A church that is both a draw for tourists and the home of an active Church of Ireland congregation, the neo Gothic structure which is home to Roman Catholic parish in the heart of a border town which has seen more than its share of division during Ireland’s Troubles, what remains of a monastic church many centuries gone, now standing as part of a quiet neighborhood in a small town: these three churches tell about the past and present of Ireland, and you can explore all three within a short day trip from Belfast or Dublin.
The first church, that tourist site with Church of Ireland parishioners, is actually in Dublin. It is Christ Church Cathedral, standing in just past the western edge of Temple Bar to a backdrop of glass fronted office buildings.
This area was at one time, more than ten centuries ago, the heart of the Norse settlement that became Dublin City. The king of the Dublin area, Sitric Silkenbeard, made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1028, and one of the things he did on his return was order construction to begin on a church. What you see today is not Sitric’s church: that was of wood and did not survive. The site, however, is the same, and though the main construction you see today is from the 1870s, there are parts of older walls dating back to the 1200s incorporated into the structure.
If you spend any time at all in this part of Dublin, whether you choose to visit the church or not, you will hear the bells of Christ Church; they make up part of the atmosphere of this part of the city. Historians think that Sitric’s first church most likely had at least one bell, all those centuries ago. By 1440 there is a record of three bells in the tower, and over the years gradually the number increased. These days, there are nineteen bells.
Services at Christ Church — several of the choirs are quite well known — are open to all, and you may also come to the chapel to pray privately. You may also come to sightsee and tour the church, and for this the parish, which is self supporting, charges a fee.
Dublin and Belfast are a bit more than an hour’s drive apart if you stay on the main road. Give yourself time for two detours, though, whichever city may be your destination or base.
Close to straight up the M1 (which becomes the A1 as you cross over into Northern Ireland) from Dublin is the town of Newry. The name of the town in English derives from the Irish word for yew, and it is said that Saint Patrick planted a yew tree at the head of the lough and that was the founding of of the city. Whether that is story or legend, Saint Colman came along in the sixth century, about a hundred years later, and made the town the center of ecclesiastical matters for the area. The cathedral church honors both men.
In a town with more than a few church spires, the Cathedral of Saints Patrick and Colman stands out as a landmark. Up close, from its location on Hill Street in the city center, it is an imposing grey stone structure. It is a welcoming one, though; people come and go from it all through the day, attending mass or stopping by for a bit of quiet prayer in the midst of the busy city.
The cathedral in Newry was the first cathedral to open once restrictions on building Catholic churches were lifted; designed by architect Thomas Duff, a native of Newry, it was begun in 1825 and completed in 1829. The neo Gothic style of the building, which was enlarged and added to as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, also marks it as a distinctive feature of Newry’s landscape.
Newry, just on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, has been a crossroads for anger and violence from both sides in long years of political and religious division in Ireland. The cathedral saw shootings on its steps and found people seeking sanctuary within its walls, as well. For many years, on a bulletin board at the back of the church there was a list of the names of those who had gone missing — disappeared — during recent years of The Troubles, with an appeal for information about them. Through all these times, people came to the church, as they do today — it is an active Roman Catholic parish — to pray and to seek a bit of silence, and to attend services and seek a bit of community.
From Newry, following the signs for Carlingford will bring you in a short drive to this small town by the water, in the Cooley Peninsula where mountain and sea meet in the shadow of Slieve Foye. King John’s Castle is perhaps the most prominent medieval building, right on the water. A short walk into a residential area toward the primary school will bring you to what remains of the Dominican Friary.
That monastic order first came to the shores of Carlingford Lough in 1305, and began work on the church and assorted outbuildings. The monks were active here for about two and half centuries, and then returned for a time in the seventeenth century.
It is a quiet place now — most of the time, anyway. You may at times hear the voices of children from the school, and if it is very quiet, perhaps a hint of the songs of those monks of long ago. Should you have taken this journey, in the back of your mind you might also hear a whisper of prayers rising from the cathedral in Newry and an echo of bells from Sitric’s church in Dublin.
You might also, perhaps, hear echoes of this ancient song. It is called Coaineadh na dTri Muire/Lament Of The Three Marys and has often been sung on Good Friday in Ireland. Cathie Ryan sings it here in Irish.
Photographs of detail of Christ Church, interior of Cathedral of Saints Patrick and Colman, and of the Dominican Friary by Kerry Dexter
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