Galway Cathedral

“Catholic cathedrals in Ireland are monuments to our imitative instincts and conservative distrust of artistic originality. There are examples of new church architecture but in general, Church authorities remained faithful to the Middle Ages and refused to abandon medieval architecture. It is therefore understandable that in 1949 when the building of Galway Cathedral was commissioned, it should have been conceived in a hybrid Romanesque style. In 1959, the foundation stone was laid and on August 15, 1965, the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas was dedicated by Cardinal Cushing. In December that year the Vatican Council solemnly ended its revolutionary document The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which rendered the shape, style, arrangement, and setting of such buildings obsolete and anachronistic. This building was almost an object lesson in insularity. It is clear from the late Bishop of Galway’s instructions that for him art can be no more than decoration, an illustration of scripture or a clearly formulated theology. Art is never an original source, a spiritual revelation, a doing of theology.”

Some interesting thoughts there from Mark Patrick Hederman’s 2010 publication Underground Cathedrals. Ian Nairn, in an article published in the Sunday Observer on April 24 1966, goes even further. “‘The architecture,’ says the (cathedral ) handout, ‘is traditional and Romanesque, in sympathy with its surroundings’ – which are in fact a mixture of decaying Georgian and modern industrial – ‘and there is a marked Spanish influence’. They can say that again; rose windows from Burgos; western towers a little on the Mexican side, and inside a weird parody of a wooden artesonado ceiling divided into deeply coffered panels. Add on to that arcades which are kinda Romanesque, a dome which would do one of the South Kensington Museums, and windows that might be Gothic. All the good intentions and genuine devotion have produced a costly absurdity; for this is an ersatz eclectic, not the real thing. So, sad for Galway, but sad for the rest of Ireland too, because every Roman Catholic Church in every other country of western Europe has accepted modern architecture.”

There are, of course, many people whose opinions would be the opposite to the above. The desire to construct a cathedral in Galway goes back almost as far as the diocese itself. In 1876 a building fund was set up with a bequest of £500. In 1909, Bishop McCormack acquired the site of the Shambles Barracks at O’Brien’s Bridge. By the time Bishop O’Doherty died in 1936, the fund had reached £108,000. On March 15 1941, the county council conveyed the site of the City and County Gaol to Bishop Michael Browne. At one stage he considered building the cathedral in Eyre Square, but eventually, the gaol site was decided on.

John J Robinson of Robinson Keefe and Devane Architects designed the building. In 1957 the plans were finalised and on February 1 1958 work began. John Sisk was the builder and Jack Lillis was the site manager. It is successful on many levels and the workmanship is of a very high standard, particularly the wonderful stonework, which was all quarried locally. The building was of a massive scale never seen in Galway before, and people became fascinated by it as it grew higher than the gaol walls, as can be seen from our photograph. 

There are, and will be, many people whose opinions of the building will be the polar opposite to those expressed above, but it will always be controversial and the question will be asked, ‘Is it merely a building or is it great architecture?’


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