Cork bishop’s story told - 530 years on

Donal O’Keeffe hears about a new book which tells the story of a largely-forgotten Cork bishop.
Cork bishop’s story told - 530 years on

Patricia Curtin-Kelly at the launch of her book, Searching for Thaddeus Images of a Forgotton Irishman in Ireland and Italy, at the Cathedral of St. Mary & St. Anne visitor centre, Cork, with Bishop Fintan Gavin (right) and Fr. John O'Donovan, Adm. of the Cathedral, pictured next to a portrait and relic of Blessed Thaddeus.

CORK-born art historian went on “a forensic detective trail” to recover the largely forgotten story of a mediaeval Cork bishop, who was twice appointed but never served.

Bishop of Cork and Ross Fintan Gavin used those words at the recent launch of Searching For Thaddeus: Images Of A Forgotten Irishman In Ireland And Italy by Patricia Curtin-Kelly, in the visitor centre of the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne.

Ms Curtin-Kelly’s book examines the life of a venerated 15th century Cork cleric and his later influence on the arts and crafts movement.

At the launch, Ms Curtin-Kelly confessed that, before she began her research, she had not known of the twice-appointed Cork bishop who died 530 years ago.

Patricia Curtin-Kelly at the launch of her book, Searching for Thaddeus: Images Of A Forgotton Irishman In Ireland And Italy, at the Cathedral of St Mary & St Anne visitor centre, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane
Patricia Curtin-Kelly at the launch of her book, Searching for Thaddeus: Images Of A Forgotton Irishman In Ireland And Italy, at the Cathedral of St Mary & St Anne visitor centre, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane

“A friend of mine, Finola Finlay, who writes the Roaringwater Journal, wrote an article about Blessed Thaddeus, and she, like me, is very interested in stained glass, and she said to me, ‘Everywhere I go, I keep seeing this Thaddeus character and I know nothing about him, so who is this guy?’” she said.

That was the spark which set her on the road to writing her book about a man dead more than half a millennium, a man whose image is featured in churches all over Ireland and who is venerated still in Italy, the land where he died.

Similarly, Bishop Gavin said that before he had come to Cork, he had been unaware of Thaddeus, but he had read a lot about him in the three years he has been Bishop of Cork ad Ross, not least because there is a shrine to him in the North Cathedral.

“I enjoyed reading this book in preparation for tonight, and I certainly learned more than I had known before,” Bishop Gavin said. “The book gives us some charming glimpses and insights into the lives of Catholics in the dioceses of Cork, Cloyne, and Ross, in the period of 1452 to 1492, the lifetime of Thaddeus McCarthy.”

Tadgh Mac Cárthaigh, whose name was Anglicised as Thaddeus McCarthy, was born in Caheragh in West Cork around 1455.

The son of the lord of Muskerry, he studied for the priesthood under his uncle, Canon Thady Mac Cárthaigh, and when he travelled to Rome for further studies, he came to the attention of Pope Sixtus IV, who appointed him Bishop of Ross in 1482, when Thaddeus was only 27.

Ireland was in political chaos at the time, with Gaelic kings and Anglo lords warring for supremacy. Arriving in Ross, Thaddeus discovered the see was already occupied by Bishop Hugh O’Driscoll, appointed by the same pope in what was presumably a monumental ecclesiastical error, and a lengthy dispute ensued between the Mac Cárthaigh and O’Driscoll clans.

A tapestry of Blessed Thaddeus in the Cathedral of St Mary & St Anne, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane
A tapestry of Blessed Thaddeus in the Cathedral of St Mary & St Anne, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane

Political intrigue ground on in West Cork until a complaint to Rome led to Thaddeus being excommunicated in 1488, a decision he travelled to Rome to successfully appeal. With the excommunication nullified, Pope Innocent VIII appointed Thaddeus Bishop of Cork and Cloyne in 1490.

Upon returning to Munster, Bishop Mac Cárthaigh found himself again thwarted by politics, as the Eighth Earl of Kildare, Gerald Fitzgerald, ‘the uncrowned King of Ireland’, had usurped the diocese of Cork and Cloyne, with the backing of the Earl of Desmond and the corporation of Cork city.

Returning again to Rome, Thaddeus pleaded his case, and in July, 1492, Pope Innocent ordered that Fitzgerald restore Bishop Mac Cárthaigh to the see of Cork and Cloyne.

Thaddeus set out to return to Ireland, disguised in humble robes and wearing an oyster scallop which symbolised pilgrimage and guaranteed safe passage, and more than three months later he arrived in Ivrea, in Turin, over 400 miles away, exhausted from his travels.

At dawn the next morning, a strange light was seen coming from his hostel room, and Thaddeus was found dead within. He was 37.

In her book, Ms Curtin-Kelly writes: “It is not known what caused Thaddeus’s death: he could have died from any number of reasons, such as a disease, malnutrition, the over-zealous life of a penitent, or just from the sheer weight of his difficulties.”

He was buried in Ivrea Cathedral, and many miracles would be attributed to Thaddeus, with his tomb becoming a shrine.

Beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1895, his relics were donated by Ivrea to the dioceses of Cork and Ross, and Cloyne, and those relics are now in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, The Lough, St Mary’s Parish Church in Youghal, St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, where there is a side-chapel dedicated to his memory, and, as mentioned, in the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne.

There is also a reliquary to Thaddeus in the Immaculate Conception church in Clonakilty and there is a stained-glass window to his honour of Blessed Thaddeus’s in Saints Peter and Paul’s Church in Cork.

Thaddeus’s feast day of October 25 is observed in the dioceses of Ross, Cork, and Cloyne, and in Ivrea.

Ms Curtin-Kelly has found images of Thaddeus all over the country, and in her book has used those as a way of exploring the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century. “People might be interested that so many images of Thaddeus are to be found in churches, particularly in Munster and in Italy, of course,” Ms Curtin-Kelly said.

“He was beatified in the late 1800s, which was just after Catholic Emancipation, and there was an explosion in the building of churches in Ireland, which coincided with the Arts and Crafts movement.” Thaddeus also benefitted from the Arts and Crafts movement’s equivalent in Italy, Stile Floreale.

Speaking at the book launch, Bishop Gavin said the world in which Thaddeus lived was a dangerous place, where corruption was rife, both in civic life, where wealthy and powerful lords warred with each other, and in the Catholic Church, where the pope was, at the time, selling indulgences to finance the building of St Peter’s Basilica.

Forgotten for many years in his native land, the bishop said, Thaddeus’s beatification revived interest in him, and Ms Curtin-Kelly had gone on what he likened to a “forensic detective trail” in Ireland and Italy, cataloguing stained glass windows, statues, reliquaries and paintings inspired by Thaddeus.

In her book, Ms Curtin-Kelly explores the legacy of Blessed Thaddeus and outlines the history of the artworks to his honour across Ireland and Italy.

Searching For Thaddeus, by Patricia Curtin-Kelly, is available from bookshops and Liberties Press. When ordering via, Echo readers can receive €5 off the RRP of €19.99 by using the discount code EchoReaderOffer at check-out.

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