Since the closure of St Mary’s Church on the south side of Drogheda, St Peter’s remains the only Church of Ireland parish church in a town that was once the ecclesiastical and political capital of Ireland and that almost become the Oxford of this island. While some people may have childhood memories of visiting the other St Peter’s in West Street to see the head of Oliver Plunkett, as a schoolboy more than 30 years ago I discovered the quiet, restful atmosphere of this St Peter’s, off William Street, with its galleries, slender oak columns, intricate rococo stucco work, and quiet surrounding grounds.
For almost a century, Drogheda rivalled Kilkenny for the position of capital of Ireland, and almost became a university city with Oxbridge standing. Richard II held court in the town in 1395, several parliaments met there, and in 1465 an Act was passed to establish a university in Drogheda, granting bachelors’, masters’ and doctors’ degrees “in all sciences as at Oxford”. In 1495 Poyning’s Law was passed in Drogheda, extending English law throughout Ireland.
When the Anglo-Norman archbishops of Armagh encountered opposition to their efforts to extend their rule throughout the Gaelic Irish parts of their diocese, they effectively made St Peter’s in Drogheda their pro-cathedral from the mid-14th century and resided either in Drogheda or in Termonfeckin, five miles away, until the mid-17th century.
Archbishop Donat O Fidabra held a synod at Saint Peter’s in Drogheda in 1230, but there may have been a church on the site for centuries before, perhaps since early Celtic times. However, despite the patronage of primates, the church was “in a ruinous condition and in danger of falling” by 1647. The building was pulled down and a new church erected on the site later that year, although many must have wondered to what avail: two years later, Cromwell sacked Drogheda, butchered the town’s defenders, and set fire to the steeple of the new church, burning to death 100 people who had sought sanctuary inside.
Soon afterwards, perhaps out of a sense of remorse, Cromwell’s soldiers subscribed a considerable sum to repair St Peter’s. But the present church dates from the middle of the following century. Hugh Darley, one of the most distinguished architects of the 18th century, designed a new church, and building began in 1747. Although incomplete, the church is shown on Joseph Ravell’s famous map of Drogheda in 1749; it was consecrated on September 22nd, 1752.
Darley used grey limestone from the nearby quarry at Sheep house cleanly and wisely in building St Peter’s. The west front is a handsome Palladian design, with a broad eaves pediment, broken by a great central tower rising above it through two storeys. St Peter’s has since been described by the architectural historian Christine Casey as “probably the finest provincial Georgian church in Ireland” and by Desmond Fitzgerald, the Knight of Glin, as “one of the most important Palladian churches in Ireland”.
Inside, the church is a delight of light and space. The rococo work in the chancel is one of Ireland's finest examples of baroque plaster. Originally, this was thought to be the work of “a band of Italians”, but it has since been identified as the legacy of one artist, an unknown craftsman of continental origin, now described as “the St Peter's Stuccodore”. His other work included the back drawingroom ceiling of 40 St Stephen’s Green, later removed to Dublin Castle, and a suite of rooms at Russborough, Co Wicklow. Forty years after work on the new St Peter’s began, Francis Johnson added the gracefully balanced, slender Gothic spire on top of the classical clocktower.
Today, St Peter’s has the distinction of being the most southerly church in the Diocese of Armagh, but Drogheda once boasted some of the finest medieval churches in the diocese. Just off West Street stand the remains of the church of the Augustinian priory and hospital founded in 1206. The Magdalene Steeple in Magdalene Street is all that remains of the Dominican Friary founded in 1224 by Archbishop Luke Netterville. And fragments of the 13th- or 14th-century Carmelite Friary were incorporated into St Mary’s in Mary Street.
What Cromwell’s arsonists did to St Peter’s in the 17th century might be likened to the havoc wreaked by vandals in the 20th century. This architectural gem was the target of a recent arson attack, and today St Peter’s stands empty and unused.
The rector, Rev Michael Graham, hopes his restoration plans will not only secure the church as place of worship, but save part of our architectural heritage. He says the parish hopes to restore St Peter’s as a “living place of worship” and to “make it a centre for recitals and concerts, utilising its excellent acoustics for the benefit of all”. Those plans include providing reception facilities and practice rooms, and restoring the organ – built in 1770 by John Snetzler and given as a gift by Drogheda Corporation – to its original state.
According to Judy Woodworth, director of the National Concert Hall, St Peter’s is “a wonderful Georgian building crying out for performance”. But all this is going to cost at least £1.5 million. The parishioners of hope to raise half the money through internal donations and the sale of assets. However, this still leaves £750,000 to be raised, a large sum for a small parish and a small town.
With generous help, perhaps, the project might be completed in time for the 250th anniversary of the consecration of the church on September 22nd, 2002.
This ‘Irishman’s Diary’ was published in The Irish Times on 22 August 2000