By Fr Richard Scriven
St Mary’s Cathedral
Holy Water Fonts at St Mary’s Cathedral
Bassett’s Kilkenny City and County (1884) describes the two Holy Water Fonts at the entrance door: “At the main entrance are two mammoth ocean shells, the gift of Naval Surgeon Daniel J Duigan, 1877.
They are mounted on blocks of polished white marble and serve admirably the purposes of holy water fonts” (page 41).
Margaret Phelan notes that the two ocean shells are now at the entrance to Castlecomer Parish Church.
Upon the pedestals are now placed bowls hewn from Kilkenny black marble mounted on shaped and inscribed while marble blocks.
The inscription on the base refers to Daniel J Duigan: Margaret Phelan suggests that Dr Daniel Duigan ‘probably came from north Co Kilkenny or Leix where the name is frequently met with’.
There is an entry in the Marriage Register of the Cathedral of a marriage between Daniel J Duigan, M.D. R.N., to Margaret Cavanagh on 21st September 1857 by Most Rev Edward Walsh, Bishop of Ossory.
This wedding must have taken place in the ‘Old Cathedral’ as the present building was only opened on the 4th of October that year (the second last wedding in the Old Cathedral).
Further research discovers that the British Science Museum, Kensington, London, records that Daniel J Duigan, MD Naval Brigade (1855-1856) was awarded the Italian Gallantry medal for an oriental campaign.
Duigan published a paper ‘On the Use of the Moustache and Beard in the Royal Navy’ in The Sanitary Review and Journal of Public Health (1 Jan 1859) giving three reason why navy personnel should ‘on physiological grounds’ grow a beard: the moustache and beard protect a man from ‘the inhalation of dust, from solar blistering, from diseases of the respiratory organs and from malarious influence’!
The inscription on the white marble reads: asperges me hyssop et mundabor (sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be clean (from the Catholic Mass)
The hyssop stick is mentioned in St John’s Gospel; at the crucifixion, they placed a sponge on a hyssop stick when Christ cried aloud: “I am thirsty”.
The hyssop was a small bushy plant that can grow out of cracks in walls and was used in the Old Testament by Moses to sprinkle the people with the blood of the animal as a sign of the Old Covenant between God and his people.
St John deliberately refers to the hyssop stick at Calvary: the old covenant is now replaced by Jesus, the new covenant between his Father and the people.
Back to the fonts: it would appear that all that remains now are the pedestals. The carvings on the black and white marble top are significantly different to the shape and cuts of the pedestal.