06 March 2022

Malta: a modern
European state
with a legacy
of 8,000 years

Red pillar boxes on the streets of Valletta … Malta is comfortable with its British legacy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Malta is an island republic in the Mediterranean, between Italy, Tunisia and Libya, and the tenth smallest and fourth most densely populated country in the world. Its capital Valletta, is the smallest capital city in the European Union, and Maltese and English are the official languages, although many people are also fluent in Italian.

Malta has been inhabited for about 8,000 years, and its location in the centre of the Mediterranean has given Malta strategic importance as a naval base. The Maltese islands have been ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragon, the Knights of Saint John or Knights of Malta, Napoleonic France, and Britain.

Malta became a British colony in 1813, becoming an important base for British naval vessels and the headquarters of the British Mediterranean Fleet.

During World War II, Malta was an important Allied base for operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean and besieged by the Axis powers, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

The bravery of the Maltese people moved King George VI to award the George Cross on a collective basis on 15 April 1942.

Malta became an independent state in 1964, and became a republic in 1974. It remains a member of the Commonwealth and joined the European Union in 2004. But the red pillar boxes and telephone boxes everywhere show that Malta has no cultural problems about the British legacy and a depiction of the George Cross remains on the flag and the coat of arms of Malta.

The Grand Master’s Palace of Knights of Saint John … still used for Maltese state receptions (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)


The most enduring presence on Malta has been the Knights Hospitaller or the Knights of Saint John, also known as the Knights of Malta. They ruled Malta from 1530, after they were forced by the advancing Ottoman Turks to abandon Rhodes and other islands in the east Mediterranean, until 1798, when they were expelled from Malta and Gozo by Napoleon.

The knights, led by their French-born Grand Master, Jean Parisot de Vallette, withstood the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. With the help of Spanish and Maltese forces, they repelled the Ottoman Turks.

After the siege, the knights stepped up the fortification of Malta, particularly in the inner-harbour area, built the new city of Valletta, named in honour of Valette and replacing the old capital of Mdina.

The bastions and watchtowers of Valletta retain the names of saints and the Grand Masters of the order, and many of the minor palaces of the knights, named after their different nationalities and languages, including Castille, Leon and Portugal, have survived for almost five centuries.

The Grand Master’s Palace is still used for state receptions. But, as a modern democracy, Malta also boasts interesting modern architecture, including the new Parliament on Freedom Square, designed by Rezo Piano, the Italian architect who also designed Europe’s tallest skyscraper, the Shard in London.

Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, built by the Knights of Saint John (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Paul’s shipwreck
and an Anglican cathedral

Perhaps the most visited church in Valletta is the Co-Cathedral of Saint John, with its masterpiece by Caravaggio depicting the beheading of Saint John the Baptist, the patron of the Knights of Saint John.

Throughout Malta, many churches are dedicated to Saint Paul, who was shipwrecked in Malta on his way from Caesarea to Rome as a prisoner. The town of Saint Paul’s Bay, about 16 km north-west of Valletta, recalls his shipwreck, recounted in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 27-28). on Saint Paul’s Islands near St Paul's Bay, on his voyage to Rome. Saint Paul’s stay is said to have laid the foundations of Christianity on the island.

Saint Luke recounts that Saint Paul’s ship was lost at sea for two weeks during winter storms. Eventually, the ship ran aground on the island of Malta and was dashed to pieces by the surf, but all of the occupants survived and made it to shore.

Saint Paul’s Island, an uninhabited, rocky islet at the entrance to Saint Paul’s Bay, is thought to be the site where of the shipwreck (Acts 27: 41). Saint Paul’s Shipwreck Church stands on the water’s edge in the town of Saint Paul’s Bay. The church is also known as Saint Paul’s Bonfire Church and commemorates the traditional site where the shipwreck survivors, including Saint Paul, swam ashore and a bonfire was built for them.

The Maltese Parliament on Freedom Square in Valletta, designed by the Italian architect Rezo Piano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)


The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Paul, commonly known as Saint Paul’s Cathedral or the Mdina Cathedral, is the Roman Catholic cathedral in Mdina, the ancient capital of Malta. It was founded in the 12th century and remains the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Malta, although since the 19th century it has shared this function with Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta.

Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral in Independence Square, Valletta, officially the Pro-Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Paul, is an Anglican pro-cathedral of the Diocese in Europe, alongside the cathedrals in Gibraltar and Brussels.

The cathedral was commissioned by the Dowager Queen Adelaide during a visit to Malta in the 19th century, when she learned there was no place of Anglican worship on the island. Before her visit, Anglican services were held in a room in the Grand Master’s Palace.

