Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Aug/Sept 2013 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
The portrait of Cardinal Wiseman that once hung in the sacristy of St. Michael's Church
While travelling about in Spain some twenty or more years ago I found myself one day in the old Jewish quarter of Seville when my attention was drawn to a plaque on a nearby building.
The Spanish inscription read in translation: “On 2nd August 1802 Cardinal Wiseman, Archbishop of Westminster, was born in this house, a luminary of the Catholic Clergy and a worthy son of his fatherland. Their Excellencies on the city council ordered the erection of this plaque to preserve the memory of a most illustrious Sevilano 1865.”
I was immediately reminded of a life-size portrait in oils of the prelate in question that once adorned the sacristy walls of St.Michael’s Church. How the painting came to hang there is a tale that is perhaps worth telling.
Nicholas Patrick Wiseman, as his name suggests, was not of Spanish parentage. The younger son of an Irish merchant family who had settled in Seville, on his father’s death in 1805 he was brought to his parent’s home in Waterford. After a number of years he was sent to further his education in England, from whence he eventually proceeded to Rome to study for the priesthood. Following his ordination he was appointed rector of the English college in 1828, an office he held until 1840.
Wiseman soon acquired a reputation as an outstanding authority on oriental studies and an exceptionally gifted linguist, speaking six languages fluently. His fame spread abroad, with many distinguished visitors to Rome eager to make his acquaintance, amongst them the Ballinasloe-born Power Trench, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Tuam.
The newly-built St. Michael’s Church was scheduled for consecration on 25th August 1858, and the Bishop of Clonfert, John Derry, who incidentally, had been born in a Dunlo Street public house, decided to shed lustre on the event by inviting Wiseman to preach at the ceremony. Appointed Archbishop of Westminster in 1849, Wiseman had been raised to the Cardinalate the following year. Derry’s choice of Preacher was entirely appropriate because Wiseman had received Augustus Welby Pugin into the Catholic Church in 1834, and it was this Pugin, the foremost exponent of the Gothic revival in architecture, who had substantially revised the plans for St. Michael’s.
A carnival atmosphere seems to have prevailed in Ballinasloe during Wiseman’s visit. An estimated twenty-five thousand people gathered in the town where all available accommodation was booked to capacity. Special trains were run for the occasion, bringing clergy and laity from all over Ireland. Following the Cardinal’s arrival at the local railway station, the horses were removed from his carriage half-way to the town and he was drawn in triumph by prominent citizens through the streets festooned with banners, ribbons and Chinese Lanterns.
Nicholas Patrick Wiseman, who was the first Cardinal to visit Ireland since Rinuccini in the 1640s, died on 16th February 1865 and was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. Forty-two years later his body was exhumed and re-interred in the Crypt of Westminster cathedral, where it lies beneath a Gothic altar tomb, with a recumbent effigy of the Cardinal in full pontificals.