The Irish Times - Saturday, September 29,
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
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.
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
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
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
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 <email@example.com>