The Winter Solstice and Newgrange – a new old approach to Christmas in Ireland

Newgrange about 1880

The entrance to Newgrange about 1880 – not a ‘window’ to be seen.

Some people in Ireland start their Christmas celebrations with an ancient pagan ceremony – if they can get tickets!

Over five thousand years ago the inhabitants of the Boyne Valley in modern County Meath built a great passage tomb to contain the bones of their ancestors.  Curiously the remains of just five individuals were found inside the burial chamber when it was excavated by Professor Michael J Kelly in the 1960s.  Perhaps these individuals were especially significant to the community that built Newgrange and the mound was actually a temple to the ancestors. During the excavation, Kelly and his team made a bizarre discovery. There was an unusual ‘window’ over the entrance to the tomb and they speculated what its purpose was.  Suspicion fell on the alignment of the ‘window,’ or lightbox, as it is now called.  It seemed to be facing the direction of sunrise on the winter solstice.  There really was only one way to test it…..

Newgrange entrance

The reconstructed entrance to Newgrange, with the lightbox above the doorway. The superbly carved stone can be seen in the previous image from the 1880s.

On December 21st 1967, Professor Kelly and some colleagues were the first people in modern times to witness the sunlight enter the lightbox and illuminate the entire interior of the tomb right to the very back of the passage.  The whole event lasted just seventeen minutes but it confirmed the extraordinary skills available in Ireland five thousand years ago.  More recently it has been noted that the Newgrange alignment with the solstice sunrise appears to be more precise than similar alignments elsewhere, such as at Maes Howe in the Orkney Islands.  Our ancestors valued this moment because it marked the turning point of the year and the assurance that spring was not far off.

Newgrange Solstice

A five thousand year old phenomenon restored – the light entering the passage at Newgrange at sunrise on the winter solstice.

Clearly our ancestors valued the winter solstice.  The reason is not difficult to discern – they were farmers and the solstice marked the point of the year when the sun stopped slipping further and further down towards the southern horizon with each passing day.  It would now begin to climb higher in the sky.  This heralded the promise of spring and the new season for planting crops. Today the winter solstice in Ireland gives us a bare seven and a half hours of daylight!  So the increasing brightness and (hopefully) warmth of the sun is still a welcome sight.

Today, if you are lucky, you can enter a lottery to obtain tickets from the Office of Public Works Heritage Service to enter the passage at Newgrange before sunrise on 21st December and wait expectantly for the eerie and spectacular event.  The space inside the passage is very limited so only a small number of people are admitted on the winter solstice.

Back when it was built, the light entered the lightbox at Newgrange at exactly sunrise, but today, because of a wobble in the earth’s axis (called precession), the sunlight enters about four minutes after sunrise.  The whole phenomenon is fraught because the weather in Ireland does not always guarantee a clear sunny morning – cloud does obscure the whole sky in some years.  However the phenomenon is so popular that large crowds gather outside the mound to witness the sunrise.  When you live this far north of the Equator, the assurance that the sun has stopped sliding towards the southern horizon is something we look forward to!  The Newgrange experience is now part of the run-up to Christmas for many people in twenty-first century Ireland.

Happy Winter Solstice everyone!

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A celebration in Longford – with a Midleton link.

Longford Cathedral Fire

St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, burned down on Christmas Day 2009.  The cathedral’s museum was located in the former presbytery built into the back of the structure (on the right side of the photo).

In the early hours of Christmas morning 2009 the people of Longford woke to the horrific sight of their cathedral on fire.  They had celebrated Midnight Mass just a few hours before in the grandest building in the town, and now it was violently consumed by flames which left the building a gutted shell by daybreak.

Longford Cathedral Fire 3

Not the famous Roman basilica of Leptis Magna in Libya, but the devastated interior of St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford. The heat from the fire was so great that the blue limestone columns seen here were structurally weakened and every single one of them had to be replaced!

Apart from the loss of the liturgical space, Longford also lost its important diocesan museum which was located in the former presbytery.  Such diocesan museums are an extreme rarity in Ireland.  The presbytery was built into the back of the structure according to the original plans.  Among the treasures damaged and there were items of national importance – the so-called ‘crozier of St Mel’ and the Shrine of St Caillin.  The thousand year old crozier was severely damaged but the Shrine of St Cailin survived despite considerable damage.  The collection of historic vestments was completely lost. For genealogists, there is some relief in that although the old church records were destroyed, they have been microfilmed.

