The Cathedral has witnessed some of the most important developments and changes in Christianity in Ireland.
Traditionally Saint Patrick is the man credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. Very little definitive information is known about his life. However, according to legend he used a well somewhere in the general area of the Cathedral to baptise new converts to Christianity. At the start of the Twentieth Century Celtic grave slabs were found at the entrance to what is now the park next door to the Cathedral. These stones have been dated to approximately the Tenth Century AD. One of these stones covered the entrance to an ancient well and it is possible that this is Saint Patrick’s Well. However very little is known for definite about where he travelled and what he did; in reality there are thousands of sites around Ireland who claim a connection with the saint.
Some sort of church has probably existed on the site for over a thousand years. The arrival of the Normans in Ireland in 1169 brought new skills and techniques in church building. One of the Normans’ first acts was to rebuild (in stone) Dublin’s existing Cathedral, Christ Church. In 1191 Archbishop John Comyn raised the status of Saint Patrick’s to that of a Cathedral.
At this point Saint Patrick’s was a small wooden church situated outside the new city walls. Comyn’s exact motivation for this is unclear. There is almost no precedence for a medieval city to have two Cathedrals. It is possible that Comyn wanted to establish a new cathedral which would operate outside of the jurisdiction of both the city and from the Augustinian Cannons at Christ Church. The two Cathedrals co-existed under informal rules until 1300 when they signed an agreement called ‘Pacis Composito’ which clearly defined their relationship and acknowledged their shared status.
The English Reformation led to a split in the church in Ireland. Most major churches, cathedrals and sites followed the official line taken by the establishment in England and became reformed Catholic/Protestant. By the middle of the 1500s Saint Patrick’s was operating as an Anglican church. However, most of the population of the country during this period continued to practise a form of Christianity which was more associated with Roman Catholicism. The history of the Cathedral during the 1500s reflects the turbulent nature of the period. The Cathedral was demoted to the status of Parish Church during the short reign of Edward VI. The building was then restored to Cathedral status in 1555 by Queen Mary who also sought to restore Roman Catholicism as the established religion across Britain and Ireland. This was once again reversed by her successor Elizabeth I.
The 1600s saw armed conflict between Catholics and Protestants. During the Williamite Wars in Ireland (1688-90) the Cathedral was briefly repossessed by Catholic King James II. He visited the Cathedral before the Battle of the Boyne and attended a mass. Following James’s defeat at the battle, King William of Orange visited the Cathedral (thereby restoring it to the Anglican Church).
The Irish Church Act of 1869 disestablished the Church of Ireland as the state church and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral became the National Cathedral for the Church of Ireland, while Christ Church Cathedral became the local Cathedral for the diocese of Dublin & Glendalough.
Today, this history of worship which stretches back to St Patrick, continues on site on a daily basis. Matins and Evensong are sung every day in the Cathedral by the choir and clergy. This particular tradition has existed since at least 1432 when the Cathedral’s Choir School was formed.
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