History Of Mullingar Cathedral



The Fantastic Ruth ILLingworth Historian takes an in depth look and has unearthed at times some hilarious facts from planning and construction of building of the New Cathedral in Mullingar. ( 5 min read),

The Cathedral of Christ the King was consecrated eighty years ago this month,on August 30th 1939. The consecration ceremony was carried out by the Bishop of Kilmore,Dr Lyons.Four days later a High Mass took place in the cathedral to celebrate the consecration. The Mass was held on September 3rd,1939,just two days after the start of the Second World War and just one hour after Britain declared war on Germany.

The consecration was the culmination of ten years of planning and building. It was in June of 1929 that the newly consecrated bishop of Meath,Dr Mulvany,had announced that the funds now existed to build a new cathedral. The actual building work had taken just over three and a half years, from the turning of the sod in March 1932 to the placing of the crosses on the towers in November 1935.

The present cathedral is the second one to stand in Mullingar. The first cathedral had opened on the same site in August 1836 and was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. It could hold 1200 people.Cathedral House beside it was built in the 1870’s as a residence for the Bishops of Meath,and was known as the “Palace”. In 1900,the then Bishop of Meath,Dr Matthew Gaffney,announced plans to build a new cathedral for the growing town and parish of Mullingar. He felt that the existing building was “a church,not a cathedral”. It was too small and stood “like a funeral pile without an iota of art to relieve it”.

Bishop Gaffney started off the building fund with a personal donation of £1000.A diocesan collection raised a further £14,000 and the Westmeath born Archbishop of St Louis in the USA,Dr John Glennon,raised more money. But the fundraising slowed down after Bishop Gaffney’s departure from Mullingar in 1905. Decades passed and it was not until 1929 and the arrival of Bishop Thomas Mulvany that the building project moved forward. By then there was more than £50,000 in the accounts in the Hibernian Bank.

The architect for the project was Ralph Byrne from Dublin,who also designed the church of SS Peter&Paul in Athlone and the new Kilmore cathedral in Cavan. The contract for building the new cathedral went to the firm of Messrs Murphy of Rathmines in Dublin. The Quantity Surveyor was Smith.

The Clerk of Works was Dan Moran,originally from Castletown-Geoghegan but now living in Mullingar. His weekly reports on the building project to Bishop Mulvaney and Ralph Byrne are preserved in the diocesan archives.Much of the interior art work would be done by the firm of William Earley &Sons of Dublin.

The work began on March 31st 1932,with Bishop Mulvaney turning the first sod. Work then progressed quite rapidly.Stone came from quarries across the Diocese of Meath and from Dublin and Wicklow. A total of 662,000 bricks and 4,300 lorry loads of sands were used in the building work. The steel beams enclosed within the stonework came from Glasgow. Following a meeting between the Bishop and Industry and Commerce minister,Sean Lemass,the duties on the imported steel were waived by the government.

The foundation stone for the cathedral was laid on August 6th,1933 following a High Mass attended by many bishops and clergy at which the award winning choir from Presentation Convent School sang. The demolition of the old cathedral had now begun but most of the building remained standing and in use until the new building was completed.

Fundraising for the new cathedral continued even as the building work progressed.Railway and other workers in the town donated a portion of their weekly wages. A Diocesan collection in September 1934 raised £27,000-with £6500 raised in Mullingar alone.

In 1935 a collection among the clergy of the diocese raised another £9400. The Westmeath Men’s Association in New York held a fund -raising ball and other money was raised in America by Archbishop Glennon and other bishops with connections to Meath Diocese. Bishop Mulvany wrote to the HQ of all the major Irish banks seeking funds. The Bank of Ireland gave £100,while the Ulster Bank (under Protestant management gave £50. The Northern Bank reluctantly gave £25. The Earl of Westmeath (one of the Nugent family) left £10 in his will.

During Lent 1934,the boys of St Mary’s CBS decided to donate their pocket money to the building. The hope was that they would raise £5,but in fact they managed to raise £14.!Other individual donations totalling £1300 were raised by in 1934/35. Some particularly generous funds were left by local women for the cost of side chapels and altars. Miss Mullally of Dominick Street covered the cost of St Theresa’s Chapel and Mary Murray from Bishopsgate Street funded the St Joseph’s Chapel and gave £2000 for an altar.

