photo credit, Con O’Donoghue. (copyright 2012)
Saint Audoen’s is ancient in origin. A church dedicated to St Collum Cile stood here in the early Christian era. It was re-founded in the early Norman period, and re-dedicated, this time to Saint “Audoen” Despite centuries of religious turmoil and war in Ireland, it has not skipped a beat since and now has the wonderful distinction of being the oldest continuously-serving parish church in Dublin.
Its name is curious, since there has never been a saint exactly called St Audoen. But of course, like other very old Dublin place names, the word has been corrupted from the original spelling, (much like Chapelizod, once the “Chapel of Isuelt”) In the same manner the ancient church of “Audoen” is named after one of the patron siants of Normandy. St Ouen was a 7th century bishop, active in Northwest France and in the Channel Islands, and called Saint Ouen in France but also variously Audoin or even Dado elsewhere.
The Portlester Tomb, now lying under the bell tower of Saint Audoen’s Church, is a superb piece of comemorative sculpture. It is one of very few medieval sculptures in Dublin to survive intact into the modern day.
Most religious art works in Irelands churches and monasteries were destroyed in the 16th century, during the Reformation by protestant iconoclasts and zealots, particularly by men working for Thomas Crammer, Lord Chancellor for Henry VIII, after Henry’s split with Rome. Secular sculptures like this one (this is of course a medieval baron and his wife, not a pair of Saints) had a slightly better chance of survival. However even secular sculptures of this antiquity have largely perished. We know there must once have been hundreds but sadly today only a tiny handful survive. (The stone figure of the Anglo-Norman Archbishop, Falk de Sandford, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, is another rare example.)
Baron Portlester and his wife originally lay in the chapel on the East side of Saint Audoen’s Church, which they paid for, and which bears their name. The church was so busy that two chapels were added, to allow for the large congregations because at that stage of its history, the 13th-16th century, Saint Audoen’s was one of the most central, prestigious and most bustling churches in Dublin, favoured by the political elite and by the business community. For this reason, two large side chapels, the Portlester chapel and the St Anne’s Guild chapel, were added, to contain the overflow and allow for extra religious festivals and blessings.
However, fate has conspired against the venerable St Audoen’s since then. The 16th Reformation split Dublin’s christian community in two. (Saint Audoen’s has been C of I since then) The later re-orientation of Dublin to the North and afterwards to the East, then brought further dwindling numbers. Furthermore the falling attendance both reflected and preciptated in the economic decline of the area.
Following all this misfortune, both the Portlester chapel and the St Mary’s Guild chapel fell into disuse and disrepair. In recent years the St Anne’s Guild chapel has been restored and today serves as a small but excellent museum. But the Portlester chapel lost its roof. Today is just a shell, a romantic ruin, it’s old pillars and flagstones open to the elements.
Accordingly, to protect the splendid Portlester memorial from weather damage, the peaceful old stone couple were eventually moved from the chapel that bears their name, to the base of the old bell tower. There they lie today, he with his sword & armour, vigilant like an good Norman knight and baron, she with her splendid hat and long fluted dress. The soft compact shape lying at her feet is actually a small dog. This was no doubt a real and favoured pet animal, but it’s also possible the dog here serves as a symbol of fidelity. Taken together, the dignified little stone group form a rare and precious survivor.
By the way, in the same bell tower you can see the famous Lucky Stone. There are also some sinister-looking cracks in the tower walls here. They too, have an extraordinary tale to tell. But those are two other stories, for another day.
Portlester Tomb; Photo credits Con O’Donoghue. (copyright 2012)