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

Footsteps

Morning prayers on the Großglockner, Otto Barth 1911

Morning prayers on the Großglockner, Otto Barth 1911

Is it us? We seem to be following in the footsteps of thieves and wreckers… Back in June 2012 we visited St Manchan’s Church, in Boher, Offaly and saw the splendid shrine of that Saint securely locked in an armoured glass case and mounted in front of the equally magnificent Harry Clarke window depicting him. That was at about 1 o’clock in the afternoon. We were shocked to hear on the news that evening that the shrine had been stolen at 1.30! Two men had taken just a few minutes to break open the case – in spite of alarms and cctv – and make off with the Saint’s remains…

We were relieved to hear the following day that the robbery had been bungled: the shrine was thrown out of the getaway car and landed in a bog: both it and the perpetrators were picked up by the Gardi. I wonder if perhaps the thought of what divine justice might be wrought from on high (from St Manchan himself, even) had put doubts into the minds of the thieves and diverted them from their intentions – whatever they might have been.

Harry Clarke's depiction of the Saint's shrine

Harry Clarke’s depiction of the Saint’s shrine

Nevertheless, the incident led to some considerable debate on whether the reliquary should be returned to the church – where the security was evidently lacking – or whether the original 1,000 year old artefact should be put into Ireland’s National Museum and the replica which happens to be there should be sent back to St Manchan’s. The Boher people campaigned vigorously against this – quite rightly in my opinion – and eventually, after some improvements to the arrangements in the church, the shrine has been restored to where it belongs.

winter

Carrauntoohil Summit – photo by Noel Mulcair: thejournal.ie

So there we were just a week or two ago, honeymooning in the shadow of Ireland’s highest mountain (although warmly ensconsed in a comfortable Kerry hotel) when we heard the news that, not far away, someone had climbed the mountain at night and felled the iron cross that had stood up there for many years, with an angle-grinder! Obviously some point was being made, although nobody was quite sure what that was at the time…

The Mountains of Kerry

Gap of Dunloe, in the shadow of Carrauntoohil

 

The cross is felled...

The cross is felled…

The Carrauntoohil incident sparked off a lively correspondence in The Irish Times. Many were indignant at the act of vandalism, while others took the view that there is no reason why wild places should be ‘sullied’ with religious symbols. Hmmmm… that’s a bit harsh, perhaps: crosses on mountain tops have a been around for a long time all over the world and, ever since prehistory, humans have marked their presence on the landscape with monuments of one sort or another. As you all know, the two of us are fascinated (obsessed might be a more appropriate word) by megaliths, tombs, circles and inscribed rocks – and these are preserved archaeological artefacts – it would be unthinkable for someone to get it into their head that a standing stone should be destroyed because it might have represented someone’s god. At the very least, surely, the subject should be aired and a democratic decision made by a public majority before any such action is taken. Indeed, the subject did get aired after the event and I gleaned that the majority of respondents felt that the iconic cross should not have come down.

Well, this story – like the St Manchan one, has had a happy ending. A group of volunteers has been up to the summit with block, tackle and welding equipment and the cross is back again.

Ireland has many summits adorned with constructed pieces – ancient cairns and tombs, and more modern statues and symbols, not forgetting the wind farms which are another source of controversy. We are all part of human history and one of Ireland’s big attractions for me is that the history is so visible and accessible. In 1968 a white marble Pieta was placed high up on the Goat’s Path in Glanalin townland. It’s someone’s personal monument to a much loved father. In my opinion the melancholy statue enhances the wild place: I make a bee-line for it whenever I’m in the area – partly to enjoy the magnificent view but also, I have to say, because I am fascinated to see how many coins and offerings are put into the outstretched palm of Mary. Look here for a fuller description on the excellent website Sheep’s Head Places.

