Along the river Barrow, nestled upon a Caledonian batholith, on the Kilkenny side of the bank, lies a little town named Graiguenamanagh. It is in this village that our story begins, with a man called Gorman who was busy cutting Granite on the Quay of Graigue so that it could be loaded onto a boat and sent down river to New Ross. Only twenty miles inland from Waterford Harbour, and with a river depth capable of supporting a ship burdened with up to 600 tons of stock at high tide, eighteenth century New Ross, with its grand, romantic bank, was once a thriving independent port. As an agricultural town New Ross was well situated for trade and it became a branch port to the larger port of Waterford. Export trade, including beer and porter from New Ross, was reshipped for transport to the New World. It has been said that many a sailor and emigrant was made in New Ross, those sailing to Newfoundland would have found kin among the more than 10,000 Roman Catholics who had made St. John’s their home by the mid 1830s.
We can imagine Gorman’s granite being loaded onto one of these ships, sharing its three month journey across the Atlantic with barrels of pork and oats and casks of butter, since New Ross, and the mercantile port in St. John’s harbour, focused on food export. Maybe even a slab of black marble, quarried from the hills of Ballysimon, in County Limerick joined in the journey. For Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming, the Irish Franciscan Vicar Apostolic of St. John’s, had a dream that was bigger than the local materials in Newfoundland could support. Bishop Fleming wasn’t only looking to replace the little chapel that was in danger of collapsing under the weight of Canadian winters, he wanted to produce an edifice that said to the local British ascendancy and Government House that the Irish had arrived, were staying and demanded recognition.
When Bishop Fleming began his petition to the British government in 1834 he could hardly have guessed that it would take four years to secure a tract of land, fitting as it was, overlooking the town on a ridge that had been used for hurling matches. Excavation began in May of 1839 with a flurry of activity, so determined were the local congregation to excavate the 8,800 cubic yards of soil that kitchen aprons were used when buckets ran scarce. Their perseverance was rewarded and on the 20th of May 1841, coinciding with the start of the Great Irish Famine, Bishop Fleming laid the corner stone on what was to be the largest Irish cathedral built anywhere outside of Ireland. By late 1848, with the cathedral nearing completion, slaters by the name of Conway arrived from Waterford, tasked with the job of securing the roof. What had begun as a dream, born of a man who hailed from Carrick-on-Suir in the Barrow valley, ended for Bishop Fleming on Christmas Day 1850. Celebrating mass in the unfinished cathedral was to be his last public act, he died six months later on the 14th of July.
What had been a migratory outpost for cod fishing in the early 1800s grew into a permanent settlement and by 1840 nearly half of Newfoundland’s population hailed from Ireland. St. John’s became just another Irish parish, separated by 2,000 miles of ocean, known colloquially as ‘merely Waterford parted from the sea’. And it was in this New World parish that the Irish came together to create a church that became the leading ethnic institution on the island of Newfoundland. Bishop John T. Mullock, Fleming’s successor, took seriously the task of ensuring the cathedral’s interior reflected the best of Irish talent. Statues by John Hogan and John Edward Carew, both from County Waterford, reflected colours from the stained glassed windows bought with money donated from Irish parishioners. Bells, by James Murphy of Dublin, called parishioners to prayer. Such was the impact of St. John’s cathedral that its influence crossed the ocean back home, a rare example of ‘trans-Atlantic bounce’ that can be seen in St. Teresa’s in Clarendon Street, Dublin.
As for Gorman’s granite, the constant freezing and thawing, as one season stretched into another, proved tough conditions. Successive Bishops did what they could to maintain the stonework exterior and strengthen the cathedral’s structural integrity. The interior of the cathedral, so full of Irish heritage, was restored in the 1950s. A space so lovingly crafted by Irish hands was considered dowdy and underwhelming by Archbishop Patrick Skinner and, under the watchful eye of Monsignor Harold Summers, he made it his mission to engender it with a modern vision in time for the ‘Year of Joy’ celebrations in 1955. The names of Irish parishioners, hand-painted under each of the twenty-eight large stained-glass windows to honour their donations, got the same lick of paint as the walls and the pink granite columns. Carew’s angels were discarded and his stone statue was moved outdoors, where it promptly disintegrated. And yet, despite all of this, St. John’s cathedral stands and reflects a people who sailed across the sea, named a rock on the Eastern most corner of Canada ‘Talamh an Éisc’ and made it home. Possible, in part, because of Gorman’s granite and the trade routes established at Waterford harbour.