An Ornament to the City: Holy Trinity and the Capuchin Order

An Ornament to the City: Holy Trinity and the Capuchin Order

by Patricia Curtin-Kelly

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750963886
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 03/02/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 10 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Patricia Curtin-Kelly is an art historian and writer with a particular interest in the stained glass of Harry Clarke. She has a masters degree in art history from University College Dublin.

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An Ornament to the City

Holy Trinity Church & the Capuchin Order

By Patricia Curtin-Kelly

The History Press Ireland

Copyright © 2015 Patricia Curtin-Kelly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6388-6


Cork City – Historical Background

Cork, the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland, has an ancient and turbulent history. The city's ecclesiastical foundation dates back to 606 when St Finbarr built his settlement there. This was built on the site of the present Church of Ireland cathedral, which is named after him. Later, a walled city was built on an island formed by the north and south channels of the River Lee. The Danes captured Cork in about 820. Following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in 1172, it received its first charter in 1177 from Henry II (1133-89).

The Anglo-Normans brought not only their civil government and laws but also the Mendicant Friars of the Franciscans and Dominicans. The Pecata Hibernia map, c. 1600 (Fig. 1), shows the walled city of Cork and the probable origin of its coat of arms. This depicts a ship sailing between two towers. The towers are the King's and Queen's Castles, which were at either side of the Water Gate and the city's motto is Statio bene fide carinis (A safe harbour for ships). In 1900, the city received its last charter from Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

In 1601, around the time of the Battle of Kinsale, the Penal Laws began to be enforced in Ireland. These were a series of laws forced on Irish Catholics and Protestant Dissenters to compel them to accept the reformed Christian faith. The Insurrection of 1641 was an attempt to seize control of English administration in Ireland, sparked by Catholic fears of an invasion by anti-Catholic forces from England. This was followed by the Cromwellian Plantation (1649-53) which was a particularly brutal time for Irish Catholics. Many old Cork families struggled for their religious liberty and defended their faith. By 1704, there were only four priests in the city. Catholics at this time could be neither members of Parliament nor vote for members of Parliament, they could not take out leases, and were forbidden to improve their lands during this period. If they bought land, or indeed a horse, worth more than £5 any Protestant could seize it. No education was available for their children nor could they legally send them abroad to be educated. Under the Penal Laws of 1668, all Catholics were not only ordered out of Cork City, but also forbidden to become articled to trades or professions. As a result, trade in the city declined. Dean Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the well-known Anglo-Irish satirist and author who was also Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin (1713-45), described their plight as 'the wretched merchants have become mere peddlers'.

In 1690, the surrender of the city to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1656-1722), saw the gradual disappearance of the city walls and its expansion north and south of the river. From the 1770s onwards, the city began to expand eastwards. William Beaufort's Map of Cork City 1801 (Fig. 2) shows this expansion as well as the river channel, which ran along the course of St Patrick's Street, completely covered over. The covering of St Patrick's Street took place between 1774 and 1789.

An easing of the bitterness of centuries between Catholics and Protestants is also evident from this time. It would not be until the end of the eighteenth century, however, before any real relaxation of the Penal Laws was evident. The Act of Union in 1800 abolished a separate Irish Parliament in Dublin and from then until 1922 Ireland was governed directly from Westminster.

Due to the late eighteenth-century conflict between Britain and France, there was a huge increase in the export trade of food produce from Cork. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, however, caused a general recession in the city. The collapse of prices in 1815 was followed by a famine during 1816-17. People flocked into the city from the surrounding countryside in search of food and work. This in turn led to a housing crisis and epidemics, such as typhoid, sweeping the city. Economically, and to a certain extent socially, the decades between the Act of Union and the Great Famine represented a period of harshness and uncertainty for impoverished Irish people. It was a time when even 'God seemed to abandon Ireland'. As a result, several thousand people emigrated from Cork in the first two decades of the 1800s.

