Contention in Ireland: a Cathedral and a Gaol of Dublin

The thing about a Dublin church, it’s there to stay. No matter what you do to it, nobody forgets about it. The same place, over time, can be a church, or a cathedral, or sometimes even a ruin, but it somehow stubbornly remains the location of worship and community. Take for instance Christ Church Cathedral, the oldest mediæval cathedral in Dublin. It was wood, then it became stone. It was a priory, then a cathedral. It’s changed religion a couple of times. The place has fallen down more than once and been condemned, too. Doesn’t matter. It’s still Christ Church Cathedral.

The church, well, one version of it anyway, was built in 1038 by King Sitric Silkenbeard, the Viking King of Dublin. It’s been the seat of the archbishop of Dublin (initially Roman Catholic, then Church of Ireland) since its early days. It also contains the largest cathedral crypt in Britain or Ireland. History records a lot of back-and-forth between it and St. Patrick’s cathedral regarding which is premier or whose is the seat of the local big-wig. When St. Patrick’s was formally suppressed by the English King Edward VI, her silver, jewels, goods and chattels were commanded to Christ Church’s care.

Suppress a church you say? Yes, I did, and I didn’t know you could do that either. I’m learning new things every day in this country. Especially during the English reign of the country, there seemed to be a lot of politics to do with churches in Ireland. There are the Roman Catholics, the Church of Ireland, Church of England – it boggles the mind how much rebellion and religion have mixed together here. Even James Joyce wrote, “We have had too much God in Ireland. Away with God!” I can’t even pretend to understand it all, or to have anything educated to say about it. But it begins to make sense why there was so much resentment against the English when you think about having your church arbitrarily demoted, or even taken away. And it helps explain the American founders’ design for separating church and state. Imagine what it might be like living under a ruler who could strip your church and shut its doors because he was irritated by your city.

Fortunately, the Irish are nothing if not resilient. The church’s official status was not the final word: they were still going to use the edifice as they needed it. Christ Church Cathedral came and went and came again as a named cathedral, but always it was a place of baptisms, funerals, weddings, fellowship, recordings and the swearing of oaths. It fell down and was built again, it fell into great disrepair and was extensively renovated, always remaining a servant of its people. A champion of improving Christ Church was the great hero Strongbow; he is buried here. Mind you, Strongbow (aka Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke) is not a hero of the Irish, but rather of the English. You see, it was Strongbow’s army that gained the first English foothold in Ireland, including conquering the Viking city of Dublin (yes, that’s right, Dublin was originally founded by my Norwegian ancestors). It was Dermot MacMurrough, the Gaelic king of Leinster, who in the 12th century, after losing his kingdom in a war with another Irish king, solicited the help of English King Henry II. Since Strongbow needed to regain the king’s favor, he carefully got royal permission to bring an army to Ireland and “help” king MacMurrough. After Strongbow’s army successfully regained the MacMurrough’s lost territory, Strongbow personally held that territory by marrying MacMurrough’s daughter as per his private bargain with the Irish king. Thus was the Norman/English toehold gained in Ireland, making MacMurrough forever reviled in history books as the man who sold Ireland for personal gain. Evidently once you let the English and their army near your country, it’s all downhill.

But getting back to Strongbow’s tomb in Christ Church. The cathedral since its inception was a central place for recordkeeping and civic matters, and if you were making a deal, over Strongbow’s tomb was where your final word would be given. In fact, this oath-taking was such a binding ritual that when the original tomb was damaged by the cathedral’s roof falling in, another effigy had to be built so that the oaths could continue! There is a rumor that Strongbow is no longer buried here and was re-interred in Ferns, but I think he’s still here – at least in spirit!

I enjoyed the cathedral. It had a nice, airy feeling inside, and yet it was distinctly Irish with its cheery tile floors and its pillars adorned with clover carvings. It was a place you could feel cozy and comforted, a place of family services and heartfelt prayers. At first I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to take the time to go in, but I am very happy that I did. I lit a candle for a sick friend, sat and reflected quietly, and was comforted by the steady warmth I found in the church.

Later that day, I moved on to a less comforting Irish monument: Kilmainham Gaol. It was an important site to see, but hardly pleasant. Kilmainham was originally designed to be a modern, reformed prison. It was meant to encourage people to better themselves rather than throwing them into a stinky, overcrowded, disease-ridden pit. People actually were intended to have a place for quiet reflection and reformation. This was a different idea than the previous practice of simply killing time in anarchy and filth. However, all of this fine theory didn’t quite come to reality. Even children were sent here for the slightest of crimes (the youngest prisoner recorded in Kilmainham was five years old), and you could be sent to prison for several weeks simply for knocking loudly on the wrong door in the wee hours, so Kilmainham was pretty crowded. The building itself was put together badly, too, so conditions were wet, filthy and miserable after all. During the famine, things got so bad that people contrived to be put *into* the gaol so they would at least perhaps not starve to death. During the Irish rebellions, it was here that many of the important political figures of the day were quickly executed in the yard, with only the barest nod to due process of law. Even now, a flag and a plaque recognize the many heroes who died at Kilmainham.

An important hero of the Irish Rebellion (one of seven separate rebellions over the years), executed at Kilmainham, was Mr. Robert Emmet. His statue stands in Washington D.C. and in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for his patriotism. On Monday, 19 September 1803, in Dublin, Robert Emmet was tried for high treason by a British Court after his rebellion failed. He was convicted and when asked what he had to say for himself, he had plenty. His indictment is recorded in “From the Dock”. Here’s a piece of it, courtesy of

“Let no man dare, when I am dead, to charge me with dishonour; let no man attaint my memory by believing that I could have engaged in any cause but that of my country’s liberty and independence; or that I could have become the pliant minion of power in the oppression and misery of my countrymen. The proclamation of the Provisional Government [of Ireland] speaks for my views; no inference can be tortured from it to countenance barbarity or debasement at home, or subjection, humiliation, or treachery from abroad. I would not have submitted to a foreign oppressor, for the same reason that I would resist the domestic tyrant. In the dignity of freedom, I would have fought upon the threshold of my country, and its enemy should only enter by passing over my lifeless corpse.”

The passion of home rule for Ireland by the Irish has never ceased. The Troubles continued even until my generation. Thankfully, nowadays Ireland has a peace settlement with her neighbors and seems to be in a state of economic health, despite the setbacks of late. It is a friendly place for businesses and immigrants, and the people are getting by. At the bottom of it all, isn’t that what we each want: happiness, a little industry and a warm home? Add a song and some ale to that, and you might well be in Dublin.

This entry was posted in Europe. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s