Cork does have a wildlife park – over in Fota, to the east of the city. But I think Cork’s real menagerie is on the University campus – The Honan Chapel, built almost a hundred years ago, and opening its doors to Catholic students in November 1916.
Ireland’s universities have a fascinating history: Pope Clement V authorised the first one in 1311, and this was based in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. This institution ‘came to an abrupt end’ with the Protestant Reformation of the 1530s, and Trinity College Dublin was founded as the ‘University of the Protestant Ascendancy’. At this time, England had the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, while Scotland had Universities at St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
In 1908, the Irish Universities Act was passed, by which the National University, consisting of the Constituent Colleges of Dublin, Cork and Galway was founded. Part of this act decreed that of the finance provided for the new University, none should be applied ‘… for the provision or maintenance of any church, chapel or other place of religious observance …’ It was left to a Cork merchant family – the Honans (who made their wealth through butter) to provide a hostel and chapel for Catholic students.
‘…The chapel, itself, is in perfect accord not only with its immediate surroundings, but also with the wide heritage of art handed down to us by the early native church building. It is one of the best reproductions of the ancient style of building and it exemplifies, in a striking manner, all that is best in the Hiberno Romanesque architecture of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries…’ The Honan Chapel, M J O’Reilly, Cork Univeristy Press, 1966
The interior of the building abounds in exquisite artworks. It’s a feast for the eyes wherever you look: stained glass windows by Harry Clarke stand out (including St Gobnait) – but, for me, the real treat is the mosaic work on the floors, designed by Ludwig Oppenheimer of Manchester. A River of Life runs the length of the nave from the entrance door to the sanctuary where, amidst a riot of pattern and colour, the menagerie unfolds: there are birds and beasts, fish and fowl all contained in decorated borders with Celtic knots and patterns. The only analogy I can think of is a medieval illuminated manuscript such as the Book of Kells, where the pages and margins are extravagantly ornamented with figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts in vibrant colours imbued with Christian symbolism.
The Chapel is dedicated to St Finbarr, Patron Saint of Cork. The foundation stone, laid on the 18th May 1915, records ‘… built by the Charity of Isabella Honan for the scholars and students of Munster…’ The architect was James F McMullen.