Saint Laserian's Cathedral, Old Leiglin



The cathedral is one of Ireland's most important, yet understated, ecclesiastical sites. It is also Carlow's oldest working building. Nestling in the village of Old Leighlin, the Saint Laserian's is for many an undiscovered gem.

The community at Leighlin [literally, 'half-glen'] was formed by Saint Gobhan around 600CE. His successor, Saint Laserian the first bishop of Leighlin, presided over a monastic community of around fifteen hundred people. Laserian is celebrated for the synod held in Leighlin in 630CE which led to the Irish church adopting the Roman calendar in defining the date of Easter. This points to the prominence and significance of the Leighlin site.

The original wooden structure was destroyed by fire after which Bishop Donatus [1152-1185] began the present building. Most of the fabric dates from the 12th and 13th centuries, whereas the tower and transepts derive from the episcopate of Bishop Saunders [1527-1549].

The cathedral is full of mystery, dark events and unanswered questions. Almost no part of the building is symmetrical with any other. Windows are in sharp stylistic conflict. The Nave for some puzzling reason has no windows at all. Uniquely, there are four sedilia, one raised above the other, perhaps providing an insight on ancient and more disdainful views of bishops. There are doors which are blocked up and whose purpose is uncertain. The proportionate size of the newly-restored Lady Chapel is inexplicable. The crude 17th buttress is allowed to barbarously block the fine 13th chancel window. And there is the underground passage whose purpose and direction illicit only uncertain explanation.

Then there are intimations of chilling events. The brutal murder of Bishop Doran by his archdeacon is marked by the bishop#39;s tomb in front of the altar. The murderous archdeacon was himself hanged on the site. The pulpit too calls to remembrance the sectarian murder of Dean Finlay, a tragic victim of the partition conflicts of the last century.

But rising above such dark aberrations, the cathedral shyly discloses its treasures and curiosities. The chancel font predates the cathedral itself, its roughly-hewn surfaces indicating the use of hand tools. Closer inspection will uncover the remarkable fact that this columned font is made from a single piece of Kilkenny marble. Impressive too is the 13thC decorated font in the nave which was originally sited at Gowran abbey. Equally fascinating are the floor and altar tombs and their inscriptions, the most noted being the tomb of William O'Byrne [obit 1569] with its detailed iconography. Other aspects of the cathedral require searching out, a characteristic of the building's reticence. An example of such is the almost unnoticeable Rood-ring under the west tower arch. This would have hung a large and highly decorated crucifix flanked by Our Lady and the Beloved Disciple.

The cathedral's benefactors and aesthetic embellishment is not restricted to the distant past. One of its most striking visual aspects is the extraordinary East Window installed as a memorial by the Vigors family. The window is rich in colour and imagery and is one of the best examples of the work of Catherine O'Brien [1881-1963] who was an iconic figure in the “An Túr Gloine” (The Tower of Glass) school.

Today the cathedral continues its development and renewal. The Lady Chapel is undergoing complete restoration and a new service area and toilet block are being installed. This will open-up the building more widely for cultural, educational and diocesan use. Discreet solar heating has been also been installed together with disability access. This painstaking work is under the direction of the best conservation and archaeological expertise available.

VISITING US:

You are most welcome to visit at any time during daylight hours. During summer months the cathedral is open every day. At other times a visit can be arranged by telephoning or emailing the dean. There is no charge for individual access to the cathedral but a donation to cathedral funds is greatly appreciated.

SCHOOL, PARISH & COMMUNITY GROUPS:

Schools: We welcome groups from schools and colleges etc. The cathedral offers informal school activity trails tailored to different age groups. These explore the historical and architectural aspects of the cathedral as a window on its Christian faith and heritage. The trail is facilitated by the dean and is in conjunction with individual activity worksheets. Activity trails take about two hours. Teachers and students are welcome to bring a packed lunch.

Parish and Community Groups: We frequently welcome day tours from a wide range of localities and interest groups. Some are educational trips whilst others are recreational parish outings. We are very happy to provide a guided tour of the cathedral and also offer coffee and refreshments to groups who visit us. Guided tours with coffee last about an hour. Our more recent group visitors have included parish day-trips from near and far, history clubs and the Veteran Car Club of Britain and Ireland. Parking for cars and buses is available on site.

Group Costs: There is no set charge for group tours or activity trails. However, a donation of €5 per head is suggested for adult groups where coffee and cakes/biscuits are provided. A donation of €3 per head is suggested for school groups with a minimum donation of €100 per group. The activity handout is provided by the cathedral and is printed by the school.

Facilities: The cathedral is presently undergoing significant restoration which will include the provision of toilets and services facilities. Presently there are no toilets or shop on site but these are available in the village. Information leaflets and cathedral postcards are available for visitors as well as a wide selection of County Carlow Tourism literature.

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