On St Patrick's Day, we focus on a little-known quarry in Ireland — the source for the marble that now decorates the saint's Westminster Cathedral chapel
There are at least four Irish marbles in Westminster Cathedral. Of these by far the most prominent is the mottled red marble which can be seen on the back wall above the wooden cabinets behind the Information Desk, on the inner face of the nave piers and in many of the chapels — notably St Patrick's. Although the Cathedral was far from the first to use it. it was almost certainly the last.
Cork Red comes from County Cork in Ireland. It is an unusual and attractive limestone made up of pebbles, some grey but most stained varying shades of red by iron oxide, set in a deeper red matnx. A range of fossils can be seen, mainly crinoids (sea-lilies), but also other marine creatures such as molluscs. It was formed in the Lower Carboniferous period (330-360 million years ago) when a grey limestone reef beneath the warm, shallow sea then covering the region was buried beneath red sediment, carried by currents or perhaps resulting from a tilting of the sea floor.
Cork Red marble, also known in ihe past as Victoria Red after Queen Victoria, was quarried near Fermoy and Buttevant, at Midleton and nearby Baneshane, and at Boreenmanagh. Churchtown and Little Island close to Cork city.
The marble was known by 1850, when examples (still on show) were displayed in the foyer of the Museum of Economic Geology in Dublin. From then on it was used to decorate many important buildings such as the Museum of Trinity College in Dublin, the Oxford University Natural History Museum, the Liverpool and Manchester Exchanges, St Finbar's Cathedral in Cork, and St Colman's in Cobh, both of which possess great columns of the marble.
But the First World War and the Troubles disrupted both building and trade and the Cork Red quarries, by then largely exhausted, fell into disuse. Westminster Cathedral . has the marble in the nave and the inner crypt and also on the floor of the sanctuary, the Lady Chapel (either side of the altar) and near the niches outside the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
The altar table in the Sacred Heart Shrine is also of Cork Red while in St Patrick's Chapel it can be seen in the altar frontal, the floor and the little columns lining the wall below the windows. All the marble appears to be from the same source. Geological Survey of Ireland records show that Cork Red from Baneshane Quarry was used in the Cathedral about 1910.
Farmer and Brindley, of Westminster Bridge Road, were responsible for the marblework in the Cathedral at that time and are likely to have used only one quarry for the Cork Red they needed.
They returned in the 1920s to lay the floor and erect the columns in St Patrick's Chapel, probably using pre-war stock.
Baneshanc Quarry, 180f1 long, 40ft wide and 15ft deep, lies in the County Cork countryside.12 miles to the east of Cork city and one mile west of the market town of Midleton. Open by 1850, in 1914 it seems to have been abandoned and allowed to fill with water which was used to irrigate local fields. But in early 1956, after much discussion in the cathedral art committee, it was resolved that the nave of the cathedral should be clad with marble in line with the original designs.
By now Farmer and Brindley were no more and the marble merchants chosen, John Whitehead and Sons of Kennington Oval, recommended a salmon-pink Portuguese marble for the red needed.
It was Aelred Bartlett, artist and was of Francis, the future
administrator of the cathedral, who rejected this proposal and who approached the Irish Embassy in London to see if Cork Red marble was still obtainable.
With the help of the Geological . Survey of Ireland, Aelred travelled to Baneshane Quarry on April 12,1956.
The quarry was inspected, drained and reopened and, from 1956 to 1964, the cathedral nave and narthex received its marble cladding, including the Cork Red last put in place 30 years before — the Red of Baneshane.
Since then, despite the potential for further development, the quarry has again been abandoned, overgrown with briars, gorse and maturing trees. Now forgotten by almost all, at least it will be remembered in Westminster Cathedral.
This article first appeared in the March edition of Oremus, the magazine of Westminster Cathedral