Monday, 8 November 2010

An accidental tourist visits Dundalk’s churches, castles and courthouse

Saint Patrick’s Pro-Cathedral, Dundalk ... Thomas Duff modelled the exterior on the Chapel of King's College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

A few weeks ago, I paid an unplanned visit to Dundalk, Co Louth. With the Dublin-Belfast motorway complete, does anyone visit Dundalk by accident? But I misjudged an entry in my diary, took an earlier train to Belfast, and found a welcome opportunity to renew my acquaintances with the architectural delights and the ecclesiastical heritage of Dundalk.

Unlike neighbouring Drogheda, Dundalk never hosted a Parliament. It is neither a city nor the seat of a diocese. Yet Dundalk claims to have a cathedral and – after Drogheda – is the second largest town in the Republic. In myth, it traces its origins to the saga of Cú Chulainn, but the history of urban Dundalk begins in the early Middle Ages. The town received its first Charter in 1189 and developed as a strategic posting on the limits of the Pale and the borders of Ulster.

Edward Bruce crowned himself King of Ireland in 1316 in Mortimer’s Castle ... the site is now McCourt’s public house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

A wall to the west, the sea to the east, a river to the north and a ring of seven castles, secured Dundalk’s mediaeval defences. But these defences fell in the wars between Scotland and England in the early 14th century, when Robert Bruce’s younger brother, Edward Bruce, stormed Dundalk in 1315. In the following year, he crowned himself King of Ireland – local tradition says the coronation took place in Mortimer’s Castle. When he died in 1318, he was buried in nearby Faughart, the birthplace of Saint Brigid.

Dundalk’s own saint

From the 14th century, Archbishops of Armagh who dared not enter parts of their diocese beyond the Pale lived in Dundalk, Drogheda and nearby Termonfeckin. Among them, one archbishop stands out as Dundalk’s own native-born saint: Richard FitzRalph.

Archbishop Richard FitzRalph (ca 1295-1360), who was born in Dundalk, was one of the great mediaeval scholastic theologians. He studied at Oxford, and by 1325 he was teaching in Balliol College. He was a Doctor of Theology by 1331, and in 1333 he became the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, an unparalleled achievement for an Irishman at that time.

In 1334, FitzRalph paid his first visit to the Papal Court at Avignon. By then he was a canon of Armagh and Exeter and Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral. He returned to England in 1335 as Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. But he was called to Avignon again in 1337, and remained there until 1344. His return to Lichfield was brief – in 1346, the Chapter of Armagh forestalled any papal intervention and forced Pope Clement VI to accept their election of Richard FitzRalph as Archbishop of Armagh. Despite papal demurring, he was consecrated that year in Exeter Cathedral.

Saint Nicholas’, the Church of Ireland parish church, is known locally as the ‘Green Church’ ... Saint Richard FitzRalph is buried here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

FitzRalph was deeply concerned with social problems in Ireland and for those who suffered in Dundalk and Drogheda during the Black Death. In his sermons, he criticised the clergy for laxity in their vocation and the merchants for wasteful extravagances and under-handed practices, and denounced discrimination against the Gaelic Irish. The late Archbishop George Simms of Armagh saw him as an exemplar for “all who are concerned with social justice and the relief of the needy,” and an example of how to “seek holiness in life and integrity of intellect with a like concern for the helpless.”

FitzRalph became entangled in a dispute with the Archbishop of Dublin over their competing claims to primacy. A century earlier, Archbishop Henry de Loundres of Dublin obtained a papal bull prohibiting any other archbishop from having his cross carried before him in Dublin without the consent of the Archbishop of Dublin. But, to the chagrin of Archbishop Alexander de Bicknor of Dublin, FitzRalph claimed royal authority from Edward III and entered Dublin in 1349 “with the cross erect before him.”

FitzRalph was forced to withdraw to Drogheda, and when Bicknor died later that year. The king changed his mind, but the dispute continued. Pope Innocent VI, on the advice of his cardinals, eventually ruled that “each of these prelates should be Primate; while, for the distinction of style, the Primate of Armagh should entitle himself Primate of All Ireland, but the Metropolitan of Dublin should subscribe himself Primate of Ireland.”

On a third visit to Avignon in 1349, FitzRalph complained about the mendicant friars – Dominicans and Franciscans – and their freelance activities in his diocese. He also took part in the negotiations between Pope Clement VI and a visiting delegation from the Armenian Church, and in an elaborate work, Summa in Quaestionibus Armenorum, showed profound knowledge of Scripture and Greek. Around the same time, he became the first western theologian to try to understand what was written in the Koran.

He was called back to Avignon for a fourth time in 1357 because of his dispute with the friars. He argued their lifestyle was contrary to the teachings of Christ, and he demanded the withdrawal of their privileges when it came to confessions, preaching and burying, claiming they undermined his parish clergy.

He was appointed Chancellor of Oxford University in 1360, but died later that year in Avignon on 16 November 1360. The 650th anniversary of his death is being marked this month at a special conference in the NUI Maynooth.

Saint Richard of Dundalk died on 16 November 1360 ... the 650th anniversary of his death is being marked at a conference in the NUI Maynooth

‘The Green Church’

The archbishop’s body was brought back to Dundalk in 1370, and he was reburied in Saint Nicholas’s churchyard. There, for several centuries, he was venerated as Saint Richard of Dundalk and was credited with miracles.

