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Renovation in Raphoe

Raphoe Cathedral is planning to undertake a major renovation project over the next few years to help maintain its building for generations to come.  The Dean, the Very Revd Arthur Barrett, reflects on the cathedral’s history, parish life today and its plans going forward.

Dean Arthur Barrett at St Eunan's Cathedral, Raphoe.
Dean Arthur Barrett at St Eunan's Cathedral, Raphoe.

How was Raphoe significant in Ireland’s early Christian history?

Raphoe was one of the earliest Christian settlements that was associated with Columba.  There was an ancient monastic site on the site now occupied by the cathedral.  Columba was born not so very far away – in Gartan, just outside Letterkenny.  The name Raphoe is Irish is Ráth Bhoth, which means ‘the fort of the huts’ and it’s likely that that refers to the actual original wooden huts of the monks who were here.  From here, Columba went on to Derry and headed up the Foyle and away to Iona.  In his footsteps came his cousin Eunan, who developed the monastery in Raphoe, and later succeeded Columba as the ninth Abbot of Iona.  It is reputed that on his death, his remains were returned to Raphoe, and that he is buried on the site of the cathedral. So a very ancient Celtic heritage is linked with Raphoe.

Early Christian sculpture of the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, St Eunan's Cathedral, Raphoe.
Early Christian sculpture of the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, St Eunan's Cathedral, Raphoe.

And what is the history of the cathedral?

There are many different fabric aspects to it, and it dates back in some parts to the 12th and 13th centuries.  We have a carved lintel stone which has been dated to the 12th century, and which depicts the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Most of it is intact and inside the cathedral, and part of it is still embedded in the outer wall of the cathedral.

The cathedral, as it stands, is mostly from the 18th century.  There were two transepts originally which, for whatever reason, were taken away; an old lathe–and–plaster wall on the inside was taken down and they rediscovered the old sedilia seats that are now the canon stalls.  They had obviously been hidden for possibly a couple of hundred years.  Around those seats there are carvings that depict shamrocks – it’s believed that they are possibly one of the first evidences in ecclesiastical architecture of references to St Patrick.

The newest part of the cathedral is the very tall square tower, built in 1738, which is very prominent to the cathedral and to the town as well.  It has a clock face on each face of the tower, which is unusual, and it’s affectionately known as the town clock.

St Eunan's Cathedral, Raphoe, viewed from William Street.
St Eunan's Cathedral, Raphoe, viewed from William Street.

What does parish life look like today?

Raphoe parish is a busy place.  While we are a cathedral for the Diocese of Raphoe, we are for the most part a parish church.  We’ve services, obviously, every Sunday and we have organisations involved within the parish – Mothers’ Union, bowling club, a choir and so on – but we’re very much part of the wider community as well.  The cathedral itself is open every day – all day long – and people do come and it’s interesting to see from our visitors’ book where people come from.

Raphoe itself has two large secondary schools – the Royal and Prior School, and Deele College – both with around 600 pupils.  We’ve a very busy mart on a Monday and a Thursday, and we’ve two national schools in the town as well; our own Central National School is one of the largest national schools under Protestant management in the county.


What will the renovation project seek to achieve?

Well, we knew that there were issues with the fabric of the building and we got a conditions survey done a couple of years ago.  The works that need to be done on the cathedral are really quite extensive.  It’s going to involve re–roofing the whole cathedral on the outside, putting in new natural slates plus all the associated lead flashings, wall plate and timber, guttering, downpipes and drainage.  We have works to do on the very roof of the tower and on some of the stonework around the whole building as well.


And how can people help with this?

On our website – www.raphoecathedral.ie – we have a banner for the renovation project and, as part of that, last year we commissioned a short video that helps to set the cathedral in the context of where it is, its history, the community as it is now, and our desire to maintain this beautiful building for generations to come.

The website includes a link to a PayPal page and we’ll soon be launching our ‘buy–a–slate’ campaign which we’re hoping will go far and wide.  We’re also inviting those who so wish to be benefactors of the cathedral; this is for those who would like to make a significant donation and we would include them in a roll of benefactors when the project is complete.

You can view the video below, provided courtesy of the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe: