Legend has it that the expression chancing your arm originated at St Patrick’s Cathedral, when the 8th Earl of Kildare, a one Gerald Mor Fitzgerald – known to those who knew him as Garret the Great – cut a hole in a door and thrust his arm through it in an effort to shake hands with the brooding Black James, in so doing putting his arm at risk should have Black James given the nod to one of his goons to do for Fitzgerald’s bowling arm. Garret the Great though took the risk, keen as he was to end the bloody dispute that had pitted two dynastic families at each other’s throats. Enough blood, time for peace. Fortunately Garret remained Great as, James, Black James, was also tired, and the two men shook hands. The whole of Ireland took a breather. The year was 1492.
St Patrick’s Cathedral, the site of the great shake, is in Dublin, and was built way back in 1191. Today, as it probably was back then, it is Ireland’s tallest church, and as you might rightly suspect, is also Ireland’s largest church. In a delicious twist for those who scurry mac-clad from tea room to tea room marking off historic buildings of the land, St Patrick is also one of Dublin’s two Cathedrals. Yes two. “The Bishop!” you cry, “what of the Archbishop?” Yes, indeed the Archbishop. The Archbishop, as all know, cannot sit in two seats at once.
The Bishop then, sits in Christ Church Cathedral, leaving St. Patrick’s to draw its chapter members from each of the twelve dioceses of Ireland. The Dean is the big cheese, elected by the chapter, and for a long time was the only Dean in Dublin, going by the name of – hold back the drum roll – the ‘Dean of Dublin’. Then, in 1539, Christ Church Cathedral announced they too would have a Dean. Dublin then had two Deans. One Dean, you might mutter, too many. The most famous Dean of St Patrick’s then, was our favourite political pamphleteer, Jonathan Swift. Indeed our favourite and only political pamphleteer. Swift was the pen behind Gulliver’s Travels, the well-thumbed satire on human nature, and the wry observation that eating an oyster required a bit of chutzpah.
Now, even the clergy aren’t shy of a little willy-waggling and there was a generous serving of spice in the relationship between the two cathedrals. Whilst St Patrick’s was bigger, Christ Church could claim the Archbishop. Dealings were frosty. Eventually a six-point charter was thrashed out in 1300 to smooth the crinkles in everyone’s velvet cloth. The good news was that Archbishops could choose to be buried in the grounds of either, when the time came, otherwise the two would act as one, and function together in the diocese.
St Patrick’s was built by John Comyn, the first Archbishop of Dublin, who had been the chaplain to King Henry II of England, a ruthless ruler who clearly disliked any kind of irritation. See Thomas Becket for details. The Cathedral used to be a church, but Comyn demolished it and built something a bit bigger – a sort of Grand Designs of the age – and elevated its status from church to cathedral – because he could.
St. Patrick the man, as the marketing team at Guinness well know, is the primary patron saint of Ireland although no one appears to be too sure when St Patrick exactly plied his trade. If you ever get asked at a drinks party, go with the 5th century, or thereabouts as you’re unlikely to get much push back. St Patrick was actually born on the UK mainland but was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland when he was sixteen years old. He escaped six years later and went home. Yet Patrick was bitten by all the shouting and drinking and boisterous bonhomie, and he returned to Ireland and went on to make name for himself as a Bishop.
St. Patrick’s day today is a celebration, a religious and cultural holiday, and an excuse for anyone Irish to get blind drunk on a school night.
St Patrick’s did hit a bit of a sticky period in the mid sixteenth century though when, under the chaotic rule of Edward VI – son of the corpulent Henry VIII and the unfortunate Jane Seymour – it was stripped of its status as a cathedral and demoted to the humble status of parish church. The silver, jewels and goblets were shipped over to Christ Church, part of the building was designated a court house and a school was established in the Vicar’s hall. Chickens would peck the ground listlessly in the courtyard. The joinery fell into disrepair. Good news for St. Patrick’s though arrived with Mary I – Bloody Mary – who following the death of her younger half-brother Edward VI had seen off Lady Jane Grey and seized the throne for herself. In her five year reign, Mary burnt over 280 protestants, married a Spaniard and restored St Patrick’s privileges. Good girl.
The two cathedral issue was finally sorted out in 1871 when it was decided Christ Church would be the undisputed cathedral of Dublin, and St Patrick’s the national cathedral. So that’s that. Dublin now has only one cathedral, so too Ireland.
The current Dean-elect is the Very Reverend William W. Morton, who is or was, also the Dean of Derry. The Derry Dean. The Very Reverend Dean of Derry. The very Derry-do Dean of Derry.
Mine’s a Guinness.