Ireland — the “Land of Saints and Scholars” on many a tourist brochure — has no shortage of religious attractions for churchy types and Sunday-morning snoozers alike. With 1600 years of Christian tradition, and who knows how many years of pre-Christian religious practice before that, it’s difficult to throw a rock from the top of one of Ireland’s many green hills without knocking a holy well, a grave dolmen, a ruined abbey, or a lady with a big hat walking out of Sunday service.
Dublin has a number of churches worth a visit — consider a church-inside-a-church at St. Audeon’s or a visit to St. Valentine’s remains at Whitefriar Street — but the holy hits of the capital are the two no-longer-Catholic cathedrals of Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s.
Due to some complicated and painful history, these two massive cathedrals sit no more than a few hundred yards from one another, and both are of the Church of Ireland — a not-English-thank-you-very-much cousin of the Church of England. Every year, thousands of hopeful Irish-American Catholics plan to attend Mass at one of these cathedrals — especially St. Paddy’s — and are confused by the raised pulpit, the stodgy old hymns, and those comically massive ladies’ hats.
Christ Church Cathedral
Closest to Dublin’s city centre, and probably the first one you’ll see, the blocky steeple of Christ Church stands tall in the heart of the city’s medieval quarter. The first church here would have stood within Dublin’s original stone city walls (sections of which are still on display in the surrounding neighborhood), but today, it’s surrounded by the ugly 1980s-era Wood Quay Civic Offices and busy streets.
In the courtyard, take a look at the church from different angles, checking out the ruins of the old chapter house. The sharp corners and square towers are quite photogenic — especially in the early morning and at sunset.
Inside, explore the large main sanctuary (technically free if you are really going in just to pray and not to sightsee) and try to find the notable graves, particularly the stone sarcophagus of Strongbow — the English lord who brought the Normans to Ireland and a tasty brand of hard apple cider to the rest of the world.
The real star of the Christ Church show is downstairs in the crypt. Most of the burial chambers have been converted to museum showpieces for permanent and temporary displays about the history of the cathedral and Viking-Age Dublin. The most famous posthumous residents of the crypt — maybe even more than ol’ Strongbow himself — are the mummified cat and rat found in an old organ pipe, naturally preserved by the dry conditions underground.
Open daily; €6.00 adult*; http://christchurchcathedral.ie
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
Reportedly built on the site of a holy well in which Saint Patrick is said to have baptized the local Pagan king (accidentally stabbing the hapless king through the foot with his staff in the proceedings…ouch). Lending credence — but not really any hard evidence — to the legend is the fact that the River Poddle, which has long since gone underground, flows near where the church stands today.
Nothing remains of the earliest structures of the church, and most of what you can see today is a smattering of bits, bobs, patches, and restorations going back a thousand years or so. After the church was seized by the Anglicans during the Reformation — well, at least Henry VIII got his divorces — it suffered a period of decline and it was the Guinness family, yes, that Guinness family, who stepped in to help fix the place up.
On your visit today, you’ll see a well-presented church with a wealth of details to be enjoyed by the sharp-eyed tourist. Look on the floor for the grave of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and once the dean of the cathedral; find the dedication to one Mr. Wallop, who took a bad military defeat and from whom we get the term “walloped.” Those who have been paying attention to Irish history will notice the chair once occupied by one William of Orange to celebrate his victory of the Irish Catholics at the pivotal Battle of the Boyne.
If you can swing it, time your visit with one of the daily guided tours given by knowledgeable guides — especially if you don’t know off-hand who William of Orange was. The guided tour visits the most interesting corners of the massive cathedral, and the guides clarify many confusing points: indicating which chairs are reserved for the President of Ireland and which are reserved for the Prime Minister, and what the heck is the difference between the two; and pointing out the flags of notable wealthy, landed families whose flags still hang over the central choir, and what the heck the obscure heraldry means.
If you can’t make the guided tour and are still determined to visit, maximize your admission fee by grabbing one of the audio tours and take your time with it. Without some kind of interpretive material, you’ll find yourself a bit overwhelmed in the dimly lit cavern that is the St. Patrick’s sanctuary.
Open daily; €6.00 adult*; http://www.stpatrickscathedral.ie
*Ticket prices subject to change. Check church websites before your visit to confirm prices or to book tickets online