By the autumn of 1935 the building work was nearing completion. The firm of Gillette&Johnston of Croyden in London moved the old clock and chimes from the old cathedral to the new. The firm had installed the clock in the old building back in the 1890s. The last stone was fitted into place on October 26th 1935, and in November the Dublin firm of Dockrells installed the bronze crosses on the two towers. Bishop Mulvany was a little anxious about the automatic ringing of the bells which he felt was too fast and was rung “like a Protestant bell”.

The first major art work on the exterior of the cathedral was done by the very distinguished Irish artist Albert Power. Encased in a secure basket he worked on the tympanum above the balcony over the main door. His work depicted Our Lady handing over a model of the old cathedral (which had been dedicated to her) to her Son-after whom the new building was named. At the request of Pope Pius XI,the new cathedral was dedicated to Christ the King-the first church in the world so dedicated.

By early 1935 the exterior work was all complete and the scaffolding was taken down. The last worker to step down from the scaffolding was Jim Lynam from Gaybrook. The work continued inside as William Earley and other firms set about creating the stations of the cross and the various art works,as well as putting in place railings,the pulpit and organ and the floors and seating.

The bulk of the work was done by William Earley-including the Stations of the Cross and the splendid depiction of the Ascension in the apse behind the high altar. When Bishop Mulvaney was asked by a visiting bishop about the architectural style in the cathedral,he replied: “On the outside it’s Renaissance.On the inside,it’s Earley.”

Other significant work was done by firms such as Oppenheimer of Manchester, John Smyth &Sons of Dublin;J J O Hara of Dublin; Gunning & Sons of Dublin and Terrazzo Marble and Concrete Products of Dun Laoighaire.

The materials used in the cathedral interior included Italian and Irish marble and lapis lazuli from Iran and Chile. As well as Albert Power’s work,the exterior artwork also included depictions of bishops and the head of Moses along the side walls and over the main door done by Henry Thompson from Dublin.

The first Mass in the new cathedral took place on July 6th 1936. The last public Mass in the old cathedral took place on the same day and the very last Mass in the old building was on July 11th.It was demolished later in the autumn.

On September 6th the Dedication Ceremony for the Cathedral of Christ the King was held. The ceremony was attended by hundreds of clergy and politicians. The sermon was preached by Archbishop Glennon. A gifted orator,he insisted that there should be no microphone in the pulpit as he considered that microphones “made for lazy preachers.”

Over the next two years work continued on the art work inside the cathedral. The Stations of the Cross were unveiled in 1937 and the first baptisms and ordinations took place. Work also began on creating a grand new entrance to the cathedral grounds from Mary Street.
This involved the demolition of a terrace of houses on Bishopsgate Street called St Mary’s Terrace.

Bishop Mulvany entered into negotiations with the owner of the houses,Mr Dowdall. Dowdall negotiated payment of £10,000 for the houses. In the event just three of the houses were demolished. The remaining two houses are still standing. The cathedral railings and gates would not actually be put into place until 1943 due to iron shortages during the war.

Meanwhile money continued to roll in for the building fund and Bishop Mulvany began paying the bills. By the summer of 1939-just ten years after the announcement that the new cathedral would be built,the Bishop had his new cathedral built on time and within budget. The total cost was £275,000. At that time ecclesiastical law stated that a church could only be consecrated when it had been paid for. (It took 100 years to pay for Lettterkenny Cathedral).The Consecration of Mullingar Cathedral was set for August 30th,1939.

The consecration ceremony followed an ancient rite. With Bishop Mulvany too sick to take part,the Bishop of Kilmore carried out the consecration. He walked three times round the outside of the building,sprinkling holy water on the front,middle and back of the cathedral. He then went inside where ashes had been heaped up along the front of the nave.

He used his crozier to trace in the ashes letters from the Greek alphabet down one side of the church and letters from the Latin alphabet down the other side (Greek and Latin being the languages of the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church). He then used his crozier to make the sign of the Cross over the main doors. The Bishop concluded the Ceremony by saying Mass and placing relics of saints in the High Altar.