In 1822, the British economy began to recover and funding was made available to assist the Irish. The Wide Streets Commission was reinstated to redevelop the older areas of Cork City. Large slum areas were demolished and new streets and bridges erected. From the 1830s onwards, several of the city's landmarks were built, including hospitals, churches and commercial buildings.

By 1900, Cork was readily recognised by today's standards, as its streets, river channels, most of its bridges, and virtually all of the city centre churches and other public buildings were in place. It also had a tram system and five main railway stations. It is into this turbulent and difficult background that we must consider the presence of the Capuchin Order in Ireland and in Cork.


The Capuchin Order in Ireland

The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin traces its origins back to a Franciscan reform movement which was initiated in 1528 by the Italian Observant Franciscan, Br Matteo Serafini (Matteo da Bascio) (1495-1552) (Fig. 3). He sought a return to the original way of life of the Order of Friars Minor, founded by St Francis of Assisi in 1209. Like many other followers of previous Franciscan reform movements, such as the Spirituals, the Amadeists, the Colletines and the Observantines, friars inspired by Friar Matteo's example also adopted a life of strict poverty. Members of the Capuchin Order were distinguished by wearing untrimmed beards and a brown habit with a pointed hood, or cappuccio, which they believed was the primitive Franciscan habit. What started as a humorous nickname probably accounts for the origin of the name of Capuchin. While the wearing of a beard is no longer mandatory, the Capuchin Friars still wear the distinctive brown habit today.

In 1528, Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) gave the Capuchins approval to set up a separate order. In 1619, he raised the Capuchin Vicar to the status of Minister General. The Capuchins, freed from their dependence on the Conventual Franciscans, became an autonomous branch of the Fransiscan family. In spite of setbacks, by the end of the sixteenth century, the Capuchin Order had spread all over the Catholic parts of Europe. The antiquarian and historian John Windele said that the Capuchins did not arrive in Ireland until after the Reformation in 1623, and came to Cork in 1760. Other records, however, show differently, as outlined below.

The founder of the Capuchin Order in Ireland was Francis Lavalin Nugent OSFC (1569-1633). He was born in Walshestown, County Westmeath and was sent to France for an education that was not possible in Ireland due to the Penal Laws. In 1589, Fr Nugent (Fig. 4) joined the Capuchin Order in what is now Belgium and, in about 1594, was sent to the Friary at Charleville in the Champagne district of France. In 1608, Pope Paul V (1599-1658) nominated him Vicar Apostolic and Commissary General, with full power to establish the order in Ireland. The friary was subsequently transferred from Charleville to Bar-sur-Aude, from 1686 until 1790 (Fig. 5).

In 1615, Br Stephen Daly OSFC became the first Irish Capuchin to return to his native land and was followed by four other friars. In 1624, the first Capuchin Community was founded in Dublin's Bridge Street by Fr Nugent. In 1637, the Capuchins had established themselves in Cork and, by 1642, there were fifty-one friars with houses in six towns and cities throughout the country.

In 1649, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1655) arrived in Ireland and under his regime a new wave of persecution ensued in which the religious orders, especially mendicant friars, were targeted. In spite of persecution, the Order continued to grow and by 1733 the Capuchins had fourteen houses in Ireland. Under the Penal Laws, priests were not allowed to wear religious dress in public and the Capuchins, who worked among the population disguised in ordinary civilian clothes, developed a reputation for closeness to the people. For a while the Irish friars were united with those in Britain. However, in 1873 they regained 'custody' status and were reconstituted as the 'Province of St. Patrick' in 1885.

The first Capuchin friary in Cork was established in 1637 but, like many other religious houses in Ireland, it was destroyed during the wars of the seventeenth century. Later a Cork Capuchin, Fr Bartholomew Mortell OSFC who was educated on the Continent, opened a hospice in the city. It was probably on this site that Fr Robert Comyn OSFC and Fr Michael O'Cuileain OSFC acquired a house that they converted into a chapel and the remaining rooms were used as cells for themselves and their brethren. Fr Comyn was a brother of Sir Dominic Coppinger, an important citizen and recorder of Cork. No doubt such family connections helped to establish the Order in the city.

