Cathedrals

A cathedral, of course, is nothing more than a church building where a bishop has his seat – his cathedra, hence the name. But usually, much attention and expense is lavished on cathedrals, making them aesthetically pleasing and architecturally and historically significant. I do enjoy visiting a cathedral when I get a chance. Here are some of the ones I got to see in Ireland.

1. The “Rock of Cashel,” Cashel, Co. Tipperary

This is essentially a ruin atop a hill, but it has a very rich history, and it is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Ireland (the Queen visited in 2011). The hill itself is associated with one of St. Patrick’s conversions, and was the seat of the kings of Munster until 1101, when King Muirchertach Ua Briain bequeathed it to a resurgent and reorganized Church (meaning that the Church would now take his side in his disputes with others). Cashel was established as an archbishopric at the Synod of Ráth Breasail in 1118, and shortly thereafter a chapel for Cormac McCarthy, king of Munster, was constructed on the rock, a small but handsome building of German influence, complete with a characteristically Irish round tower (pictured) some distance away. The cathedral itself was built over the course of the thirteenth century, connecting the chapel with the tower. Given the cathedral’s strategic location, the west end of the nave was enclosed and fortified as a residential castle, a feature I have never before seen. Alas, it was not enough to save the people who had taken shelter there during the Confederate Wars, when in 1647 Parliamentarian troops sacked it and massacred the royalists within. In the eighteenth century, the Rock ceased to act as the cathedral for the archdiocese (the seat was moved to the Church of St. John the Baptist and St. Patrick in Cashel, which we did not get a chance to see), and the archbishop, who was somehow connected with the Guinness family of beer fame, removed the roof for reasons known best to himself, rendering the building liturgically unusable. People are still interred in the graveyard, however.

Here is a better view of the Rock of Cashel, and on a nicer day, scanned from a postcard I bought.

2. Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Seat of the Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough. The church dates from 1028 when Sitriuc Silkbeard, the “Hiberno-Norse” king of Dublin, and Flannacán Ua Cellaig, king of Brega, returned from a pilgrimage to Rome. The Synod of Kells in 1152 elevated Dublin to the status of an archbishopric, joining Cashel, Armagh, and Tuam. Laurence O’Toole, the second archbishop of Dublin (1162-82), was canonized in 1225 and became the patron saint of the city; a relic of his heart was stolen from Christ Church in 2012. Most of the church fabric dates from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but it was extensively renovated in the nineteenth, so there is a great deal of Victorian gothic as well (e.g., the floor tiles). The church is also known for hosting the grave of Richard de Clare, the second earl of Pembroke (commonly called “Strongbow”) who, allied with Dermot MacMurrough, was the first Englishman to invade Ireland in 1170, and for being the venue for the coronation of Lambert Simnel, an anti-Tudor pretender to the English throne in 1487. Also, the crypt housed an interesting exhibit on Magna Carta Hiberniae, that is, an issue of Magna Carta (1215), but for Ireland, with the appropriate substitutions (“Irish Church” for “English Church,” “Dublin” for “London,” etc.)

I scanned this view of the interior in from the visitor’s guide I bought.

The seal of the cathedral chapter illustrates that its formal dedication is to the Holy Trinity, thus the depiction of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

3. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Just down the street from Christ Church, another cathedral, this one dedicated to St. Patrick. Why does Dublin have two cathedrals, both elaborate and within a short walking distance of each other? A good question! In the thirteenth century, this collegiate church was somehow elevated to cathedral status, and it may have been that someone was hoping to replace the monastic Christ Church with the secular St. Patrick’s. Many years of bickering produced an accord between the two in 1300, with Christ Church retaining supremacy, but St. Patrick’s having certain privileges including full cathedral status, and both cathedrals committing to work together if need be – like when the choirs of both churches combined to perform Handel’s Messiah at its debut in Dublin in 1742.

Since the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871, St. Patrick’s has been designated the “national cathedral,” while Christ Church remains the cathedral for the diocese of Dublin and Glendalough.

