History of Saint Eunan’s Cathedral, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal
However you approach Letterkenny – from Derry in the east, Gweedore and Glenties in the west, Fanad and Falcarragh in the north or Donegal and Ballybofey in the south – the tall spire of St. Eunan’s Cathedral greets you.
This beautifully-proportioned building was completed, not in the fourteenth century, but in the twentieth and that there were only eleven years between the formation of the Cathedral Building Committee in 1890, by the then Bishop of Raphoe – later Cardinal O’Donnell, whose statue stands just left of the main porch and the dedication and opening of the Cathedral in 1901.
In the 1830’s Dr. Patrick McGettigan caused a parish church to be built on the same site as the present Cathedral; before that there had been a church on the Glencar Road. Between the two sites, a hundred yards north of the Cathedral, is Sentry Hill, from which according to tradition, a sentry kept watch while priests celebrated Mass during the years of persecution. Rodger’s Burn was the site of an old mass rock, not a mile from the present Cathedral – a tangible link with the time of the Penal Laws. Another link with those days is the Penal Cross preserved in the Cathedral. These crosses were made for easy concealment at a time when the practice of Catholicism was outlawed.
Bishop (later Archbishop) Daniel McGettigan (1861-1870) had plans drawn up for a Cathedral; his idea was to build the tower first, which would stimulate the building of the rest. While Dr. McDevitt was Bishop of Raphoe (1871-1879) the Cathedral project was constantly before his mind, and his successor, Dr. Logue (1879-1888), subsequently Archbishop of Armagh, secured sizeable bequests for this purpose.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century it was felt possible to proceed; many people had expressed their willingness to provide financial support. Many of the Cathedral’s treasures are gifts of individuals – for example, the Sanctuary Lamp was given by Mrs. Catherine McDevitt of Stonepark, Glenties, and the figure of St. Columba to the south of the Cathedral Porch is the gift of Mrs. Cornelia Adair of Glenveagh, whose legendary kindness was a foil to the harshness of her landlord husband. A great debt is owed to the many Irish-Americans who contributed so generously. An immense effort was made, too, by the largely poor people of the entire Diocese to contribute to the building; the Diocesan archives contain records of every hard-earned shilling and penny contributed by the parishioners.
The Cathedral was built at a cost of over £300,000. In Bishop O’Donnell’s sermon at the laying of the foundation stone on 6th September 1891 (see the inscription over the south porch door), he asked what the connection was between a true religious education and the building of a cathedral. After insisting that it would in no way divert either funds or energy away from pressing social, educational and industrial projects, he went on to say that the Cathedral was intended to be ‘an intellectual and spiritual edification for the people. It would gladden their hearts, and it would elevate their ideals, it would bring back to them the glorious memories of the past, and infuse into their souls a Christian manliness to make them noble, wise, brave and good . . . To conserve that spirit they would put into their Cathedral a stone from every fallen shrine in Donegal; and they would have in the Cathedral an altar or a window or a tablet to every patron saint of every parish in the diocese.’ (Report in the Derry Journal, 7th September 1891.) Nor is such sacrificial giving a matter of past history only; the Restoration work (1985), at a cost of half a million pounds, is testimony to a continuity of faith and devotion that reaches down the years to our own time.
The Cathedral, designed by William Hague F.R.I.A., of Dublin, is built of white Mountcharles stone. The building contractor (for the first five years) was James McClay of Strabane. The carving contractors were Messrs Purdy and Millard of Belfast. Because of geological features of the site it was not possible to orient the church in the traditional manner i.e., with the altar at the east end. The internal measurements are as follows: length 171 feet; width at transepts 100 feet; roof height 72 feet; spire 240 feet.
For an in-depth knowledge of St. Eunan’s Cathedral, two books have been published. As part of the Irish Heritage Series: (62) – Mr. Graham Harrison compiled Saint Eunan’s Cathedral, Letterkenny in 1989. To mark the Centenary Year in 2001 a book entitled Cathedral of S.S. Eunan and Columba, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal was published.
These books are available from the Parochial House in Letterkenny.