St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford was begun in 1840 under the direction of Bishop William O’Higgins.  It was designed by John Benjamin Keane, a Dublin-born architect who had worked as an assistant to Richard Morrison.  Morrison’s father, John Morrison, also an architect, was based in Midleton in the 1770s and 1780s.  But that’s not the real Midleton connection with St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford.  (Note: John B Keane is the name given by the Irish Architectural Archive, but recent news reports give the name as Joseph B Keane!  I’ll stick with the IAA version until I am reliably corrected!  And, no, I’m not aware of any family connection between the architect and the more recent Listowel publican and author, John B Keane.)

Anyone who knows their Irish history will be aware that 1840 was not the most auspicious timing for starting such a large project, much of it financed by the pennies of the poor.  From the autumn of 1845 to 1850 Ireland was stricken by the Great Famine caused by widespread potato blight, and the money for building the cathedral was diverted to more urgent causes.  Once the famine ended, the work resumed, but Keane had long left the scene and died in debt in 1859.  His successors included John Bourke who designed the cathedral’s belfry that has presided over over the town since 1860.

Longford Cathedral

The pride of the Irish midlands, Longford Cathedral took from the 1840s to the 1890s to complete. The tower was added in 1860, and Ashlin’s grand portico was added thirty years later.

Then in the 1880s it was decided to embellish the rather plain front, and the architect of the fine portico was none other than George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921). From 1888 to 1893 the portico was built and some interior furnishings such as altars were designed and supervised by Ashlin. This is where the Midleton connection comes in.  Ashlin was the third son of John Musson Ashlin JP (of Rush Hill, Wandsworth, Surrey, England) and Dorinda Coppinger, who came from Carrigrenane House in, Little Island near Glounthaune, County Cork.  Sadly this house no longer exists.  Dorinda was part of a clan of very influential Catholics who supplied a Bishop of Cloyne in the person of William Coppinger, and the curate of Midleton, Stephen Coppinger, who introduced the Presentation Sisters to the town.  And, yes, Dorinda Coppinger was related to the Joseph Coppinger discussed in a previous post.

George Coppinger Ashlin

George Coppinger Ashlin (1838-1921), Augustus Pugin’s son-in-law, and prolific church architect, had a brother living in Midleton. George went on to design two prominent buildings in the town.

George Ashlin became apprenticed to Edward Pugin, the son of the more celebrated Augustus WN Pugin (the man who designed the interiors of the Palace of Westminster and its clock tower (also popularly called the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben).  Primarily considered an architect of the gothic revival, it turns out that Ashlin was accomplished enough to work in the classical style too.  He went on to become Edward Pugin’s business partner, and even married Edward’s sister, Mary – so he was the son-in-law of the more celebrated Augustus Pugin, who had died in 1852. With Edward Pugin and Thomas Coleman, Ashlin designed St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh (then Queenstown), one of the last sights Irish emigrants saw when they left the country from Cork Harbour.

GC Ashlin’s mother held property in Midleton, where she had several relatives living.  Indeed the Coppingers were the wealthiest Catholics in the town in the early and middle nineteenth century.  Ashlin’s oldest brother was John Coppinger Ashlin, who lived at Castleredmond House on……Ashlin Road (!).  I walked to school along that road every day!  It was these family connections to Midleton that led Ashlin to be commissioned to design Holy Rosary Catholic Church in 1893, and to supervise its construction from 1894 to 1896, and then again when the spire was completed in 1907-1908  Between these dates GC Ashlin designed the finest bank building in Midleton – the redbrick Dutch renaissance style Munster and Leinster Bank, now the Allied Irish Bank at the northern end of Main Street.

Holy Rosary Church Midleton after 1908

Ashlin’s Holy Rosary Church in Midleton, shortly after the completion of the spire in 1908.

Midleton Main Street 1900-1918

Completed in 1902, the Munster and Leinster Bank (on the right) marks the northern end of Midleton’s Main Street. It is a distinctive red brick building in Dutch renaissance style, by George Coppinger Ashlin. Holy Rosary Church overlooks the other end of the street. I can assure you that Main Street is not this quiet today!  The point of grass in the foreground is part of the Goose’s Acre, a plot where the townspeople set their geese out to graze.  The site depicted here is now occupied by the Clonmult Monument designed by the sculptor Seamus Murphy.    

Today, Saturday 20th December 2014 will be long remembered in Longford town as the day the people of the town were allowed to enter and view their newly restored cathedral.  Five years after the fire, the Cathedral of St Mel also saw the celebration of its first Mass.  Although the interior was damaged, Ashlin’s great portico seems to have suffered only minor damage.  It now welcomes the people of Longford back into their resurrected cathedral.

