The Origins of Saint Patricks cathedral – part one. 430AD to the early Celtic church.

Important Note 2:  Note on photography, maps, and image credits.  all photographs in this article are by the author, unless otherwise noted.  I’m not precious about it but if you wish to use an image please contact me and if I provide permission naturally I’d like to get a basic acknowledgement and credit and please provide a link back to this site. .  Image

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..

Patrick’s Well.

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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25 thoughts on “The Origins of Saint Patricks cathedral – part one. 430AD to the early Celtic church.

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. It clarified quite a lot for me and made link-ups with various characters in Irish and English history that I had not placed in the a clear timeline nor made the associations up to now. Great work. I know how difficult it can be to create an interesting but accurate narrative covering complex historical events. This post is very readable and interesting.

  2. That painting of the artist’s rendering of Norse Dublin fascinates me. And I had no idea that Meath was once a province. I also was not aware that no other city had two Catholic cathedrals. This was a really great read, it may have been long but it didn’t *feel* long.

    1. I can’t even tell you what a blessed relief it is to hear you say that Madame Weebles. Very, very glad you read it, and even more glad you enjoyed. You know I think something like 130 people have visited my blog since I posted this 24 hours ago, and I’m almost sure half of them read the piece. maybe some didn’t like it but of those that did, only 13 bothered to press the Like button Only you and Dermot above are the only 2 people so far, to bother leaving a comment. What has happened to the old “blogiquette” eh, I ask you? Oh well. I totally agree by the way, that artists impression of Norse Dublin is very atmospheric, and even oddly beguiling somehow. I’m revising my date of when it represents now though, think it must be before 1028. (No Christ Church, it would be i the middle section, near the river after that date. But not there that I can see). Oh well, too tired now, I’ll come back and edit 2moro. very best regards and thanks for your visit – Arran.

      1. I understand what you mean. Blog etiquette can be wanting at times. If it’s any consolation, I find that when I’ve done longer posts, I don’t get as many comments/likes either. There seems to be a threshold for how long a post people will read. At any rate, I did enjoy it very much and learned a great deal. I also find that painting of Norse Dublin beguiling (that’s a good word for it). Also, just out of curiosity, do you happen to know if the Poddle was filled in, or if it just runs underground now, as the Fleet and other rivers do in London? For some reason I’m fascinated by that stuff.

  3. Hi M. Weebles, No, you will be pleased to hear the Poddle still runs, below our feet, albeit hidden and unseen these days. It was covered up as you rightly guess, and is now hidden underground, although a small section is still visible when we look down at one particular point around the edge of Dublin castle. (in the medieval era, a much larger section used to form a moat around much of the castle)

    We can also see where the Poddle comes out of its tunnel and discharges into the Liffey, during low tide at least (the Liffey is of course tidal)

    By the way the Poddle is just one of many Dublin streams and water courses that have been covered up in modern or in 19th century times. Some of them, (like “The Swan” and the Garravogue) are surprisingly large. I agree, it’s quite a thought really, all these hidden flowing hidden and secret beneath our feet, as we walk around unknowing.
    It reminds us too, that all our mighty cities used to be empty countryside, once upon a time.
    I like to think of some wooly mammoth, dipping his tusks in the mud !

    1. Man, you are not going to believe this, but I have just really, and i mean really, been enjoying a good old read of your great site! Loved the piece on 1960s & 70s movies, on Valley of the Dolls, & Sweet Sweetback Badassss Song. Just left a comment there in fact, few minutes back so that proves it. Yours in mutual esteem- Arran.

  4. Ah, I want to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral! I follow your blog so I received a notification in my email that you had posted and my VPN has been miserably slow (in excess of 20 minutes to load a page, at times) until today. What a Saturday treat, your post! Thanks for such rich history and images and for making me long to visit, even more. 🙂

    1. Thank you, I do my best! The history is too complicated to squeeze into a few paragraphs so i just had to spend few days writing, editing and illustrating and then hope that a few people had the time, interest and stamina to read it. Delighted you enjoyed it. Many thanks for the feed back. makes it all worthwhile when people take the time to comment. very best regards- Arran.

    1. many thanks for the kind, encouraging words. Look forward to paying a reciprocal visit to your blog very soon, just the words “irish history” are enough to suggest I’ll find much to enjoy. Delighted you found me, thanks again, and please do come by again. -Arran.

