It may have been around for three different centuries now, but Kilkenny’s St Mary’s Cathedral is still producing a few surprises.
The cathedral building, which dates to 1857, is currently undergoing major renovations. Little discoveries - of lost details and forgotten treasures - are constantly surfacing as the project goes on.
The skilled restoration team, led by the O’ Brien Brothers of Durrow, is constantly striving for a harmony of style and function. As both diocesan clerk Joe Maher and Monsignor Kennedy explain, the idea is to find a balance between preserving the past and progressing with the present.
“Liturgy is a living thing, it’s not a museum, and we are not curators,” says Monsignor Kennedy.
“This is a refurbishment, a restoration, and a rediscovery of the treasures of the cathedral and chapter house that had remained hidden.”
Inside the cathedral building, the sanctuary has been cleared of the platform and pillars that once covered it. Now, the original beautifully-coloured moscaic tiled sanctuary floor can be seen, revealing a crest and coat of arms that had lain hidden for decades.
The altar was once in the sanctuary’s centre, but was moved back in the 1900s. On the back of it are the scrawled names of some of the workers who have been involved with various renovation projects in the building over the years.
‘W Shanahan - painter, 1935’; ‘John Brennan - carpenter, 11/6/77’, and ‘F Byrne - painter, 1967’ are among some of the items scratched into the stone.
“They didn’t destroy it when they did the work in the late 1970s, during the renewal,” says Monsignor Kennedy.
“It has survived underneath over the years.”
The Monsignor says he will present a special bottle of wine to the person who can guess whose coat of arms is depicted in the mosaic, and where the motto, which reads ‘Scio Cui Credidi’, comes from.
There are still many months of work ahead, but the details of the renovations project are constantly being considered and reviewed.
The works to the chapter house epitomise the balance between the constraints of conservation and tradition, and the need to operate as a modern, functioning church at the heart of the parish.
The Monsignor hopes that it will boost the building’s appeal to tourists and visitors, as well as improve the experience of the cathedral for mass-goers.
“There were 60 Hungarian tourists in here this morning, and where do they go?” he asks.
“This will give more to visitors. It will tie in with Kilkenny as a place to visit.”
Outside the building will be a ‘piazza-like’ area with seating. The building will now have a ramped entrance, and a lift provides access to all three floors, opening the building up to those in wheelchairs or people with limited mobility.
This is part of the plan to make the building more accessible to people.
“Years ago, they would have had parish meetings here, but it would not have really been open to people,” says Monsignor Kennedy.
This is beginning to change now, however. Iniside, the chapter house has been well maintained down through the decades, but perhaps without the same aesthetic foresight and the preservation-oriented approach that is currently espoused.
Many remarkable features of the original 19th Century building had been lost over the years, covered up or simply painted over. Work has been ongoing since last year now, with the O’ Brien Brothers team from Durrow taking point.
“We didn’t exactly know what was there when we started,” says Vincent O’ Brien.
Perhaps most striking are the intricate stencilling designs that adorn the walls, which had been covered by layers upon layers of paint, and long forgotten about. The original markings have all been uncovered, and redone by hand along following the historic patterns.
Mr O’ Brien says that decades of smoke-damage – from tobacco as well as the burning of mutton-fat candles, had turned the ceiling black. It has now been restored to a stunning red-brown brightness, beautifully varnished. It took the team over four weeks to complete.
The panelling around the room is getting a similar treatment, and service pipes along the room’s walls are currently being ‘camouflaged’ with a wood-coloured paint. The classic stone pillars and corbels, which had also been painted over, have now been restored to their former bare glory.
The balustrade and handrail on the stairs leading up to the Chapter Room is currently being sanded down by hand, with the utmost care. It too will be treated with a special varnish, which darkens with time.
At ground floor level, a bookshop is to be put in place where once the service sacistry existed. A new opening in the wall allows for easier access.
The main sacistry is also receiving attention. A number of discreet cupboards are to be put into the room to store vestments – given that the clergy will lose much of the space once afforded to them. Several paintings, which will hang in locations along the ground floor, are also currently being restored.
At the basement level, along with brand new toilet facilities and a new entrance, a social space is being constructed. Here, a coffee shop will be open for parishioners and visitors alike, to provide a welcoming space where people can relax.