The founder of Methodism John Wesley first visited Downpatrick, County Down in June 1778 and in his journal noted that at the top of the town ‘stands the Abbey, on a hill which commands all the country. It is a noble ruin and is far the largest building I have seen in the kingdom.’ Back in Downpatrick in June 1789, he wrote, ‘In the afternoon we viewed the venerable ruins of the Abbey. Great men have talked of rebuilding it for many years; but none moves a hand towards it.’ Wesley was here precipitate, because a year later, some of those ‘great men’ did indeed undertake a complete restoration of the old building.
According to legend, when St Patrick came to preach the Christian message in Ireland in 432 he landed at Saul, County Down and after converting the local chieftain Dichu, there he established his first church. Patrick is said to have died at Saul almost three decades later after which his body was placed on a cart drawn by two untamed oxen with the understanding that where they stopped would be his burial place. That spot was where the Downpatrick’s Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity now stands.
The association with Ireland’s patron saint meant the hill at Downpatrick soon became a place of worship, although it only assumed this name – as Dún Phádraig – in the 13th century. In any case, it was already the site of an historic settlement: in the second century the Alexandrian Ptolemy mentioned the town (as Dunum) in his Geographia. Meanwhile from around the time of St Patrick onwards the dominant ruling authority in this part of Ireland was the Dál Fiatach dynasty which had its chief royal site in Downpatrick, thereby confirming the place’s political as well as religious importance.
With regard to the latter, a monastery was established at the site of the saint’s burial. This foundation had a chequered history. It was plundered by Viking invaders on a number of occasions and later the stone church and round tower were burnt after being struck by lightning. In 1124 St Malachy became Bishop of Down and undertook a restoration of the building, establishing an order of Augustinian Canons Regular there. These were replaced later in the century by the Norman knight John de Courcy after he had ousted the last King of the Dál Fiatach and seized control of this part of Ireland. De Courcy invited Benedictine monks from St Werburgh’s in Chester to Downpatrick and that order remained responsible for the site until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Before the end of the 12th century the remains of St Patrick had been joined by those of Ss. Brigid and Columba. But this was not enough to preserve the church from further vicissitudes: it was damaged by an earthquake in 1245 and then burned by Edward Bruce in 1315.
Following the suppression of monasteries, in 1539 Down Cathedral was laid waste by the then Lord Deputy of Ireland Leonard Grey, Viscount Grane who is said to have stabled his horses in the building. Thus it fell into a ruinous state even though in 1609 James I granted the cathedral a charter dedicating it to the Holy Trinity and providing for a Dean and Chapter. So although successive deans continued to be installed, the cathedral was in too poor a condition to be used for services. (In fact when Robert Echlin, Bishop of Down and Connor undertook a visitation of his diocese in 1622 he found all but ten of Down’s churches were in ruins.)
Jonathan Carver’s The New Universal Traveler published in 1779 describes the cathedral as being ‘yet venerable in its ruins. The roof was supported by five handsome arches, which compose a centre aile of twenty-six foot broad, and two lateral ailes each thirteen foot wide. The whole length of the structure is a hundred foot. The heads of the pillars and arches, the tops of the windows, and many niches in the walls, have been adorned with variety of sculpture in stone, some parts of which yet remain. Over the east window, which is very lofty, are three handsome ancient niches, where are the pedestals on which it is supposed the statues of St. Patrick, St. Brigid and St. Columb formerly stood.
Adjoining to the east end of the cathedral are two square columns, one of which is solid and the other hollow; and in it are twenty winding steps, which are supposed to have led up to the roof…There are no ancient monuments remaining in the old abbey, but at the distance of about forty foot from the cathedral, stands a round tower, sixty-six foot high. The thickness of the walls is three foot, and the diameter within, eight foot. On the west side of it is an irregular gap, about ten foot from the top; near a third of the whole circumference being broke off by the injury of time…’
In 1787 the Hon. And Reverend William Annesley, son of the first Viscount Glerawly, and brother of the first and second Earls Annesley, was appointed Dean of Down and immediately began making plans for the restoration of the ruined cathedral under his care. In this he was greatly helped by Wills Hill, Earl of Hillsborough who in 1789 was created first Marquis of Downshire. In July of that year the Dean and Chapter met in Downpatrick and passed a resolution committing themselves to the old building’s reconstruction, assisted by Dean Annesley agreeing to give £300 of his annual tithes for this purpose. Lord Downshire provided £568 (and embarked on a lengthy letter-writing campaign to raise funds from other potential donors) and in 1790 an Act of Parliament granted £1,000 from George III provided an equal sum was raised by subscription. The total cost was estimated to be in the region of £5,000. In fact this much had been expended by 1795 when the building was reroofed by otherwise still insufficiently restored; the east window, for example, was glazed in April 1800 and the floor reflagged. Seats were being put in a year later and the organ arrived in July 1802. But as late as July 1810 the third Marquis of Downshire could write that he had visited the building ‘the restoration of which had been promoted by my ancestors, and I am much concerned to observe it still continues in an unfinished state.’ While services were already held there the cathedral was only ready to be consecrated in 1818, the octagonal vestibule and gothic tower at the west end of the building being added in 1826.
The architect responsible for rebuilding the cathedral was Charles Lilly about whom we know relatively little, although he appears to have originated in Dublin. Lilly was active in County Down during this period: he carried out work for Dean Annesley at his residence Oakley House and also designed the new gaol in Downpatrick in 1789, as well as receiving a number of other public and private commissions. Architectural historians are inclined to be unenthusiastic about his work on the cathedral, regarding it as excessively heavy-handed. It is certainly regrettable that he should have pulled down the old round tower, seemingly on the grounds that it was unstable. And he is criticized for having retained little of the old building, preferring to create his version of a mediaeval cathedral.
On the other hand, one wonders after 250 years of neglect how much was capable of being retained. Furthermore Lilly’s interpretation has a great deal of charm, and none of the turgid heaviness often found in full-blown 19th century cathedral restorations. Down Cathedral displays the delicacy, even frivolity of Gothick, as opposed to the earnestness of Pugin-esque Gothic Revival. The interior is full of light and movement and rhythm, the tiered box pews – those closest to the centre aisle given a series of bow fronts like houses on a Regency terrace – adding a certain theatricality to the space. This impression is enhanced by the line of boxes directly beneath the organ case of the pulpitum: these would not look out of place in an opera house. It may not be historically correct, but Down Cathedral is a delight, its slender sprung arches lifting one’s eyes heavenwards. St Patrick would surely approve of that.