Origins of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Part One- the chapel on the island & early Celtic church, and reflections on early Irish Culture.
Take a look at St Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin. It’s not hard to fathom there was once a tiny Celtic-era church here on this site. What may be slightly harder to grasp today is that church was here long before any part of Dublin was.
That’s because Dublin as a substantial settlement is barely over a thousand years old. Saint Patrick’s early Celtic church predates the Irish capital, by over 500 years.
Yes, according to traditional accounts, sometime around the 460s, as Saint Patrick made his famous progress through Ireland, he stopped in the Poddle valley.
On this excellent map, the Poddle is the smaller river below (to the South) of the Liffey. You see where it forms a basin, just as it joins the larger river? Well that was the Dubh Linn, Gaelic meaning “Dark Pool”. That’s where, centuries later, the Vikings would moor their long boats. Dubh Linn, was adapted into the Viking tongue into Dyflin, Then later again that name transformed again, into “Dublin”.
But the Vikings only starting arriving and wintering here, by the river Liffey and in the Dublin area from about 841AD. Early Christian churches were here long before either the city or the Norse. (Norse meaning the Vikings)
That doesn’t mean nobody lived in Dublin prior to the Norse. There was, for example, since prehistoric times, a ford across the river Liffey. In Irish this was the Átha Cliath– the hurdle ford, “hurdles” being the woven rushes on the ford.
Four major ancientb roads converged on the area of Dublin, including the Slí Mór, the great road to the west. Also, since any people traveling North-South, up or down the coast, needed to cross the Liffey at some point, this Átha Cliath ford was an important staging post.
So as we say, ancient roads approached this Ford from North, South and East and thus, almost certainly, there was a settlement here, albeit small. 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 Buses.
Alaso, a bit later, after the arrival of Christianity, but still before the Vikings, up to five different monasteries or churches lay around the area which is now Dublin. This map again, shows their approximate location, as well as the Átha Cliath ford. It also incidentally shows Ushers’ Island, which is no longer an island: it was turned into a Mill race, (then the river which made the island was also later covered up underground)
I love this map. It also shows the importance of topography to history and to place. You can see for example, how wide the river Liffey is, compared to today. It looks like it is widening out to sea and a bay, but in fact there was a mile of marshes and sand banks to the east of this map from where the sea starts today.
It is just that the river sprawled all over the wet countryside for acres in all directions. It was only contained and “banked’ (with the walls of the city quays) on any large scale much later, from the 17th century, (notably in the reign of the Irish Viceroy James Duke of Ormonde, from the Butler family of Kilkenny)
You can also see the River Poddle on the map. The Poddle today is largely curveted over (buried underground) But it was vital to the old livelihood and early economy of Dublin,
What is not apparent from or marked on, this map is that, according to the early monastic accounts, another one of these tiny early churches stood on the “Island” between two branches of the river Poddle. Can you see the island? Have a look at the map. It is formed where the river splits in two, near the centre of the bottom of this map.
This original physical, topographical position explains why when Saint Patrick’s tiny church was much later re-founded by 12th century Anglo-Normans as a great collegiate church, then, only slightly later as a Cathedral, it was called in Lain: Saint Patrick’s in Isola. (“on the island”)
But how did this church come about orginally? Well, back then, 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 that 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, as discussed above. The little island church also had a holy well. Tradition accounts tell us that Patrick used water from the well to baptize new converts, founding or at least increasing the tiny Christian community here.
It is unclear but seems most unlikely by the way that Patrick was “the first Christian” in Ireland. Far more likely there were already a few adherents to this tiny cult, spreading from the East. They would have been great heartened by his arrival. Either way, scholarly opinion. Generally credits him with the amazing achievement of evangelizing huge swaths of this pagan island, with its endless kings and druids and Celtic beliefs and pagan Celtic Gods, based on nature and forests and the sky
Eventually the saint left the area, and proceeded on his way northwards, converting Kings and defeating Druids. He went towards Armagh, which would, in time become the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland (for both Catholics and Anglicans).
Meanwhile, back in “Dublin” a some stage later, we don’t know exactly when- his holy well was covered with a carved stone cover, a wellhead in short.
Later again, possibly much later, this was was hidden, buried in fact. It wasn’t accidentally “lost”- such stones were highly valued. It was hidden. Was it hidden in the Viking period, to stop it been taken as building material? Or was it hidden much later, during the Reformation, when Thomas Crammer men were busy smashing up the relics of the Catholic faith?
Either way, only 400+ years later after Patrick left the Dublin area, the marauding Norwegians arrived!
The gradual development of Dublin began. In time, the Viking trading and slaving post would become a substantial town, bustling with trade, commerce, and manufacture.
Many thanks to artist and historian Iain Baber for this, his skillful, fantastic, deeply evocative image of the Viking, Norse city of Dyflinn, otherwise known as Dublin.
Meanwhile while Dublin bustled with trade, commerce, and manufacture, the Gaelic kings of Ireland still seemed mostly concerned with counting and collecting their cattle, (a sign of wealth and prestige in early Gaelic Ireland) and praise poems, power struggles, and occasional epic poetry, (mostly about large, daring cattle raids!) In other words with a world not that far removed from some parts of Africa or say, the Bronze Age Greece of the Iliad. Meanwhile the rest of the world lurched slowly towards Modernity. I hasten to add I’m not being dismissive of pastoral parts of Africa, nor ancient Greece or Gaelic Ireland. They may well have walked taller and been freer in the mind than us. I merely note they are not “Modern”.
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 very possibly is the same stone. Stone obviously is durable, so the original no doubt survived from Patrick’s time, but was only carved later, as the cult of Saint Patrick grew.Either way, remember this artifact, because sometime after 800 AD, it was moved and misplaced. It would remain hidden, forgotten, buried, for many hundreds of years.
Saint Patrick’s original tiny, ancient 5th century church would, much later become a mighty medieval cathedral. But by that stage there was already a cathedral in Dublin. Why did Dublin require a second cathedral, in the 12th century, almost 400 years before the Reformation? We tell you the bizarre, complex story how & why this happened in a later post)
But in any case, this second Cathedral, the Anglo-Norman cathedral sitting on the site of Patrick’s ancient Celtic church on the Poddle Isalnd, was hugely restored in the 19th century Victorian period, and 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. It lies today at the western end of the cathedral.
above: Patrick’s Well.western end of the Cathedral.
That’s it and thank you for reading.
We have some other information on the history touched on here. If you’d like to know more about the Vikings coming to Ireland, see here.
Or, if you want to know more about the later History of the cathedral, then see Part two: early Anglo-Norman Dublin. 1171- onwards, including, The Story of the two Cathedrals.
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Many thanks for reading. And Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!