By Fr Richard Scriven
Today we share the history of The tower at St Mary’s Cathedral.
The tower of St Mary’s Cathedral was described in the Kilkenny Journal of Saturday 12th, 1857, and referring to it as the ‘glory of the cathedral’. So, what of this magnificent tower that stands 186 feet and 6 inches proud over our city? Visible and different from so many places in the city the tower makes a statement, proclaims the gospel, draws us heaven-ward and beckons parishioner and pilgrim, visitor, and tourist alike.
In church terms things happen in threes: Trinity, Tryptic, and Shamrocks. Likewise, here in St Mary’s. There are three levels above the sanctuary: the first main chamber which is lit by the familiar pencil type gothic windows of green stained glass; the bells chamber which is 20 plus feet in height; and the upper outdoor level with its glorious views over the city and county.
Through a series of spiral stairway and walkways access is gained to the first chamber of the tower. In this first level there are eight windows glazed in green glass. There is a system of pullies that allows a central portion of the moulded plaster ceiling above the sanctuary to be opened.
Over the years many tradesmen have worked in the cathedral and a visit to the tower in recent weeks reveal names etched on doors, panels of wood and notice boards. Liam Tyrell and Michael Ryan, painters, recorded a Kilkenny win in the All Ireland in 1993: Kilkenny 2-17 and Galway 1-15 and Up Kilkenny. KH was there in 1981, J Burke in 1949 and P O Brien from Mauldin Street in June ’31. J Brennan was there in 1914, Frank Garvan in 1952 and M Cuddihy on February 1, 1948.
Ordination Sunday 1952 and there was a visit by Henry Byrne, Larry O’Dwyer and Dan McEvoy. Henry was a native of Knocktopher and was ordained for Perth, Australia, in 1956. Larry O’Dwyer was ordained in 1957 for a diocese in the USA; he was from Piltown or near Carrick-on-Suir. He was killed in a car crash in America. Dan McEvoy was a student for Los Angeles. I suspect that the three visited the tower after the ordination ceremony was concluded; they were more than likely in the choir.
These are only a few of the names etched in the fabric of the tower– it was a badge of honour to leave your name in the heights.
FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS
The next chamber of the tower contains the bell. The windows and reliefs of this level are described in the Kilkenny Journal of 1857: “The upper section of the belfry tower windows is beautifully ornamented. The windows are gracefully shaped and enriched with appropriate moulding and decorative ornamentation.” Eight gothic windows are on each side of the tower; two open to allow the peels of the cathedral bell to be heard throughout the city.
There is only one bell in the tower. There were several foundries in Dublin who made church bells: the foundries of Matthew O’Byrne (The Fountain Head Bell Foundry), John Murphy (Murphy’s Bell Foundry in James’s Street) James Sheridan (The Eagle Foundry) and Thomas Hodges (Lower Sackville Street, Dublin). (St Canice’s Cathedral is home to six bells cast by Thomas Hodges and two treble bells cast by Matthew O’Byrne)
The bell is St Mary’s Cathedral is the work of John Murphy. Murphy started his foundry in Dublin in 1843. Bells from his foundry are in the cathedral churches of Melbourne Australia, Douglas in the Isle of Man, Cork, Thurles and in various churches in Dublin Wexford, Limerick.
The bell in St Mary’s Cathedral is clearly marked with Murphy’s name and date: John Murphy Founder Dublin 1869. There is a decoration on the bell of an Irish harp surmounted by a coronet above shamrocks – a motif found on many bells cast in the 19th century.
The bell sits in a yoke on which one reads BYRNE’S PATENT ROTARY MOUNTINGS which refers to a patent that was attributed to Mathew O’Byrne in 1887. The patent refers to a cast-iron headstock with a tapered hole through which a tapered boss on the crown of the bell was inserted and bolted in place using the crown staple bolt. By slacking the nuts, the bell can be rotated, presenting a new striking face and increasing the life of the bell considerably.
From the top of the tower, views of The Castle, Johnswell, Ossory Hill and Cuffesgrange are spectacular.
North, South, East and West never looked so good.