St. Patrick's Cathedral

St. Paddy's, the other Dublin Cathedral, is filled with monuments to famous Irishmen

Gothic St. Patrick's—crowded with monuments and odd bits of history—is by far the more interesting of Dublin's two cathedrals. (A snit with Christ Church's bigwigs led Dublin's archbishop to promote the nearby church of St. Patrick to cathedraldom.)

St. Paddy's—supposedly founded near the site where St. Patrick baptized converts in AD 450—was built in 1225 on a marshy site, then rebuilt in the 14th century.

Who was St. Patrick?

First of all, St. Patrick was not Irish.

Nor was his name "Patrick." Most scholars think his real name was Maewyn Succat.

St. Patrick's personal story is much obsfucated by its sheer antiquity as well as the blurring effect created by so many miraculous legends and metaphorical anecdotes swirling around one man.

However, the safest bet is that "Patrick" was an Englishman, from a pious family of Roman-era Britain, who at the age of 16 was enslaved by irish pirates for six years before escaping and returning home.

Soon enough, enhanced by study and fortified by divine visions, he returned to Ireland to convert the masses—which is really, of course, what that whole “driving the snakes from Ireland” legend was about; it wasn’t pest control, but a metaphor for ridding the island of its druids and their pesky pagan rites. (Archaeological evidence shows that Ireland hasn't had snakes since it became an island at the end of the last Ice Age.)

I should also point out that, while notably successful, Patrick was not the first Christian missionary to the Emerald Isle. In 431, Pope Celestine had already sent a Frenchman named Palladius to Ireland to become its first Bishop and converter-in-chief—which implied there were already plenty of Christians there for him to bishop over.

Patrick took up the post after him, and later, confused chroniclers might have attributed some of Palladius' stories and miracles to his more famous successor.


St. Patrick's is jam-packed with monuments to notable figures, memories of its most famous dean (the satirical great Jonatahan Swift), curious tales and legends, and sobering historical tidbits.

It is well worth taking a tour—not only for the information conveyed, but because the tour guide lets you into several areas not normally open to the public, including the Lady Chapel and the choir (built in 1783 and dedicated to the Knights of the Order of St. Patrick, created by the King of England to keep the heads of Ireland's 15 most powerful families and pledged to the crown).

Jonathan Swift

St. Patrick's most famous attraction is the simple floor tomb of its one-time Dean, Jonathan Swift.

Swift was the bitingly sarcastic author of Gulliver's Travels (a bit of social criticism that somehow found its way to the children's shelf) and A Modest Proposal, that famous essay about solving overpopulation and poverty by eating one's babies.

There is also a bust of Swift on the wall (donated by his publisher), several displays devoted to the man's life and works, and modest wooden pulpit from which Swift delivered sermons (located about halfway up the right aisle).

Most touching of the Swiftiana, however, is the memorial plaque to Alexander McGee, one of the few commoners so honoured in the great cathedral. Why does he get a plaque? He was Swift's loyal butler for many years, which the Dead felt was more than enough reason to honor him.

The Boyle Monument

The cathedral's largest monument is just inside the door to the left. The Boyle Monument was built by the Earl of Cork to commemorate his wife and including at the base the figure of what looks like a pious little girl praying.

It's actually a little boy (fashion in those days, eh?), a son of the earl named Robert Boyle, who would grow up to become a leading scientist, natural philosopher, inventor, and theologian. Boyle is also known as the Father of Modern Chemistry.

Robert Boyle was the first to apply the rigorous scientific method to the old practice of alchemy, and came up with Boyle's Law (describing the inversely proprotional relationship between pressure and volume of a gas at constant temperature—one of the cornerstones of chemistry.)

War, peace, and reconciliation: The North Transept

In St. Patrick's north transept are a funky sprial stone staircase, organ console, and, oddly, a time-bitten wooden door with a large hole in it, suspended from a rack on proud display. This is the Door of Reconciliation, and it is attached to a story about risking peace.

In 15th century, two powerful families vied for control of Ireland, the Butlers (who were the Earls of Ormond) and the FitzGeralds (the Earls of Kildare). In 1492, this erupted into an actual war over the post of Lord Deputy, the King’s representative in Ireland.

Black James Butler, a nephew of the Earl, was pursued into the Cathedral by FitzGerald troops and took sanctuary in the chapter house, whereupon the FitzGerald’s immediately surrounded them.

The Earl of Kildare (and Lord Deputy at the time), Gearóid Mór FitzGerald, arrived and pleaded with Black James to come out and make peace, but, fearing treachery, Butler refused.

As a show of good faith, FitzGerald had his men cut a hole in the chapter house door, then thrust his arm through it, challenging his mortal enemy to shake it.

Rather than lop it off, Black James seized the proffered hand and shook it, making peace between the families… Which is where the story usually told ends. I am sad to report, however, that the two clans soon fell back to fighting.

The cathedral makes a big deal about its role in peace. Also in this north transept hang the decaying regimental flags, which are sent to the cathedral whenever a regiment is disbanded.

The idea is to keep them hanging there to remember the sacrifices made by Irish soldiers, yes, but also to let them slowly rot away. Once they have completely fallen apart, it will mean there are no more regiments and no memory of them, which will mean there is no more war.

The Guinness restorations

In the 1860s, Benjamin Guinness donated £50,000 (about €25 million in today's money) to restore the dilapidated cathedral, lay out the small grassy park by it, and and install the 4,000 pipe organ.

Guinness also put some of the family fortune toward building St. Stephen's Green, various housing projects around Dublin, a hospital for workers, and other good works across Dublin.

After enumerating all this public largess, St. Patrick's guide Bernard (whose family came from 100 yards from the cathedral) took pains to point out the true gift of the family's legacy: "Guinness was one of the richest families in the world at the time—right up there with the Hearsts—and all from making Guinness." He sighs. "God bless 'em, it was the greatest thing they gave us."


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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in February 2012.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.