As an architecture and history obsessive, I often discuss with my students their favorite Dublin visits and “sights”. The great medieval Cathedral of Saint Patrick’s came up in class conversation the other day. I was a little mystified, not to say horrified, when one of my students shrugged her shoulders, and said it was “so-so” ! I blinked a few times and drew breath. Then calmly, invited her comments and reservations.
As she spoke, I found I had to conceal my feelings. I realized, thinking about it afterwards especially, that I was secretly furious. Yes, livid. The way you are when somebody criticizes a good friend or member of your family. Yes; your family and old friends may drive you mad. But you’ll be dammed if you’re going to tolerate some upstart, blow-in make their caual asides and ill-informed, half-witted observations. As I smiled calmly and professionally, (and I had better point out I genuinely like and respect this student) rage and indignation swirled around inside. But Saint Patrick’s is not a person. It is a building.
What is wrong with me? Have things really gone this far? Is it possible I’m in love with this saggy, damp old place ?
Well, yes, okay, I am. and let me show you why….
I find the cathedral warm. It breathes goodness and tolerance; yet it is also imposing and mysterious and magnificent. Nor is there anywhere better in which to to learn about Dublin and Irish history. This is designated our National Cathedral, founded on a site where St Patrick himself – the most famous of our patron saints- had a tiny Celtic era church, well over a thousand years ago, all the way back around 640 AD. The Anglo-Normans got hold of the site in the 12th & 13th century and rebuilt it, on a very different, and massive scale. Even now, this is the largest church in Ireland.
I submit it is also the best. (And there are some ancient, historically rich and wonderful churches in Ireland, so that is in the face of some serious competition)
Saint Patrick’s is so full of history, of the memories of great and not-so-great people, and of giants like Jonathan Swift. It is full of artworks, of skill, energy, craft and beauty.
It’s full of treasures and stories and mysteries. And then more stories.
I used to write a magazine or newspaper column called Hidden Dublin. For the last 3-4 years I’ve been updating and extending the material for a book of the same name. So many of these stories and details come from this place. It is full of them, a treasure-book of narrative, saturated in moral, artistic history. Civil and military and religious politics. Wars and death and heroism and irony, both funny and sad. Indeed, Saint Patrick’s is so venerable it has even contributed words and phrases to the English language. – “to chance your arm“; – “to wallop the opposition” – and via the great Swift himself: “Lilliput” and “Lilliputian“; and – “a bunch of yahoos”
Over the next few days and weeks, I’d like to show you some of my favourite things i the Cathedral, and to tell you some of the stories behind them.
I hope you’ll join me then.