02 November 2012

Church History (full-time) 2.3: Field Trip 1

Evie Hone’s window in Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara in Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Church History Elective TH 7864

Week 6, Residential Weekend

Friday 2 November 2012

2.3: Field Trip 1


Eighty years ago, while many people in Ireland were marking the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, throughout the Church of Ireland we were placing stained glass images of Saint Patrick in windows in parish churches up and down the land to emphasise our claims to being what the Preamble and Declaration adopted at Disestablishment described as “the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland.”

One of those churches is Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara in Co Meath. The church, which was built in 1822, is now used as the Tara Heritage and visitors’ centre, but there is still a service there each year on Saint Patrick’s Day and an Open Air Service on the Hill of Tara on the last Sunday in June.

Our first place to visit on today’s church history field trip is the Hill of Tara, Co Meath. From there we go on to the monastic site at Kells, Co Meath, then to the former cathedral site at Trim, before heading east along the banks of the River Boyne to Drogheda, which was once the principal residence of the Archbishops of Armagh.
1, Tara, Co Meath

Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara in Co Meath, with the ruins of the original church to the south west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

You will recognise the stained glass East Window by Evie Hone in the former Saint Patrick’s Church in Tara. There is a cartoon image of this window on the stairs up to the Brown Room in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, with images of Pentecost interspersed with images of Saint Patrick on the Hill of Tara.

This window was placed in this church and was erected to mark the 1,500th anniversary of Saint Patrick’s arrival and his mission to Ireland.

A majestic view across the countryside from the top of the Hill of Tara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Hill of Tara on a clear day provides views south to Dublin and Wicklow, south-west across Meath to Offaly and Laois, west across Westmeath, north-west to Longford and Cavan, north to Monaghan, and north-east to Louth – ten counties in all. You can understand, therefore, why t was chosen as the place for crowning the Kings of Ireland, and why Saint Patrick is said to have chosen it as important starting point for one of the main phases in his mission in Ireland.

2, Kells, Co Meath

The Round Tower in Kells, Co Meath ... a monastic site dating from the ninth, or even the sixth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Kells, Co Meath, is ancient monastic site, famous for its the high crosses and round tower.

The present Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Columba’s, and its grounds mark the original monastic site in Kells, associated with Saint Colmcille, or Saint Columba, and with both the Book of Kells, now in the Library in Trinity College Dublin, and the Kells Crosier, now in the British Museum.

Tradition says the Abbey of Kells was founded by Saint Columba around the years 550-554 on the site of a former Irish hill fort. According to the Book of Lismore, King Diarmait or Dermot, High King of Ireland, granted the Dun or Fort of Kells to Saint Columba to establish a religious community.

The abbey received a new lease of life or was refounded in the early ninth century when the Columban monks fled Iona, the island monastery founded in Scotland by Saint Columba, to escape repeated invasions and raids by the Vikings. The move began in 804 and in 807 the Columban monks transferred their principal monastery from Iona to Kells. In 814, a new church was completed and the Abbot of Iona, Ceallach, moved to Kells. After further Viking raids, more goods and relics were transferred from the abbey to other Columban houses, including Raphoe in Co Donegal, Dunkeld in Scotland and the Abbey of Kells in Co Meath.

However, the monks did not escape the Vikings completely. The Vikings continually raided Kells during the tenth century, and the abbey was sacked and pillaged repeatedly. Throughout these constant raids, the monks kept the Book of Kells intact until 1006, when it was stolen. It was returned two months later without its cover, and with illustrations missing at the beginning and end of the book. Nor were the Vikings the only threat to Kells – in 1117, the Abbot and Community of Kells were killed in a raid by Aedh Ua Ruairc.

A major synod of the church met in Kells and in nearby Mellifont in 1152, and this Synod of Kells completed the transition of the Church in Ireland from a church organised around the monasteries to a church organised in dioceses. This Synod of Kells raised Kells to diocesan standing, making it the diocese for the Kingdom of Breffni and the monastic church a cathedral in its own right.

At the end of the 12th century, Hugh de Lacy was granted all of Co Meath. Under the Anglo-Normans, religious life flourished in Kells, which became a border town garrison protecting the Pale. When a Cistercian monk tried to assert his rights as Bishop of Kells in 1185, he was ejected by the Bishop of Clonard, who assumed the title of Bishop of Meath.

