Such abundance is no surprise in a country that for centuries was a stronghold of Christianity in Europe. From small beginnings, when a man called Patrick plucked his shamrock and banished the snakes, religion flourished throughout the island. Pioneering saints like Brigid, Kevin and Comgall followed, establishing monasteries of international repute.
Over the centuries, and despite waves of Viking, Norman and Cromwellian interruption, Ireland’s abbeys, churches and cathedrals blossomed, leaving us with a super stock of built heritage. The problem is not picking a place to visit. The problem is picking the places to leave out.
A class apart: Ireland’s cathedrals
Armagh is where St Patrick founded his church, and here visitors will find not one, but two cathedrals bearing his name. How so? The city is the primary seat of Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant Churches – and both called their cathedrals after Ireland’s patron saint.
Dublin’s grand dame cathedral is surely Christ Church. Founded in 1036, this chandelier of a building is home to one of Ireland’s finest choirs, an archive housing one of the country’s longest continuous collections of records, and a crypt said to be the city’s oldest surviving structure… oh, and it’s also the home of a mummified cat and mouse, nicknamed Tom and Jerry.
Just five minutes away is St Patrick’s Cathedral. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, famously served as dean here, no doubt admiring the flying buttresses, manicured gardens and heraldic flags festooning the soaring interior as visitors do today.
Ancient atmosphere: Ireland’s abbeys
Cistercian architecture is amongst the most beautiful in Europe. Mellifont Abbey in County Louth, the first Cistercian monastery to be built in Ireland, is somewhere you’ll get a sense of that… and so much more. The model for all the order’s abbeys in the country, it’s a hugely evocative ruin. Step into the octagonal lavabo… can you imagine monks washing their hands before meals?
Jerpoint Abbey, a 12th-century abbey set outside the charming village of Thomastown, County Kilkenny, is another Cistercian jewel. Its ruins offer plenty to explore, including a tower, a church with Romanesque details, and a sculpted cloister arcade with unique carvings.
Don’t miss Bangor Abbey in County Down, either. Founded in 558 AD by St Comgall and once home to almost 3,000 monks, the graveyard is full of interesting old headstones – including that of the assistant surgeon aboard the Titanic, local man John Edward Simpson.
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Oases of calm: Ireland’s churches
Looking for churches under the radar? Don’t miss Whitefriar Church in Dublin, where some of the remains of St Valentine are kept in a small, wax-sealed wooden box. Every year on 14 February, the reliquary – along with a host of wedding and engagement rings – is blessed.
Two miles outside Downpatrick, you can come full circle at Saul Church, the replica of St Patrick’s first church in Ireland. Or why not visit Maynooth University campus for a double whammy: the church at St Patrick’s College, designed by Pugin, the Gothic Revival master, and the college chapel, which boasts the largest choir chapel in the world.