Over the week of the Consecration ceremonies the cathedral was floodlit and this attracted many visitors at a time when many parts of the diocese and parish did not yet have electric light. On the night of September 3rd,however,due to the outbreak of war the floodlights had to be turned off.

The town was decorated from end to end with flags and bunting in Papal and Irish colours. Even Protestant business premises and homes were decorated. There was a great sense of excitement throughout the town.

Shortly before noon an immense procession of clergy lined up outside Cathedral House. There were some 400 prelates in purple robes- including archbishops,bishops and abbots.
The Lord Abbot of Mount Mellory stood out amidst the purple in his white robes. The Archbishop of Armagh,Cardinal McRory walked under a canopy of cloth of gold giving his blessing to the crowds who knelt along the path as the procession passed.

Inside the cathedral choirs of men,boys and girls sang,conducted by Philip Dore,the cathedral organist. (One of the girls singing was Dympna Dolan,sister of Joe.). Archbishop Glennon was once more the preacher,ending his lengthy homily with the rousing cry: “Christ Lives,Christ Conquers,Christ Reigns!”


CATHEDRAL OF CHRIST THE KING ‪1939-2019‬  part 2

The Consecration of the Cathedral coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War. During that conflict the cathedral grounds were turned over to food production to help feed the town.The cathedral also hosted many special masses for the troops based in Mullingar.

Bishop Mulvany,who had overseen the building of the cathedral died in 1943 and was buried in the grounds . His successor was Dr John D’Alton who was consecrated as Bishop of Meath in Maynooth College Chapel. He would only be in Mullingar for four years before departing to Armagh when he was appointed Archbishop in 1946. The new Bishop-appointed in 1947, was Dr John Kyne. Consecrated in Rome he arrived in Mullingar to take possession of his cathedral in July 1947.

In February of 1946,Archbishop John Glennon of St Louis,who had preached at the Dedication and Consecration Masses in the cathedral visited Mullingar while on his way to Rome to be made a cardinal. Just one month later he died while staying in Dublin as a guest of the President. His remains were brought to Mullingar where a Requiem Mass was held on March 14th,attended by three cardinals (from Toronto,Sydney and Westminister) and the President and Taoiseach.The three Cardinals sat on special chairs in the sanctuary.

In 1948,a new significant art work was unveiled in St Patrick’s Chapel. The Russian born artist,Boris Anrep,had been commissioned to depict Patrick lighting the first Easter Fire on Slane. The mosaic was comprised of 300,000 separate pieces of glass and stone. One of the first to see the work was the then British Prime Minister,Clement Attlee,who was on holiday in Ireland and visiting friends in Westmeath,who brought him to the cathedral. The Premier much admired the cathedral and the striking Anrep work.

*****************   ‪1949- 1959‬   **********************

A second Anrep mosaic was commissioned by Bishop Kyne for the cathedral as part of the Marian Year celebrations in 1954. The work was in the St Anne chapel and depicted the presentation of the child Mary in the temple by her parents St Anne and St Joachim. It is a stunningly beautiful work and is particularly noteworthy for the fact that the face of St Anne is modelled on one of the greatest poets of the 20th century,Anna Akhmatova,who had been Anrep’s lover in Russia during the First World War.

Another important art work in the cathedral was completed in 1956 in the Mortuary Chapel. This was a fresco depicting Christ rising from the Tomb,and was the work of Father Aengus Buckley. Fr Buckley had served in the Irish College in Rome alongside Bishop Kyne during the Second World War and was a war hero-having helped to hide members of the local Jewish community from the Gestapo. Father Buckley was an authority on frescos and lectured at Limerick Art College.

In 1958,the cathedral was the venue for one of the most significant musical events in Mullingar history. In October,the Irish premier of Elgar’s oratorio,”The Dream of Gerontius” was staged,with one of the world’s greatest orchestras,the Halle of Manchester,conducted by Sir John Barbarolli and Our Lady’s Choral Society from Dublin. People came from all over Ireland for the concert. Among those in the audience was the President of Ireland,Sean T O Kelly and the Archbishop of Armagh ,Cardinal D’Alton.
The Munich Boys Choir also sang in the cathedral that year. They visited in March and stayed with local families.

