Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 25, 2003
In Search of St. John the Baptist
Life-size sculpted angels greet vistors to this Irish sandstone church
St. John the Baptist - Feast Day - August 29
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Dozens of varieties of roses, each blooming at its appointed time, fill vast, fragrant beds beneath the tall trees of spacious Tralee Town Park. It's the venue for the annual Rose of Tralee competitions and festivities and a popular, year-round, city-centre refuge.
And behind the rose gardens, towering over the trees is a most impressive backdrop, the bulk of cathedral-size St. John the Baptist Church, the most prominent structure in town. It's visible long before travellers reach this busy Kerry County seat, the slim limestone spire dominating the Western Irish skyline. The church honours a saint who is particularly dear to the people of Ireland.
There's a dramatic contrast between the idyllic setting of Town Park and the unpleasant details of the saint's death as commemorated on his Aug. 29 feast day. It's a familiar story of how Herod's daughter, Salome, asked for the head of John delivered to her on a platter. John was the precursor of the Messiah and the last of the Old Testament prophets. He is portrayed in many artworks in the act of baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River and is a model for actions based on faith.
He is one of the few saints of the Universal Church that is widely revered in Ireland. For years, his birthday on June 24 was celebrated enthusiastically with many festivities, beginning with "bonfire night," on St. John's Eve.
Tralee or Traigh-Li, "the strand of the (River) Lee," has, with other Irish settlements, seen much chaos and warfare and was largely destroyed in the 17th century. A few ruins are all that remain of the castle of John Fitzgerald, first of the Desmond dynasty that ruled this area for 350 years. A feel for these early times can be enjoyed at the Geraldine Experience, across Town Park from the church. It's the city's prime tourist attraction and takes visitors on a time car ride through 1450s Tralee.
Whether approached down the long, tree-lined laneway of Castle Street that anchors its north front or seen from behind, across the prolific rose gardens of Town Park, St. John's Church is impressive. The sandstone, Gothic Revival building when completed in 1861 incorporated in its west transept parts of a 1780 chapel. In 1870, the tower and striking 60-metre-high spire were added. The large, cut sandstone Presentation Convent adjoins the east side of the church.
Greeted by life-size sculpted angels bearing water fonts inside the church porch, visitors travel down the long, columned centre aisle to the elaborate baldacchino that shelters a large, boat-shaped main altar. Behind the altar, the Great Sanctuary Window portrays Christ the King surrounded by the apostles and St. John. The church's name-saint also figures prominently baptizing Christ in the Jordan River in a large sculpture and in a prized mosaic.
Part of the Diocese of Killarney, St. John's is an active, town centre parish where weekday Masses are celebrated three times daily with four on weekends.
For five days in August, the open, normally peaceful spaces of Town Park are filled with stages and booths for the Rose of Tralee Festival. The event began 44 years ago based on the familiar folk song composed by William Mulchinock after his tragic romance with maid Mary O'Connor.
With music and dance, the naming of a Rose of Tralee for the year from contestants worldwide highlights the celebration. Not your usual beauty contest, selection is based not only on talents and social graces, but mainly on the "truth in her eye ever dawning" that so impressed Mulchinock.