When the last Bishop of Kells, M Ua Dobailén, died in 1211, the Diocese of Kells was absorbed into the Diocese of Meath by Bishop Simon de Rochfort. The Diocese of Kells came to an end after 60 years, and the former abbey church and cathedral became the parish church of Kells, known as Saint Columba’s.

Kells was burned again by Edward Bruce in 1315. The monastery was dissolved in 1551, but the church remained the parish church of Kells.

Following the Reformation, the church was in ruins. It was rebuilt in 1578 on the initiative of Hugh Brady, Bishop of Meath (1563-1584). The rebuilding was carried out by the Archdeacon of Meath, John Garvey, who was also Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (1565-1595), Bishop of Kilmore (1585-1589), and Archbishop of Armagh (1589-1595), and by the Sovereign (Mayor) of Kells, Nicholas Daly. This church was a large cruciform building with a chancel and tower, although the bell tower is the only portion of the mediaeval church still standing.

The chancel of Bishop Brady’s building was still in use as the parish church in the late 17th century. The present church was built in 1778. The church was altered in 1811, and again, in 1858, when the interior was re-ordered. In more recent times the Church roof was restored in 1965 and the interior was redecorated. At the time, the old disused gallery was turned into to exhibition space.

The monastic site

The Round Tower at the South Gate of Saint Columba’s Church, Kells, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The churchyard wall surrounding Saint Columba’s was restored in the early 18th century and again in the 1990s, and marks the boundaries of the site of the original monastery.

The round tower and five large High Crosses or their remains still stand in Kells today, with four of those high crosses or parts of them in the churchyard.

The Round Tower, which stands at the south gate of the churchyard, is 27 metres tall and was built in the tenth century, although it has a ninth century doorway that may be a later insertion.

The ‘South Cross’ is the most complete High Cross in Kells (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Close by the Round Tower stands the ‘South Cross,’ which is 3.4 metres high. This is the most complete cross in Kells and it is also the most elaborate, decorated on all four sides.

Only the base and shaft of the ‘West Cross’ survive to this day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The ‘West Cross’ is an incomplete cross. Only the base and shaft remain, but they are 3.5 metres high, making it higher than the ‘South Cross.’

The ‘East Cross’ was never finished. A Crucifixion scene and a panel of four figures are on its east face.

The small base and socket designed to hold the shaft of the ‘North Cross’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The ‘North Cross’ no longer exists, but a small, decorated conical base with a socket, designed to hold the shaft of the cross, remain close to the bell tower.

The ‘Market Cross’ now stands in front of Kells Heritage Centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The fifth high cross in Kells, the ‘Market Cross,’ now stands in front of Kells Heritage Centre. The ‘Market Cross’ is an eighth or ninth century high cross and originally stood at the gate of the monastery. It lay on the ground for many years and was re-erected at the instigation of Dean Jonathan Swift. It is said locally that the ‘Market Cross’ was later used as a gallows during the 1798 Rising. It stood in the present Market Square, a busy crossroads, until it was damaged in an accident involving a local school bus.

The ‘Market Cross’ now stands in front of the former courthouse, and is protected from the elements by plastic roofing. Sadly, it was re-erected in the wrong orientation, so that the west face now faces north.

The base of the ‘Market Cross’ has two friezes, including a deer hunt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The shaft of the ‘Market Cross’ is 2.5 metres high. The top of the shaft and part of the wheel are broken. In addition, the cross has been badly damaged from weathering, although what remains of the carving is splendid. The main scene shows the Crucifixion, in which Christ is shown without a halo. Some of other scenes depicted on the cross include: the Adoration of the Magi, Loaves and Fishes, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, and Adam and Eve. The base has two friezes, including parading horse and foot soldiers and a deer hunt.

Today, Kells is an active and lively parish in the Church of Ireland. Saint Columba’s Church, Kells, is grouped with Saint Patrick’s Church, Donaghpatrick, and the Rector of Kells is the Revd Asa Bjork-Olafsdottir, who moved from Iceland to the Diocese of Meath last year.

3, Trim, Co Meath

Looking from the Echo Gate across to ruins of the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The ruins of the vast Cathedral of Newtown Trim date back to 102, when an Augustinian Priory was founded there in 1202 by Simon de Rochfort, Bishop of Meath. This was once the largest abbey of its kind in Ireland. Bishop Simon successfully petitioned the Pope to move the cathedral of the Diocese of Meath from Clonard to Newtown Trim, claiming it would be better protected by nearby Trim Castle.