Saint Paul’s was built on the site of the Auberge d’Allemagne, or the conventual home of the German Knights Hospitaller. The cathedral was designed by William Scamp and was built in 1839-1844.

The cathedral is a landmark in Valletta, thanks to its spire rising to a over 60 metres, and is clearly visible in the Marsamxett Harbour. The undercroft was used as an air raid shelter during World War II.

The cathedral suffered minor damage during World War II and the roof collapsed, but most of the structure remained intact. A project to restore Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the steeple was launched five years ago, with the aim of raising €3 million. When I visited the cathedral last week, much of the building was still covered in cladding and scaffolding.

Saint Paul’s Church above the Menqa or boat shelter at the harbour in Saint Paul’s Bay … the site of Saint Paul’s shipwreck (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Irish saints, governors
and burials in Valletta

It seems almost every second street in Valletta is named after a saint, including steep San Patriziziju or Saint Patrick Street. Most of those streets also have a church named after the saint. I could find no Saint Patrick’s Church, but I found two monuments on the bastions with interesting Irish connections.

The Hastings Gardens, on top of Saint Michael’s Bastion, are named after Francis Edward Rawdon-Hasting (1754-1826), 1st Marquis of Hastings and an Irish-born Governor of Malta.

Lord Hastings, who is buried in the gardens, was Governor-General of India in 1813-1823 and Governor of Malta in 1824-1826. Hastings was born at Moira, Co Down, the son of John Rawdon, 1st Earl of Moira and Lady Elizabeth Hastings, 13th Baroness Hastings. He was baptised in Saint Audoen’s Church, Dublin, on 2 January 1755, and grew up in Moira and in Dublin.

As an officer, he fought in the British army during the American War of Independence and raised a regiment, called the Volunteers of Ireland. He was MP for Randalstown, Co Antrim, in the Irish Parliament in 1781-1783. He was given the title of Baron Rawdon in 1783, succeeded his father as 2nd Earl of Moira in 1793, and sat in the Irish House of Lords until the Act of Union.

It was rumoured briefly in 1797 that he would replace William Pitt as Prime Minister. In the Irish Parliament, he was identified with the Patriot party of Henry Grattan and Lord Charlemont, he appealed for parliamentary reform and Catholic Emancipation, and denounced government coercion before the 1798 Rising began. Wolfe Tone described him as ‘The Irish Lafayette,’ and he was a patron of the poet Thomas Moore.

Saint Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Valletta … Queen Adelaide laid the foundation stone in 1839 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)<


While Lord Moira was the Governor-General of India (1812-1821), he became the Marquess of Hastings in 1816. He was appointed Governor of Malta in 1824 but he died at sea off Naples in 1826 on his way home.

Lady Hastings returned his body to Malta, but had his right hand cut off and preserved. His body was then buried in a large marble sarcophagus in Hastings Gardens in Valletta. His right hand was eventually buried, clasped with hers, when she died.

Close to the Hastings Gardens is the unusual grave of Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer (1791-1830), a naval officer with Irish family links. He was a nephew of Lady Georgiana Spencer, and her husband William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, of Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. His brother-in-law, Lord George Quin, was MP for Kells (1776-1790) Longford (1794-1795) and Meath (1794-1795). Spencer’s brothers included George Spencer (1799-1864), known as Father Ignatius, a Passionist preacher throughout Ireland and Britain.

Spencer died on board HMS Madagascar off Alexandria on 4 November 1830, on his way back to London. His body was kept in quarantine at the Lazaretto on Manoel Island near Valletta for 40 days, and was then taken to Valletta, where he was buried on Saint Michael’s Bastion.

At the time, Spencer’s cousin, Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (1783-1837) from Co Kilkenny, was Governor of Malta (1826-1836). Ponsonby’s Column was erected in his honour in Valletta in 1838, but was destroyed by lightning in 1864.

The grave and monument to Lord Hastings on the walls on Valletta … he was born in Moira, Co Down, and raised in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

This feature was first published in March 2022 in the Church Review, the diocesan magazine of Dublin and Glendalough, pp 6-7


Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick amazing read as always, the Irish Province of the Salesians of Don Bosco formerly consisted of of Ireland and Malta. They had/have a school and church there called St Patricks in Sliema.

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick excellent read as always. The Irish province of the Salesians of Don Bosco comprised of Ireland and Malta. Malta is a province of its own right and have a school and church called St Patrick's in Sliema. Denis Robinson