Holy Trinity Church, an ornament to Cork City

Tom Spalding reviews a new book on Holy Trinity Church and the discovery of its Harry Clarke window.

Good things, so they say, come to those who wait. And in the case of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Cork City, this is certainly true.

Started in 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation in Ireland and Great Britain, but not finished until 1908, the church is the subject of an important new book by Corkwoman Patricia Curtin-Kelly.

Initially the brainchild of the great temperance campaigner Fr Theobald Mathew, and supported by Daniel O’Connell, (who is commemorated in a window inside), work on the building stalled in the 1840s as Mathew’s multiple commitments took more of his time, and the completion was delayed.

The church’s spire is a landmark worthy of any city, although the building stood without one for 40 years.

It is to the credit of the Capuchin Order, whose chapel this is, that this beautiful embellishment was built at all — many Cork churches (St Mary’s of the Isle, St Mary’s on Pope’s Quay, and the Augustinian’s on Washington St for example) never received the final touch of a vaulting spire.

Inspired by a conversation with a cousin, a Capuchin friar, Curtin-Kelly became curious about the claim that the Holy Trinity included a window by the great Dublin stained-glass and graphic artist Harry Clarke.

Best known in Cork for his work in the Honan Chapel, Clarke was a man of great energy and skill with a febrile, not to say slightly macabre, imagination.

A panel of his ill-fated Geneva Window, intended for the League of Nations building has recently been in the news, and is on exhibition in the Dublin Civic Gallery, the Hugh Lane. This work fell foul of the arbiters of taste in the Free State when his lurid illustrations of scenes from Irish novels offended the powers that be.

But back to the Church of the Holy Trinity. Following an exhaustive examination of his correspondence, Ms Curtin-Kelly was eventually able to prove that Clarke had indeed contributed to the decoration of the church.

Clarke’s window features Christ as the Prince of Peace and St Francis holding a dove, in his trademark saturated hues; deep blues, rich ochres, and tangerine yellow.

The more the author dug, the more notable the story of the window became. In an unique set of circumstances, it emerged that the window was commissioned by the Cork and District Trades and Labour Council, but still more unusual; it was dedicated to a Capuchin brother, Fr Thomas Dowling.

Fr Dowling was an early pioneer in industrial relations. No doubt conscious of the harm and hurt caused by disputes such as the Lockout of 1913, Dowling set about creating a conciliation service between Cork’s employers and trades’ unions during the First World War, the first in an English-speaking country, according to the author.

He played a leading role in settling a Cork tram-workers strike and for his services the unions choose to memorialise him in glass in 1918. These circumstances explain the use of symbols of harmony; however, Clarke’s role was somewhat fraught.

According to Ms Curtin-Kelly he certainly designed it, but then fell out with his clients over the scale of the inscription. As a compromise, he agreed to let his design be used, but his father, also a glass-worker, undertook the commission.

Given the 80-year period of construction, it’s no surprise to find the story of its building is no less interesting. The design was originally entrusted to George Pain, an English architect who also designed the Courthouse on Washington St.

He selected the Gothic style for the building, a departure from Catholic churches such as St Mary’s on Pope’s Quay and St Patrick’s, on Lower Glanmire Rd, which are based on Classical models.

Although the Gothic style was to become pre-eminent in Irish churches from the 1850s onwards, Holy Trinity is one of the first large churches in the south of Ireland to be built in this style.

By the end of 1850 the body of the church was in use, although Thomas Deane had taken over the design duties. Pain’s intended spire remained unbuilt and old photos show that the church appeared to viewers as a large decorated barn.

With the centenary of Fr Mathew’s birth approaching in 1890, the Capuchins decided it would be a fitting tribute to finish the work he had started, and complete the building, which had become the great man’s memorial.

The ensuing design competitions attracted entries from across the country. Competitors included well-known Cork architect Arthur Hill, but the eventual winner was Dominick J Coakley. Coakley was inspired by Pain’s original proposal and, in time, the lacy Gothic spire, seemingly more air than stone, was erected.

Buildings of this quality and with this history are uncommon in Cork, and publications about our great buildings are rarer still. Ms Curtin-Kelly has done the city a great service in producing this book and it is to be hoped her example will be followed by others.

An Ornament to the City: Holy Trinity Church and the Capuchin Orders available online from the History Press at €15.30 and from selected book stores.

Tom Spalding is the author of Layers: The Design, History & Meaning of Public Signage in Cork and other Irish Cities, and other books on Cork.



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