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The History of the Building

June 7, 2016  Posted in: Cathedral History, Cathedral Tales

An 800-year-old building constructed on the site of an ancient well supposedly used by Saint Patrick himself.

L_ROY_00759(national library)1901

Medieval construction

The present Cathedral building, in terms of shape and size, dates from 1220-1259. It was constructed on the site of an ancient well (which was supposed to have been used by Saint Patrick himself). The building replaced an earlier (probably wooden) church. The fabric itself was made from local limestone and imported stone from Bristol.

Archbishop John Comyn was responsible for elevating Saint Patrick’s to Cathedral status but the credit for its construction must go to Archbishop Luke who held the position from 1219-1260. He was actually blind by the time the work was complete, so he never saw the full fruits of his efforts. Luke built a Gothic cathedral in a cruciform shape; with the main body of the church known as the Nave resembling the long part of a cross, the top of the cross known as the Choir, with the arms of the cross known as the Transepts. It is believed that the design for Saint Patrick’s was based on Old Sarum Cathedral, near Salisbury in England.

The Lady Chapel is added

The building constantly evolved over the course of the next 700 years. In 1270 the Lady Chapel (later to be known as the French Chapel because of its connection with the Huguenots) was added. In 1316 a violent storm blew down the spire of the building and in 1362 the Cathedral suffered substantial damage after an accidental fire. In 1370 repairs to the nave and the tower were carried out under the direction of Archbishop Minot. (The tower was later named Minot’s Tower). This structure also collapsed (1394) destroying much of the west end of the Cathedral in the process. Eventually the tower was rebuilt but was never renamed. This version still survives today.

vtls000053465 (national library)

Changes to the building as a result of the Reformation

After the English Reformation Saint Patrick’s became an Anglican Cathedral and modifications were made to its interior to suit new theological changes. Many statues were removed from alcoves and rich decoration was stripped from ceilings such as the Lady Chapel. The turbulence of the period led to neglect of the fabric and the Cathedral suffered further during the reign of Edward VI. The Cathedral was demoted to the status of a parish church and was used as a court house and for a short period as a university. The building was restored to cathedral status in 1555 under Queen Mary and some money was allocated for repair and restoration. In 1560 one of the first public clocks in Dublin was added to the tower and in 1700, a spire was added.

Cathedral - very old view

The Guinness Restoration

By the start of the 19th century the Cathedral was once again in a dire state of disrepair. The north transept of the Cathedral (which was used as a separate chapel) was deemed unsafe for use. An effort was made by Dean Pakenham to raise funds for necessary repair however this did not come close to the quantities of funds needed. The Cathedral was handed a lifeline by Benjamin Lee Guinness who wrote a letter to the board in 1860 offering to bear the total cost of the restoration. However, his sole stipulation was that he be not interfered with by the Cathedral board in this work.

Between 1860 and 1865 the Cathedral was closed for massive restoration and repair. Work concentrated on the nave and the transepts. A new ceiling was added to the nave. (Previously visitors could see up into the roof space of the building.) As a result, the height of the west window was reduced. The floor of the nave was raised to the same level of the Choir. Probably the greatest interior change to the building was the removal of the screens which separated the nave, choir and transepts. Benjamin Lee Guinness did not feel that these were in keeping with a post-reformation Cathedral where the clergy and congregation were treated as equals. In 1865 the Cathedral was reopened in an elaborate ceremony at which Benjamin Lee Guinness was presented with a book of thanks compiled of signatures from representatives of the Cathedral and from citizens of the city. Overall Guinness spent approximately 150,000 pounds on the restoration of the building.

The building today

Today work continues on an almost daily basis to ensure that the Cathedral does not fall into a state of disrepair again. Funding for this work is generated from the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the building each year. Major restoration works were carried out in the Cathedral’s Lady Chapel in 2012/2013, allowing visitors to get a glimpse back in time to what the space would originally have looked like. Soon, work will begin on giving the Cathedral a much needed new roof, to ensure that Saint Patrick’s Cathedral remains at the heart of Dublin for many years to come.

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