Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 15, 2003
In search of St.Eunan
Mysteriously, no one sits in the first five pews
St.Eunan -- Feast Day -- September 23
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, Ireland
It may be the grandest church in all of Donegal, famed in song and verse and the republic's northernmost county, but at 4 p.m. it's almost unapproachable for cars, buses and hundreds of students. Visitors aren't told that every weekday in Letterkenny schools empty into the square fronting St. Eunan's Cathedral to connect with rides home. The sea of exuberant youth seems to lap up around the huge four-towered fa‡ade of the imposing edifice.
A closer look reveals that not all is chaos. In fact, smartly uniformed teen students hovering around the church porch are most anxious to share with strangers their historic school projects and their knowledge of the city and its cathedral.
Or, the visitors might be rescued by genial Father Eamonn Kelly, cathedral curate and local poet/author who will dispense his extensive knowledge of the great church and its "mystery."
Those visiting this last of the Catholic neo-Gothic cathedrals of the 19th century can't help but be impressed with its graceful lines rising from a commanding hillside site overlooking the valley of the River Swilly and Letterkenny's business core. Completed in 1901, its ornamental buttresses, gargoyles, and pointed arch windows are meant to reproduce the ambience of the 13th century French Gothic. It's the centre of the city and the 80-metre spire dominates the entire area.
The seat of the Diocese of Raphoe was moved to Letterkenny after an early cathedral was lost to the Reformation. St. Eunan's is also the parish church of Conwal and Leck.
Eunan or Adamnan, one of the hundreds of un-canonized but greatly revered native Irish saints, was the first bishop of Raphoe in 697 and became patron of the diocese. Donegal-born, he spent much of his life in England working for the release of Irish prisoners and encouraging adoption of the Roman calendar and practices in the Celtic church. A pious scholar, he's remembered for his historic Life of St. Columba.
Interestingly, the first boy baptized in the cathedral was Eunan Coyle.
St. Colmcille or Columba is honoured as a co-patron of the cathedral. An inspiration to Eunan, he founded the famous monastery at Iona. He's remembered in the church in an altar and by several sculpted, painted, and stained glass images. Born in Donegal, his influence spread widely in Ireland, Scotland and England, through the establishment of many monasteries.
Visitors pass through the great main doors of St. Eunan's under the gazes of sculpted Sts. Eunan and Columba high on the stone fa‡ade. Outstanding artworks include the famous mosaic angels of the ambulatory behind the sanctuary and the St. Columba chapel ceiling where dozens of Irish saints are portrayed.
The most dramatic feature of St. Eunan's is the great arch that crosses the nave at the transept and illustrates in bas-relief scenes from the lives of Sts. Eunan and Columba. One panel depicts Eunan promulgating the "Law of the Innocents" or "Adamnan's Law" which protected women and children from military service. A revolutionary concept, it remained in force in Europe for centuries.
And the mystery? Visitors are told of the strange, unexplained phenomenon of the empty pews. Perhaps it's the result of an ancient, unwritten Celtic tradition, its origins buried in the mists of the past. No matter how crowded the great church becomes during Mass, and despite the remonstrations of Father Kelly from the pulpit, the first five rows of pews in the huge church always remain empty.