A couple of weeks back I wrote my little introduction and promised to follow up with more. Well… here goes. I hope you are all ready for some history ! This is a very long post, it is intended as a resource for people who really want to know some of the complex history behind early and medieval Dublin. For others you may wish to break up your trip, to pay several short visits, or none!
We’ll start with the very origins of the tiny church from the early Celtic era, Then, we’ll pick up the story again later, nearly 600 hundred years later, following the Norman invasion, as a new chapter opens, culminating in that tiny church becoming the great cathedral it is today.
What follows are three excerpts from my book explaining the complex events that followed, and the even more complex religious and political background to those events. This post is Part One. Part two is the early Anglo-Norman Dublin. 1171- onwards. -followed by… The story of the two cathedrals. Part 3 concerns later History, the 16th and 17th centuries and into the Modern era.
Part one: Saint Patrick, and monastic Ireland. 460s etc..
Sometime around the 460s, as Saint Patrick made his famous progress through Ireland, he stopped in the Poddle valley. This valley is near the area of what would – around four hundred years later- become the Viking city of Dyflin. Today this former small trading and slaving post is a large port and capital city. We know it as Dublin.
Back in the time of St Patrick of course, there was no Dublin city. But there was a ford across the river Liffey. In Irish this was the Átha Cliath– the hurdle ford, hurdles being the woven rushes on the ford.
Since people travelling down the coast needed to cross the Liffey at some point this ford was an important staging post, so almost certainly there was a settlement here. This was the Baile Átha Cliath, the town of the Hurdle Ford. It is still one of the Irish names for the capital today, visible on Dublin Busses.
Away to the south of the river Liffey, in the area of the smaller Poddle River, (today underground) was another small but separate cluster of settlement. Here stood a tiny, early Christian church. This was one of four Celtic churches in the area, variously founded perhaps by Patrick himself, or by the existing handful of Christians who preceded him.
This particular church was sited on a type of island formed by the two branches of the Poddle River. The little island church had a holy well. Tradition accounts tell us that Patrick used water from this well to baptize new converts, founding or at least increasing the tiny Christian community here. In other words, the small Celtic era church of Saint Patrick’s pre-dates the city of Dublin itself.
Eventually the saint proceeded on his way northwards towards Armagh. At some stage later, we don’t know exactly when- the holy well was covered with a carved stone cover, a wellhead in short.
Just over a hundred years ago, a stone wellhead was found at the exact same site. Confusingly, the Celtic style carvings were dated- by stylistic analysis- later than Patrick, to between 800-1100. This date means it may not have been the first wellhead. On the other hand it probably is the same stone. Since stone is durable, the original probably survived from Patrick’s time but was only carved later, as the cult of Saint Patrick grew. Either way, remember this artifact, sometime after 800 AD, was moved and misplaced. It would remain hidden, forgotten, buried, for many hundreds of years.
Saint Patrick’s tiny, ancient 5th century church would, much later (in the 12th century) become a mighty medieval cathedral. (You can read the bizarre story how & why this happened in that follow up post) In any case, this cathedral was hugely restored in the 19th century Victorian period, and additional work continued into the early 20th century. During this work, in 1901, the ancient carved wellhead that marked Patrick’s ancient baptism site was uncovered; revealed for the first time in perhaps a thousand years.
Above: Two views of the well head, that in my view, almost certainly covered the holy well used for baptism and conversions by Patrick himself in the Poddle valley in the 5th century. In the background of the second picture you can see a glimpse of some of the lovely memorial sculptures along the North wall of the cathedral.
In a sense Saint Patrick’s cathedral is Ireland, encapsulated, its best and its worst. Go and see it when you can, and marvel at its many wonders.
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