When Murrough O'Brien, the First Earl of Inchiquin (1614-74), came to Cork in 1644, he expelled the entire Catholic population and the Capuchin friars were forced to flee. They hid in the countryside, slipped into the city whenever possible, and eventually re-opened their friary in 1649. It was probably constructed on the same site that the subsequent 'South Friary' at Blackamoor Lane was built by Fr Arthur O'Leary OSFC (1729-1802).

Fr O'Leary (Fig. 6), from Faulobbus, Dunmanway, County Cork, was ordained a Capuchin priest in St Malo in Brittany. He remained in France for several years and served there as chaplain to the many British and Irish prisoners held captive in France during the war with Britain (1756-62).

Fr O'Leary was a renowned preacher and controversialist who worked for peace and religious tolerance all his life. He was a precursor to Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847) in relation to Catholic Emancipation, and worked tirelessly for the repeal of the Penal Laws. However, he did not live long enough to see that dream realised. Fr O'Leary described the church at Blackamoor Lane (Fig. 7) as being 'remarkable for its dwarfish dimensions, its utter want of architectural grace, and its perfect seclusion from the public gaze'. He went on to say that 'It was not much bigger than a respectable barn and, but for its galleries, might have passed for one'. Clearly a new church was required to meet the growing demand, from an ever-increasing congregation, and the person to recognise and act on this need was Fr Theobald Mathew OSFC.


Fr Theobald Mathew

Born on 10 October 1790, Theobald Mathew was reared in Thomastown Castle, County Tipperary. At the time, Ireland was dominated by the Anglo-Irish Ascendency. These were descendants of British colonists who had settled in the country in the wake of the conquest by England and the subsequent plantation of Ireland. Theobald's father, James, was agent for the Irish estates of his cousin Francis Mathew, known after 1747 as the Earl of Llanduff. To maintain their property, which included over 2,000 acres of good land, Llanduff converted to the Church of Ireland during the Penal Times. All of his descendants in Ireland followed suit. However, the family continued to marry Catholics and supported Catholic relief.

The Mathews were of Welsh origin and belonged to a branch of the family that had remained Catholic. James Mathew, who was a Catholic, was adopted by his cousin Francis, a Protestant. Theobald grew up, therefore, in the relatively lavish surroundings of Thomastown Castle, in the company of his Protestant cousins. He was a favourite of Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the Earl of Llanduff, who paid for his education. The village of Cappaghwhite, in County Tipperary, gets its name from the family of his mother, Anne Mathew (née Whyte).

Theobald, who was known as Toby by his family, was the fourth son in a family of nine boys and three girls. From his infancy, he was his mother's favourite child. Anne Mathew was a pious Catholic and, like many mothers in Ireland at the time, she hoped to see one of her many sons become a priest. Always engaging and anxious to please his parents and elders, Theobald decided to fulfil his mother's wishes. He attended St Canice's Academy in Kilkenny (1800-7) and matriculated in the humanity class of the National Seminary of Maynooth where he had been studying to become a secular priest. The seminary had a strong Catholic religious orientation with strict rules and regulations. However, Theobald broke the rules of the seminary by having a party in his room for his fellow seminarians. For him, this would have been a normal feature of his family life, which was renowned for its hospitality. Fearing expulsion, he returned home to contemplate his next move.

While in Kilkenny, Theobald had been influenced by the life of self-sacrifice of two aged Capuchin friars, whom he had met during his school days. As a result, he decided to join the Capuchin Novitiate in Church Street in Dublin (1808-13). He was ordained a priest on 17 April 1813.

