reconstruct and expand it, and to provide tonal enhancements. These included a full length 32' extension to the pedal trombone. The work also involved a revised layout to enable the previously buried organ to sing unimpeded into the body of the cathedral. Crowe's layout improvements were intended to overcome the obstacles of its subterranean location, and the west end nave division improves accompaniment to congregational hymns.






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