The cathedral in the square

“Galway, the Capital of Connacht, historic metropolis of the Tribes and one of the principal cities of Ireland, looks sad, lonely, sorrowful and dejected without a cathedral, a cathedral towering over, and proudly commanding by its majestic presence the city and its surroundings. Our beautiful plaza, the Square, and I don’t mean the Green with its shoddy rusty time-worn railings — stands as it were, already prepared — God’s Holy Acre long waiting for the Cathedral of the rising resurgent west. The railings would of course be removed making the Green a spacious foreground, and incidentally a delightful parking space, an area almost as large as the Square itself. No spot on earth is good enough for God’s House and “the place where His glory dwelleth”. The Square is the best Galway can give”.

Some quotes there from a letter to the Connacht Tribune in December 1953, written by someone who signed himself ‘Pro Deo et Galvia’. I don’t know where the idea of placing the cathedral in the Square originally came from, but our illustration shows what a disaster it would have been. It is an aerial photograph of the Square and surrounding buildings showing the Great Southern Hotel and the station towards the top of picture, on which a photograph (on the same scale ) of the model of the Cathedral has been superimposed. It gives a frightening idea of the space the building would have taken in the Square.

The above letter drew a furious response from citizens who said the plan would deprive the citizens of amenities they have enjoyed for generations. ‘Four Old Residents’ responded with a letter of their own reminding ‘Pro Deo et Galvia’ and others that “the citizens of the city and county, through their elected representatives, gave the bishop the former Galway Jail with the express purpose of building the Cathedral there. His lordship praised the County Council for their generosity and commented on the site’s eminent suitability, located as it is on open ground, by the side of the Corrib with ample room for parking and development. With the removal of the big wall surrounding the jail, what a beautiful vista would be opened up, the new cathedral would loom up, a living testament of Galwegians’ faith and religious and civic pride.”

‘Pro Deo et Galvia’ responded that while the Square, a bowery of indolence and ease, was the rendezvous and recreative ground for so many citizens, ‘it was the choice par excellence of the city’s lots, which only makes it the greater reason why the people should offer their choicest gift to the “Giver of all good gifts”.

The bishop also had his eye on the site of the Shambles Barracks on Bridge Street as a possible location for the Cathedral. The groups of four plots in our illustration are flowerbeds and were ‘merely suggestions’. Looking at it, it is hard to imagine the nightmare scenario of Galway traffic during the Novena if this idea were allowed to stand.

The Cathedral design is a monument to our imitative instincts and our conservative distrust of artistic originality. Our church authorities remained faithful to the Middle Ages and refused to abandon medieval architecture in the commissioning of this important building. Architect Ian Nairn, writing in the Sunday Observer in April 1966 described the design as follows: “All the good intentions and genuine devotion have produced a costly absurdity; for this is ersatz eclectic, not the real thing”. Vatican II came just a little late for Galway.


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