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History of Tuam


Early History :

The history of Tuam dates back to the bronze age when the area was used as a burial ground. In the 19th century a bronze age burial urn was discovered in the area. An early glass photograph , which would be used in what was described as "The Magic Lantern", an early form of a slide projector, is still in existence.

The name TUAM comes from the latin term "Tumulus" which means burial mound.

As is usual with early settlements in Ireland, the Church became established first and the Towns grew around the Church.

The history of Tuam as a settlement dates from the early 6th century. The story goes that a monk called "Jarlath", who was a member of a religious community at Cloonfush some four miles west of Tuam and adjacent to the religious settlement at Kilbannon.

In time, Jarlath's life became uncertain as he wished to go further afield.

Eventually, Jarlath's abbot St. Benin told him to "Go, and where ever your chariot wheel breaks, there shall be the site of your new monastery and the place of your resurrection".  So it was that Jarlath's wheel broke at Tuam and a monastery and Town grew here that was to have the broken chariot wheel  as it's symbol.

It wasn't until the mid 11th century that Tuam grew in prominence when the O'Conor Kings of East Connacht established their headquarters in Tuam.

Eventually, the O'Conors defeated the O'Flaherty chieftains of West Connacht and became Kings of all Connacht.

Then in the year 1111 Turlough (Mor) O'Conor became High King of Ireland by force of arms and this brought Tuam its most prominent status as the centre of the seat of power in the 12th century. Turlough O'Conor , High King of Ireland 1111- 1156 was a great patron of the Irish Church and it was due to his patronage that Tuam became the home of some masterpieces of 12th century Celtic art.

Pray for the soul of Turlough O'Conor for whom this cross was made, is the translation of the Gaelic inscription on a section of the limestone Celtic cross which is housed in St. Mary's (Church of Ireland) Cathedral. This limestone shaft was uncovered when the foundations for the 19th century Cathedral were being dug in the 19th century.

The highly ornamented but incomplete High Cross which is now housed in St. Mary's Cathedral , made of sandstone, bears another request for a prayer for King Turlough's repose, while at its base, the time worn figures of King Turlough and on his left hand side the Archbishop Aodh O'hOisin (Hugh O'Hession) who became the first Archbishop of Tuam following the Synod of Kells in 1152. The first Cathedral was built under the patronage of the High King  to mark the establishment of Tuam as the seat of an Archbishop. Tuam still retains its Archbishops seat in the Roman Catholic Church to the present day. However, the most magnificent surviving item from this period must surely be the "Cross of Cong" which is now house in The National Museum in Dublin, a reliquery commissioned by Turlough O'Conor to carry a fragment of the true cross brought from Rome to Ireland in the year of his innaugeration as High King. The material of this cross is bog oak covered with delicate gold filigree and bejeweled with precious stones. It is said to have originally been a processional cross in Tuam Cathedral, and although of small proportions its craftsmanship retains perfection even when greatly magnified.

Turlough O'Conor was succeeded by his Son, Roderick (Ruairi) who was to be the last High King 1156-1185 when he abdicated because he could no longer claim authority over the whole of the country, the Norman invasion under Strongbow took place in 1169 and had succeeded in gaining control of eastern parts of the Country including Dublin.

Following the destruction of the first Cathedral in 1184  Ruairi O'Conor left Tuam and retired to the abbey at Cong where he entrusted the Church valuables from the Cathedral at Tuam into the care of the abbot. This left Tuam as a small, unimportant backwater and it wasn't until the early 17th century that it began to grow in importance again.

Chair of Tuam :

In the year 1613, Tuam received a royal charter from James the first of England which enabled Tuam to send two representatives to parliament. The Charter also allowed the town to set up a formal local authority, the forerunner of the present day Town Commissioners and a sovereign and 12 burgesses were elected. The sovereign was sworn into office at the site of the "Chair of Tuam" which is believed to be situated within the remaining tower of Ruairi O'Conors wonderful stone castle. On this site a new "Chair of Tuam" was unveiled in May 1980 by the late Cardinal O'Fiach.

St.Mary's Cathedral :

The history of the Town is intertwined with the two Cathedrals, the oldest of which is known as St. Mary's Cathedral, the Church of Ireland Cathedral in the town. The first Cathedral on this site dates from the 12th century when Turlough O'Conor was high King of Ireland. This first Cathedral was built to mark the establishment of Tuam as the seat of an Archbishop following the Synod of Kells in 1152. This Cathedral was accidentally destroyed by fire in the year 1184 and the site was abandoned for about 100 years. In the meantime a small 13th century parish church was built on the site of the earlier original monastic settlement and the remains of this parish church can still be seen today.

Then in the 14th century a second Cathedral was built to the east of the original Cathedral which used the Santuary and Chancel of the 12th century Cathedral as the entrance. This building served as the Catholics Cathedral in Tuam until the late 16th century when one William Mullaly was appointed the first Protestant Archbishop of Tuam by Queen Elizabeth the first of England. This led to the Catholic clergy being dispossessed and it wasn't until 1783 that the Catholic clergy were allowed to build a small parish Church in the Town.