**************  1959- 1969‬  *********************
The Sixties saw the opening of a museum in the cathedral. It is located upstairs in a room once used by the Holy Family Confraternity. The Museum contains many items of great historical importance including a chalice presented to the cathedral by Pope Pius XI,a ring which was given to the Bishop of Meath by Queen Marie Antoinette of France and vestments worn by St Oliver Plunkett,which were given to the cathedral in 1953 by the Earl of Fingal,a member of the Plunkett family.

Other items include crosses and chalices from the Penal Laws period,croziers belonging to former bishops of Meath and models of the old cathedral and of the Augustinian monastery which stood in Mullingar from 1227 to 1539. One of the most interesting items is a model of the cathedral made from 68,750 matchsticks.This was the work of a retired army sergeant,John McCormick,

The Second Vatican Council of ‪1962-65‬ led to changes in the Liturgy and other aspects of Roman Catholic worship. The Latin Mass disappeared. The first English language Mass was said in the cathedral on December 29th 1964 and the first Irish language Mass took place on the same day. Lay people-including women, were now permitted to do the readings.

Twenty-five years after the consecration of the cathedral the first consecration of a bishop took place in the building in February 1964 when Dr William Dunne from Delvin was consecrated for the diocese of Kitui in Kenya. Four years later,Dr John McCormack,a nephew of Bishop Mulvany became the first Bishop of Meath to be consecrated in Meath’s cathedral.
Both consecration ceremonies were attended by President De Valera,who also attended the funeral Mass for Bishop Kyne,who died in December 1966.

One of the most beautiful parts of the cathedral is the Lady Chapel which is dedicated to Our Lady. The chapel has a panel in white marble depicting the apparition of Mary to St Bernadette at Lourdes. In 1960 the altar in the chapel was made a privileged altar for the Arch Confraternity of the Hospitalite of Our Lady of Lourdes.Masses said on this altar entitle the dead members of the Hospitalite,to a plenary indulgence.

The side aisle seats were installed in the 1960s. Made of Irish oak,they are copies of the centre aisles seats which,like the confession boxes and the sanctuary stalls,are made of Austrian oak.

A number of special Masses took place in the cathedral during the Sixties. In November 1963,over 1,000 people attended a Requiem Mass for President John F Kennedy following the murder of the President in Dallas. In May 1967 the Holy Family Confraternity celebrated their centenary with a procession through the town and a Mass at which special medals were awarded to long serving members of the Confraternity, (The Confraternity Banner is now in the cathedral museum.

One of the most controversial events in the history of the cathedral took place in July 1969,when a funeral Mass was held for the executed IRA Coventry bombers,Barnes and McCormack. Their remains had been returned to Ireland from Birmingham Prison,where they had been hanged in 1940 and they were laid to rest in Ballyglass . At the Mass,men in paramilitary uniform paraded outside and inside the cathedral. Questions were asked in the Dail by Westmeath TD,Gerry L’Estrange and others as to how such an open military display by an illegal organisation was allowed to take place.

‪**************    1969-1979‬  ********************
In 1975 the Diocese of Meath celebrated the canonisation of Meath born Archbishop Oliver Plunkett,with Bishop McCormack among the many clergy attending the canonisation service in Rome in October and a special Mass being celebrated in the cathedral. That year also saw the cathedral full for a Mass celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Presentation Order and the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Presentation Sisters in Mullingar.
On Palm Sunday 1979 the first female Ministers of the Eucharist in the Cathedral were commissioned in a special ceremony.
During the 1970s,as in previous decades,the cathedral was the start and finishing point for the massive Corpus Christi processions which moved through the town centre.Thousands of people-including school children and soldiers,took part in these processions.

*****************  ‪1979 -1989‬ ************************
An era in the history of the cathedral ended on Christmas Day 1982 with the death of Mrs Evelyn Dore,who had been cathedral organist for forty years. She had raised the musical standards of the cathedral choirs to the highest levels during her long career. She was succeeded in the post by Shane Brennan who was appointed in 1983.

In January 1984,Dr Michael Smith was consecrated as Auxiliary Bishop of Meath. He was appointed to assist Bishop McCormack,who had suffered a serious illness. Bishop Smith would succeed Dr McCormack as Bishop in 1990 and become one of the longest serving members of the Hierarchy .

