On a ridge above the Liffey, where previously the Vikings had established themselves, the Anglo-Norman invaders rebuilt Dublin in the thirteenth century around a doughty castle. You’re free to walk around the courtyards, an architectural mishmash that’s home to police and tax offices. The castle was the seat of British power in Ireland for seven hundred years, after its establishment by the Anglo-Normans in the early thirteenth century as the main element of their walled city, and successfully withstood all attempts to take it by force. It did, however, succumb to a major fire in 1684 and was rebuilt during the eighteenth century as a complex of residential and administrative buildings over two quadrangles, giving a sedate collegiate appearance. The outline of the medieval castle is traced by the Upper Yard; above its original main gate, the Cork Hill State Entrance, stands a statue of Justice, wearing no blindfold and turning her back on the city – a fitting symbol of British rule, locals reckon.
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Built as the residence of the English viceroy and entered from the Upper Yard, the State Apartments are accessible on regular guided tours (dublincastle.ie). It’s advisable to ring ahead, however, as the apartments are sometimes closed for state occasions, when the tour will take in only the Chapel Royal and the Undercroft. Inside the apartments, the Grand Staircase leads up to the east wing of bedrooms and drawing rooms, refurbished to their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century style after a major fire in 1941. The brass chandelier in the Throne Room, with its shamrock, rose and thistle emblems, commemorates the 1801 Act of Union, while the Picture Gallery beyond is lined with viceroys, including – hiding ignominiously behind the door – the First Marquis of Cornwallis, who not only lost the American colonies, but also faced rebellions as viceroy, first of India, then of Ireland (1798). St Patrick’s Hall, formerly a ballroom that hosted investitures of the Knights of St Patrick, is now used for the inaugurations and funerals of Irish presidents. Its overblown, late eighteenth-century ceiling paintings show St Patrick converting the Irish, Henry II receiving the submission of the Irish chieftains, and George III’s coronation.
The tour also includes the Chapel Royal in the Lower Yard, an ornate Gothic Revival gem, and the excavations of the Undercroft, which have revealed the base of the gunpowder tower of the medieval castle and steps leading down to the moat, fed by the old River Poddle on its way down to the Liffey, as well as part of the original Viking ramparts.
Several other remnants of British hegemony are still dotted around the castle: the beautifully restored rotunda of City Hall; Christ Church Cathedral, with its huge crypt and photogenic covered bridge; and St Patrick’s Cathedral, sheltering an intriguing array of memorials. The main highlight for visitors in this area, however, is the Chester Beatty Library, a world-class collection of books and objets d’art from around the globe, in the castle gardens.
Dublin and the Messiah
Opposite Christ Church cathedral on Fishamble Street once stood Neal’s Music Hall, where Handel conducted the combined choirs of Christ Church and St Patrick’s cathedrals in the first performance of his Messiah in 1742. As the takings were going to charity, ladies were requested not to wear hoops in their crinolines, to get more bums on seats. Jonathan Swift exclaimed, “Oh, a German, a genius, a prodigy.” In a private garden on the site, the composer’s reward is a statue of himself conducting in the nude, perched on a set of organ pipes. Every April 13, on the anniversary of the first performance, Our Lady’s Choral Society gives a singalong performance of excerpts from the Messiah here.
The Chester Beatty Library
Overlooking the pretty castle garden from the renovated eighteenth-century Clock Tower Building, the Chester Beatty Library preserves a dazzling collection of books, manuscripts, prints and objets d’art from around the world. Superlatives come thick and fast here: as well as one of the finest Islamic collections in existence, containing some of the earliest manuscripts from the ninth and tenth centuries, the library holds important Biblical papyri, including the earliest surviving examples in any language of Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels, St Paul’s Letters and the Book of Revelations. Elegantly displayed in high-tech galleries, the artefacts are used to tell the story of religious and artistic traditions across the world with great ingenuity. It’s well worth timing your visit to coincide with lunch at the excellent Silk Road Café.
Christ Church Cathedral
Though occupying the highest point of the old city, Christ Church Cathedral is now hemmed in by buildings and traffic and appears as an unexceptional Gothic Revival edifice. Inside, however, you’ll find some fascinating remnants from its long history as the seat of the (now Anglican) Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough. From as early as the seventh century, there may have been a small Celtic church on these grounds, and in about 1030, the recently converted Viking king of Dublin, Sitric Silkenbeard, built a wooden cathedral here. This in turn was replaced by the Normans, who between 1186 and 1240 erected a magnificent stone structure to mark their accession to power. Of this, the crypt, the transept (which retains a few eroded Romanesque carvings), the west end of the choir and the remarkable leaning north wall can still be seen – as the church had been built over a bog, the roof collapsed in 1562, bringing down the south wall and pulling the north side of the nave half a metre out of the perpendicular. In the 1870s, distiller Henry Roe lavished the equivalent of €30 million on the heavy-handed restoration you can see today, and bankrupted himself.