Hilltop Pieta

Hilltop Pieta

Given our experiences to date I worried a bit about our visits to Holy Cross Abbey and the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne in Cork, where we came across the shin bone of Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy. But it seems to be ok: fair enough, the fragment of the True Cross was stolen from Holy Cross (it’s now been replaced with another), but long before our visit, while the saintly shin bone seems to have survived unscathed so far. I can’t help looking over my shoulder, though, when we visit such places. Ireland is full of enigmas…

thaddeus

Sacred shin bone – with Angelic guardians

Finola's childhood haunts: the cross on Bray Head, Wicklow

Finola’s childhood haunts: the cross on Bray Head, Wicklow

Three Pilgrims in West Cork

Glebe Church, on the Ilen River

Glebe Church, on the Ilen River

The guest speaker at this Thursday’s Skibbereen Historical Society meeting was Louise Nugent, speaking on the topic of Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. We became familiar with Louise’s work though her blog of the same title – a blog which manages to be consistently erudite and down-to-earth and entertaining all at once – and suggested her as a speaker. This also gave us the opportunity to meet Louise in person (she is as engaging and as knowledgeable as her blog) and, the next day, show her a little bit of our part of West Cork.

One of the great delights of following Louise’s blog is realising that the concept of pilgrimage – a spiritual journey undertaken for a variety of purposes – is still very much alive in Ireland. Local veneration of shrines, relics and holy wells is common and often involves a mass or prayers on special days. The “journey” involves going to the shrine, and sometimes moving around it in a set pattern or round. Larger scale pilgrimages, such as the annual trek up Croagh Patrick or a stay at Lough Derg in Donegal or a Novena at Holy Cross Abbey, transcend the local and attract pilgrims from around Ireland. In her talk, Louise also described the popularity of pilgrimage in Medieval times to holy sites outside Ireland such as York, Santiago de Compostela, Rome, or Jerusalem. Those who completed the Santiago Camino wore scallop shells to signify their pilgrim status, an image we had just seen the previous weekend in Cork in the Cathedral of St Mary and St Anne, where we came across a shrine to Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy. There was a statue, a painting, scrolls, but most fascinating of all a reliquary containing a leg bone! Blessed Thaddeus lived in the 15th Century and was appointed a bishop twice but was never able to take up his see because of the activities of the rival clan O’Driscoll.

On our day with Louise we concentrated on the area around Skibbereen. We started off by visiting the 18th Century Church at Glebe, on the banks of the River Ilen. The church and graveyard enjoy a picturesque and peaceful setting and a wander around the graveyard yielded interesting headstones.

Holy Rosary Church at Aughadown, window detail

Holy Rosary Church at Aughadown, window detail

From there we went to the ruined medieval church at Kilcoe, stopping for a quick peak at the notable windows in the Church of the Most Holy Rosary at Aughadown. They deserve a fuller description at a future date, so for now I will include a detail from the rose window at the back of the church, designed and executed by the Harry Clarke studios in 1941.

The church at the tip of the Kilcoe Peninsula was already a ruin in the early 17th century. Although a simple rectangular structure, the pointed arched doorway and the tiny ogival windows mark it as medieval, perhaps as early as 14th or 15th century. Romantic and atmospheric as it is, it has the added advantage of a clear view of Kilcoe Castle, famously restored by Jeremy Irons and gently glowing in the afternoon light as we were there.

Two of the three pilgrims at a holy well

Two of the three pilgrims at a holy well

Louise’s special interest is in holy wells and several audience members the night before had come forward with information about local wells and the practices and beliefs associated with them. Two of the best known and most beloved local wells are situated close to each other at Lough Hyne. Robert is writing about these wells this week so I will leave the detailed description to him.

Our final stop was the village of Castletownshend and the Church of St Barrahane, filling two different functions. First, Louise had been to visit a holy well dedicated to St. Martin of Tours in Clare, and we wanted to show her the Harry Clarke window that Robert had described in his Martinmas post. Second, a trip to St Barrahane’s is always a pilgrimage of a different sort for me, as it is the final resting place of three of my heroes. The first two, of course, are the writing team of Somerville and Ross – more about them in this post. The third is Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville, brother of Edith and a keen amateur archaeologist worthy of a post to himself in the future.

St Louis: detail of Harry Clarke window in St Barrahanes, Castletownshend

St Louis: detail of Harry Clarke window in St Barrahanes, Castletownshend

Come back soon, Louise – these two pilgrims have lots more to show you!