One distinguishing feature of St. Patrick’s is that it acted as the chapel of the Order of St. Patrick, which is technically still in existence, although no new members have been admitted since the 1930s. (The Republic of Ireland may have continued to grant coats of arms through a Chief Herald, but it has no interest in maintaining an order of chivalry.) On display: the banners of arms the knights as they were at the time of disestablishment in 1871.

The most famous dean of St. Patrick’s is of course the great Jonathan Swift, who held the office 1713-45 and who is memorialized and buried in the church.

The rose, royal arms, and portcullis of the cathedral seal mark it as particularly Tudor. I’m not exactly sure what the other symbols are supposed to mean, although I assume that’s St. Patrick in the base.

4. St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin

Still in Dublin, on the north side of the River Liffey, we find yet another cathedral, or rather a “pro-Cathedral,” dedicated to St. Mary. It is now that I must mention a central fact of Irish history: King Henry VIII (1509-47) tried to impose the Reformation on Ireland as he did on England, but he had much more control over the latter than the former. As a consequence, most English people accepted the Reformation, however grudgingly; only eccentrics like Thomas More held out, and paid for it with their lives. In Ireland, by contrast, there are parallel church organizations: Henry’s Church of Ireland, until 1871 the established church and to this day a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and the Roman Catholic Church, obedient to the Pope. The Church of Ireland took over all the extant church buildings and diocesan structure, but the Roman Catholic Church, despite all the government’s penal laws and other knavish tricks, retained the loyalty of most Irish people and did not go away. The Catholic church presumed to continue its own diocesan structure, a copy of the Church of Ireland’s, and to claim legitimate descent from the pre-Reformation church. Of necessity the Catholics were compelled to build their own church buildings, thus St. Mary’s, which dates from 1825 and is classical in form, predating the gothic revival by a few years. That it’s a “pro-Cathedral” (i.e., an acting cathedral) is a cheeky way by the Catholics of saying that they would like Christ Church back. (And why not, really? Let the Church of Ireland have St. Patrick’s, and let the Catholics get Christ Church. If nothing else it would make things simpler.)

5. St. Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry

St. Columb’s is within the walls of the old city, perched atop a hill. It is Londonderry’s oldest extant building, dating from 1633. As you can probably guess this makes it Church of Ireland. I could not take any pictures inside but here is a scan of a postcard I bought:

Many regimental colours and flags are displayed within. The caretaker kindly showed me a 48-star American flag, kept in a display drawer, left by the US troops who were stationed at Londonderry during the Second World War.

The seal of the dean and chapter is emblematic, showing a dove of peace bringing an olive branch to a castle, under the watchful eye of God.

6. St. Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry

As you look out from the walls of the old city toward the Bogside, you can’t miss St. Eugene’s, which stands out above the residential streets. The Roman Catholic cathedral was begun in 1849, opened for business in 1873, and finished in 1903. As you can see, this was a time when the gothic revival was in full swing. Many Irish-American Catholics gave money to help build it.

I enjoyed visiting this handsome, peaceful church.

7. St. Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast

The distinguishing feature of the Church of Ireland cathedral is the tall, needlelike spire where you’d expect something a bit more substantive. This “Spire of Hope” looks like the Spire of Dublin and, as this one dates from 2007, may have been inspired by Dublin’s. The lady at the desk said that St. Anne’s is built on what was once a swamp, and that the church is subsiding; the weight of a traditional spire would have compounded this problem.

Within the church, a number of things, including the “science pillar,” a Titanic memorial pall, the grave of Edward Carson (founder of Northern Ireland), a labyrinth that leads nowhere if you follow “the path of sin,” and numerous interesting side chapels.

The Cathedral identifies itself with a display of four coats of arms, three of the amalgamated dioceses for which it is the cathedral (Connor, Down, and Dromore) and one of the city of Belfast.

8. St. Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast

Alas, I didn’t actually get into the Roman Catholic cathedral for Belfast, as I arrived too early. But I did find a postcard of the interior which I have scanned:

This church was opened for worship in 1866, and as you can see is another gothic structure, but it wasn’t named a cathedral until 1986. It is in the Divis Street area near the Falls Road, i.e. what was once Ground Zero for the Troubles, and I can’t help but think the decision to move the bishop’s seat here was political somehow.

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