Longford Cathedral Restored

The ‘Longford Phoenix’ after five years of restoration. The interior of St Mel’s Cathedral has been superbly restored and new works of art have been installed.  Prior to the fire the plaster ceiling had been painted in various colours to ‘add interest’ but I think the plain white stucco looks splendid.

 Well done to everyone who contributed to the restoration of the ‘Longford Phoenix!’

Decade of Bicentenaries? New churches expressing Irish Catholic hopes after 1800.

Interior Shanagarry church.

The intimate interior of Shanagarry church. It seems likely that this church originally ended in a blank wall with the altar in front of it, the arch and chancel being added later as funds were raised. The roof was originally an open timber structure.

We in Ireland are currently involved in the Decade of Centenaries – an all-Ireland initiative to commemorate the events that happened in Ireland from 1912 to 1922. The events being commemorated include the Home Rule Bill of 1912, the foundation of the Ulster and Irish Volunteers, the outbreak and course of World War I, the Easter Rising, the partition of Ireland into two political units, the War of Independence (Troubles), and the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1921, with the arrival of effective dominion status in the Irish Free State in 1922.

But I wonder if we have also forgotten to look back a further century to the early 1800s.  In 1801 the Irish Parliament ceased to exist and a smaller group of MPs had to speak for Ireland in the Westminster Parliament. Hopes were raised during the run-up to the Act of Union that Catholics would be given political rights – a natural follow through of the gradual removal of restrictions on Catholic worship, land ownership, education, and entry to both the legal and medical professions.

What Catholics wanted was the right to be represented on the local government bodies, to become magistrates and to stand for election to Parliament.  Furthermore, the fact that Britain (and, therefore, Ireland) was involved in a major war against Napoleon’s French Empire weighed heavily on the minds of political figures in both Britain and Ireland.  How could the Crown ensure the loyalty of Irish Catholics, who until the French Revolution had looked to France for support?  One way was to bring the Catholic clergy onside.  The savage violence of the Revolutionaries in France against the Church had already alarmed the clergy in Ireland.  Cleverly, the (Protestant) government in Ireland (with the support of the British government) had founded a seminary for the education of catholic clergy and laymen in Maynooth in 1795, supporting it with an annual grant.  The effect was gratifyingly immediate for the government – the Catholic hierarchy condemned the 1798 Rebellions and supported the Act of Union in 1800.

The prospect of Catholic Emancipation reached fever pitch by 1815 – but somehow the government found reason to go back on its promises until Daniel O’Connell threw down the gauntlet in 1828.  Meanwhile Catholics in Ireland felt they could do something for themselves about their standing in the community – they began to either rebuild their chapels or build many more new chapels to cater for a rapidly increasing population.

Cratloe Church

The tiny country church of Cratloe in County Clare, perfectly preserved and beautifully restored. A rare national treasure by any standard, and a very rare survival. It was begun in 1791 (nave and chancel) and extended in 1806 (transepts, seen here) and incorporates a medieval doorway brought from elsewhere. Daniel O’Connell gave a speech to crowd here during his 1828 election campaign.

Cratloe Gallery

The interior of Cratloe Church shows the simple design with open timber roof and galleries. The T-shaped plan of Cratloe allowed for the installation of THREE galleries! They were a nightmare to restore given that people are much taller now. Such interiors were usually heavily embellished later in the nineteenth century.

In 1808, Dr John Milner, Catholic Vicar Apostolic of the Midland District in England (effectively Catholic Bishop of Birmingham), visited Ireland for the opening of St Anne’s and St Mary’s Church in Shandon – now the North Cathedral in Cork (the south Cathedral is St Fin Barre’s Anglican Cathedral by William Burges).  Milner was an early advocate of the gothic revival style in church architecture for Catholics deeming it an original Catholic style.  Now a fine church had been built in Youghal in the 1796.  This showed early gothic revival features like pointed arches, but it also included a very ‘Protestant’ feature – galleries going around three sides of the interior.  The galleries were necessary to accommodate an increasing population.  Youghal boasted the finest Catholic church in the diocese of Cloyne for many decades thereafter.

St Mary's Catholic Church Youghal

St Mary’s Catholic Church in Youghal founded 1796 as the finest Catholic church in the diocese of Cloyne. Only a few hundred yards from the Anglican St Mary’s Collegiate Church, which is a medieval foundation. The tower seen here was apparantly once topped by a spire of timber and lead, but it blew down in a storm.

St Mary's Catholic Church interior

The interior of St Mary’s in Youghal showing early Gothic revival pointed arches and the galleries which give the place the atmosphere of a Wren church in London, or a Congregational church in New England.

