Cathedral Hill in Down has been a focus of Christian worship for almost as long as Christianity has been in Ireland. Tradition has it that Saint Patrick brought the Faith to the country in the early part of the fifth century. Patrick was a North Briton who was captured by a party of raiding Irishmen and brought to Ireland as a slave. During his years of captivity, he spent much time in prayer and would say as many as one hundred in a day, as he tells us in his Confession.
However, after six years of slavery and hardship, he escaped and boarded a ship. We cannot say if the ship was bound for Britain or Gaul, but we do know that he was re–united with his family. Patrick then tells of a dream in which a man named Victoricus brings him a letter. It was headed ‘The Cry of the Irish.’ While reading it, in his imagination he heard voices calling: ‘Holy Boy, we are asking you to come and walk among us again‘. Thus far, we have Patrick’s own story, told in his Confession.
Patrick’s two principal biographers, Muirch and Tirechan, both writing some centuries later, take up the story. We are told that Patrick landed first on the coast of Wicklow and from there travelled northwards as far as Strangford Lough where he landed at the mouth of the River Slaney near Saul.
Here he met the local chieftain, Dichu, whom he converted to Christianity and who gave him a barn as his first church. The present Church of Ireland church at Saul, 2 miles distant from Down Cathedral, was built in 1932 to commemorate the fifteen hundredth anniversary of Patrick’s arrival. Patrick spent many years travelling among the Irish, converting the people to Christianity, consecrating bishops and founding churches as he went.
Many years later, nearing the end of his life, he returned to Saul but let it be known that he wished to die in Armagh. He began to make his way there, but was interrupted, however, by the angel Victor telling him to return to Saul. There, in his last moments, he was tended by Bishop Tassach of Raholp. Muirchu describes his burial with tremendous sense of drama: ‘Let two untamed oxen be chosen and let them go wherever they will with the cart that carries your body and wherever they stand still, there a church in honour of your body shall be erected . . . untamed oxen were chosen and they steadily drew the cart containing the holy body placed on their necks and, guided by the will of God, they went out to Dun Lethglaisse (Down) where Patrick lies buried.’
One cannot be certain of the exact spot of his burial, but the Memorial Stone, put in position by the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club in 1900, traditionally marks his grave. It is a slab of granite from the nearby Mourne Mountains.
The Celtic Church
In the Early Christian period, Down was the seat of the kings of the Dal Fiatach, the Irish people who occupied the southeast of modern County Down. The first bishops would have been members of this family and they would not have exercised any jurisdiction beyond their own territory.
The year 753 marks the earliest reference to the death of an Abbot of Down. From this date onwards we can trace a fairly complete succession of abbots and bishops of the Celtic Monastery which occupied the Hill.
The monastery was plundered by Vikings on a number of occasions and by 1016 there was a stone church and round tower, subsequently burned by lightning.
The Round Tower was pulled down in 1790 and its masonry incorporated in the restoration of the Cathedral.. In the Celtic Church, the possession of the tomb of an illustrious saint was an important factor in the growth and wealth of a monastery. Pilgrims flocked from all over Ireland – and farther afield – to worship at the shrine of Saint Patrick.
Little wonder, therefore, that after the Normans came to Ireland, John de Courcy, one of their knights, set out for Down to conquer the north and possess the tomb of Saint Patrick. This was in 1177, when de Courcy ousted Rory Macdunleavy, the last king of the Dal Fiatach.
The Benedictine Monastery
As was the custom of the time, de Courcy founded a number of monasteries in Down and elsewhere, but chief among these was the Benedictine Monastery on Cathedral Hill, which, in deference to the local people, he dedicated to Saint Patrick. He invited monks from St Werburgh’s in Chester to provide the first Prior and to become the founding community.
By now, the tradition of the hill being the burial place of Saints Brigid and Columcille had been added to the canon, giving rise to the well–known couplet:
In Down, three saints one grave do fill,
Patrick, Brigid and Columcille.
It is generally accepted that the main walls of the Cathedral date from the years after 1220. Then the monks, in a petition to Henry III, King of England, referred to the fact that the House of Saint Patrick, which had often been destroyed and burned, was being rebuilt again. Further destruction took place during the wars with Edward Bruce in 1316 and finally, on the suppression of the monasteries in 1541, the Cathedral was laid waste.
The Cathedral Charter
Notwithstanding its ruinous state which lasted until 1790, King James I granted a Charter to the Cathedral in 1609, providing for a Dean and Chapter. The Charter also decreed that the Cathedral should be dedicated to the Holy Trinity, as the former Celtic church had been before the arrival of de Courcy. Rather than lose the connection with Patrick, the name began to be used for the growing town, which assumed the name Downpatrick.
The restoration of the Cathedral
Although successive deans continued to be installed within the ruined walls, there were no funds to rebuild the Cathedral until 1790 when Wills Hill, the Earl of Hillsborough (and afterwards first Marquess of Downshire), along with the then Dean, the Honourable and Reverend William Annesley, provided the impetus to commence the restoration.
Dean Annesley contributed £300 annually from the income of the Deanery and, by Act of Parliament, bound his successors to do likewise, in order to provide a fund to enable Divine Service to be carried on in the Cathedral. The Marquess of Downshire wrote to many of his parliamentary colleagues, to all the Irish bishops and to the nobility and gentry of the county in order to raise subscriptions. He even obtained a gift of £1,000 from King George III. Although it is apparent from the records that Divine Service was held in the Cathedral prior to 1818, it was not until that year that it was consecrated; the tower was completed in 1829.
When the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1870, the Cathedral Chapter found itself totally disendowed and without funds. Since then the Cathedral of the Diocese of Down has had to rely on voluntary subscriptions for its upkeep and maintenance.
Over the years, there have been many periods when the Chapter Book records that the Cathedral was closed for repairs. But none was as far–reaching as the recent renovations which took place in 1986/7. Attacks of rot were so extensive that the Cathedral Board, acting on professional advice decided to remove almost the entire interior plaster walls and vaulting. What the visitor sees now is an almost entirely new interior, a replica of that which it replaced.