In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837 Samuel Lewis observes that Downpatrick, County Down ‘is built upon a group of little hills, on the south shore of the western branch of…Strangford Lough, and consists of four principal streets rising with a steep ascent from the market place in the centre, and intersected by several smaller streets or lanes: on the eastern side the hills rise abruptly behind it, commanding views of a fertile and well-cultivated tract abounding with richly diversified and picturesque scenery. It is divided according to ancient usage into three districts called respectively the English, Irish and Scottish quarters, and contains about 900 houses, most of which are well built: the streets are well paved, and were first lighted with oil in 1830; and the inhabitants are amply supplied with water.’ Lewis then proceeds to give a very full account of Downpatrick’s history, deservedly since this is one of the most ancient urban settlements in Ireland, mentioned by Ptolemy in the second century as Dunum. Originally it was called Rath Celtair, after the mythological warrior Celtchar who was said to have lived there and who appears in many old texts, not least The Táin. Later the town served as the chief royal site and religious centre of Ulster’s dominant dynasty, the Dál Fiatach. By the 13th century it had been given the name of Downpatrick after the country’s patron saint, Patrick who was said to have been buried on Cathedral Hill in the year 461; later he was joined there by Saints Bridget and Columkille, ensuring the town became the base for several religious settlements and a place of pilgrimage. Towards the end of the 12th century the Anglo-Norman John de Courcy took possession of the place and established the Benedictine order on the site reputed to hold the remains of the saintly triumvirate, where a cathedral was then built. Like the rest of the country, Downpatrick was attacked, changed hands, suffered spoliation during the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries but somehow survived to enjoy prosperity from the late 1600s onwards.
When Richard Pococke made his extensive tour of Ireland in 1752 he described Downpatrick as being a spot ‘where the hills form a beautiful Amphitheatre; on two of these hills the town is built, and the third side is covered with the wood and gardens that are about a house…and on the western hill are the walls of the ancient Cathedral, called the Abby, which is not large but has a very venerable aspect; near it are the remains of a round tower. [for more on the travails of Down Cathedral, see Down Patrick’s Way, December 23rd 2013]…Below the Abbey is a very handsom brick building, in the middle part an apartment for six men, and six women, and at each end a School for ten girls, at the other for as many boys, who are to be fed and lodged as well as cloth’d and taught. All the foundation of Mr. Southwell of Kings Weston. At the lower end of the town is the Townhouse, and above it a handsom portico of twenty-four Arches for the linnen Market, which is very considerable at this place, and adjoyning to that is a School, to teach the poor children of the town, who are not in the other Schools. Near this is a good new-built Church, and beyond that a free School house for teaching Latin, which seemed to be in a ruinous way. The chief support of this place is a market and Fairs for linnen. This is the proper place of Residence for the Bishop and Dean of Down, but neither of them have houses here. I had almost forgot to mention four Apartments for Clergymen’s widows, which are maintained as well as I could be informed by subscription…Near Down Patrick is a famous horse course for races; here two or three plates are run for, which are given by the Corporation of Horse Breeders in the County of Down, erected by King James II under a charter into a Corporation, with liberty to purchase £200 a-year in lands, and a power to have a treasurer, register and other officers, and that a fair should be held for six days at the time of the races, Customs to be paid belonging to the Corporation, during which fairs, they have power to hold a Court for certain purposes.’
Among the structures to which Pococke refers are the red brick Southwell School, named after its eponymous founder and dating from 1733 and, further down English Street, a terrace of four houses built during the same period for the widows of diocesan clergymen. As he also notes neither the Bishop nor Dean of Down then maintained permanent residences in the town, perhaps because its cathedral had fallen into such a ruinous state. At the time of his visit, the Dean was Patrick Delany, appointed to the position in 1744 not long after his marriage to Mary Pendarves (née Granville) today often better remembered than her husband. When he took up the post Dr Delany discovered his predecessor had only stayed in Down for two days over a six-year period. He and his wife on the other hand tried to spend their summers in the area (the rest of the year they lived at Delville outside Dublin) renting a now-ruinous house called Mount Panther just a few miles outside the town. Despite being only in attendance for a few months annually, the Dean was assiduous in his duties: ‘Never did any flock want more the presence and assistance of a shepherd than this Deanery where there has been a most shameful neglect,’ wrote his devoted wife. ‘I trust in God it will be a very happy thing for the poor people that D.D. is come among them.’ No doubt he had to compete with the clergy of other denominations for the attention of his flock: Downpatrick contains an especially handsome Presbyterian church built in 1711. It was a century of expansion for the town, a new gaol being erected, again on English Street: after the construction of a new gaol in the 1790s (now the County Museum) the former premises became, and continue to be, the meeting rooms of the Down Hunt. Elsewhere houses were built up and down Downpatrick’s hills as the excellent land in the surrounding area made this a prosperous market town, testified by the presence of Denvirs Hotel, first established in 1641 and still with the appearance of an old coaching inn.
Sadly Downpatrick today appears to enjoy little enough of its former prosperity. This is a town replete with opportunities, not least the association with St Patrick. Since 2001 a centre at the base of Cathedral Hill has been dedicated to celebrating the town’s link with Ireland’s patron saint but the building is unsympathetically brutalist and furthermore tucked to the rear of a shopping plaza. As a consequence it is easy to overlook, like so many of Downpatrick’s other charms. The most obvious damage done to the town has been the construction of new retail outlets outside the historic core. As elsewhere, the effect has been to draw footfall away from the older district and to encourage consumers to travel by car: typically a large Lidl outlet almost directly across the road from the St Patrick Centre is set far back from the original street frontage to allow for ample parking. Meanwhile former retail premises in the heart of the town are boarded up and falling into decay, often in key locations such as at the junction of Irish, English and Scotch Streets. It does not help that all traffic must go via this location, making the area hazardous and unfriendly for pedestrians: Downpatrick ought to have been by-passed many years ago. Instead the preferential treatment given to cars means visitors attempting to move around the town on foot must constantly be on their guard. However Downpatrick’s problems don’t just spring from a want of concern for pedestrians; more seriously there appears to be an indifference to safeguarding the town’s broader built heritage. While certain key buildings like the Cathedral are given due attention, many others – especially examples of 18th and 19th century domestic architecture – have been allowed to slide into decay. A house on Irish Street next to the police station, for example, is completely ruinous. Further out on Pound Lane, the old Downe Hospital, vacant since 2009, has fallen prey to vandals and, given its location, is now a prominent blight on the urban landscape. Furthermore, these buildings suggest official indifference, a want of interest in preserving evidence of Downpatrick’s history. Residents and visitors alike will draw their own conclusions. While the real thing slips into dilapidation, ersatz Georgian townhouses are being constructed on the outskirts of the town. Downpatrick’s past looks more distinguished than its future.