The church in Youghal was an exception.  Smaller communities were also replacing run-down chapels.  This year, 2014, saw two bicentenaries celebrated in neighbouring parishes.  The small village of Ladysbridge is part of the parish of Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge.  In 1814, the Catholics were given land by the Protestant Henry Boyle, 3rd Earl of Shannon, who lived nearby in Castlemartyr House (now a luxury hotel!).  Lord Shannon’s gift of land and funds was to facilitate the provision of a place of worship for Catholics in Ladysbridge. A generous landlord could be a boost to the local Catholics but a difficult landlord could be very troublesome indeed.  In Midleton the landlord refused to allow the building of a Catholic chapel within the town until the 1890s!

The design of Youghal church seems to have been used as a template for Ladysbridge church for there were galleries on three sides of the interior.  The simple basic design was typical of the type of church that Catholics were building at this period – the urgent need was for solid structures to accommodate a rapidly increasing population, decorative embellishment was a secondary consideration.

ladysbridgechurch

The simple shape of Ladysbridge church is typical of the type of architecture used before the Famine in Ireland. However the walls and gables were raised a few feet in the 1958 refurbishment. There was once an external staircase leading to the internal gallery.

Following a visitation in 1828, Bishop Michael Collins (no, not THAT Michael Collins!) left a description of Ladysbridge church.  He said it measured ’80 by 36 feet’, and that it was ‘commodious well built and covered with Welsh slate, (some chapels still had thatch it seems).  The church had ‘an excellent and tasteful altar and a well-executed gallery,’ and it only lacked one detail: ‘it wants only to be ceiled’ – which proves that the roof was of open work timber at the time.  The bishop summarised that Ladys Bridge (as he called it) was ‘the best country chapel I have seen in the Diocese of Cloyne hitherto.’

 

Ladysbridge interior

The 1958 renovations stripped Ladysbridge church of the side galleries. The three altars and mosaic shown in the picture were all products of the 1958 refurbishment. The original decoration was much simpler, and the roof was of open timber work.

In those days, the parish of Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge included the village of Shanagarry.  This was a place with associations to William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania.  In 1814, Fr O’Neill managed to acquire land there to build a second church, which still survives with little alteration.  Fortunately O’Neill already had a functioning chapel in Ballymacoda.  In the 1830s the old civil parish of Kilmahon (Shanagarry) was transferred from the parish of Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge to the parish of Cloyne.

Shanagarry Church

Shanagarry church is much closer to the original appearance of Ladysbridge. Indeed the two churches may have been built by the same team of craftsmen.

The irony of the situation is that the Parish Priest of Ballymacoda, Ladysbridge and Shanagarry was Fr Peter O’Neill, a man who had been tried, condemned and whipped in Youghal for concealing information on subversion from the authorities.  He may or may not have been given this information in confession.  Shipped off to New South Wales and Norfolk Island, O’Neill was only the third Catholic priest to inhabit Australia.  However he was rapidly reprieved by a worried and embarrassed government – they needed the clergy to calm an angry Catholic populace.  It is possible that Lord Shannon was trying to placate his Catholic tenantry by offering land for building a chapel.  In the late 1950s the church in Ladysbridge was heavily rebuilt and redecorated.

Today, Saturday 29th November 2014, the neighbouring parish of Cloyne begins the celebrations of the building of its Catholic church in 1815.  This building still functions, although it underwent several changes.  The interior seems to be a design by Michael O’Riordan, an architect who became a Presentation Brother in Cork.  O’Riordan designed several churches in the dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.

St Colman's Church, Cloyne

Sadly, the original exterior of Cloyne church was severely ‘modernised’ in the late 20th century, giving it a very bizarre appearance indeed.

Cloyne church repainted interior

The gothic revival exterior of Cloyne hides a fine classical interior  The reredos motif seen here seems to be the work of Brother Michael O’Riordan – seemingly a reworking of the 1830s. Exactly the same motif was used in nearby Ballintotis church.

It has been estimated that between 1800 and 1850 (more accurately 1796 and 1846) about a hundred churches and chapels were rebuilt or newly built in the mostly rural diocese of Cloyne  Surely a testament to the strong religious devotion of the Catholics of the period.  Most of these churches were quite small ,including the now vanished chapel of St John in Midleton in this.  Several of these buildings were replaced after 1850 in a more convincing gothic revival style, although Midleton had to wait until 1894-96 for a huge new church to be constructed.

Part of the Catholic revival at the period included the provision of proper parish registers.  Parish registers were already in use for several decades from the middle of the eighteenth century, but many were judged to be inadequate during later episcopal visitations (essentially inspections by the bishop).  Older registers often contained baptisms, marriages and sometime burials all mixed up together in the same volume.  It seems that most of the older registers were lost or even discarded when new registers were introduced. Also bear in mind that the storage conditions for such registers was often poor until decent churches were built. As you can imagine, the losses of the older registers remains a source of deep regret to Irish genealogists.