  5. i enjoyed your piece and especially the bit about the origins of Comyn’s
    church..I’ve been curious about this and have read there was some sort of ‘argument’ that resulted in the new church being established outside the city walls etc. although finding out what exactly was going on is proving difficult …if i discover anything i’ll get back to you…you should tell your friend Madame Weebles that they are Church of Ireland cathedrals and not Catholic…did the catholic church even exist back then?…was the reformation and the creation of the Church of England the origins of the Catholic church?..anyway..thanks for the work and i’ll be a new follower . I discovered your blog through the CHTM blog by the way.

    1. Thank you for your visit and comments Martin. Just a few points and clarifications. Firstly, yes you’re right that both St Pats and ChCh are both C.of I. (Anglican) Cathedrals.

      2nd, to answer your other question- Yes, of course the Catholic church “existed back then” – it predates the various parts of the Lutheran/Reformed church by well over a thousand years. The Catholic church simply meant all of the christian/Latin church in the west, until the Reformation, when it split. So yes, absolutely it existed long before. (M. Weebles would be well aware of this, and I think her other error was just a simple oversight, I’ve always found her exceptionally well informed about history)

      And finally, as to you’re other enquiry, point of speculation: No, the creation of the C of England was absolutely not the origin of the Catholic church, that would be impossible, since as I have outlined above the Catholic church had already been in existence for over a thousand years. In fact it was the State Religion of the Roman Empire, since around the time of Constantine (4th century AD)
      More specifically, and much, much later, corruption in the church prompted in the 15th century Reformers like Luther, Calvin and many others to rebel and try and force Reform within the the church, but the church reacted badly, accused them of heresy and threatened them with excommunication. (I believe they were both excommunicated in fact) so basically the church split rather than accept Reformation thinking. In Germany, the various Princes who ruled the small german states split along Reformation and Anti-Reformation lines. The Reformation movement also grew in England, Holland, Scandinavia and Scotland and around Europe, in large parts of France, Switzerland, etc. In France for example it was especially prevalent in the west and SW of the country, and provoked bitter religious wars, then a sort of truce of accommodation then, quite a lot later later, (17th C) it was suppressed, and more or less expelled, by Louis XIV))
      Anyway, I hope that helps a bit. When you look into this stuff in detail it is actually quite complex, but just to get a better general picture of the overall historic outlines, it is well worth looking around Wikipedia and so on. Good luck in your further researches. -Arran.

  6. Just found this site. But, King John brought the Fitzgeralds to Ireland? I thought Maurice came out of S. Wales in 1169 to Ireland? John must have brought over a second Fitz wave? I think the first Maurice did return to England?Wales.

    Judith Fitzgerald Madore

    1. Hi Judith, thank you for your comment, and sorry for being so long with my reply. As regards your specific point, i see I’m speaking to a scion of hat great dynasty, so I wouldn’t dare contradict you on when specific Fitzgerald individuals first came to Ireland! Indeed, now you mention it, I believe yes, there was a Fitzgerald knight in the very first wave, (down in the SE, and then up to Dublin in the 1169-71 campaign) However I’ve read elsewhere that the founders of the two main branches here (the Thomand and Kildare branches) arrived with King, (then Prince) John on his slightly later visit. Anyway, we shan’t fall out over it. Thanks for taking the time to comment, delighted you enjoyed the piece. -Arran QH.

  7. Thank you for this great post, as you know is to much to dig, and so much interesting things about , Thomas Becket, I read about the Becket Controversy, another interesting topic, oh!! this is really good. I went to Canterbury Cathedral on 2011 and I can not tell you how happy I was, because after reading a lot about history is a very good felling being around all about you read……

    1. Agreed ! And thank you so much for liking this post. Can’t believe you read this version, it is older and SO long ! I broke it into 3 sections last Sunday, because i thought it was too long. (same content again, just divided into 3) Anyway, Very impressed you read all this… amazing. And thank you again, for all your kind comments. 🙂

      1. Hello, everything that is about history about cathedrals for me is something incredible, that is why one of my pages is called “IF THIS WALLS COULD TALK” can you imagine century’s and century’s, all the persons that constructed the cathedral, for me is fascinated, the priests, monks, etc … Thank you for you posts !! 😄❤️😄❤️😄

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