The cathedral was dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul and with the adjacent Priory or Hospice of Saint John the Baptist this was one of the most important ecclesiastical sites in Ireland until the dissolution of monasteries in the 1530s, and the main parts of the mediaeval cathedral still stand. From then, until Saint Patrick’s Day in 1955, the Diocese of Meath was without a cathedral.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Loman Street, on the north side of Trim (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Today, the Church of Ireland cathedral in Trim is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Loman Street, on the north side of the town. This is the Church of Ireland cathedral for the Diocese of Meath. It claims to be the oldest Anglican church in Ireland – although this claim is disputed by a church in Armagh which says its 20 years older than the cathedral in Trim.

The tower is part of the remains of the mediaeval parish church of Trim, and further ruins of this earlier church lie behind the cathedral. Although the Diocese of Meath was without a cathedral after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, The Bishops of Meath have been enthroned in Saint Patrick’s since 1536. However, Saint Patrick’s did not become a cathedral until Saint Patrick’s Day 1955, and the deans continue to called Dean of Clonmacnoise.

Trim Castle ... said to be the largest Norman castle in Western Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We may also stop to look at Trim Castle, or King John’s Castle, which was built by Hugh de Lacey in the late 12th century and is said to be the largest Norman castle in Western Europe.

On the banks of the River Boyne, the Hospital or Priory of Saint John the Baptist s was a house of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem, and a defence tower at the entrance once formed part of the knights’ priory.

4, Drogheda, Co Louth
Saint Peter’s Church, Drogheda, Co Louth, served as the Pro-Cathedral of the Diocese of Armagh for centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Peter’s, the Church of Ireland parish church in Drogheda, Co Louth, is built on a site that has been a centre of worship since at least the founding of the town of Drogheda itself.

The earliest archaeological feature of Drogheda is the Millmount motte, probably established by Hugh de Lacy before 1186. Saint Peter’s church was established on the north side of the River Boyne also before 1186 and was given by de Lacy to the Augustinian canons of Llanthony Prima in Monmouthshire, Wales.

Although there may have been a Celtic Church here in earlier times, the dedication to Saint Peter suggests that it was an Anglo-Norman foundation as Celtic Churches were not usually dedicated to Biblical saints.

The first church on the site was probably built about the same time as nearby Mellifont Abbey, as the remains of some of the original tiles and mouldings found on the site are similar to those found at Mellifont.

At the dissolution of the monasteries, the Crown took possession of the rectory. It was granted in 1605 to Sir Garrett Moore, ancestor of the Earls of Drogheda, who held the advowson until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1870.

Saint Peter’s is important because it served as the Pro-Cathedral for the Diocese of Armagh Diocese for several centuries. The Primates of Ireland lived either in Termonfeckin, Dromiskin or Drogheda, and very seldom visited the northern part of the Diocese because of the unsettled state of Ireland.

Diocesan synods of were held in Saint Peter’s up to 1559, and many consecrations of bishops and ordinations were held there. It is also the burial place of several Primates, including John Colton (d. 1404), Nicholas Fleming (d. 1416), John Swayne (d. after 1450), Octavian de Spinellis (de Palatio) (d. 1513), Thomas Lancaster (d. 1584), John Long (d. 1589), Henry Ussher (d. 1613) and Christopher Hampton (d. 1625).

Inside the present Saint Peter’s, Drogheda … the large medieval church had six chapels (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The large mediaeval church had six chapels – Saint Anne (the principal one, which at the time supported two chaplains), Saint Martin, Saint Patrick, Saint Peter, Saint John the Baptist and Saint George.

During the Siege of Drogheda in 1649 Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces burned the steeple of the church in which about 100 people had taken refuge.

The mediaeval font by the door at the west end of Saint Peter’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

By 1747, the Church was mainly in ruins, a new church was built, completed in 1752. The interior was reordered in the 19th century. The magnificent font by the door at the west end of the church is the only surviving relic of the mediaeval church still in use. Saint Peter’s also has many interesting monuments and graves.

The church marked the 250th Anniversary of the new church in 2002. This also marked the end of a three-year restoration programme following an arson attack in 1999 that severely damaged the interior.

Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These briefing notes were prepared for a field trip on 2 November 2012 as part of the residential weekend in Church History Elective (TH 7864).

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