In Dublin’s fair city – Days 5 & 7 – Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patricks Cathedral
Christ Church Cathedral was difficult to miss. Halfway between the west part of Dublin at the Liberties and the city centre of Temple Bar, it dominated the skyline from the main road and key city bus lines. Upon booking a ticket and tour time, we were able to skip past the long lines and meet our guide. She was spunky and entertaining. The first place we looked at was the leaning north side of the cathedral. It does lean out – but it’s not noticeable unless you know to look for it. Crazy, eh?
We stopped to check out the foxy friars on the tiles and other church implements, including some of the chairs. They were unique to Christ Church – an emblem of sorts. Story goes that friars used to dress up as foxes. There was a reason but I’ve since forgotten it. They’ve kept it part of the church’s identity over time, which was an interesting memento of its storied history.
However, my favourite little tidbit at Christ Church was the knight’s tomb. This was supposedly “Strongbow”, the young lord sent from England as part of a Norman invasion to take over territory in Ireland. There was a dented groove worn into his helmet because of an odd and old custom. When people were making a deal, they’d rub the coins over “Strongbow’s” head to assure themselves the coin was real. When the original tomb there was destroyed, another stand-in knight was put up in the cathedral so that the “deals” could go ahead with rubbing the coin. The legend said that Strongbow’s son was buried next to him, but since the tomb wasn’t Strongbow’s to begin with, it’s highly doubtful it’s his son.
Also at Christ Church was the beautiful small chapel where scenes from HBO’s The Tudors was filmed and used in place of Westminster Abbey. In fact, the basement crypt held some of the main characters’ costumes from the show, gifted to the cathedral upon the show’s completion – the cardinal’s robes from Wolsey, a tunic and from Henry VIII, and some of Anne Boleyn’s dresses. As an avid watcher and re-watcher of the show, I certainly fan-girled a bit here. The crypt also featured prominently in the series – including scenes where the Spanish ambassador and the would-be assassin of Anne Boleyn met in secret. I suspect some of the torture scenes – aka, The Tower of London – were filmed there as well. I hadn’t realized just how many scenes were filmed in Ireland as stand-ins for historical locations in England.
Also in the crypt was “Tom and Jerry” – a mummified cat and mouse found in the cathedral’s organ pipes when they were being cleaned out. Tom had been cat-napped by students at Trinity College at one point, but now they were reunited under a glass case so they couldn’t be stolen again. If mummified animals aren’t your bag, check out the crypt’s beautiful silver collection, including a large silver plate given to the church by King William III. The pieces were all quite stunning.
One of the best pieces in the crypt – besides the The Tudors costumes, mummified animals, and silver – was the large marble memorial to a one Nathaniel Sneyd, Esq. He was quite an important man in his day – his tombstone extolls his various political positions – and he died at age 66. However, lying dramatically upon his tombstone was a gorgeous, well-fit, and well-muscled young man with a woman weeping inconsolably above him. If that was him at 66 years old, I want whatever he was drinking, whiskey, Guinness, or otherwise.
We were also able to go up into the belfry and actually try our hand at ringing the church bells. The stairs were dark, steep, and twisty – as any proper medieval stairs would be to a bell tower – but the view from the top of the church was perfect.
We were given a quick tutorial of how to ring the heavy, heavy bell and how to pull the rope before having a go at it. Loved it! It made me appreciate the work that goes into bell-ringing groups. What an arm and ab workout! I felt like I was on the set of the Midsomer Murders series, where the murderer might be a vicar, the old lady next door, the housemaid, or a bell-ringer from the local church.
Continuing on our tour, we examined elaborate tombstones and grave markers and walked through the magnificent nave and choir area. I love visiting cathedrals and temples. They say so much about the past and about the people who put so much into the grand building.
Another church visit must in Dublin was to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ireland’s largest and tallest cathedral. It was said that St. Patrick – yes, that St. Patrick of March 17th fame – baptized people here, thus the name of the cathedral. Close to Christ Church, St. Patrick’s was just off the main street between Liberties and Temple Bar neighborhoods.