Further reading on Amazon.com

Ireland Before the Famine: 1798-1848

King Dan: The Rise of Daniel O’Connell 1775 – 1829

The Decade of Centenaries can be followed here: http://www.decadeofcentenaries.com/

Note: I used the word chapel instead of church to describe Catholic places of worship before 1850 because that was the general use at the time, and because few of them had a cemetery attached, churches were in the hands of the Established Anglican Church of Ireland, and these usually had a collegiate cemetery attached for use by the whole population.

Images of Cloyne Cathedral.

Ooops!  Silly me!  I really should add some colour to this blog – so, as a bonus, I want to show some images of St Colman’s Cathedral in Cloyne to illustrate what I said in my previous blog.

Cloyne Cathedral is a thirteenth century building (1201-1300) with later amendments (east window and western facade). We don’t know which bishop built it but its location is very precisely related to the Round Tower across the road – this was the original belfry of Cloyne.  Forget that stuff about monks taking refuge there from the Vikings – round towers make excellent chimneys so the monks would have risked asphyxiation if the uninvited guests lit a fire at the foot of the tower!    The first image shows the cathedral from the north with the high triple lancet windows of the north transept facing us.  The chancel is on the left with the vestry protruding northwards, and the nave and aisles are on the right.  There is a debate as to whether the cathedral had a central tower, the join in the roof between the nave and chancel suggest this, but there is no such evidence on the interior. In fact, given that the Round Tower was used as a belfry into the twentieth century, why would they have bothered with a central crossing tower?

Cloyne Cathedral from the North

Cloyne Cathedral from the North

The Round Tower at Cloyne was actually built over a thousand years ago to house a bell – the locals called it a cloigteach into the 18th century – cloigteach means a bell-house, or in Italian, campanile!   It even leans a couple of centimeters out of vertical despite being over thirty meters tall – it lost a couple of meters when the conical cap was struck by lightening in the eighteenth century.

Cloyne Round Tower General

The third image is a general overview of Cloyne Cathedral taken from the top of the Round Tower – the image is a few years old because those fields in the background are now filled with houses.  Note the cruciform shape and the proximity to the road as well as the odd positioning of the gate – this gate faces the door of the Round Tower.

Cloyne Cathedral Overhead

The interior is remarkably simple, some would say bare, but I love it because it reminds me of the best Cistercian architecture.  Mind you Cloyne wasn’t built by the Cistercians, it was strictly a secular, that is to say diocesan, establishment.  The nave is empty of seating (as it was in the medieval period) and is now used mainly for concerts.  The Chancel is now the functioning church, but originally the laity would never have been admitted beyond the tall arch at the east end of the nave.  Indeed this arch would have been blocked by a painted and sculpted wooden screen with a crucifix above it.

Cloyne Nave General

The Chancel is laid out in ‘cathedral form’ as we say in Ireland – that is, while some pews at the western end face towards the altar, most of the seating follows the antiphonal arrangement of medieval choirs.  Antiphonal means that the seats face each other – one side can sing one verse, and the other side can sing the next verse, and so on.  The furnishings, roof and stained glass are all nineteenth century.

Cloyne Cathedral Chancel

 

In the north transept is a magnificent Renaissance tomb built for Sir John FitzEdmund FitzGerald, Dean of Cloyne.  He was the illegitimate son of the previous dean, Edmund FitzGerald, and there is no evidence that Sir John was even ordained!  Despite the fact that he remained a Catholic until his death in 1612, Sir John was a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth I – how do you think he became SIR JOHN?  He was knighted on Elizabeth’s orders and he used that fact to his advantage.  He looted the church lands by giving estates to his own sons, and he even managed to keep the Protestants out of the cathedral until his death! Frankly, he was one of the biggest crooks in sixteenth century Ireland!   I’ll come back to him in a later post.  However, Sir John FitzEdmund FitzGerald’s tomb deserves a mention, for it is one of the great renaissance treasures of Ireland, yet is virtually unknown!   This large tomb of polished limestone is topped by a  huge slab of red (Midleton?) marble – the biggest I’ve ever seen.  The front of the tomb is decorated with panels representing military trophies, clearly copied from a print.

Fitzgerald Tomb Cloyne

The stones on top of the red marble slab are the remains of sculpted figures that stood on the tomb, and they are all shown dressed in armour. There isn’t a cleric among them.  No evidence whatsoever of any religious feeling intrudes into the tomb of this Dean of Cloyne!