Pillars of the church may save the nave

 

IT TOOK £150 worth of gun-powder to deprive Waterford, in the late 18th century, of a fine Norse cathedral whose plan coincided closely with that of Dublin's Christ Church.

That represented a huge amount of explosives at the time, and the decision to level the ancient cathedral is described candidly by one latter-day authoritative guidebook as having demonstrated "execrable taste".

It was taken in the dubious cause of modernisation, which influenced municipal fashion then as now, and the Holy Trinity Cathedral, constructed around the year 1096, was reduced to rubble.

In its place was built Waterford's present Christ Church Cathedral, a neo-classical Georgian structure considered to be the finest 18th-century building in the city.

This building, too, suffered depredations over the years - first by an accidental fire in 1815, and then, in 1891, by more ill-conceived "modernisation". Its fine old galleries and square pews were removed and its ground-level windows eventually blocked up.

The Church of Ireland cathedral is still of unique architectural interest and draws thousands of visitors to see its historical artefacts and medieval funeral monuments. But it desperately needs structural repairs and refurbishment to restore its magnificence, and a project called Conservation 2000 is under way to raise much of the £1 million required.

Last week the restoration committee enlisted the cathedral pillars to bear spoken witness to a thousand years of history. The first church audio show in Ireland was formally launched by the Dean of Waterford, the Very Rev Benjamin Neill.

It will give visitors a stereo "sound tapestry" of the great events which the cathedral and its predecessor have seen.

The 45-minute programme relates the story of the politically convenient marriage of the Norman Earl, Strongbow, to Aoife, daughter of Diarmuid McMurrough, King of Leinster, in 1170. This sealed the outcome of the Norman Invasion, the loss of Celtic Ireland to a foreign power, and its repercussions are still felt up to the present day.

The explosive demolition of 1773 is recalled with deafening sound effects from the pillar-mounted loudspeakers, and the narrative also describes the only State funeral to have taken place in Waterford, that of Sir Peter Carew in 1575.

Blending music with history and anecdote, the audio show, Let the Pillars Speak, introduces visitors seated in the nave to the architectural evolution of the cathedral and the stories behind its tombs and monuments.

The project director of Conservation 2000, Simon Harrison says: "We were anxious to create a visitor attraction as a means of raising funds to restore the cathedral. At the same time we wanted to avoid the usual `packaged heritage' and come up with something that would be exciting and entertaining while also being informative and suitable to the surroundings of an active parish church."

The £3 fee for the performance (with group rates also available) will go to the conservation project, which will start this year with a £40,000 grant allocated in the recent round of conservation funding. Further State and European funding is being pursued, and discussions are continuing to secure FAS labour, although some of the restoration work will require the attention of specialists.

The monuments in the cathedral commemorate and record the passing of the major ecclesiastical figures and merchants of Waterford through the centuries. A plaque pays tribute to William McCleverty, of Co Antrim, who accompanied Commodore Anson on his expedition around the world.

Other marble inscriptions and plates convey a sense of the tremendous losses which the Crimean War and the Great War visited upon leading Waterford families.

These conflicts reaped a tragic harvest of the very young, such as Lieut Vincent Mackesy "who, having been engaged in the hard-fought fields of Alma, Balaklava and Inkerman, and having undergone the dangers and privations of the Crimean Winter Campaign, in the siege operations before Sevastopol was attacked with fever and died at Scutari the 7th day of March 1855, aged 24 years."

When the restoration is complete, the cathedral, in addition to continuing as a Christian place of worship, will become a venue for concerts, recitals and exhibitions, adding to the cultural life of Waterford.