St Mary's Cathedral, Tuam

By Samuel J. Maguire

Built by the O'Connors

After his defeat of Amalgaid O'Flaherty King of West Connaught in 1049, Hugh O'Connor, King of Connaught made Tuam his principal stronghold and this event was directly responsible for the subsequent rise in importance of the town. We find no reference to the Cathedral, however, until 1134 in which year Tighernach states that "The Cathach of St. Iarflaith was desecrated by the Dalcassians". The Annuals of Lough Ce also refer to this incident which evidently occurred during the campaign against the Northern half of Ireland by the armies of Irish and Danes lead by Conor O'Brien and other chieftens. The party who actually plundered Tuam were lead by Cumea-more Macconmara King of Ibh. Caisin in Thomond, who was killed the following year when the Desmonians under Cormac Mac Carthy invaded Thomond.

This Church was replaced by a great cathedral built by King Turlough Mor O'Connor but the actual date of the erection is not known. What evidence there is, however, suggests that it was built between the years 1128 and 1150. Ware states that it was built "about the year 1152 by the Archbishop Edan O'Hoisin by the aid and assistance of Turlough O'Connor King of Ireland". Petrie disagrees with this date however, and he bases his argument upon a consideration of the inscription on the High Cross standing in the market place in Tuam and of which he states:

"That this cross was of contemporaneous age with the church and was intended as a memorial of its founders or rebuilders there can be no reason to doubt. Such was the cross of the Scriptures at Clanmacnoise which ... was designed as a memorial of the erection of the great church there and such also was the triple shafted cross at Cashel"
Cross at Market Square, Tuam

A photograph of the Cross at Market Square, Tuam; the photograph was taken on 5 February, 1969 and is part of the Lawrence collection at Galway library.

The inscriptions on the base of the Tuam Cross indicate that it was erected during the reign of King Turlough O'Connor (1128, 1156) and one inscription in particular asks for "A prayer for O'Ossin; for the Abbot; by whom it was made". This Abbot was of course, Hugh O'Hoisin the successor of Maurice O'Nioc who died in 1128. He subsequently became Bishop upon the death of Maurice O'Duffy in 1150 and first Archbishop of Tuam by enactment of the Synod of Kells in 1152. this definitely places the date of the cross during his abbacy which terminated in 1150 and if we accept the suggestion that it was made to commemorate the building of the cathedral, the latter edifice must have been erected some years earlier.

Architecture of the Cathedral

Fortunately, the channel of this cathedral still stands and it is possible from it to appreciate the magnitude and beauty of the whole edifice which was destroyed not very many years after its erection. In fact, this portion is still in use, having been incorporated in the modern cathedral erected in the last century.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Tuam

A photograph of St. Mary's Cathedral, Tuam; the photograph is part of the National Library of Ireland collection.

The semi-circular channel arch is accepted as being the finest example of Hiberno-Romanesque architecture now extant. It consists of six concentric arches decreasing in width at the base from 20' 6" to 15' 8" and in height from 19' 5" to 16'. The column shafts are plain but the rectangular capitals are beautifully carved with patterns of interlacery and fantastic faces. There is also some excellent work on the imposts and the arch mouldings are decorated with chevron, diamond frette and nebule designs.

In the East wall are three windows with circular tops each 5' in height and narrowing from a width of 5' on the inside of 1' 6" externally. These are also elaborately carved in zig-zag and other designs. The walls are four feet thick and the chancel itself is a square building with an external measurement of about 26'. Petrie in his Round Towers and Ancient Architecture of Ireland, page 317, refers to this interesting relic as follows:

"Of the ancient church of Tuam the chancle only remains, but fortunately, this is sufficient to make us acquainted with its general style of architecture, and to show that it was not only a larger, but a more splendid structure than Cormac's church as Cashel and not unworthy of the powerful monarch to whom it chiefly owed its erection".

Archbishops in Tuam

Aod O'Hoisin the Archbishop died in 1161 and was buried in his cathedral. A monument with an Irish inscription is said to have been placed over his grave but there is now no trace of it nor is the location of the grave known.

Archbishop o'Hoisin was succeeded in 1161 by Catholicus O'Duffy an Augustinian and the Annals of the Four Masters report his presence at the Council of Athboy when in 1168 Roderick O'Connor was proclaimed High King of Ireland. Four years afterwards, O'Connor conveyed a synod of the clergy and laity of Leath Cuinn at Tuam and on this occasion, three churches were consecrated by Archbishop O'Duffy. The Annals of Leinster also refer to this event but neither authority specifically mentions the Cathedral.

Turbulence in the Twelfth Century

The twelfth century appears to have been a stormy period in the history of Tuam. In addition to the destruction done by the Dalcassians in 1134 it was again pillaged in 1137 during a war between the men of Meath and the men of Breifne. The Annals of the Four Masters state that in 1155 Tuam, Cill-dara and Kilmain were burned and a further burning of the town in 1164 is referred to by Langan.

Tuam was again destroyed in 1177 when Murtagh the son of Roderick O'Connor having fallen out with his father, went to FitzAdelin in Dublin having invited him to invade Connaught. A force of knight's archers and cavalry was despatched under the leadership of Milo de Cogan and having reached Tuam without opposition they burned the place. The Connaught men then adopted a scorched earth policy with the result that the invaders had to withdraw to avoid death by starvation. They were pursued by King Roderick who eventually attacked them near the Shannon, and few of them survived the encounter. Murtagh O'Connor was captured and his father caused him to be blinded in both eyes as a penalty for his mutiny. This burning of the town is mentioned in the Irish Annals (TR. Th. p. 634). O'Flaherty refers to another burning of the town in 1179 but there is no record as to whether this was malicious or accidental. (See Knox History of the Diocese of Tuam). The Cathedral survived these vicissitudes however until 1184 in which year the Annals of Lough Ce record that "The great church of Tuam-da-Ghualann fell in one day, both roof and stone".