Heritage Sites of Co. Cork

Church of Saints Peter and Paul (RC), Cork City

Approached by a narrow laneway to its main western entrance, the designated site for this church was subject to much debate during the initial planning stages. A concern addressed by The Dublin Builder in numerous articles throughout 1860, when building had already commenced, was the situation of the church and it being surrounded by high buildings on all sides. It was feared that this costly and handsome edifice would not be exhibited to its greatest advantage and what should be a prominent feature of the cityscape would most likely be obscured and hidden from view. Despite its imperfect location, this church is nevertheless spectacular in its appearance.

Building of the church commenced under Barry McMullen in 1859 to the designs of Edward Welby Pugin. It replaced an older church, built in 1786, and the cost, excluding the tower and spire, was estimated to be about £11,000. The proposed bell tower and spire, as shown in the selected design by Pugin published in The Building News and Engineering Journal in June 1859, was left unfinished as was the carving of the west front, the stone for which remains in projecting rectilinear blocks on the façade. Clearly the funds were never raised for its completion and work left undone. The church was consecrated and opened to the public for worship in 1866.

Saint Peter’s and Paul’s was the first major commission in Cork city of the Victorian Gothic Revival. Clad brilliantly in chisel-faced local red sandstone from Glanmire, with Irish limestone trim, Portland stone tracery, and polished Cork red limestone and Peterhead granite decoration, it exuberates the polychromatic taste of mid-nineteenth century Irish ecclesiastical architecture. The carved grey limestone on the exterior, although an exact quarry source is yet to be identified, is almost certainly Irish and likely from the surrounding area.

The interior ashlar, arches and chancel are of cream coloured, oolitic, Jurassic limestone from Bath in the county of Somerset, England. Large columns of Connemara marble divide both transepts from the isles. Colonnettes of the same stone as well as Cork red limestone from Little Island, and Sicilian white marble feature in side chapels, choir and chancel.

The robust columns supporting the arches of the nave are in Cork red limestone, sourced from quarries in Fermoy and Churchtown. This is the first known structural use of Cork red limestone in a church interior; the pioneering, and somewhat experimental, application of this decorative lime conglomerate in a weight-bearing, structural sense took place in the Museum Building of Trinity College Dublin less than a decade earlier.

All of the interior columns surmount octagonal sub-bases of Cork red limestone and black polished limestone from the superior quarry at Foynes in Co. Limerick. The pedestals beneath the columns are also of polished Foynes limestone. The carved capitals are of Mansfield white sandstone from Nottinghamshire in England.

The interior and exterior of Saint Peter’s and Paul’s showcases an important and varied collection of Irish building stone and decorative polished limestone, which celebrates our local stone resources and craftsmanship.

Further reading:

Geology of Co. Cork

The rocks in Co. Cork largely span the Devonian (415-360 million years ago [Ma]) to Carboniferous (360-300 Ma) periods. However, there is a small occurrence of older Silurian rocks in the northeast of the county on the edge of the Galtee Mountains. For millions of years during the Devonian Ireland was part of a large continent. In general the climate was seasonally wet and a sparsity of terrestrial vegetation allowed dunes to form in places. Temporary rivers flowed towards the south and in times of rainfall these became torrents with flash flooding and they carried coarse cobbles and pebbles as well as sands downstream. These later were also lithified and are called conglomerates (coarse) and sandstone that collectively make up the Old Red Sandstone.

At the beginning of the Carboniferous an ocean began to spread northwards over Ireland. In south Cork a deep marine basin developed called the Munster Basin and this became infilled with shales and mudstones, many of which now contain flattened fossils. Overlying this were deposited limestones, which were precipitated in a shallow, warm tropical ocean. Later in the Upper Carboniferous large southwest flowing rivers carried muds and shales into a deepening ocean, while close by at the same time forests in warm swamps thrived. The shales now cover the northwest of the county and the plants, which had become compressed by overlying rocks, turned into coal that was for many years mined at Kanturk.

Approximately 270 Ma during the Permian period a mountain-building event called the Variscan affected the rocks in Co. Cork. Two continents collided and the rocks were folded into a series of ridges (anticlines) and valleys (synclines) that have an east-west orientation. Across the ridges erosion has removed the younger rocks to expose the Old Red Sandstone while in the valleys the younger Carboniferous rocks still remain. By and large the rivers in Cork flow along the limestone synclines and in the west they have been drowned by seawater to form rias.

Metal deposits such as copper were carried by hot fluids into the rocks of west Cork and these were later mined. During the Jurassic, around 180 Ma, and later during the Paleogene, much of Ireland was land and the exposed limestone became riddled with caves and fissures. Some of these cavities became infilled with clay and are now the only rare evidence for these very young rocks or sediments in the county. Jurassic clays have been found at Cloyne, near Cork, while Paleogene clays are known from Ballygiblin, near Cecilstown.

Cork red limestone: This Lower Carboniferous lime conglomerate, which is a clastic sedimentary rock (composed of fragments, or clasts, of pre-existing minerals and rock), was used for decorative work in churches and other buildings until the 1920s. Quarried at Midleton, Little Island, Fermoy and Churchtown, it contains small circular crinoid fossils, white calcite pebbles, dark red wavy clay seams called stylolites and white cross-cutting calcite veins. It is susceptible to a polish and therefore is referred to as a marble within the stone trade. The red colouration of the clay matrix is a haematitic stain, which comes from iron oxides eroded from the underlying Old Red Sandstone.

Map legend: Geological Map of Limerick (based on GSI 1:1,000,000 map 2003). Green: Silurian; Beige: Devonian sandstones and conglomerates; Dark blue: Lower Carboniferous sandstones and mudstones; Light blue: Lower Carboniferous limestone; Brown: Upper Carboniferous shales and coal.