Monday 11 December 2017

Chance your arm at the famous feud door

Swift may have been St Patrick's best known resident, but Orla Timmins finds much more hidden history

We're extremely fortunate in Dublin to have two magnificent cathedrals, though I suspect that their close proximity to each other lends itself to a certain amount of rivalry for the tourist trade.

On a muggy day at the beginning of August, St Patrick's Cathedral (enter by the South Porch beside St Patrick's Cathedral Choir School) is bustling with tourists and the gift shop is doing a roaring trade in postcards, key rings and, strangely enough, red-haired raggy dolls.

The cathedral is called St Patrick's because the saint himself is said to have baptised converts to Christianity at a well that once existed in the park alongside the cathedral. The well may no longer be there, but the park is a popular spot on warm, sunny days.

To the left of the beautiful West Window is the magnificent (and huge) Boyle Monument, which was erected by Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, in 1632 in memory of his second wife, Lady Katherine. And, really, what woman wouldn't appreciate such a token of her husband's love? In front of the monument, a young man and woman dressed as Richard and Katherine will answer any questions you might have about it.

It's simply impossible to talk about St Patrick's Cathedral and not mention Jonathan Swift, who was Dean there from 1713 to 1745. The author of Gulliver's Travels lived to a great age for those times (he died just shy of his 78th birthday) and perhaps it was due to his daily regime.

At a time when people rarely washed, he was obsessed with cleanliness and he also exercised every day, going walking or horse-riding when the weather was fine. In bad weather, he'd race up and down three sets of stairs in the Deanery.


Swift and his beloved friend Stella (Esther Johnson) are buried here. It is said that Swift was so overcome with grief at her death that he moved out of his usual rooms to avoid seeing her funeral lights in the cathedral windows.

It's also worth mentioning Swift's association with modern psychiatry. His career with the mentally ill began in London, where he was governor of the Bethlehem (Bedlam) Hospital.

He was horrified by the practice of putting 'mad' inmates on display for the amusement of the public. When he was Dean of St Patrick's, Swift decided to found a hospital for the mentally ill and summed up his project in verse with his typical wit.

'He left the little wealth he had, To build a house for fools and mad, Showing in one satiric touch, No nation needed it so much.'

He left £12,000 for the founding of St Patrick's Hospital, which continues to be a leading psychiatric hospital to this day.

Along the left side of the cathedral are an impressive series of marble statues – illustrious men such as James Whiteside, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland; the Very Reverend Henry Richard Dawson, Dean and Ordinary of St Patrick's, and John McNeill Boyd, captain of HMS Ajax, who was lost off the rocks at Kingstown in 1861, attempting to save the crew of the brig, Neptune.

And don't miss the white marble bas-relief memorial to Turlough Carolan, composer, harpist, poet, and last of the wandering bards.

The Chapter Door (or Door of Reconciliation) is a large wooden door with a hole in it (through which tourists put their heads for a photograph).

It commemorates the conclusion of the feud between the Earl of Ormond and the Earl of Kildare in 1492. Apparently, the Kildare earl cut the hole in the door and stretched his arm through to grasp the arm of the Earl of Ormond.

By reaching out in reconciliation, peace was restored, and some people believe this is the origin of the phrase, 'To chance your arm'.


Nearby, there is a large memorial (with several wreaths) to those who fought in various wars – the China War, the Birmah (sic) War, World War I and World War II and, at its base, as if to guard the dead, rest four sleeping stone dogs.

All the light in this lovely cathedral flows towards the High Altar, with its gloriously decorated pulpit, brass eagle lectern and ornate choir stalls displaying the banners of the Knights of Saint Patrick.

Leaving the cathedral with its proud Minot's Tower (named after Archbishop Minot), I'm struck by how small it seems from the outside.

It looks almost like a rather grand, rural parish church. Though it may not have a crypt or as many flying buttresses as its neighbour, Christ Church, up the road, it's a fitting monument to one of our greatest writers and our patron saint.

St Patrick's Cathedral is open, Monday-Friday, 9am-5.30pm; Saturday, 9am-6pm; Sunday, 9am-11am, 12.30am-3pm; 4.30pm-6.30pm. Adult admission is €5.50

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