The tomb of Saint Richard of Dundalk was damaged at the Reformation. It was still identified as late as 1624, but its location is unknown today. The parish historian, H.G. Tempest, suggests he was buried on the site of the present chancel, which was built between 1694 and 1706, in a place now behind the altar.

The parish church of Saint Nicholas was built in the 13th century and like parish churches in many ports it is dedicated to the patron saint of sailors. Known affectionately as “the Green Church,” it once had three chantry chapels. The churchyard has graves dating back to 1536 and a memorial to the Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose sister, Agnes Galt, is buried there.

The church was extensively rebuilt and remodelled in the 17th and 18th centuries, and again by Francis Johnston in the 19th century, so that only the nave and tower date from the mediaeval period. In 1954, a side chapel under the gallery in the south transept was set aside to commemorate a former rector, the Revd JJ McClure, and was dedicated to Saint Richard.

Inspiration from Cambridge

Thomas Turner’s entry curtain at Saint Patrick’s in Perpendicular Gothic (1850) was inspired by the curtain at King’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Modern Dundalk was first laid out by James Hamilton, 1st Earl of Clanbrassil, in the mid-18th century. Around the same time, Dundalk Grammar School was founded as a Charter School in 1739. The town continued to grow and prosper in the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to the patronage of the Jocelyn family, Earls of Roden, the industrial revolution and the arrival of the railway.

The growing Roman Catholic population was becoming more prosperity, and the architecture of their new churches reflects their growing confidence. The principal Roman Catholic church is Saint Patrick’s, known locally as the Pro-Cathedral. It was designed by the Newry architect Thomas Duff (1792-1848), who modelled the interior on Exeter Cathedral, where Richard FitzRalph was consecrated, and the exterior on King’s College Chapel in Cambridge – it is curious to note that the Vicar of Dundalk at the time, the Revd Elias Thackeray, was a former Fellow of King’s College.

JJ McCarthy, the “Irish Pugin,” designed the Gothic sedilia in Saint Patrick’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Building work on Saint Patrick’s began in 1834. The travel writer and Church of Ireland clergyman, the Revd Caesar Otway, met Duff in Cambridge the following year making drawings of King’s College Chapel for his new designs. At the same time, Duff also designed the Methodist Church in Jocelyn Street (1834) in the Greek revival or classical style, and the Presbyterian Church across the street (1839) in the Tudor Gothic style.

Pugin’s son-in-law, George Coppinger Ashlin, designed the Italian mosaics in the chancel of Saint Patrick’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Duff died in 1848 following a stroke after his daughter’s death. Thomas Turner’s entry curtain in Perpendicular Gothic, inspired by the curtain at King’s College, Cambridge, was erected two years later. But the Famine disrupted work at Saint Patrick’s, and did not resume until 1860. The church was completed by J.J. McCarthy, the “Irish Pugin,” who designed the high altar, the reredos and the Gothic sedilia in Caen stone. Pugin’s son-in-law, George Coppinger Ashlin, designed the Italian mosaics in the chancel by Oppenheimer and the pulpit. The stained glass is by Mayer and Earley, who had worked on many of Pugin’s churches in Dublin. Ashlin’s later tower was modelled on Gloucester Cathedral, although it interrupts the grand Cambridge-like main façade.

Gothic revival churches


Thomas Duff designed the Methodist Church in Jocelyn Street (1834) in the Greek revival or classical style and the Presbyterian Church across the street (1839) in Tudor Gothic style (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Dundalk has other churches that are fine examples of the late Victorian Gothic revival. Saint Joseph’s was built for the Redemptorists by Ashlin in two phases – the monastery in 1879-1880, and the church in 1890-1892. Although the exterior of the church is austere, the interior is elaborate.

Saint Joseph’s ... designed for the Redemptorists by GA Ashlin in 1890-1892 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In Anne Street, the Dominican Church and Priory were designed by John Murray, a local architect who planned a tall spire that was never built. Inside, the apse is decorative with late 19th century altars by Ashlin, stained glass by Harry Clarke, and other windows by Michael Healy and Mayer.

Ralph Byrne added a single hidden transept to Murray’s Saint Nicholas’ Roman Catholic Church, doubling the church’s capacity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Close to the ‘Green Church,’ Saint Nicholas’s Roman Catholic Church stands on the site of the former Linenhall. Murray designed a tall slender steeple for the tower, but it was removed after lightning struck in 1904. Ralph Byrne later added a single hidden transept that doubled the church’s capacity.

A classical masterpiece

Edward Park based his design for Dundalk Courthouse on the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The prettiest secular building in Dundalk is the Victorian train station. But the finest is the courthouse by Edward Park, who based his design on the portico and the dimensions of the Temple of Hephaestus in the Agora of Athens. This is the best preserved classical Greek temple and is also known as the Hephaisteion or Theseion and. The contract for the courthouse in 1813 specified that the “patterns and true proportions of the rules of the Grecian architecture as they are to be collected from the ruins of the city of Athens” were to be followed strictly, and not “those of the common books of architecture of ordinary use and application in this country.”

The main façade is dramatic – a superb neo-classical composition with massive Doric columns, more columns behind, and an entrance that disappears into the darkness behind the colonnade. Because there are no figurative sculptures or carving on the pediment, the impact is heightened.

The courthouse reopened in 2003 after refurbishment. But almost two centuries ago it was used for Church of Ireland services in the late 1830s when the ‘Green Church’ was being refurbished and rebuilt. And so there is a thread in history that links Dundalk’s secular and ecclesiastical history, its churches and its courts, its saints and its sinners.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in November 2010