All four sections of this beautiful cathedral are prestigious, richly-decorated, and awe-inspiring. A visit to St Patrick’s Cathedral during your tour of Dublin is an absolute must.
St Patrick’s Cathedral, in Dublin, was built between 1191 and 1270. Like most Medieval Cathedrals, St Patrick’s is shaped like a cross, and therefore has four sections: the transepts are the two arms of the cross; whilst the nave (with its aisle and arched entrance) and the chancel (where the altar stands) make up the top and tail of the cross shape. Therefore, in its original design, the cathedral – if seen from above – would have looked like a huge cross. It is not difficult to surmise that this shape was designed to please a God that was thought to be looking down from up high.
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, therefore Medieval churches were built on an east-west axis. This meant that the windows at the top of the cross shape – the chancel side – would flood with light from behind the priest during morning services; and during evening services the cathedral would be lit from the nave (behind the parishioners) as the sun and the day began to go down. Therefore, St Patrick’s Cathedral is most bright and best visited early in the morning or late afternoon / early evening.
In 1492, two famous Irish families – the Butlers and the Fitzgeralds of Kildare – clashed because both had a rival claimant to take over the role of Lord Deputy of Ireland. The resultant fighting was going badly for the Butlers, so the family took refuge in the Chapter House of St Patrick’s Cathedral. These days, St Patrick’s is a place of refuge for many a fascinated tourist in Dublin; however, in 1492 a cathedral was a place of refuge from war, because an enemy would be reluctant to kill any man inside a house of God.
Gerald, the head of the Fitzgerald family, surrounded St Patrick’s Cathedral and demanded that the Butlers leave in order to make peace. However, the Butlers believed if they left their sanctuary in the Chapter House of St Patrick’s they would be slaughtered.
In order to resolve this impasse, Gerald ordered a hole cut in the Chapter House door, behind which the Butlers were nervously waiting. Risking his own limb, Gerald put his arm through the hole, and asked the leader of the Butlers to shake hands and thus make peace.
This true story led to the Irish idiom: ‘to chance your arm’. The door of reconciliation is on permanent display in the cathedral’s north transept.
St Patrick’s Cathedral versus Christ Church Cathedral
It is rare for a city to have two cathedrals of the same denomination, but Dublin has managed to achieve this, in a Catholic country, with two Protestant cathedrals.
The St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals were both Catholic up until the Reformation, at which point they began to represent the Church of Ireland and have done so up until the present day.
In their thousand year histories, the leaders of these imposing buildings have inevitably argued over which is the Church of Ireland’s main cathedral; these days however the main argument between followers of either Cathedral is over which makes the better tourist attraction.
The rivalry between the two great cathedrals was greatest within the first few years of St Patrick Cathedral’s history. It is natural that the news of an even bigger cathedral being built just outside the city walls would be greeted with suspicion and jealousy from within the cloistered walls of Christ Church. However, over the years, the attitude of mistrust has been replaced by a sense of togetherness. This was made easier by the fact that the competitive elements were lost when it became clear that the two cathedrals would have a separate sense of identity and purpose: Christ Church was a cathedral attached to a monastery, and as such, was run by a prior and a team of abbots; whereas St Patrick’s was run by a dean and a chapter, all of whom had an identity outside of their role in St Patrick’s. The most famous dean of St Patrick’s was Jonathon Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels.
The two great neighbours now have non-conflicting identities as: in Christ Church’s case, Dublin’s main cathedral; and, in St Patrick’s case, Ireland’s main cathedral. Therefore, within Dublin, Christ Church is the Church of Ireland’s main mouthpiece and policy maker; whereas St Patrick’s is used to entertain events of national importance such as state funerals.
Every year a remembrance service takes place in St Patrick’s to remember Irish servicemen who died fighting for Britain on the fields of France and Belgium during World War 1.
Additions and restorations
St Patrick’s and Christ Church are two of the oldest and most impressive buildings in the whole of Ireland; however you should be aware that – like many churches and cathedrals in England dating from the Norman and Gothic periods of architecture – these two cathedrals are not exactly the same design, and are not made up of all the same bricks and stone as they were when they were first completed. Although original work still remains, in the case of both cathedrals, certain other parts have been subject to renovation or replacement.
The most impressive section of St Patrick’s that is completely original is the Lady Chapel, which was recently opened for members of the public. The chapel was closed for many years, but after some renovation it has proved to be a popular tourist attraction of late. Our Lady Chapel dates from 1270 AD.
From the outset St Patrick’s was the biggest cathedral in Ireland, and some later additions have added to its size and splendour. One of the oldest and most impressive of these is Minot’s Tower, which was added to the nave on the west of the church in the late 1300s. It burned down and was rebuilt at the close of that century. From its exterior, this 700 year old addition is the most striking feature of the church.
The ground upon which St Patrick’s Cathedral stands encompasses the reputed site of St Patrick’s well. It was using the water from this well that St Patrick may have converted many Irish to Christianity. Although there is no evidence that St Patrick himself directed these conversions in the 6th Century, there are concrete slabs that were excavated during renovation work in 1901 that prove that this site has been a sacred Christian site since at least the 10th Century. These grave slabs are now on display inside St Patrick’s and are a popular attraction for people on holiday in Ireland, visiting from countries all over the world – who hasn’t heard of St Patrick? When they were found, one of the slabs was covering a well. Whether this is the same well that St Patrick took holy water from to perform his conversions is open to debate.