Near the main entrance at the southwest corner you’ll come across the strange tomb of Strongbow, the Norman leader who captured Dublin in 1170 and was buried here six years later. The original, around which the landlords of Dublin had gathered to collect rents, was destroyed by the sixteenth-century roof collapse, and had to be replaced with a fourteenth-century effigy of one of the earls of Drogheda so that business could proceed as usual. The small half-figure alongside is probably a fragment of the original tomb, though legend maintains that it’s an effigy of Strongbow’s son, hacked in two by his own father for cowardice in battle.
The chapels off the choir show the Anglo-Normans celebrating their dual nationality. To the left stands the Chapel of St Edmund, the ninth-century king of East Anglia who was martyred by the Vikings, while on the right is the Chapel of St Laud, the sixth-century bishop of Coutances in Normandy. The floor tiles here are original – those in the rest of the cathedral are 1870s replicas – while on the wall you can see an iron box containing the embalmed heart of twelfth-century St Laurence O’Toole, Dublin’s only canonized archbishop.
If you descend the stairs by the south transept, you’ll reach the crypt, the least changed remnant of the twelfth-century cathedral; formerly a storehouse for the trade in alcohol and tobacco, it’s one of the largest crypts in Britain and Ireland, extending under the entire cathedral for 55m. Here you’ll find the Treasures of Christ Church exhibition, which includes an interesting twenty-minute audiovisual on the history of the cathedral, as well as a miscellany of manuscripts and church crockery, and a mummified cat and rat, which were frozen in hot pursuit in an organ pipe in the 1860s. Look out also for a ropey tabernacle and pair of candlesticks made for James II on his flight from England in 1689, when, for three months only, Latin Mass was again celebrated at Christ Church (the existing cathedral paraphernalia was hidden by quick-thinking Anglican officials under a bishop’s coffin). In extravagant contrast is a chunky silver-gilt plate, around a metre wide, presented by King William III in thanksgiving for his victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
St Patrick’s Cathedral
The history of St Patrick’s Cathedral is remarkably similar to that of its fellow-Anglican rival Christ Church up the road. It was built between 1220 and 1270 in Gothic style, but its roof collapsed in 1544, leading to a decline that included its use as a stable by Cromwell’s army in 1649. Its Victorian restoration, however, by Sir Benjamin Guinness in the 1860s, was more sensitive than at Christ Church, and it has a more appealing, lived-in feel, thanks largely to its clutter of quirky funerary monuments. Dublin has two Church of Ireland cathedrals because, in the 1190s, Archbishop John Comyn left the clergy of Christ Church and built his own palace and church here outside the city walls, and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the city provosts.
To the right of the entrance in the harmoniously proportioned nave are diverse memorials to Jonathan Swift, the cathedral’s dean for 32 years, including his and his long-term partner Stella’s graves, his pulpit and table, and a cast of his skull – both his and Stella’s bodies were dug up by Victorian phrenologists, studying the skulls of the famous. The Door of Reconciliation by the north transept recalls a quarrel between the earls of Kildare and Ormond in 1492. Ormond fled and sought sanctuary in the cathedral’s chapterhouse, but Kildare, eager to make peace, cut a hole in the door and stretched his arm through to shake Ormond’s hand – so giving us the phrase “chancing your arm”. Nearby in the north aisle of the choir, a simple black slab commemorates Duke Frederick Schomberg, who advised William of Orange to come to Ireland in 1686 but had the misfortune to be slain at the ensuing Battle of the Boyne. His family didn’t bother to erect a memorial for him, so it was left to Dean Swift to do the honours here in 1731; in Swift’s words, “The renown of his valour had greater power among strangers than had the ties of blood among his kith and kin.”
In the northwest corner of the nave you’ll find a slab carved with a Celtic cross that once marked the site of a well next to the cathedral, where St Patrick baptized converts in the fifth century. Back near the entrance, you can’t miss the extravagant Boyle monument, which Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, erected in 1632 in memory of his wife Katherine who had borne him fifteen children, including the famous chemist Robert Boyle (shown in the bottom-centre niche). Viceroy Wentworth, objecting to being forced to kneel before a Corkman, had the monument moved here from beside the altar, but Boyle exacted revenge in later years by engineering Wentworth’s execution.