In 1833 an act of amalgamation was passed in the British parliament which united the Church of Ireland dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry which consists of most of the West of Ireland. This led to the see of Tuam being demoted to the rank of Bishop from 1839.

1861 saw the railways come to Tuam and this led to a sizeable influx of people of the Anglican tradition coming to the area, working on the railways and also as part of the increased garrison presence in the Town. This necessitated the building of the third Cathedral on the site and this Cathedral was completed in 1878. While the Church of Ireland congregation declined following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 this third Cathedral is still used today for the Sunday Service which takes place at 12.00 noon

This third Cathedral contains relics of the Town's past glories, The High Cross which is classed as a National monument was removed to St. Mary's Cathedral in 1992. The 12th century chancel arch in the Hiberno Romanesque style and also the base of another cross which also dates from the late 12th century. Also in this Cathedral one can see some stained glass windows which depict the faces of real people, former parishioners in the Cathedral. The West window of the Cathedral depicts the scene of the transfiguration of our Lord. It is seen at its best when the sun is beginning to set during the summer months, the colours of the window come vividly to life. This window which was the gift of the Bernard Family was installed in the Cathedral in 1913 and is believed to be one of the finest examples of the transfiguration in Western Europe. Underneath this window are seven small windows referred to as lights. The centre window depicts Christ the King and is erected to the memory of Sir Thomas Deane, Architect of the third Cathedral. The other windows depict the prophets of the old testament beginning with Moses, David, Solomon, Ezra, Malachi and John the Baptist.

Cathedral of the Assumption :

The present Roman Catholic Cathedral was built in the 19th century between 1827 and 1836. The building of this Cathedral started when Dr. Oliver Kelly was Archbishop of Tuam. In 1832 the Cathedral was dedicated to "Our Lady Assumed into Heaven". Today it is known as The Cathedral of the Assumption. Archbishop Kelly died in 1834 and was succeeded by Dr. John MacHale who was Bishop of Killala at the time. Archbishop MacHale completed the main entrance and bell tower in 1836 when the Cathedral was officially opened. It is interesting to note that the building of this Cathedral started two years before the passing of the act of Catholic Emancipation by the British Parliament in 1829.

Some interesting features of this Cathedral are the carved stone faces beside the clock faces and at the sides of the two blind windows at the front of the Cathedral. On the inside of the Cathedral the outstanding feature is the east window. The year the Cathedral was consecrated is noticeable in the upper region of the window. The four Evangelists are depicted along with Our Lady and the child Jesus which forms the centre piece. This Cathedral has undergone a number of renovations in recent times. In 1968 the interior was completely changed to bring it into line with the concepts which came from the second Vatican Council. In 1991 the sanctuary was redesigned with the style of the main alter and baptismal font becoming circular and being made of Wicklow granite. The most recent change in 1998 was the replacement of the old Christmas crib with a complete set of new figures in the traditional style and were donated to the Cathedral by the present Archbishop Most. Rev. Dr. Michael Neary.

The High Cross of Tuam :

This cross was erected to commemorate the appointment of the first Archbishop of Tuam in the year 1152. It was originally erected in the vicinity of the first Cathedral built in Tuam which is where St. Mary's Cathedral now stands. When the first Cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1184 the High Cross was dismantled and the pieces were scattered throughout the town. About the year 1820 a Dr. George Petrie, a notable archeologist who was travelling through Ireland discovered the base of the High Cross in what is now one of the Town car parks with the aid of a local man whose name happened to be Hession. The coincidence that the cross commemorated the first Archbishop whose name also happened to be Hession impressed Dr. Petrie so he looked around the Town to see what other pieces he could find. These pieces are what we call the High Cross of Tuam today.

This Cross was then brought to Dublin for the great exhibition of 1852. Prior to its return to Tuam however, a disagreement arose between the two Churches, the Church of Ireland Dean, Charles Henry Seymour claimed the Cross belonged to the Church of Ireland, the Catholic Archbishop Dr. John MacHale claimed the Cross belonged to the Catholics. However, agreement was eventually reached whereby the Cross was to be erected, exactly half way between both cathedrals and in such a position that it could be seen from all the main streets of the Town. It was placed on the Square in the Town Centre in the year 1874.

By the late 1980's, it was noticeable that the design on the Cross was deteriorating due to pollution and acid rain and following lengthy discussions (it took 4 years) the Office of Public works, the state body charged with the care and maintenance of National monuments eventually removed the Cross from The Square in April 1992. Following cleaning and some minor restoration the High Cross was re-erected in the south transept of St. Mary's Cathedral were it stands today. Placing the High Cross in St. Mary's Cathedral meant that everything from the one period (12th century) in the one place.

See Old Tuam Society



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