St Finbarre’s Cathedral – 5 beautiful things I saw and heard
St Finbarre’s Cathedral…
…or St Finn Barr’s, St Fin Barre’s, or even St Fin Barrs. Whichever way you spell it, St Finbarre’s Cathedral was one of the places in Cork that I’d really been wanting to go to since I started coming regularly to the city.
The white limestone colour of the building and its 3 spires make it a stand out and attractive feature of Cork city’s skyline. But every time I’d wanted to go wanted to go, I either became distracted or found something else in the city that interested me. Short attention span, me.
In the end, there came a day towards the end of last summer where I managed to slot in some time to visit the cathedral.
I could tell you everything about the place, but that would involve writing a very boring essay. So I’d rather pick 5 things that I really love about the place, from my first visit.
1. The view of St Finbarre’s
The first thing I noticed (and believe it or not, you notice it with most buildings) was the exterior. Why? It’s the stand out architecture and its bright white stone walls that make it unique among the other buildings in the immediate area.
I couldn’t help but look in awe.
It’s a building that makes a statement:
Here I am. Look at my majesty. I’m built for God’s glory!
It’s a building made to intimidate. But also to made to admire, impress and inspire anyone who sets eyes on it. Maybe that’s the whole point of a Christian place of worship. Worship here, pay your respects, live the best pious life you can lead. And your reward in heaven could be this beautiful. From any angle that I walked around, the statement this monument to God gives is very much the same.
A beautiful but also a sacred place.
The current cathedral today was built by the Anglican church as a response to reestablish some legitimacy and relevance in Ireland. Especially in light of the repeal of the last of the Penal Laws.
A competition was held inviting architects from Britain, Ireland and Europe to enter their designs. The stipulation was that the new cathedral should cost no more than £15,000 to build. Out of 68 entrants, the design of William Burges was finally picked. Subsequently he was appointed as architect.
The foundation stone was laid in 1865 and work began soon after.
The cathedral is built in a Gothic Revival style. This was influenced by Burges’ travels to the great 13th century churches and cathedrals in France. He also used this style for his own home in London. The outer shell of the building is mostly built of limestone, sourced from near Cork. The interior walls used stone brought from Bath. Other materials such the red marble and other dark coloured stone came from local places such as Little Island and Fermoy.
Each of the cathedral’s three spires supports a Celtic style cross – a reference to Saint Patrick and a subtle statement of Irish national identity. These crosses were supposed to be weather vanes in the original design.
The spires were difficult and expensive to build. By the time the spires were finished, the cathedral cost in excess of £100,000.
After 14 years and a succession of builders and sub-contractors, St Finbarre’s Cathedral was completed in 1879 and consecrated the following year.
However, knowing that his design would take generations to finish, Burges left detailed plans of completion for others to take up and carry on.
2. The Apse and ceiling
I never knew until recently that the semi-circular recess of a church was called an apse. I just called it a large alcove or a recess.
You learn something new everyday.
From the outside, the apse gives the cathedral building its bulky look from behind. It certainly gave me the impression of a strong and stable building. You could also imagine it gives worshippers the feeling this place is a safe sanctuary. The only place where you can open yourself up to God, and face your fears.
Inside, I was even more impressed. The apse and its ceiling are beautifully decorated with colourful stained glass windows and an equally coloured ceiling mural. I soon noticed that this is the most colourful part of the cathedral, in strong contrast to the rest of its grey interior. A way of bringing focus to this area of the cathedral.
The ceiling was painted in 1935 according to Burges’ designs. It is a mural showing Jesus Christ surrounded by a group of angels. On one side are 7 angels holding 7 churches with the last being St Finbarre’s Cathedral. On the other side are another 7 angels holding 7 candlesticks.
The fact that this pillar of colour goes all the way to the top is maybe to entice viewers and worshippers to look up with a sense of awe. Maybe also in awe of the idea that God is someone or something is bigger than all of us. Even the cathedral itself. The idea that God can inspire great things in us. Things like creating this great building.
