14 May 2011

‘As neat and trim as a lady’s drawing-room’

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh ... ‘As neat and trim as a lady’s drawing-room’ according to Thackeray (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

For the past three days I have been staying almost in the shadow of Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh. The Charlemont Arms Hotel is just a two or three minutes’ stroll from the hill on which the cathedral stands and from which Armagh takes its name – Ard Mhacha, the “Hill of Macha”. On the other side of the hotel, on the neighbouring hill, is Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.

Macha was a legendary pre-Christian tribal princess associated with nearby Eamhain Mhacha, or Navan Fort, a major ritual site occupied from the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, and thought to have been the centre of Iron Age Ulster.

Eamhain Mhacha is associated with the epic Ulster cycle, the Táin Bó Cúailnge (“The Cattle Raid of Cooley”) and its doomed hero, Cú Chulainn, the “Hound of Ulster.”

After the ritual destruction of the sanctuary at Eamhain Mhaccha in the first century AD, it is likely that the nearby hill of Ard Mhacha became the centre of the Ulaidh – the local tribal group that gave their name to Ulster. This is this hilltop enclosure that Saint Patrick acquired and in the year 445 in this enclosure he built his first “Great Stone Church,” the Church of the Relics, on the Druim Saileach (Sallow Ridge) Hill, a site close to Scotch Street, below the Hill of Armagh.

The monastic community that developed around Saint Patrick’s Church produced the Book of Armagh, a ninth century Irish manuscript now in the Library in Trinity College Dublin, and containing some of the earliest surviving examples of Old Irish.

The Vikings raised the monastery in Armagh on at least two occasions in the ninth century – in 839 and in 869. The church was also damaged in a lightning strike in 995.

Brian Boru, who defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday 1014 – only to be executed as he prayed in his tent that evening – is said to be buried beside the North Wall of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. However, the church remained in ruins until 1125 when it was repaired and re-roofed by Bishop Cellach or Celsus.

After his death, the see remained vacant for five years until he was succeeded by Saint Malachy in 1134.

A head stoop at the West Door of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The most far-reaching work of restoration was carried out by Archbishop Patrick O’Scanlon (1261-1270). Further damage required major rebuilding by Archbishop Milo Sweetman in the 1360s and by Archbishop John Swayne in the 1420s.

Archbishop Edmund Connesburgh, who was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1475, was consecrated but never gained possession of the diocese. He resigned in 1477, and acted as a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Ely in 1477. He became titular Archbishop of Chalcedon in 1478, by 1483 he was styled “Archbishop in the universal church,” but by 1502 he was a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Exeter.

In the 1560s, as Lord Deputy of Ireland, the Earl of Sussex fortified the cathedral against Shane O’Neill, but in 1566 O’Neill “utterly destroyed the cathedral by fire, lest the English should again lodge in it.” A century later, in 1641, Sir Phelim O’Neill burned down the cathedral.

Archbishop James Margetson carried out repair work in the 1660s, and further restorations were undertaken in 1727, 1765, 1802, 1834, 1888, 1903, 1950, 1970, and most recently in 2004 under Dean Herbert Cassidy.

The extensive restoration carried out between 1834 and 1837 was commissioned and largely paid for by Archbishop John George Beresford. The architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham (1787-1847) addressed the structural vulnerability of the cathedral by restoring the nave walls to the perpendicular and removing the short wooden spire that can be seen on the cathedral seal (right).

He also reopened the clerestory windows that had been blocked by Archbishop Margetson and restyled them in decorated Gothic, enlarged the choir windows and overlaid the timber vaulting with plasterwork.

Cottingham came to Armagh after restoring Saint Alban’s Abbey, and in Armagh he tried to replicate some features which had impressed him in Saint Alban’s, erecting a stone screen to separate the nave from the choir.

This innovation shows how Cottingham was influenced by the ideas of AWN Pugin and the early Gothic Revival. These influences can be seen too in his restoration of the High Altar from the west end, where it had been relegated by Archbishop William Stewart at the beginning of the 19th century, to its proper eastward position in the form of a stone altar backed by a reredos of canopied niches. These too were copied from Saint Alban’s.

However, many felt that, far from providing a sense of mediaevalism, Cottingham was too deliberate and precise and that he tended to eclipse the earlier features of the cathedral. According to William Makepeace Thackeray, Cottingham’s cathedral was “too complete ... not the least venerable. It is as neat and trim as a lady’s drawing-room.”

Although the rood screen was removed in 1888, much of Cottingham’s work remains, although the basic shape of the cathedral is still as it was conceived by Archbishop O’Scanlon in the 13th century.

The West Door of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Armagh’s Georgian architectural heritage is one of the attractive features of this cathedral city. To the left, as you leave the cathedral gates, is Armagh Public Library, founded in 1771. Across the street is the former Armagh Infirmary, dating from 1774. The 18th century is also represented in the 11 houses of Vicar’s Hill facing the great west door of the Cathedral.

Other well-known Georgian buildings in the city include the former Archbishops’ Palace (1770), now the offices of the city council, the former women’s prison (1780) and Armagh Observatory, founded in 1790.

Opposite the Library is the neo-Elizabethan Synod Hall, built in 1912, and, to its right, the limestone pillars and 18th century iron gates, the site of the Archbishops’ Palace. The new See House is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

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