Tourists of all faiths — and levels of dedication thereto — form long lines to visit Dublin’s two most famous cathedrals, pulling out fistfuls of hard-earned scratch for the privilege. Unfortunately, many of them have no idea that there is another city centre church, nearly as old as St. Patrick’s and Christ Church, with no shortage of history and lore, and open for your visit — free of charge.
St. Audeon’s Church — on the corner of Cook Street and Cornmarket just a stone’s throw west of Christ Church Cathedral — is one of my favorite pieces of Dublin’s religious history. It’s a hodgepodge of an attraction, which I view as a major plus. A currently-in-use chapel (itself pretty old by American standards) occupies about a quarter of a much larger medieval structure in which you’ll find museum exhibits, the skeleton of a once-great Catholic church seized by the Reformationists, and a few very, very old pieces of Dublin.
Enter the church from Cornmarket through the well-kept gardens and speak with the helpful OPW staff at the desk; every time I’ve been there, these knowledgeable docents have been eager to tell me about the church or to take me on an informal guided tour. Look down as you pass from the entryway into the restored part of the old church. A few feet below the stone floor (and modern-day street level) is a section of the first cobbled streets of the city, when Dublin was little more than a castle and a couple of churches surrounded by a wall.
Through the glass doors, you’ll see the sanctuary of the old church, roofless thanks for decades of neglect. The stone slabs on the ground are markers of notable burials laid to rest under the floor of the church. The elements have rendered many of them unreadable over the years. (Non-notable folks were buried in the churchyard, what is now the adjoining public park. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of unmarked graves are stacked atop one another beneath this small green corner.)
If there isn’t a service on the day of your visit, walk through the beautiful working chapel, now officially operated by the Church of Ireland — look for the raised pulpit atop a spiral staircase. Like many once-Catholic churches in the UK and Ireland, this church was converted during the Reformation — and the famously industrious Protestants are so busy they just haven’t yet found the time to give it back. Note the pipe organ with hand-pumped bellows equipment still attached. Before electric air pumps, athletic acolytes had to continuously pump these levers to maintain pressure as the organist worked the spring-loaded manuals.
At the back of the sanctuary, touch the Lucky Stone on display there. This mysterious rock always seems to come back to St. Audeon’s, despite several attempts to move or steal it. One legend tells of a gang of thieves throwing the stone into their carriage in the night and making a clean getaway — or so they thought. Less than a mile outside city, pieces of their carriage began to fail one-by-one, breaking in the miscreants’ hands as they tried to repair them. The bandits are said to have immediately walked back to town to turn themselves in and return the stone to its rightful home.
You’ll surely have noticed the squat, square bell tower of the church on your approach. the base of the tower is at the back of the church near the Lucky Stone — which didn’t prevent the tower from several collapses and other structural woes over the last few centuries. Today, the tower and bells (some of the oldest bells in Ireland) are fully functional, and a trained campanologist comes in each week to ring the bells by hand.
On your way out, time permitting, visit the exhibits on the ground floor and upper level of the restored sanctuary. Don’t miss the wall panels, once covered with beautiful frescoes, but now mostly washed clean by the rain.
From the entrance, head right (west) to St. Audeon’s Park, what was once the churchyard. Think about all those bones below you (shudder) and make your way to the north side. Looking down, you’ll see one of the largest remaining pieces of the city wall of Dublin. The palisades are a reconstruction, but below you, you’ll see an arch over one of the city’s gates. For a better look, head to the western corner of the park, exit the iron gate, and descend the steps to Cook Street.
If you really, really need to see St. Patrick’s (not Roman Catholic anymore, mind you) or the mummified cat and rat of Christ Church, then by all means, get in line and buy your ticket. But if you, like me, are into more off-beat — and did I mention free? — history, walk the extra block to St. Audeon’s.
Nuts and Bolts
- St. Audeon’s Church is operated by the Office of Public Works and is open from April–October daily from 09:30–17:30; admission is free, visits may be limited during church service hours.*
- Allow about 45 mins to an hour for a full visit, and make sure to inquire about a guided tour from the museum staff.
- For more hidden history, consider the Dublin Castle Medieval Undercroft or the crypts of St. Michan’s Church in Smithfield.
*Hours and admission fees subject to change. Confirm both before your visit.
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— Cory Hanson (@HansonCory1) August 1, 2016