The year 1984 also saw the remodelling of the cathedral sanctuary in accordance with the Vatican Two liturgical changes. A new ambo and celebrant’s chair were installed crafted from a blend of the same or similar marbles,which were originally used in the High Altar.The Bishop’s Chair was also remodelled and relocated. Thankfully,no attempt was made-as happened in other cathedrals and churches,to remove the beautiful altar rails and gates.

Another chapter in cathedral history ended in 1986 with the retirement of Mr Phil Mullally as cathedral sacristan after 50 years He had begun his work as sacristan when the cathedral opened in 1936.. He was succeeded by Mr Bill Dunne. The year 1986 also saw a visit to the cathedral by Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster.

In 1988 a new boys choir was set up by Brother Frank Crummy and Mr Tony Cottor of St Mary’s CBS . The choristers over the next three decades would include future musical stars such as Mark Irwin and Cian Brennan Gavin.

The year 1989 saw major celebrations to mark the Golden Jubilee of the consecration of the Cathedral Of Christ the King. The celebrations culminated with a special Mass in the cathedral on September 3rd-exactly 50 years to the day and date after the High Mass of 1939.The Mass was concelebrated by Bishop Smith,,Archbishop Connell of Dublin,Bishop Cathal Daly and other bishops and clergy.

Among those taking part in the ceremonies were people who had sung in the cathedral and schools choirs at the 1939 Mass and those who had worked on the building of the cathedral. The Choir of All Saints’ Church of Ireland also took part in the Golden Jubilee Mass-an ecumenical gesture which would have been unthinkable in 1939.



The Nineties saw a major programme of renovation carried out on the cathedral over a number of years. The building was re-roofed and the heating and lighting systems were revamped. The Compton Organ-one of only three of its type in Europe, was rebuilt and the interior of the building was repainted .

The renovation works were completed ahead of schedule and a special Mass took place on November 23rd,1997-the Feast of Christ the King,to celebrate the re-opening. A Guidebook to the cathedral written by Father Paul Connell was published to mark the occasion. .

In 1992,the cathedral Museum was awarded a Gulbenkian Award for Best Small Museum of the Year. The award was presented to Museum Curator,Sister Maureen Waldron by President Mary Robinson. In May 1998,the Museum was visited by President Mary McAleese and her husband.

Shortly before Christmas 1993,a candle was thrown into the cathedral crib. The arson caused extensive damage to the crib and to the figures in it. Fortunately not all the figures -which dated back to the opening of the old cathedral in 1836 had been placed in the crib. A new crib was designed by Karen Weavers of the Abbey Theatre and was unveiled in time for Christmas 1994.

Bishop John McCormack,who had served as Bishop of Meath from 1968 until illness forced his retirement in 1990,died in September of 1996. His funeral Mass was attended by Cardinal Cathal Daly,Cardinal Desmond Connell and many other members of the Hierarchy.He was buried in the cathedral grounds alongside three of his predecessors. The year 1996 also saw the death of Phil Mullally,who had served as sacristan of the cathedral from 1936 until 1986.

In March 1996,the Mullingar Choral Society staged their annual concert in the cathedral for the first time. The work performed was Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”. The Society have returned to the cathedral for their Spring concert every year bar one since then.Their 2008 performance of Karl Jenkins’ powerful work,” The Armed Man” included the first ever rendition of the Muslim call to Prayer-the Adhaan in the cathedral,which was given by Muezzin,Junaid Yousuf from Dublin.

‪1999- 2009‬
On December 20th 1999,RTE radio broadcast live from the cathedral in a programme presented by Marian Finucane. Eleven days later huge crowds gathered inside and outside the building to welcome in the Third Millennium of the Christian Era and the 21st Century. The Mullingar Town Band played as the bells rang out to mark the start of 2000AD. During the Jubilee Year,the cathedral museum was opened for visits by people from every parish in the Diocese. RTE would return to the cathedral in 2001 to film the Easter Ceremonies that year.

May of 2001 saw immense crowds visit the cathedral to see the relics of St Theresa of Lisieux The relics arrived at the cathedral as part of a nationwide tour on the afternoon of May 17th and remained there until the following afternoon.Queues stretched the length of the cathedral from the altar rails to the main door and continued down the steps to the main gate and along Mary Street.

