Cavan’s Hidden Historical Treasure | Saint Fethlimidh’s Cathedral

We were driving through the Cavan countryside last weekend, and whizzed past this little gem! We almost crashed whilst we did a double take, then turned around  and drove back to have a closer look.

St Fethlimidh’s Cathedral is only located a few kilometres outside of Cavan town on a beautiful wooded hillside close to Lough Oughter, but if felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, it was closed and locked up, so we weren’t able to go inside.

St Fethlimidh was the son of Carill, and great-great-great grandson of Nial of the Nine Hostages. His mother was Dediva, whose grandfather was Dubhthach moccu Lughair, Chief Ollamh of Ireland, and royal poet to High King Lóegaire mac Néill, so he was descended from an illustrious lineage. He also had seven brothers and sisters; all of them bar one were also saints, the one exception going on to achieve the position of Chief Ollamh himself.

Little is known about Fethlimidh; his name in ancient Irish means ‘the ever good’. He was born in Co Meath in the mid C6th, and became a priest and hermit, settling near Kilmore in Co Cavan, where he founded his church. He became patron saint of the Diocese of Kilmore, and his feast day is celebrated on 9th August.


The detailed archway

In 1152AD, the original building was replaced with the first cathedral. The current building, designed by English architect William Slater, was constructed in 1860 in Middle Pointed Gothic style (I’m not even going to pretend to know what that means ☺).

One of the most interesting features of the church is the C12th Romanesque doorway in the outside wall of the vestry. Click to see more detailed close up images of the C12th door. Although the main entrance is impressive in scale and grandeur, this one immediately strikes you as something special when you see it, it is so obviously much more ancient and feels like it’s sitting in the wrong place.

The stained glass windows are said to be quite striking, but as we couldn’t get inside, we couldn’t see them. Inside, there is also one of the first ever organs made by Charles Brindley, which was recently restored in 2011… it’s HUGE! Another treasure secreted inside that we didn’t get to see is an original copy of the first ever translation of the Old Testament into the Irish language. This was made by William Bedel (1571-1672), who was Bishop of Kilmore for thirteen years. He rests now in the graveyard there.

I loved this angle...

I loved this angle…

There is history in the grounds, too, with the remains of an Episcopal house built in 1620, an C18th ice house, a Holy Well dedicated to Fethlimidh himself, and a motte and bailey. This was constructed by Walter de Lacey in 1211 as the Anglo-Normans pushed into Ireland, and then later dismantled by Cathal O’Reilly in 1224.

Whaaaaat? They only open on Sundays? What way is that to run an organisation? Doh!

Whaaaaat? They only open on Sundays? What way is that to run an organisation? Doh!

The O’Reillys were the ruling clan of the kingdom of Breifne, which is now known as Cavan.

Incidentally, it was Cathal O’Reilly who founded the original abbey on Trinity Island in Lough Oughter, from which the twelfth century Romanesque door was later removed and inserted into the Cathedral.

The abbey had fallen into a seriously ruinous state by the 1800’s, even though there were still monks living there at the time.

I guess we’ll be returning another day to see everything we missed… when they’re open, that is, but we’ll probably have to sit through the service first!

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14 Comments on “Cavan’s Hidden Historical Treasure | Saint Fethlimidh’s Cathedral

  1. Hi Ali,
    I always love that experience of stumbling across unexpected treasures on drives and walks. I often wonder around Sydney’s Surry Hills which was home to the Irish in the 19th Century. On my last visit, I stumbled across Darlinghurst Gaol, which is full of historic sandstone structures and was definite eye candy for the camera.
    Some of my Irish ancestors settled in Queanbeyan near Canberra and St Gregory’s Church while much smaller, seems reminiscent of this Cathedral. I haven’t been inside there either and should make the effort. My great great grandparents were married there and my Great Grandmother was Christened there. It has the same stone walls. Blue stone? Actually, I just googled the Church, and it doesn’t look so similar after all but thought I’d try to attach a link anyway:

    I also wanted to share a post with you about trying to access a concert my daughter was performing in at the weekend. My mobility is fairly good but the unpredictabilities of crowded venues is still an issue and I thought access is probably something you’ve struggled with and I thought you’d appreciate my plea for better access:
    I am also working on a post about what I’ve coined “the Disability Paradox” about being able to do somethings but not others and how that is perfectly okay.
    Hope you and the family are doing well!
    Best wishes,


  2. Church of Ireland in Cavan seems to be great at holding links to ancient past. Also fascinating is the Tomregan Church in Ballyconnell which is linked to several amazing stories and is home to the Tomregan stone with its depiction of Regan, Anglicised from Dreacon the Formorian who fought with Grainne.

    Perhaps a bight naughty to claim Cavan as being Briefne 🙂 Constance Markievicz would be roaring as she was proud of Sligo being part of Briefne. I forget most of the story now, will have to look it up again, but its of the constant dispute between the O’Rourkes and O’Reillys of who were the righful chieftain family of Briefne. I forget the high king is stepped in and judged but at that time Briefne went as far east as Fore in Westmeath. He declared West Briefne for O’Rourkes, the middle bit as East Briefne for the O’Reillys, and kept a good chunk of the east of the region for himself … so lawyers much the same back then. I gather he also gave O’Rourke’s charge of the national records which were kept on an island on Lough Gill outside Ireland but were plunder by the IRA in their early days.

    It seems these days the N4 is claimed as a Briefne boundary, but close to where I live there were constant Connaught vs Briefne battles and there is a grave that claims to have 19 sons of both Briefne and Connaught chieftains, so the local village claim it as being the biggest Royal Grave in Ireland -)

    Bit of a waffle on from your blog subject, but it is fascinating how you found the deep connections to a church. Hope you get in sometime. Probably, like the Tomregan church, the key is kept by the house next to it.


    • Hi Woodlandbard, you are right, I should and do know better, and apologise for the slip… Briefne I believe covered areas of what is now Cavan, Leitrim and Sligo, and I’m sure those boundaries were constantly shifting as the chieftains of the time were always warring amongst themselves. I will go back into the post and amend it, thanks for pointing it out!

      That is such a lovely Irish thing about the key! Did you know that you can borrow the key for the cairn at Loughcrew from the cafe at the Loughcrew Gardens, and go and visit the mound by yourself? Where else would that happen? Love Ireland!

      I enjoy your comments, so please ‘waffle’ away! It has occurred to me, though, that you are something of a ‘Keeper’ of the old stories, which I suspect very few are now aware of. These stories are in danger of being lost. Would you not consider writing them in a book or blog, so they are preserved for posterity?

      On a slightly different note, I want to write a post on Cormac after my visit to Shee Mor, I felt a strong connection with the place, and couldn’t help wondering if it was his resting place, despite what the stories say… You also mentioned the same thing in one of your comments. If you have any stories about him, would you email me if you are willing to share, and of course I will credit you in my post.


    • Ive never been there but must make an effort… is it the same place where they keep Brigids fire burning?

      This is more your area of expertise, Ed, it was well out of my comfort zone and time period, but it was one of those unexpected treasures of our first child free weekend last week end, and worthy of a mention. I thought it was a very beautiful building and knew there was something special about it when we walked around the side and saw the old doorway.

      It was only when I got home and began looking into it that I realised how much we’d missed.

      Ok… just a little temporary blip… back to prehistory today! 😊


      • Oh do, if you can, its only open at certain times of the year but well worth it. You can also climb to the top of the round tower. Its the only one I have come across that you can enter and climb 🙂 There is also a few more sites within the grounds, Fire Temple, High Cross, Brigid’s Kitchen. Then nearby you have three abbeys and two holy wells. The one at the Japanese gardens I believe is the original sacred spring connected to Brigid the goddess,the other is very Christianized.
        Glad you had a good time, looking forward to more of the good stuff. These Glendalough posts are starting to fry my brain, I really need to visit some neolithic stuff or a castle to clear my head. Till then your tales shall sustain me 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • It was Éilis… totally unexpected beautiful building with amazing history… although churches are not my usual interest as you know!


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