The historic little chapel that’s held in huge affection across Cork has been restored and safeguarded for another century.
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The landmark 106-year-old Honan Chapel on the grounds of University College Cork (UCC) has undergone a painstaking €1.2m restoration project, the results of which will be unveiled to the public on Monday.
The chapel’s stained-glass windows, including its 11 Harry Clarke windows which are widely acknowledged as the finest example of stained-glass work in Ireland, have been restored and storm-proofed.
Its beautiful mosaic floor, rich in Celtic symbolism and which depicts serpents, sea creatures, stags, deer, sheep, and exotic birds, to tell the story of the ‘river of life’, has been cleaned, repaired and sealed by craftsmen.
The chapel interior has been repainted, the pews have been restored and the exterior surrounds of the limestone building have been entirely repaired, repointed and sealed.
The project also involved drainage works, landscaping and the restoration of original items including the decorative metal gate to its main entrance, and the replacement of external lighting with an upgraded system.
The funding for the project was sourced through a philanthropic campaign, with the restoration element overseen by a development committee chaired by developer Michael O’Flynn. He described the response to the fundraising campaign as phenomenal.
“It is testament to the regard and affection in which the Honan is held,” he said.
“On behalf of the development committee, I wish to give our sincere thanks to the generous donors, as well as the architects, conservation experts, contractors and staff who made this happen."
Fr Gerard Dunne, secretary of the Honan Trust, said the significant contribution women have made to the chapel is often overlooked by visitors. "The remainder of the windows in the chapel are from the Sarah Purser studio, An Tur Gloine,” he said.
“Many of the Honan artefacts now in storage were the work of the Dun Emer Guild in Dublin and its founder Evelyn Gleeson.
“It is wonderful that these works will endure in this special place of worship for years to come."
UCC President, Professor John O’Halloran, said the university community is delighted to see the works complete. "The Honan Chapel holds a special place in the hearts of our students and staff,” he said.
“I am delighted at the outcome of these works, which will preserve the chapel’s place in the centre of our campus for generations to come.”
A 2019 report on the building by conservation experts FMP Architects identified a series of problems, including moisture penetration, discolouration of external walls, slate and lead breakdown in parts of the roof, defective dry lining in sections, plaster defects and cracks in the stunning tiled mosaic floor.
A conservation plan was drawn up, overseen by project architect/conservation architect Peter Murphy of FMP Architects, with work continuing right through the pandemic, albeit at a reduced scale.
Fourth-generation masonry conservation expert Joe Costello of Stone Mad Ltd oversaw the mosaic floor and stone restoration, while Aria Stained Glass worked on the windows.
Officially known as the Collegiate Chapel of Saint Finbarr, the chapel was opened in November 1916, just a few months after the Easter Rising, and the carnage of the Battle of the Somme in France, during which thousands of Irish men died.
Against the backdrop of this turmoil, and as the fledgling Irish state was emerging, the chapel designers were searching for a new sense of Irish national identity, which was expressed by looking back to the traditions of Celtic art and Hiberno-Romanesque architecture.
And so emerged the design for the chapel, which is now considered a jewel in the crown of 20th-century Irish art and architecture. Designed by JF McMullen Sr, under Sir John O’Connell, and built in 1915 by John Sisk & Sons at a cost of £8,000, the chapel was consecrated in 1916.
Its construction was funded by donations from the Honan family, wealthy Cork merchants.
The chapel hosts about 100 weddings a year - among the thousands of UCC alumni to have exchanged vows there are Irish rugby legend Ronan O’Gara and Jessica Daly in 2006.
Contrary to urban legend, there is not a two-year waiting list to book your wedding at the chapel.
When the chapel was designed, Isabella Honan, the benefactor of the chapel and its collection, made clear that every aspect of it should be made using the best local materials and to the highest standard.
The Processional Cross, a silver and an enamel replica of the Cross of Cong, is one of the jewels of the Honan collection.
The latest conservation plan was devised by architect/conservation architect Peter Murphy of FMP Architects, the repointing work was carried out by masonry conservation expert Joe Costello of Stone Mad Ltd, and John Kelleher & Associates Consulting Engineers surveyed the heating system.
Aria Stained Glass storm-proofed the stained-glass windows.