Thaddeus McCarthy: The Bishop Who Never Was

This is the story of a man from West Cork who was appointed a bishop not once but twice, by two different popes, but prevented from assuming his duties by warring clan factions; a man now venerated in two countries.

Thaddeus in his dedicated chapel in St Colmán’s Cathedral in Cobh

I had never heard of Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy until I stumbled upon his curious shrine in Cork’s North Cathedral. It’s a strange and glorious thing – two golden angels holding an ornate, bejewelled casket within which a glass tube contains, of all things, a leg bone. Nearby, a statue and a plaque provide more of the story.

The relic of Thaddeus’s leg bone and a prayer to him, both part of the shrine on the North Cathedral, Cork

Once I had seen the shrine in the North Cathedral, it seemed I met the Blessed Thaddeus everywhere I went, and I came to know about his life over time. It is as much a story of the struggle for supremacy of some of the great Irish houses – the McCarthy Reaghs, the FitzGeralds and the O’Driscolls – during the turbulent fifteenth century, as it is the story of a holy man.

Thaddeus is often depicted wearing the scallop shell – symbol of a pilgrim

Thaddeus was born in 1455 in West Cork into the reigning Munster family of the McCarthy Reaghs, powerful lords who held sway in Carbery and Muskerry at the time and whose principal seat was in Kilbrittain. He studied under the Franciscans, probably at Timoleague Friary, and took holy orders before going off to Rome where he impressed the Pope (Sixtus IV) so much with his saintliness that he appointed Thaddeus Bishop of Ross (Rosscarbery See). Upon his return home, however, he found that an O’Driscoll was already Bishop of Ross (appointed by the same Pope – he had apparently forgotten, oops). The O’Driscolls were certainly not about to give up their hold on the See of Ross, so back went Thaddeus to Rome to ask the Pope to sort it out.

Thaddeus in Italy, dressed as a simple pilgrim, looking resigned and thoroughly saintly

After many inquiries and rumination, another Pope, Innocent VIII, appointed him Bishop of Cork and Cloyne. Once again, when he returned home, it was to find that the FitzGeralds had their own man in the position. Through all these trials Thaddeus bore himself with patience and dignity and encouraged his followers not to engage in violent behaviour on his behalf. His enemies worked to get him excommunicated and so off he went to Rome one more time, where the Pope confirmed his credentials.

A window dedicated to Thaddeus in the Catholic church in Caheragh, near Skibbereen

On his journey back to Ireland he travelled alone in the guise of a simple pilgrim. He was only 37 years old, but worn out by his many travails he died in the night in a hostel near Ivrea in Italy. In the morning a bright light was seen to shine from the room where his body lay and the monks found him bathed in this mysterious glow. When they examined his possessions they realised he was an Irish bishop.

Thaddeus appeals to the Pontiff (detail of the Thaddeus altar, Cobh)

The Rev Patrick Hurley has written a full, two part account of the life of Thaddeus, published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society for 1896 (here and here). The occasion for the paper was that the Irish, who had essentially forgotten about Thaddeus (although the McCarthy’s held on to a tradition of a saintly ancestor) had recently become aware of his status in Italy. I will let Fr Hurley take up the story of what happened next when Thaddeus died:

On hearing the news people flocked from all parts to see the pilgrim-bishop, who they regarded as a saint, and many sick were here cured and restored to health. Seeing this the bishop ordered the body to be carried to the cathedral, which was accompanied with great solemnity, the chapter, clergy and religious orders all going with a great multitude of people more in the way of a triumph than a funeral.

Depiction of the funeral, based on Fr Hurley’s account  (detail of the Thaddeus altar, Cobh)

Thaddeus was placed under the altar alongside the body of St Eusebius and there he is to this day. Eventually the tombs of both saints were opened and Thaddeus’s remains were re-interred in a reliquary (he was found to have red hair). His feast day is celebrated in October every year in Ivrea and many miracles have been ascribed to him over the centuries.

Blessed Thaddeus’s Reliquary in Ivrea, Italy

There’s even a 15th or 16th century poem, in Latin, about him. Fr Hurley provides a translation. Since he gives no author, it may be his own work, which would not surprise me as this is obviously an erudite and talented scholar. He started his career as the parish priest of Schull, was the priest responsible for the chapel and stations at Gougane Barra and also established the Irish training college at Ballingeary. He was a frequent contributor to the JCHAS.

Fr Hurley had attended a ceremony in honour of Thaddeus in Ivrea ‘recently’ when he wrote his two pieces. He remarks in awe on the majesty of the ceremonial and the great crowds who took part. Above all, he says, the solemn procession when, as if in triumph, the remains of the poor unknown pilgrim were carried through the streets he passed so many years ago, will not be easily forgotten.

Above, the magnificent church in Ivrea, Italy, where Thaddeus lies and below, the equally magnificent side-chapel dedicated to his memory in St Colmán’s Cathedral, Cobh

In more recent times, it was agreed that some relics of the saint could be returned to Ireland – hence the leg bone that caught my attention in the North Cathedral. Ireland, and particularly Cork, had rediscovered their saint and veneration of this fifteenth century holy man spread rapidly. In St Colmán’s Cathedral in Cobh (the subject of Robert’s post this week) one of the side chapels is dedicated to him: this probably happened in a time of great enthusiasm for the revival of his cult following the rediscovery described by Fr Hurley. The design of the altar, the carvings, the mosaics and stained glass show that the artists were familiar with Fr Hurley’s account. 

The death of Thaddeus, St Colmán’s Cathedral, Cobh

In the years that followed, as new churches were built and older ones refurbished, Thaddeus lived on in stained glass and small shrines. I have no doubt that part of this comes down to his surname – we love the idea that the McCarthys, of a proud, ancient and powerful lineage, and the people of Cork, have our own saint.

A shrine to Thaddeus, including a reliquary (not sure what it contains) in the Catholic church in Clonakilty

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