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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church Carlow

Cathedral of the Assumption Pulpit

Page 4

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Cathedral Pulpit.

The Irish Times - Saturday, September 29, 2012

A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Medieval grandeur: the pulpit was carved in Bruges and unveiled in Carlow in October 1899.
Photograph: Eric Luke

Fintan O’Toole

 “Carlow Cathedral pulpit, 1899”

It is extraordinary to think that this dazzlingly lavish, six-metre-high pulpit was made for an Irish Catholic church just half a century after the devastation of the Great Hunger. It captures the most remarkable aspect of the second half of the 19th century in Ireland: the triumph of a new, highly organised Catholicism that took control of many aspects of life.

From the trauma of the Famine emerged an institution that defined the identity of the majority of the population for the next 150 years.

The pulpit is of a medieval grandeur. It was carved from the finest oak by artists in the Belgian city of Bruges and unveiled in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Carlow in October 1899. While the execution may be foreign, however, there is no doubt that the overall conception of the piece is specifically Irish. The message of the pulpit is that the Irish church is now fully intertwined with European, and therefore Roman Catholicism. On the one hand the first panel, just below the balustrade, shows St Patrick preaching to the high king at Tara, with a statue of St Brigid beside it.

This detail from the aforementioned pulpit shows St Patrick preaching to King Laoghaire, High King of Ireland. You can also see St. Patrick's fire on the Hill of Slane in the background.Other Irish saints, such as Laserian and Conleth, are represented on further panels. But the image of St Paul is based on a Raphael painting in the Vatican and the crucifix on the reredos is based on a painting by Van Dyke in the cathedral in Bruges. Irish Catholicism is fully fused with the universal church.

There is another message too. An angel at the base holds a scroll that reads ‘Vox Hibernorum’  ‘the voice of the Irish, an allusion to Patrick but also a reminder of who now speaks for the Irish. Almost all the scenes on the panels are of preaching, and the majesty of the pulpit itself, raising the priest high above the congregation, declares the absolute authority of the preacher’s voice.

A huge programme of church-building had begun even before the Famine was over. Churches designed by the great English Neogothic architect Augustus Pugin, notably Enniscorthy and Killarney cathedrals, were being built even while millions were starving. Under the leadership of Paul Cullen, who became archbishop of Armagh in 1849 and Ireland’s first cardinal in 1866, the church co-operated closely with the state, assumed control of the primary education and health systems (largely through orders such as the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy, founded by Edmund Rice and Catherine McAuley respectively), and became highly centralised, authoritarian and dogmatically orthodox.

A ‘devotional revolution’ submerged older, semi-pagan practices that centred on holy wells, patterns and wakes, and structured religious life around sacraments, sermons, missions led by fiery preachers and confraternities.

In this revolution, the church gained control of the process of modernisation, shaping the ways in which Irish people learned to conform to Victorian standards of comportment, and imposing rigid sexual ideals.

It gave a society shamed by a great catastrophe a way to be respectable. In its beautiful new churches, it provided calm, comfort and dignity. For millions of emigrants, its universality guaranteed a crucial element of continuity that helped them live with massive disruption. These benefits came at the cost of obedience, but for most Catholics that seemed a price worth paying.


 Thanks to Dermot Mulligan

 “Where to see it” Carlow County Museum, Carlow Town Hall, 059-9172492,

Note from Michael Purcell:

I remember being told in school by our teacher, Mr Aidan Murray that the pulpit was a gift from the people of Bruges in recognition of the fact that the Cathedral design by the English-born architect Thomas Cobden was based on the Beffroi Tower in Bruges...but I have not seen any other reference to this "gift".

The Irish Times article gives no mention to the brass plaque that was attached to the pulpit when it stood in the Cathedral, recorded in the PPP with the Latin inscription (translated) Pray for the soul of the Most Rev. Michael Comerford, Co-adjutor Bishop, Kildare and Leighlin, who died on the 19th day of August 1895, in the seventh year of his episcopacy and the sixty-fifth year of his age.

The Bishop's Throne was also designed by Michael Buckley and carved by de Wispelacre of Bruges in 1906, I think that too has being removed from the Cathedral !.

 Source: Michael Purcell <>

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