Monday, December 4, 2017

A Visit to St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin

By Richard Denning

This summer my family and I visited Ireland and stayed for a week near the capital, Dublin. One of the days we went on a visit to St Patrick's Cathedral. St Patrick's is the national Cathedral of the Anglican Church of Ireland. It is also the largest as well as the tallest church in Ireland. Dublin actually has a second Anglican cathedral Christ Church which is the cathedral of Dublin, Glendalough and Cashel in the Church of Ireland. Dublin is unusual in having two Anglican cathedrals as well as a Catholic one (St Mary's).

The Cathedral seen from the north.

The Cathedral is named after Saint Patrick who is said to have visited Dublin in the 5th Century. According to tradition it was on this site that he chose a well in which to baptise new converts to Christianity which he introduced to the land.

Interestingly back in 1901 six grave slabs were discovered during building works about 100 yards from the Cathedral which dated to the 10th century. One of these stones was a cap to what appeared to be a very old well. Whilst there is no definitive proof that the well is the one that St Patrick used, it is thought quite probable that this is indeed the same well. Furthermore the stones at least show the site has been used as a Christian site for over one thousand years.

There is documentary evidence of a church on the site dating back to the year 890 when King Gregory of Scotland, visited it. In 1190 Archbishop John Comyn raised the church to Cathedral status. The present Cathedral building, in terms of shape and size, dates from 1220-1259 and was built during the tenure of an Archbishop Luke. Sadly Luke himself became blind. So when the building work was finished he never saw it.

The well stones that sat on the head of  the well.
As is the case with many cathedrals, the building was constantly developed in the following centuries. One of the early additions is now the oldest part that survives. Dating back to 1270 the Lady Chapel was added. In those centuries it had become the trend to add a chapel dedicated to Mary behind the altar. From mid-17th century the Chapel was called the ‘French Chapel’ as it was used by Huguenots who had fled France and came to Ireland following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

In the 14th century a series of disasters forced a rebuild of the original tower and nave: a violent storm in 1316 (which blew down the spire), a fire in 1362 and a further collapse of the tower in 1394. The current structure is essentially the one that survived after that last disaster and reconstruction although the clock, one of the first in Dublin, was added in 1560 and the modern spire in 1700. In the 18th and 19th centuries the cathedral went into decline and was in desperate need of repair. It was the Guinness Foundation that during the 1860s raised £150,000 that was the main benefactor that allowed restoration. During that time screens which separated the choir and priests from the congregation were removed, opening the entire structure up.

In the 15th century a curious incident occurred that created a famous saying still used today.

As we were walking around the Cathedral I came across a door standing in the middle of the floor. It is a very old wooden door with a curious hole in the middle. Drawing closer we realized it was not only a door of significance but in fact is the door behind the phrase “to chance your arm.”

My wife, Jane at the door
It seems that in the year 1492 the Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Kildare were rival families locked in a longstanding dispute over who should be the Lord Deputy. No resolution was reached and in that year the dispute became violent and a small battle occurred outside Dublin city walls.

The fight did not go well for the Butlers and so, realizing fortune had turned against them, they fled to St Patrick’s Cathedral where they took refuge. Their enemies pursued them to the cathedral and asked them to open the door and come out and agree to a peace.

The Butlers did not believe that they could trust the Fitzgeralds and so refused to open the door as they feared they would be killed.

So it was that Gerald FitzGerald asked for an axeman to chop a hole in the door. When this was done he pushed his hand through the door as a gesture of peace. The head of the Butler family took this as a sign of good faith and shook hands with Gerald. The fighting was over and peace restored.

I recreate the event. Fortunately Jane did not have an axe

The door is known today as the “Door of Reconciliation”. It is believed then that this story was the origin of a commonly used Irish phrase “To chance your arm” or to take a risk.

Jonathan Swift, most famously the author of “Gulliver’s Travels”, was Dean of Saint Patrick’s from 1713 until his death in 1745. He was politically very active and fought hard against social injustice against the Irish people. One success he had was preventing a debased currency being imposed on Ireland and for which he was presented with the freedom of the City of Dublin.

The pulpit used by Swift is still present in the cathedral.

At the time his love of exercise and obsession with cleanliness was considered most odd but seemed to have been good for him because Swift lived to be 77. He did not suffer from false modesty, however. Swift wrote his own epitaph himself before he died and which is still present in the cathedral. It read:
"Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity and Dean of this Cathedral,
Where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart;
Go traveller and imitate if you can, this dedicated and earnest champion of liberty"
A Copy of Handel; Messiah in the cathedral.
The cathedral was the location of a world premier when the combined choirs of Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s Cathedrals sang the first performance of Handel’s oratorio Messiah on the 13th of April 1742.

The Cathedral is actually situated slightly outside the "old city" which is clustered around the original viking settlement and Christ Church but all the important sites in Dublin are within walking distance and well worth the visit. You can find out more here...


Richard Denning is an historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord. Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.


  1. Great post, Richard! I enjoyed my visit to St Patrick's last year but I wished I had this historical background then.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.