Museum eye

Published in Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 17

Armagh’s cathedrals
by Tony Canavan
Church of Ireland
+44 (0)28 [048 RoI] 37523142, admin@armaghpubliclibrary.co.uk, www.stpatricks-cathedral.org
Daily 10am–5pm (–4pm Nov.–March)
Suggested donation £3, £2 concession, children & students free
Guided tours available with advance notice
Catholic
+44 (0)28 [048 RoI] 37522638/37522802, www.armagharchdiocese.org
Admission free, voluntary donation
Guided tours available with advance notice

The Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh—founded by St Patrick in AD 445. (Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh)

The Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh—founded by St Patrick in AD 445. (Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh)

The Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh might not strike you as a museum-like place to visit, but it is a historic building housing many artefacts and it actively encourages visitors. The cathedral was founded by St Patrick in AD 445 and it is a building that possesses a strong sense of history. It stands on a hill called Árd Macha—‘the height of Macha’—from which the ancient city of Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, gets its name. On the north side is a stone plaque inscribed:

Near this spot
On the north side of the great church
Was laid the body of
Brian Boroimhe
Slain at Clontarf AD MXIV

This gives an indication of the cathedral’s antiquity and its place in Irish history. It was destroyed or severely damaged on at least seventeen occasions from the ninth century, leading to much rebuilding and replacement. On entering you should start your visit at the north-west corner, where panels provide information on the history of the building and what is to be found in it. The list of abbots and bishops begins in 444 with Patrick, 467 Benignus, 481 Jarlath, and so on right up to the present day (although it is somewhat coy about the Reformation and the consequences of the break from Rome).

Tandragee Man—a pagan idol from the Iron Age. (Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh)

Tandragee Man—a pagan idol from the Iron Age. (Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh)

You cannot miss the remains of the eleventh-century high cross that once stood in Market Street until removed to the cathedral for safekeeping. It is quite worn but the carvings of biblical scenes can still be made out. As you look around the cathedral, there are ancient furnishings, flags, plaques and funerary monuments everywhere. Many of the memorial plaques, in brass or stone (and often in Latin), commemorate military men as well as clerics, reminding us of the link between local men and local regiments, such as the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the cathedral. For example, there is Andrew Craig, major in the Armagh Light Infantry, 1823–77. Another is to Alexander Duke Simpson, captain of the XIII Prince Albert’s Light Infantry, who died in a shooting accident on 7 November 1874. Others are to members of the congregation or garrison who died in the First World War.
One memorial worth pondering over is a large carving on the south wall that commemorates Turner Macan, 16th Light Hussars, ‘for many years Persian interpreter to the commander-in-chief in India 1792–1830’ and also the first to translate the poet Ferdousee. Another cultural figure remembered is Charles Woods, a former chorister in St Patrick’s Cathedral and the composer of church music who also helped found the Irish Folk Song Society.
The visitor could spend a long time examining the historic plaques and statues along with the ecclesiastical furnishings. As you go round you will see many busts of illustrious figures associated with the cathedral, such as Richard Robinson, 1765–94, whom many view as the greatest of the archbishops and who was responsible for many of Armagh’s fine buildings. It was carved by the noted English sculptor Joseph Nollekens. Other clergymen have impressive memorials in the form of statues or life-size effigies over their sarcophagi, such as that of Marcus Gervais Beresford, archbishop 1861–85, by John Taylor. Sculptors such as Roubiliac, Rysbrack, Chantrey, Marochetti and Bacon are also featured.

Objects worth looking at in the Catholic cathedral include the tabernacle. (Ashley Morrison Photography)

Objects worth looking at in the Catholic cathedral include the tabernacle. (Ashley Morrison Photography)

Worth looking at too is the chapel of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, which houses a book of remembrance for all who served in the regiment, whether killed or not, and regimental banners, the earliest dating back to the early nineteenth century, commemorating battles fought in North America. The Battle of the Somme, where the regiment was part of the 16th (Ulster) Division, is also recorded.
The sanctuary houses two seventeenth-century chairs. They are both made of bog oak or black oak and intricately carved. The oldest dates from 1661 and was made for Archbishop Bramhall just after the restoration of Charles II, hence the carving of the monarch’s crown. The second chair dates from 1664 and was made during Archbishop Margetson’s time as primate. This chair differs in that it contains no Christian or Anglican symbology. It is thought that it was made for a person whose initials were ‘PMO’ or ‘RMO’, found on the left-hand panel of the chair. Both chairs are regularly used, most recently by the Catholic and Protestant archbishops during the Maundy Thursday ceremony.
Along the south wall are the relics of earlier cathedral buildings in the form of twelve carvings from the plinths and crowns of columns. Some of the heads have a distinctly pagan look about them and date from as early as 1000–500 BC. One thing that is certainly older and out of place in a Christian cathedral, some might think, is the pagan idol from the Iron Age known as the Tandragee Man. This is a primitive granite carving of a figure that appears to be holding a detached arm, leading some to believe that it represents Nuadha of the Silver Arm. Whatever the case, it evokes a religion older than that of Christ. This statue is said to be approximately 2,500 years old.

The East Window—the most interesting features of the Catholic cathedral are its stained glass windows. (Ashley Morrison Photography)

The East Window—the most interesting features of the Catholic cathedral are its stained glass windows. (Ashley Morrison Photography)

Further down the wall a cabinet bears reproductions of the Book of Kells and the Book of Armagh. The original books date from the early ninth century and are two of the most important pieces of Irish literature in history. On the way out, stop to look at the large plaque in marble depicting a scene from the Crimean War. The accompanying inscription tells us that it was erected by his parents in memory of Thomas Osbourne Kidd RN, of HMS Albion, who was killed while serving in the trenches at the siege of Sevastopol on 18 June 1855 at the age of 24.
The Catholic cathedral is on another hill not far from its older sibling and is not so old, dating from the 1870s. Like the other, it has impressive decorations, carvings and furnishings, such as the holy water fonts in the form of angels at the entrance, the ornate baptismal font or the 1873 brass lectern in the shape of an eagle. Because the Catholic tradition does not embrace memorials to the great and the good, this cathedral has less to offer in the way of plaques and statues but is still worth a visit.
By far the most interesting features, from an artistic perspective, are the stained glass windows and mosaics that decorate the interior. The windows tell the stories of Irish saints from earliest times, such as Brigid, Dympna, Patrick and Oliver Plunkett. The mosaics, inspired by the Book of Kells, decorate floors, walls and ceilings, and they too depict scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints. Indeed, if read properly, the mosaics and windows recount the story of the early history of Christianity in Ireland.
Although the building itself is in a neo-Gothic style, the interior is distinctly Celtic, with more modern objects, such as the new altar. Objects worth looking at include the tabernacle, the carved wooden angels on the nave ceiling and the pipe organ built by William Telford, 1874–5. While it may not be as ancient as its Protestant neighbour and with much of the original character lost to post-Vatican II changes, the Catholic cathedral is still worth a visit. HI

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