ST FIN BARRE’S has been sacred ground since Fionnbarra built a monastery there in the year 606, and walking through today’s cathedral, looking up at its soaring, vaulted ceiling, it is easy to feel the weight of history, and perhaps even the breath of the eternal.
Visiting St Fin Barre’s is a special experience, and a tour from one of its guides will open the cathedral like a book.
The day The Echo visits, Stephen Malone is on duty, telling its story and revealing its secrets.
Just inside the door, for symbolic reasons, is the baptismal font. It is made of red, green, and white marble, and engraved with brass lettering reading: “We are buried with Him by baptism into death”.
Beside the font, on a ledge holding the water jug, is a carved head of John the Baptist.
The limestone walls of the cathedral are complemented by four separate types of marble, and he explains that each one represents a different province.
Thus, the black Kilkenny stone (“marble stones as black as ink”) represents Leinster, the green Claddagh marble Connacht, the white Armagh stone Ulster, and the red marble from Little Island Munster.
Stephen notes that the red marble is cut through with white splotches, only recently identified as fossils aged 300m years old or thereabouts. (Red and white being the Cork colours, by — presumably — happy coincidence.)
St Fin Barre’s Cathedral is entirely the realised vision of English-born architect William Burges, a Victorian eccentric and well-known opium user.
When the cathedral was commissioned in 1864, Burges was given a budget of £15,000. By the time the building was consecrated in 1870, Burges had spent £100,000 (roughly €43m in today’s money) and the spires had yet to be raised.
The Bishop, John Gregg, was good at extracting funds from Cork’s merchant princes, and he convinced Michael Wise of the North Mall distillery that the price of a spire might greatly improve his social standing.
Then the bishop asked William Crawford of Beamish and Crawford whether Crawford would allow his business rival to outdo him, and the brewer promptly paid for two spires.
Within nine years, St Fin Barre’s had three spires, and the nickname “the whiskey and porter cathedral”.
A notable feature of St Fin Barre’s is just how bright the colours are in its 150 stained glass windows, and Stephen Malone says they have not faded because William Burges used an ancient chemical colouring process dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries.
Because of low literacy levels in the 1870s, Burges intended the cathedral to be a pictorial book, allowing the public to read Bible stories depicted in the windows.
The story of Genesis begins with Adam and Eve in the first window on the left at the back of the cathedral, across then to the first window on the right, back to the left, and so on, with the reader never turning their back to the altar.
The cathedral holds so many more surprises, and the guided tour is a steal at €6.
Christmas is always a very important time in St Fin Barre’s, the Dean, the Very Reverend Nigel Dunne, tells The Echo, and he is particularly looking forward to this year’s Nine Lessons and Carols, which takes place on Christmas Eve at 4pm, again this year, unfortunately, curtailed by Covid-19 regulations.
“Thankfully, we had the good sense to go for half-capacity, and we’ve had to change things slightly,” he says.
“Sadly, nobody in the audience will be allowed to sing, and the choir will provide all the music. We’re treating it more as a concert than a service.”
The concert is ticketed, and although there is no admission charge, the Dean says that there is usually a charity collection during the event.
“This year, we’re going to distribute half of the money raised through the Bishop of Cork’s fund, and we’re going to, selfishly, keep the other half to try to keep the doors open.”
It has been a tough pandemic for St Fin Barre’s, as it has been for so many institutions and individuals, and the cathedral, which depends on tourist footfall for so much of its income, also missed out on much of its 150th anniversary celebrations.
For all of that, though, the Dean points out that Christmas is a time of joy and remembrance, and most of all, a time of hope.
He is particularly grateful to Cork City Council for again this year funding, through Glow, their mobile carols audio-visual truck, spreading Christmas cheer across the city.
“The cathedral has been doing everything it can to give people some sort of solace and some sense of hope during the pandemic, and we are very well placed to that with our Christmas programme.
“The Nine Lessons and Carols are a good starting point. We’re going to have some fabulous music, provided by the choir. On Christmas Day, we have two services, at 9.30am and 11.15am.”
This has been a holy place since Fionnbarra brought Christianity to Corcach Mór na Mumhan (the Great Marsh of Munster) in 606, and in time the settlements around Finbarr’s monastery became the city of Cork.
There has been a cathedral here in Cork for about 700 years, and the current building is 151 years old.
For all that times change, and hard as it might be now, such permanence seems to tell us one thing: We’ll get through this.