St. Cathaldus’ Church, Corrandrum

By Joe McDermott

Exterior of the north wall of St. Cathaldus’ Church

At the eastern end of the parish of Annaghdown, in the townland of Corrandrum a short distance from the Tuam road, across from the school lies an unobtrusive little known monument. It is a poorly preserved rectangular church of approximately 11th or 12th century date, though it may be even older. Although it is extremely difficult to date with any accuracy, since most of its architectural characteristics have sadly disappeared, there are some features which help in its dating. It is typical of medieval churches rather than Early Christian. Cyclopean type architecture is present – massive blocks used in its construction especially in the lower sections of the walls. No evidence of antae remain – blocks that jut out at the external corners which would give it an even earlier date. Its orientation is east-west with the remnants of a window in its eastern gable where the altar would have been. Its internal measurements are 13.2 m by 6.3 m which is large for a church for this period. However, its measurements are roughly in harmony, that is, 2:1. There are traces of a window and possibly a doorway in its south wall and it would have had a trabeate doorway in its western gable. This was a simple doorway consisting of two upright pillars or cut blocks topped by a stone lintel, sloping inwards towards the top. See O’Flanagan, OS Letters, 1927 Vol. 1, 223. An example of this exists in St. MacDara’s church on MacDara’s Island in Connemara. The original height of the church is impossible to ascertain. There are burials both inside the church and around its perimeter and indeed these occur beneath the existing byroad. They are oriented east-west suggesting Christian burials. It was the practice to wish to be buried in proximity to the local church.

A number of prayer-stones also exist within the church – small sliotar sized sandstone balls which pilgrims brought to offer prayers in thanksgiving or to seek a petition. Spin them clockwise to bring luck or anticlockwise – the way of the devil – to bring misfortune on someone! Some burials were examined by archaeologists during recent road improvements. Hopefully, a report will be available sometime in the future.

To the south-west of the church lies a children’s burial ground (CBG), now much overgrown. It is an L-shaped area. The grave markers, which undoubtedly came from the church walls lie in semi-orderly north-south lines with an orientation east-west. See (O’Flanagan, 1927 Vol. 1, 224). Many relatives of families from the surrounding area lie buried here. A number of ancient house sites also exist at the south of the church and one is said to adjoin the south wall.

So what of our St. Cathaldus or Cathal, for whom the church is named? There is no indication as to why this church is named after him. He was born near Rachau close to the Tipperary-Waterford border sometime in the 7th century and came from a well-known affluent family as most of the saints and senior clergy of the time did. He was sent to the monastery of Lismore under the tutelage of St. Carthage. This monastic school, although it had been established for only a very short time, had already acquired widespread fame, and had attracted students from all parts of England, Scotland, and from several continental countries besides. Following a glorious period of study and teaching at Lismore, Cathaldus rose to become Ard Easpog of the area around Dungarvan. He succeeded St. Carthage and he established a settlement at Rahan.

In 666 AD according to the legend, he embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On his return he was shipwrecked off the southeast coast of Italy at a place called Taranto. He managed to make it ashore and began to preach to the native population who had relapsed into paganism. He is reputed to have restored the sight to a blind man on the outskirts of the town which no doubt helped him in his dealings with the local population. They had been previously converted to Christianity by St. Mark the Evangelist. He remained here, established a settlement and became their bishop. He also established a cathedral which exists there to this day. Taranto cathedral was sacked by the Saracens in 927. Indeed, the entire city of Taranto was razed to the ground. It was rebuilt by the Byzantines in 967. A new cathedral was built in 1071. During the course of rebuilding, workmen uncovered a marble tomb in which lay an incorrupt body in archbishop’s clothes. It had a gold cross on which was inscribed: ‘St. Cathaldus of Rahan’. The workmanship was clearly of Irish origin. The tomb also held a stick of Irish oak.

Depiction of Saint Cathaldus

The relics were encased in the high altar and later placed in a silver shrine which was encrusted with gems and precious stones. His feast day in Italy is celebrated on May 10th – in Ireland it is March 8th. Few Irishmen who carry the name Cathal realise that their patron saint is much better known and revered in Italy possibly more than St. Patrick is in Ireland.

The following was written by a US army officer:
‘In early summer of 1944 I arrived in Taranto, Italy, as a Staff Officer of the Eighth Army. The next morning, I was urgently summoned to assist an American soldier who had driven his jeep into the path of a procession of Italians who were celebrating the feast of their local saint. Since nobody was hurt, the situation was quickly adjusted. I was able to deal with it in Italian, aided by the presence of a local priest. Between us we calmed the excited people and rescued the soldier from his awkward predicament. In conversation later, the priest informed me that the Saint was Cathaldo (Cathaldus) and it was common knowledge that he was Irish. I wondered at the time whether this unusual fact was so well-known in Ireland.’

The most valuable biography of the saint which we possess was written in the seventeenth century by an Italian Franciscan named Bartolomeo Moroni. As this work professes to be based on very ancient codices and manuscripts of the Church of Taranto, we must conclude that it contains a good deal that is accurate and trustworthy.

St. Cathaldo (Cathaldus) is invoked against plagues, drought and storms. Perhaps we should pay more attention to him here now! Many of his miracles were attributed to the city of Taranto.

Hibernia gave me birth, thence wafted over,
I sought the sacred Solymean shore.
To thee Taranto holy rites I gave,
Precepts divine; and thou to me a grave.

– St. Cathaldus

St. Cathaldus’ Church, Corrandrum

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