At the time Theobald Mathew became a priest, the Catholic Church in Ireland was only slowly emerging from a persecution which had lasted, with greater or lesser severity, from the time of the Reformation. However, persecution had fallen more heavily on the religious orders. In addition, while acknowledging the value of religious orders such as the Capuchins, the Irish bishops did not encourage them. This was because the already overburdened people would have had to support them, in addition to their ordinary secular priests.

Photographs show that Theobald Mathew had a striking personal appearance (Fig. 8). He was always keen to share whatever he possessed with others and carried this trait throughout his life. Fr Dan Donovan OSFC was the priest who received Fr Mathew in Blackamoor Lane when he came to Cork. Fr Donovan had escaped the guillotine during the French Revolution due to his Irish identity. This was thanks to an Irish officer in the French Army who used his influence with the authorities to save Fr Donovan and six other Irishmen. Fr Mathew settled in Cork, from 1814 to 1838, and threw himself into the life and work of the poor of the area. This included learning Irish, so as to be able to communicate better with the local people. This work was in stark contrast to the life of splendour and refinement he would have led had he remained at home in Thomastown Castle and not entered a religious order. He continued with these charitable works until the great crusade of his life, the temperance movement, caused him to take on a different role. Fr Matthew also held the important post of Provincial of the Irish Capuchins for many years.

In the nineteenth century, Cork was a densely populated city. It was also full of problems, resulting from a lack of work and poverty, as well as oppression due to a brutal foreign occupation landlord system. As well as his religious duties, Fr Mathew was constantly engaged in projects for the amelioration of the poor in the city. He established a school that contributed greatly to the education of boys and girls who would not otherwise have had such an opportunity. He established a graveyard for Catholics as, up until then, all were in the hands of Protestant clergy and the burial fees were enormous. In addition, in order to read the burial service over their own people, priests were compelled by law to request the permission of the local Protestant clergy. The Burial Act was passed in 1825 and, following that, there had been a disposition to refuse this permission or at least to grant it in such an ungracious manner as to make the Catholic clergy feel their inferior position in the eyes of the law. In January 1830, Fr Mathew purchased the former Botanical Gardens in Cork, and opened the graveyard which he dedicated to St Joseph. This was a major contribution to helping the less well off at a time of great sorrow and loss.

What set the seal to Fr Mathew's reputation as a genuine philanthropist and social worker, however, was the devotion he showed towards the people of Cork during the terrible outbreak of cholera in 1832. He opened one of the largest temporary hospitals in the city, near Blackamoor Lane, where he tended to the sick and dying. A cross, used by Fr Mathew at this time, during his calls to cholera victims, is extant in the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives in Dublin (Fig. 9).

His great crusade, which gave him the name of the 'Apostle of Temperance,' began in response to the prevalence of alcohol in Irish culture. Perhaps this was due, in part, to the heritage left over from the time of persecution of the Catholic population in general. Deprived by law of the safeguards of religion, many people turned from the hardships of their daily lives to seek relief, or even some forgetfulness, in drink. As a result, distilling was among the very few Irish industries to prosper throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Inspiration came from the United States of America, where temperance societies had been in existence since the last decade of the eighteenth century.


Excerpted from An Ornament to the City by Patricia Curtin-Kelly. Copyright © 2015 Patricia Curtin-Kelly. Excerpted by permission of The History Press Ireland.
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Table of Contents


1. Cork City – Historical Background,
2. The Capuchin Order in Ireland,
3. Fr Theobald Mathew,
4. Competition for the Initial Building of Holy Trinity Church,
5. Completion of Holy Trinity Church,
6. Architectural Context of Holy Trinity Church,
7. Building the Capuchin Friary,
8. Stained-Glass Windows in Holy Trinity Church,
9. Additions and Alterations to Holy Trinity Church,
10. Interior of Holy Trinity Church,
11. The Capuchins in Irish Civil and Cultural Life,
12. The Capuchins and Irish Nationalism,
About the Author,

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