On September 14th,a much sadder occasion again drew huge crowds to the cathedral as a special Ecumenical Service was held on the National Day of Mourning for the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States.
In August 2004,the remains of four Augustinian monks who had lived in the Augustinian monastery in Mullingar in the 13th century were re-interred in the cathedral grounds. Their remains had been uncovered in 1996 in the Austin Friars/Barrack St area of the town.Four of the skeletons uncovered were wearing scallop shells showing that they had made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostello.

In December 2007,Mullingar’s most famous 20th century citizan,Joe Dolan,died aged 68. His removal to the cathedral on the evening of December 28th and his funeral Mass on the 29th saw the cathedral packed to overflowing. Those in attendance included numerous stars of the entertainment world.. The preacher was Father Brian D’arcy.
The congregations attending the cathedral masses were now in decline.But they were becoming more diverse. This was shown at Christmas 2006 when the parish bulletin gave Christmas greetings in 17 languages-including Polish,Lithuanian,Hindi and Zulu.
President McAleese paid her second official visit to the cathedral in 2003 when she attended a special Mass to mark the bi-centenary of St Finian’s College. Other special anniversary events in the cathedral during the Noughties included the Loreto College 125th anniversary in 2006,the St Mary’s CBS 150th anniversary,also in 2006,and the 400th anniversary of the Loreto Order,which was marked in January 2009 with a Mass attended by pupils,staff and past pupils from every Loreto School in Ireland and overseas representatives as well. Those in attendance included pupils and teachers from the newest Loreto school-in Rombak,South Sudan.

**************   ‪2009- 2019‬  *********************

In January 2009,Bishop Smith celebrated the Silver Jubilee of his consecration. The Jubilee Mass was attended by more than 2000 people from all over the Diocese and beyond. The Papal Nuncio and many other Irish bishops were also there. It was the first time since Bishop Thomas Nulty in 1889 that a Bishop of Meath had celebrated his Silver Jubilee.
In November 2009,the remains of Bishop Matthew Gaffney,who had declared in 1900 that Meath should have a new cathedral worthy of its history and significance,were brought from Multyfarnham Friary and re-interred in the cathedral grounds as part of the ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral and the centenary of Bishop Gaffney’s death. Other events to mark the cathedral’s 70th anniversary included the publication of a history of the cathedral-“Beneath Cathedral Towers”,and the placing of a relic of St Oliver Plunkett in the altar.
In July 2013,a new art work in the cathedral grounds was unveiled by the Spanish Ambassador to Ireland. The art piece depicts the Santiago Scallop shell and is a tribute to the Augustinian monks who lived and worked in Mullingar between 1227 and 1539. The art work is located beside the spot where four of the monks were re-buried in 2004.

In September 2014 major celebrations took place to mark the 75th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral. A special Mass was held on September 7th attended by the Papal Nuncio,Dr Charles Browne. The guest preacher was Cardinal Timothy Dalton of New York. He was born in St Louis-the archdiocese of Westmeath born Cardinal John Glennon,who had helped raise funds for the cathedral and preached at its Dedication and Consecration.

In an echo of Cardinal Glennon’s cry ” Christ Lives,Christ Conquers,Christ Reigns! ,Cardinal Dalton called out in Spanish, “Que Viva Cristo Rey” (“Long Live Christ Our King” ). The music for the mass was provided by the cathedral choirs and organist and by the Mullingar Choral Society. After the Service there was a street party in Mary Street,organised by Father Michael Kilmartin and the Cathedral House staff.

In June 2018 ,it was announced that Bishop Smith’s successor as Bishop of Meath was to be Monsignor Tom Deenihan from Co Cork. He was consecrated on September 2nd in the cathedral.before a congregation of over 2,000.
The consecration service was presided over by the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Eamon Martin and was attended by the Papal Nuncio and numerous other bishops and clergy including the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork,Dr Paul Colton and representatives from the Coptic Orthodox Church .
Cork accents could be heard across the cathedral. as a large contingent of clergy and laity from the rebel county came to Westmeath’s capital for the ceremony.