Christ Church Cathedral Dublin: Quirky stories and crypt canapes

On the manicured lawns bounding Christ Church Cathedral, Dubliners and tourists are idling and chatting, munching fish and chips and ordering flat whites and lattes from a parked-up bicycle barista, who's doing a roaring trade this fine Sunday afternoon.

Moseying through the coffee-scented churchyard, we head inside the grey-stone cathedral – the oldest, and most photogenic, of Dublin's three cathedrals – to start our Irish Adventure, a six-day guided jaunt around the Emerald Isle with Collette.

Now the Irish are known for their ancient history and for telling a good yarn, so it's fitting that we start with a tour, full of quirky stories, in a landmark that dates back to AD1030, when, fresh from a pilgrimage to Rome, Sitric Silkbeard​, the Norse king of Dublin, commissioned a Christian place of worship on this hilltop above the River Liffey. That church was made of wood.

The building we explore today, with strawberry-blonde Dubliner guide Helen, is a mix of Gothic and Romanesque architectural styles, rebuilt in stone in the Middle Ages and restored over the centuries, including a massive revamp in the Victorian era.

Treading the patterned tiled floors beneath the soaring cloisters of the cathedral's nave, passing saintly stained-glass windows and richly-carved woodwork, we pause next to "Voldemort" – the nickname of the monument to Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke. Better known as Strongbow, this Anglo-Norman nobleman sailed across the Irish Sea from England in AD1170 after being invited to help resolve a dispute between provincial Irish rulers.

He ended up staying, and England's centuries-old involvement in Ireland really took off. Strongbow's tomb was destroyed when the cathedral's roof and southern wall collapsed in the 16th century, but the replacement, etched with the figure of an armoured knight, has been seen as a lucky charm by generations of superstitious Dubliners. Strongbow's face has been worn down by folk rubbing it with coins, hence the comparison to Harry Potter's nasally challenged nemesis.

Helen then leads us over to the cathedral's snug chapel to regale the strange tale of archbishop Laurence O'Toole​, Dublin's patron saint. His preserved heart was kept in a wooden container here for more than 700 years before thieves stole it in 2012. Its whereabouts is a mystery. "If you happen to see it on your travels, do let us know," says Helen. "We'd love to have it back."

Next up is a mildly pulse-raising ascent, up narrow, winding stone staircases, to a bell tower said to house the world's largest collection of cathedral bells. We're invited to yank a few ropes – as long as we don't jump and keep our feet firmly on the ground. The bells are so heavy, apparently, they can fling you about the room. With the bells chiming, we return downstairs and delve into the crypt. The largest of its type on the British Isles, it's atmospherically lit and sprinkled with intriguing exhibits and curiosities. There are cabinets stocked with gold and silver flagons, chalices and candlesticks, and ghoulish, facially disfigured statues of English kings Charles I and II.

"They used to be outside City Hall and people would throw stones at them," explains Helen, who points out some pretty costumes from The Tudors, the BBC period drama that was partially filmed in the cathedral and charts the turbulent reign of Henry VIII.

Advertisement

It was Henry's rejection of Catholicism, the subsequent founding of the Anglican church and England's colonisation of Ireland that led to many cathedrals on the Emerald Isle – including Christ Church and nearby St Patrick's – to become part of the Church of Ireland. It tends to surprise many visitors, as this is a famously majority-Catholic country. The oddest thing on display here in the cathedral is "Tom and Jerry", or "The Cat and The Rat", a mummified duo discovered trapped in the organ pipes in the 1860s. The doyen of Dublin writers, James Joyce, mentioned them in his book, Finnegans Wake.

Our visit ends with drinks and canapes in the crypt, and while this might seem like a trendy, new-fangled thing to do, Helen reveals Christ Church has long been a place for convivial, booze-fuelled craic. Markets and taverns were set up in the crypt as far back as the 18th century, and as I mingle with my group over wine and beer, with spring rolls, pate-slathered goodies and sweet treats, I'm happy to be upholding a proud Dublin tradition. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/ireland

visitdublin.com

ireland.com

FLY

Eithad and Qatar Airways fly to Dublin from Sydney and Melbourne via Abu Dhabi and Doha respectively. 

TOUR

Also including trips to Killarney, the Cliffs of Moher and Ennis, Collette's Irish Adventure will run March 24-30, April 7-13 and April 21-27 in 2018. It's priced from AU$2019; gocollette.com

Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette.

Comments