Framed by a beautiful green garden with bursting flowers, St. Patrick’s has just as much claim to fame as Christ Church. After all, Jonathan Swift was a dean there, and Jonathan Swift was a pretty famous guy – author of many stories including Gulliver’s Travels and the satirical essay A Modest Proposal, which, if you’ve not read it yet, do so.
I had to read A Modest Proposal in high school – I blame a lot of my love of British literature and history on my junior year Brit lit teacher – and when I read it for the first time, it was hard not to be outraged. Then, when you consider that Jonathan Swift was writing both satirically and scathingly of society’s norms and opinions at the time, it was a masterpiece of modern commentary – think of it as a longer and more coherent tweet. When I mentioned the context of the story during our short tour, I thought the woman next to me was going to faint. We were in Ireland, and I was saying that the essay proposed selling Irish babies to the rich gentry as food – and that’s why you really need to just read it. It’s meant to be shocking.
There was the bust of Jonathan Swift in the cathedral, along with his lectern stand. Swift liked to preach about people sleeping in church (the written sermon was on view). On display were some death masks and a cast of his head. He was also buried in St. Patrick’s, and it’s a bit of a literary pilgrimage to visit here.
St. Patrick’s was equally as stunning on the inside, with beautiful floors, naves, small chapels, and artwork. Ancient flags from battles adorned the walls. A massive monument to the “China Wars” was along one wall, and it took me some time, and some date searching, to realize it likely meant the “Opium Wars” per the war years listed. As a teacher of Hong Kong history, I found this memorial particularly interesting.
Memorials to WWI and WWII also lined the walls. In the centre of this part of the cathedral was a tree with tags on it, aptly called the “Tree of Remembrance” for all of the people affected by conflict and war, past and present. It was set up for the 100th anniversary of WWI. Today, visitors can write a message of hope or in memorial on a leaf-shaped tag and put it on the tree.
Perhaps the most ornate and enormous monument – let alone colorful – was the Boyle Family monument. It took up an entire wall just near the exit of the cathedral, and it included the Earl of Cork and his wife. He was, of course, put above his wife, with other family members depicted as well. Not everyone liked it though, as it caused quite a kerfuffle in the 1600s. Another ornate memorial was to Thomas Jones, a dean at the cathedral and Archbishop of Dublin. Taking a moment to look at these memorials was taking a moment to connect the dots of history.
Also, although debated, the linguistic history of “to chance your arm” may also have started at St. Patrick’s. There was a door preserved in the chapel with a hole in the middle. Curious, eh? Well, back in the 1400s, there was a fight going on – in history, when wasn’t there a fight going on, really? – between two well-to-do Irish families – the Ormonds and the Kildares. Story goes that the Earl of Ormond holed up in the Chapter House of St. Patrick’s with his crew. Eventually, the other side – led by the Earl of Kildare – decided that feuding was useless and ridiculous (yep) and cut a hole in the Chapter House door. So far, so good, right?
The Earl of Kildare struck his arm through, knowing that it could be lobbed off by the other side. Thankfully, the Earl of Ormond decided to shake the offered hand versus slice it, and all was forgiven – thus the phrase, “to chance one’s arm”. I’m not sure if this is completely the phrase’s origin – several different sites seem to either confirm or deny it – but it sounded as plausible as anything else. I sure wouldn’t want to stick my arm through a door when the other person clearly didn’t like me. Today, the door hangs in the cathedral as a symbol of reconciliation.
A lot of restoration in the mid-1800s came down to one of the most famous names in Ireland – the Guinness family. They donated money to help the cathedral be completely gutted and restored, something which probably cost more than tearing the cathedral down and starting all over again. Similarly, the Roe family (of Roe Whiskey Distillery fame in Dublin) also helped restore Christ Church Cathedral in the 1800s. Both cathedrals look different today than they did back in the medieval era, likely as a result of Victorian and more “modern” influences in the restorers and architects of the time.
In this space, there was so much history and beauty. Each stone, each memorial, each piece of furniture seemed to have a story to tell. Between Christ Church and St. Patrick’s, everything was soaked in a history so vast, that making connections between the various pieces was almost mind-boggling. Churches, cathedrals, and temples are the museums of more than religion – they are commentaries on social history and the minds and intentions of those who have built, repaired, and supported them over time.
Visit and wonder.