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There are, very unusually, two St. Patrick s Cathedrals in Armagh City, as the city is both the seat of the Roman Catholic religion and Archbishop and Primate of All-Ireland and also holds the same position for the Protestant counterpart. St Patrick s Catholic Cathedral is the seat
The present Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in was built to replace the medieval Cathedral, St Patricks Cathedral, which has been then retained by the Church of Ireland since the Protestant Reformation. The Cathedral sits atop a hill and dominates the landscape of the city like no other in Ireland. The interior is a fascinating example of contrasting and stunningly decorative architecture.
This is a most curious example of a very important building which changes both architect and architectural style half way up the walls. The bottom half was designed in 1838, in the English Perpendicular Gothic style, by Thomas Duff of Newry; the top half designed in 1853, in the French Decorated Gothic style, by J. J. McCarthy of Dublin.
Archbishop William Crolly (1835-1849) negotiated the current site for the Catholic Cathedral of St. Patrick in Armagh from the Earl of Dartrey. The original architect was Thomas J. Duff of Newry. Galloway suggests that his success at the Roman Catholic cathedral of St. Patrick and St Colman in Newry, dedicated in 1829, “probably led to the commission to design the cathedral at Armagh”. Unlike his former partner, Thomas Jackson, Duff was himself a Roman Catholic. According to the 1905 Guide, in Duff’s lifetime “34 feet of the walls were built for 26,000, Dr. Crolly himself personally supervising the work with the assistance of several foremen”.
The work of construction lasted from St Patricks Day 1840, when the Foundation Stone was blessed and laid, with occasional intermissions until the year 1904 when the solemn ceremony of consecration took place. One of the longest gaps in construction took place during the years of the Great Famine. With the dreadful spectre of hunger and disease stalking the land, Cathedral funds were understandably diverted to the more pressing cause of famine relief. Indeed, the cholera disease claimed the Primate himself and in 1849 his body was interred, at his own request, under the sanctuary of his unfinished Cathedral. Duff himself died in 1848; it was only in 1853 that a new Building Committee settled with his widow for 100 cash down, and the return of all drawings and papers relating to the commission.
Work under the new architect did not actually begin until 1854. Primate Joseph Dixon (1852-1866) declared Easter Monday 1854, ‘Resumption Monday’. Financial contributions for the Cathedral came from across the Atlantic and to raise extra funds Dr. Dixon took the step, rare in those days, of organising a great Bazaar.
The famous Irish neo-Gothic architect, J.J. McCarthy, was appointed to complete the work. He proposed a different design. The original plan had proposed a perpendicular Gothic church. However, since the original plan of Duff had been adopted for Armagh, an architectural renaissance had taken place and there was a growing tendency to favour a return to purer styles of which perpendicular Gothic was seen as a decadent modification. What McCarthy drew up was a continuation design in the old fourteenth century style of decorated Gothic. There was conflict between his interpretation of the style the Cathedral should be finished and that of his predecessor. This led to a lot of the work of Duff being undone and replaced by a different style of interior and altars.
Further very extensive interior work was undertaken between 1900 and 1905 for Archbishop Logue to the designs of Ashlin & Coleman of Dublin.
The cathedral was re-consecrated in 1903.
A great deal of this excellent work has been removed which to this day causes controversy among designers and architects. This was justified at the time on the grounds that “the fine character of the interior was marred by the later introduction of screens, elaborate altar rails and pulpit”: and what the architects set out to achieve was “a return to J.J. McCarthy’s original concept … They recommended a simplification of the interior, which would also add a greater formality to ceremony”. If these were the objectives, few people think they have been successfully achieved.
Jeanne Sheehy acidly records “the replacement … of a fine late Gothic revival chancel with chunks of granite and a tabernacle that looks like a microwave”.
The Cathedral is open daily for visitors and guided tours can be arranged.