McCarthy is generally regarded as the foremost Irish church architect of his day. He was caught up in the contemporary vogue of reviving medieval Gothic architecture in church buildings. This undoubtedly imposed on his work a style which belonged to another age, but it does not mean that his designs were lifeless imitations. When we look closely at St Macartan’s, for example, we can get behind the medievalism and admire his mastery of the fundamental and timeless architectural value of proportion. This applies in particular to the serene splendour of the interior space. It is interesting that McCarthy himself, as we know from his letter to his friend Charles Gavan Duffy, considered St Macartan’s Cathedral his finest work.

The Gothic revival movement coincided with Catholic Emancipation in Ireland and Britain, and the consequent need to find symbols to express public worship which had been driven underground for over two centuries. This accounts for the outstanding feature of Monaghan Cathedral, which both in its imposing walls and soaring spire, is the emphasis on height.

The plan of the building is in the form of Latin cross. The nave (or body) of the church, running west to east, constitutes the shaft of the cross. Unfortunately for the overall proportions of the building, only five of the seven planned bays of the nave were built. The arms to the north and south, the transepts, have entrances on either side from the chapter house and the tower. At the crossing of nave and transepts we have the beginning of the chancel, which reaches eastwards into the apse. On either side of the nave are the side aisles and opening from the eastern sides of the transepts are four side chapels, two on each side. The Lady chapel, formerly the baptistery, projects off the north aisle.

The variety of Gothic architecture adopted by McCarthy here is known as Decorated, or fourteenth-century French. The main features of this style are obvious from the outside; the large rose and lancet windows adorned with elaborate tracery, the pointed arches and doors, the numerous turrets and pinnacles, and the thick, stepped buttresses separating the bays. The buttresses of the apse and Lady chapel are especially noteworthy. The polygonal form of the apse or ‘chevet’ is a distinctively French feature: in medieval English architecture a square, eastern termination was always preferred. Another characteristic of French Gothic, as opposed to English, was its far greater emphasis on height.

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