A religious education in Armagh

Seven years would seem like a reasonable length of time to be dean of a cathedral, but when that same cathedral is 750 years old, your service is put into perspective.

The Dean of Armagh – the Very Rev Gregory Dunstan – welcomed the News Letter into St Patrick’s Cathedral where he explained the vast history of the ecclesiastical site.

He commented: “I’ve been here seven years, but seven years is nothing compared to the history of the cathedral.

“The cathedral itself is 750 years old, but people have worshipped on this site for 1,500 years.

“This is a place of enormous Christian heritage.

“If you go back 750 years you’re not even halfway back to the time of Patrick. There’s 800 years between Patrick and the foundation of the present cathedral.

“Before the cathedral there were previous churches destroyed by Vikings, destroyed by fire or that fell into ruin.

“It’s only since 1268 that there has been a continuous cathedral to the present and it has been very greatly restored.”

He added: “There are many churches in Armagh, but just the two cathedrals dedicated to St Patrick.

“The Catholic cathedral was begun in the 1840s, construction had to be stopped during the famine and continued in the later part of the century.

“People call this the old cathedral because this is on the site traditionally chosen by Patrick for his first church in AD445.

“It is the successor to that cathedral. This building was, to the best of our knowledge, started at least by Archbishop Máel Pátraic Ó Scanaill in 1268.”

Explaining Armagh’s position as the “ecclesiastical capital of Ireland” the dean said: “When Brian Boru came here in 1005 he camped at Navan Fort. He laid 30 ounces of gold at the altar and secured the backing of the abbot and the community for his high kingship.

“He had his chaplain write into the Book of Armagh that Armagh should have the primacy of all the churches in Ireland. Since that time Armagh has been the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland for both the Catholic community and Anglican community.”

He continued: “On the wall there’s a list of archbishops going back to St Patrick. It’s basically an unbroken succession.

“It was the same succession in the two cathedrals until the Reformation.

“Donagh O’Tighe was the last archbishop whose name you’ll see in both cathedrals. From 1563 onwards there were two archbishops.

“Now we have two archbishops who are very good friends and they work together very well.”

Highlighting some of the prominent archbishops, he said: “James Usher was possibly the greatest scholar of his day. He spent a lot of time in England in exile because of the wars but was accorded a state funeral in Westminster Abbey when he died such was his stature.

“Narcissus Marsh founded Marsh’s library in Dublin, he was a fine and famous scholar.

“Richard Robinson is the man to whom we owe 18th century Armagh and its survival today – the library, the infirmary, the observatory, the mall.

“William Alexander – he was a great bishop but his wife is better remembered than he for the hymns she wrote – All Things Bright And Beautiful, There Is A Green Hill Far Away, Once In Royal David’s City.”

Of his congregation he said: “We’ve a very small congregation of our own because the principal Church of Ireland in the city belongs to the church of St Mark’s. The cathedral is here for the diocese, so when we have diocesan occasions it will be packed.

“It’s a working cathedral – there’s a pulpit for preaching, a lectern for reading, a place for the choir. There are still sung services on twice on a Sunday. The cathedra (throne) is where the archbishop sits. That’s where cathedral gets its name from.

“It’s a wonderful place in which to worship. It has been much changed over the years but what we know has worked very well as a place of worship.

“The cathedral that you see today is essentially a 19th century creation. By the early 1830s it was near ruinous. It was so bad that apparently they considered abandoning it, but the then archbishop John George Beresford, he brought in an English architect called Cottingham who restored the cathedral.

“He brought in these very English windows in the aisles. He plastered the inside – presumably the masonry was in very poor condition – he clad the whole of the outside in what I think is English sandstone. It is very much to him that we owe the cathedral as it is now.

“The archbishop of the day very substantially funded it himself.”

He said: “It’s an extraordinary history of how it came to be the way it is, and how it came to be the lovely place it is to worship.

“It’s a huge privilege to lead worship in a place like this.

“It’s worth remembering too that around the cathedral is a graveyard where the people who worshipped here are buried over the last 1,500 years. In that sense there’s a lovely remembrance of the Communion of Saints and we’re part of a great chain of worship that goes right back to the foundation of the place by St Patrick.”