[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 14 September 2006, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Irish row over cathedral revamp
By James Helm
BBC News, Dublin

St Colman's Cathedral
St Colman's Cathedral towers above the town of Cobh
With its brightly-painted shops down by the water's edge and its rich history, Cobh, just a few miles from the city of Cork, attracts thousands of visitors each year.

In harsher times, crowds of poor and desperate Irish people departed by ship from here, many heading to America in the hope of a better life.

In 1912 it was from the waters off Cobh (pronounced "cove") that the Titanic left on its ill-fated voyage across the Atlantic.

These days there is a museum where day-trippers can learn about the Titanic.

Also on the tourist trail, and impossible for any visitors to Cobh to miss, is the huge, grey building looking down from its perch high above the town.

It's to give people a better experience of the celebration of worship
Father Killeen

Many climb the steep paths up to St Colman's Cathedral. It towers over Cobh, the chimes of its bells providing the sound track for daily life below.

The Cathedral, visible for miles around, is at the centre of a divisive row which has pitted devout campaigners against the church authorities, and brought the Catholic Church up against the planning authorities of the Irish state.

Under debate is a plan to reconfigure the church's interior.

Liturgy changes

Work began on St Colman's in the 1860s and was not finished until 1915, three years after the sinking of the Titanic. The style is described as neo-Gothic.

Once through its doors, it is the scale of the place that first hits you, and the ornate beauty. This is one of Ireland's finest cathedrals.

In the 1960s, the Catholic Church's hierarchy met for the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II, as it became known, produced some profound changes to Catholic liturgy, or worship.

St Colman's Cathedral
The cathedral has some of Ireland's finest Gothic Revival features

Mass, for example, was said in languages other than Latin; priests no longer led Mass with their backs to the worshippers.

Some bishops also saw Vatican II as reason to change the interior of churches, to bring priests and the faithful closer together. Many Irish churches, among them important cathedrals, have since been radically altered.

Father Jim Killeen is a priest in the diocese, and he showed me round St Colman's. The original plans for change involved removing marble altar rails, and lifting up mosaic flooring.

A temporary altar made of plywood, in place since the 1960s, would be replaced. Father Killeen says that at present this 19th-Century church is not meeting 21st-Century needs.

"What we are trying to do is arrange the interior of the Cathedral so that the modern liturgy can be celebrated as well as possible," he told me. "It's to give people a better experience of the celebration of worship here in St Colman's Cathedral."

Vehement opposition

Down by the harbour, I met some of the leading campaigners, devout Catholics, who have vehemently opposed plans which they see as unnecessary.

The building on the hillside behind them, they stress, has successfully met the spiritual needs of local people for many years, and will continue to do so.

There isn't any need whatsoever to change any part of it
Adrian O'Donovan
Friends of St Colman's Cathedral

Changes have been made to cathedrals in other Irish towns such as Carlow and Killarney, and they don't want the same happening here.

Adrian O'Donovan, the spokesman for Friends of St Colman's Cathedral, said their main objections were on spiritual, financial, and architectural grounds.

"St Colman's is quite open as it is. There isn't any need whatsoever to change any part of it," he said, referring to the plans as "destructive".

In the last few years, new planning laws have allowed the Irish state to become involved in the process, and to intervene if it does not approve of planning applications made by churches.

This summer a planning appeal board refused the Church permission to make the alterations. The Church must now have a rethink if it wants to redesign the church.

The Catholic bishops voiced their disappointment, and some are concerned that, as they see it, the state can now get involved in spiritual matters.

St Colman's Cathedral
The Titanic sailed past St Colman's Cathedral on its fatal voyage

Patsy McGarry writes on religious affairs for the Irish Times newspaper, and he believes the row symbolises a changing Ireland, where the power of the Catholic Church has waned in a range of areas.

"Certainly 15 years ago there would have been no-one else involved but the bishop," he said.

"The traditionalists would probably never have got involved in opposing him either. That's the ironic thing - that some of the most loyal of Catholics are the strongest opponents of the bishop's desire to bring about changes in his cathedral."

The Church now has the option to revise its plans for St Colman's, and submit a fresh, modified planning application to the authorities.

It says it wants to square the needs of modern-day worshippers with the importance of heritage.

For their part, the campaigners vow to continue the fight to keep this old place of worship just as it is.

Inside St Colman's Cathedral

Country profile: Ireland
12 Jul 06 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific