In the early hours of 3 June, 1820, Cork’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Anne went up in flames. Hardly had the fire been extinguished when there were whisperings of foul play. On the 200th anniversay of the burning, Pat Poland reflects on the event
The Penal Laws were a series of edicts passed against Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters in Ireland after the Reformation. They persecuted those that practiced their religion and imposed severe civil restrictions on them, the aim being to get them to accept the Church of Ireland as the Established Church. Priests were executed for saying Mass.
By the late eighteenth century, however, with the advent of the so-called Age of Enlightenment with its new ideas of liberty, progress, and religious toleration, the Laws were seen as increasingly anachronistic. In the period 1778 – 1793 the majority were removed, the last of them effectively disappearing with the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.
St Finbarr’s (known to Corkonians as the ‘South Chapel’) the first Roman Catholic church built in Cork City since the Reformation, opened its doors for worship in 1766 – albeit not on the ‘King’s Highway’ which was disallowed – but on Dunbar Street, a side-street off George’s Quay.
The Catholic Diocese of Cork was still without a cathedral, however, and, in 1799, Bishop Francis Moylan (who had received his education on the Continent during a time when the Penal Laws were rigidly enforced) initiated the building of one.
Standing high up over the city in the northern suburbs, the new cathedral was consecrated on 22 August 1808 with, according to a contemporary account, ‘a solemnity unexampled in these islands’.
All was not sweetness and light, however. The building of the cathedral (the ‘North Chapel’) had begun in 1799 – just a year after the Rebellion during which the Cork brothers, John and Henry Sheares, prominent lawyers and United Irishmen, had been hanged, drawn and quartered for their involvement.
And, although Cork City had played no significant role in the uprising, in the years following the Act of Union in 1800 hostility continued to simmer beneath the surface.