3. The Ambulatory
The ambulatory skirts around the apse behind the altar. Walking around this was was a spiritual experience for me of sorts. As I walked behind the altar, it became strangely the quietest area of the cathedral. At the same time, it also felt like the coldest part of the building.
It must be the marble-clad walls. Which were decorated beautifully decorated with gilded memorials and coats of arms.
However, the sun started to shine through the stained glass windows. And I could feel the warmth come through; a warmth of the strange kind. A warmth felt through the colour of the refracted light coming through the windows.
I see a symbolism in that – life for some of us can be tough at times. But there’s always hope, and so always light at the end of the tunnel. Everything will all be fine in the end.
The windows themselves tell a pictorial story of the life of Jesus Christ from his birth, his miracles and his death.
4. The organ
As I walked into the cathedral, I could hear the organ player performing at full swing. At the organ I assumed. Or so I thought. As I progressed walking around the cathedral, I started to get the impression the organ sound wasn’t coming from where I thought the organ was.
As I walked out of the ambulatory, the sound of this organ became louder and louder. And then I came across a set of pipes to my right…
Not what I was expecting. And not in a bad way either.
It seems that there was no visible organ player after all. The organ pipes were coming up out from the floor. He couldn’t be in there underneath all that, could he?? Is it a computer programme? Whatever’s behind it all, the sound coming out of them was glorious, reassuring, and very loud!
The organ was built in 1870 by William Hill and Son (no, not the bookies). It contains over 4,500 pipes and was originally located in the west gallery of the cathedral.
In 1889 the organ was moved to the north side of the building to improve the acoustics and maximise space. However, there was one issue – the huge size of the organ obscured the view of the windows. To solve this problem, a pit 4 metres deep was dug out in the floor, and the organ has remained there ever since.
Out of all the features of the cathedral, the organ has been the biggest cost in the cathedral’s upkeep. This is highlighted by the organ’s recent restoration in 2010 costing some €1.2 million.
5. The sculptures
One other thing. Or several other things I couldn’t get away from. It was the abundance of sculptures and carvings around the place. Inside and outside.
I always found sculptures in churches a little puzzling to me at times. A place built for the worship of God. Yet you have sculptures that venerate or facilitate the worship of other figures, I guess there was a little bit of God in all those people.
But certainly not the gargoyles. Weren’t those evil creatures? Naturally there’s a symbolism to them. and that’s what fascinates me about church sculptures. Whatever they allude to, it must have taken some very skilled stonemasons to carve them – skills that are in short supply today.
How many sculptures?
The cathedral has 1,260 sculptures which include 32 gargoyles, each one of them having different animal heads. Of which Burges contributed most of the designs.
During the building of the cathedral, Burges pretty much oversaw nearly all aspects of its design. He worked very closely with Thomas Nicholls and Robert McLeod to have all sculptures modelled and carved.
It is this almost total control of the project that ultimately led to the cathedral’s unity of style. During this time he also believed he was involved in a very important building project. So important that no project on this scale has been undertaken since the building of the West front of Wells Cathedral in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The western façade
The western façade is definitely my favourite part of the cathedral. It’s design was based on medieval French iconography. The façade was designed by Burges, as the most important exterior feature of the cathedral. This is because it would be lit by the setting sun and provide the most dramatic effect.
The theme of the façade is known as The Last Judgement. This includes sculptures of the twelve Apostles, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Resurrection of the Dead and the Beasts of The Evangelists. Looking up at these sculptures I was in complete infatuation over these. I couldn’t stop looking to admire. And I can’t help but think how many hours were painstakingly spent trying to carve these figures out.
St Finbarre’s Cathedral isn’t the largest cathedral I’ve been to. But it’s definitely one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had. From the magnificent Gothic views outside from every angle you walk around. The colourful windows and murals warming even the coldest interiors of the building. The monstrous but reassuring sound of the organ. Down to the huge abundance of symbolic and religious sculptures.
Whatever philosophy in life that you subscribe to – be it religious or not. Coming to St Finbarre’s Cathedral in Cork is a spiritual and historical experience worth going to.