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

Sliding into Kerry

view from the road

My musical acquaintances might think that this post is all about Kerry slides – lively tunes which get aired sometimes at our session: here are some fine examples played by Éamonn O’Riordan, Tony O’Connell, Brian Mooney and Gearóid Ó Duinnín…

But they would be mistaken: this is the tale of a little wintry but sunlit exploration which Finola and I undertook on the eve of St Gobnait’s feast day. It involved crossing the border into Kerry, something which is not lightly done by Corkonians because of traditional rivalries (mainly on the Hurling and Gaelic Football fields). So we had to ‘slide’ over into the Kingdom and hope that none of our friends noticed our temporary absence.

Sheep flock on road

We had things to do in Kenmare (have a look at Finola’s post), but afterwards we took to the byways. We knew there is a remote, lonely and very beautiful road winding up over the mountains, shared only by a few wandering sheep, and determined that would be our way home. We headed off to the tiny settlement of Kilgarvan and there saw a signpost that said Bantry 25: we turned on to the boreen that follows the Roughty and Slaheny Rivers and immediately entered another world.

Macaura's Grave signpost

We hadn’t gone very far along the road before we were intrigued by a brown signpost – beckoning us along an even smaller boreen. Macaura’s Grave: neither of us had any idea who Macaura was, so we had to go and investigate. After about ten minutes of twisting and turning and trying to guess which of the unmarked and unsigned lanes to take whenever we came to a junction, we found ourselves back on the road we had just left! By now we were determined that Macaura was not going to get the better of us, so we flagged down a young lad who was in charge of a fine red tractor. He was very forthcoming, and told us that the grave was well worth a visit, then proceeded to give us a set of instructions that involved turning this way and that – signifying to the air which ways these were. Not a little confused, we drove off again.

View from near grave

It was no hardship to be exploring the magnificent countryside in south Kerry: the views were breathtaking and the variety of colours on the mountains in sunlight and shadow this early spring day was astonishing. A bit more head scratching and a few more twists and turns down a stony trackway and we were there!

Modern sign

Now we knew. Not only had we found the grave of Macaura – that’s the old Irish way of saying McCarthy – but we had come across the site of one of the most significant battles in Irish history! The Irish chieftain, Finín McCarthy (named as the ‘King’ of Kerry – and that’s why Kerry is known as The Kingdom), joined up with the O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork and the O’Donoghues from Ross Castle to rout the Normans, who were led by Sir John Fitzgerald. This battle took place in 1261. 1261! Over eight hundred years ago… This confirms my thesis that you can’t go anywhere in Ireland without stumbling over history. The Anglo-Normans had claimed their stake in Ireland from 1169 when Strongbow (Richard de Clare) arrived with the blessing of Henry II (and the Pope – who saw the Irish church charting its own course and not following Rome!). Reasonably, the Irish chieftains objected to the Norman invaders, hence this confrontation.

Grave Inscription

In the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1961, Volume 66, there is a comprehensive – but not entirely enlightening – article by Diarmud Ó Murchadha on The Battle of Callan:

…Finghin Mac Carthy had learned much from his opponents during his years of conflict, while he had the added advantage of knowing intimately the territory over which he fought. At Callann he chose his battleground, at a spot where a mountainy river called the Slaheny joins the Ruachtach, close by the castle of Ardtully. No doubt he reckoned that here the heavily-armoured cavalry of the invader could be used to the least advantage. Battle was then joined and Finghin mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh emerged victorious… Unfortunately no details of the conflict – apart from the names of those slain – are available. Incidentally, the fullest account of the battle is given, not by the Munster annals, but by the Annals of Loch Ce and Annals of Connacht:

AD 1261 – A great war was waged, and numerous injuries were committed in this year by Finghin, son of Domhnall Mac Carthaigh, and his brothers, against the foreigners.There was a great hosting by the Geraldines into Desmond, to attack Mac Carthy, but it was Mac Carthy attacked them, and defeated them…

The Annals go on to record the fact that Finghin followed up his victory at Callan by attacking and destroying every Norman castle and stronghold in Munster. As the sign over Macaura’s Grave tells us: …he liberated the Kingdom of South Munster from Norman domination forever…

battle-of-callan-site

But who is it that the Macaura Grave celebrates? ‘Donal, Chieftain of the McCarthy Fineens’… Presumably this is not the Finghin, who, according to the Annals, went on after the battle to rout the Normans out of Munster: the Finghin who is known as mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh – ‘son of Domhnaill MacCarthy’. Could it be his father (Donal is an Anglicisation of Domhnaill)? In which case it was the clan chieftain who died in the battle and his son who went on to clear the Normans out of Kerry. There are a few accounts of the battle, but none of them clarify this. It all happened a long time ago, of course, and memories fade. In fact this site was all but lost: an article in The Kerryman takes up the story, illustrated by this photograph:

1981-clearing-the-site-of-the-grave

…The men of Kilgarvan were busy in November 1981 – making a road fit for a king! The king in question is Finín McCarthy who died in 1261 after being the first Irish king to defeat the Normans, thus giving Kerry the name of the Kingdom… Legend has it that after the battle, McCarthy stood on a ditch to survey the battlefield, when a dying Norman killed him with an arrow. McCarthy was buried on the spot, and a large slab was used as a headstone. The grave now lies on a narrow little road in Callan beside Tom Healy’s farm. When retired Dublin civil servant Frank Shanley spent a recent holiday in Kilgarvan he went looking for the grave, which was buried by shrubs and bushes… He decided to organise a meeting of the local men to try and get them to improve the grave and access to it…. It was Dan O’Sullivan, Down, Tom O’Donoghue and Michael Teehan, who were slaving away widening the roadway from eight feet wide to 16 feet, when he visited in November 1981… Apart from the narrow roadway and the briars and trees, there was also a steady stream of water running over the grave, but the men got the pipes to divert the water in another direction. There was no actual inscription on the grave that the men could read, but there were a series of lines and crosses on it, which they hope will be examined by an expert…. They hope that when they have the roadway to the grave cleared, they can erect signposts to the grave, and notices around the grave telling the history of McCarthy’s death in the battle of Callan…

Macaura's Grave

So we have the ‘men of Kilgarvan’ – back in the 80s – to thank for leading us to this now tranquil but historically turmoiled and fascinating spot. There is still the puzzle of which McCarthy is commemorated: perhaps we’ll never know for sure. But it’s not bad to have access to a story which has survived for the best part of nine hundred years – just about within living memory by Irish standards! After this excitement we continued our journey over the spectacular Coomhola road through the mountains towards Ballylickey and gently slid back into West Cork. If you can cope with very narrow roads (it’s not so bad – we only saw two other vehicles, both local farmers, in the whole 25 kilometres!) it’s one of the great road trips of Ireland – with the added bonus of a history lesson to be taken in.

Beyond the tunnel

Sheep on the edge

The Winding Road