Down Cathedral, Downpatrick, Northern Ireland


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Down Cathedral
Location: Downpatrick, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Tuesday, 17 March 2015, 11:45am

The building

Celtic monasteries stood on this site, regarded as the burial place of St Patrick, as early as the 6th century. However, there are also two other famous saints reputed to be interred nearby: St Columcille and St Brigid. An Augustinian house was established here in the 12th century, and a Benedictine monastery a century later (parts of the Benedictine structure were incorporated into the present cathedral). With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541, the monks departed and the building was laid waste. King James I established a dean and chapter in 1609 even though the church still lay in ruins. Funds to begin its restoration were not made available until 1790, and the rebuilt cathedral was consecrated in 1818. The present church consists of an aisled nave and chancel and a Gothic tower. The interior was completely rebuilt in 1986-87 and is a replica of the original. The seating is designed so that everyone is facing each other across the aisle. There is a granite font in the narthex reputed to be from the 11th century.

The church

The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity hosts special services and festivals, including the annual service commemorating St Patrick. It is also open for daily prayer and is home to a congregation who attend services each Sunday. The Friends of Down Cathedral seek to promote interest in the cathedral and solicit funds used for its maintenance and preservation.

The neighborhood

Downpatrick is a major tourist destination – not only because of the association with Ireland's patron saint, but also due to the fact that it has been home to a fine racecourse since the time of James II. It is also home to Ireland's only full-sized heritage railway. There are a number or important religious sites in the area, including Inch abbey, an ancient Cistercian monastic site. The cathedral stands on a hill overlooking the town of Downpatrick and sits at the centre point of the town.

The cast

The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, preached. The service was led by the Very Revd Henry Hull, Dean of Down. Also present were the Most Revd Eamon Martin, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, and the Most Revd Diarmuid Martin, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin.

What was the name of the service?

Festival Service of St Patrick

How full was the building?

Having arrived at the tail end of the pilgrimage from an earlier communion service at nearby Saul, I was lucky to get a seat in the recently refurbished narthex. There were at least 800 people present, many of whom had to sit in the adjunct marquee.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I had to walk over and collect a service sheet from the sidesperson, but it was so chaotic that it would be churlish to criticize that.

Was your pew comfortable?

A wooden framed, padded leather covered chair – very nice indeed.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The pilgrimage from Saul to Downpatrick was about two miles long and there were three stops along the way where prayers were said. One of the stops was at Downpatrick Methodist Church. Once we arrived at the cathedral, the atmosphere was almost like a carnival. There was lively Irish music being played by a group of young musicians called the Sullivan Irish Music Group (one of several happy new discoveries today) and there were people milling around all over, some frantically looking for a seat, others trying to get organized for the start.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None; everything needed was printed on the service sheets.

What musical instruments were played?

Just the organ as far as I can remember, which sounded wonderful. The organ is one of Ireland's finest: an oak-cased behemoth whose pipes reach almost to the vaulted roof.

Did anything distract you?

Yes. Shortly after the start, the Sullivan Irish Music Group decided to pack up their gear and move out of the narthex, which happened to be where I was sitting. Also, a bit later, the phone in the gift shop started ringing and it took a while before someone came to disconnect it.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

There were hymns, confessions, prayers, and a reading. The hymns were sung with gusto. It was amazing to hear the building resound with praise. There were also two pieces sung by the 70-strong Kerygma Gospel Choir and a performance of Lord of the Dance by the McCartney School of Dance.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

26 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 – The Archbishop of Canterbury looked natural and relaxed in the pulpit. A little too relaxed in my opinion – he kind of leaned on the lectern throughout, almost slouching at times. Also, for my taste, much of the sermon seemed too much like a political talk.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was about reconciliation. Unfortunately the sound quality in the narthex was awful, and so I struggled to hear a lot of the message. What I did get near the end was a message about the "politics of peace," which he said "heals wounds and creates a people who look like the crucified Christ." He spoke a "peace proclaimed; peace with God, with each other, and with the world."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The performance of Lord of the Dance was incredibly powerful as a cultural expression of worship. The girls danced up the aisle and then formed a chain around the altar. At first I felt quite uneasy about this, that it may be irreverent. However, it possessed a certain dignity and innocence about it, so I decided that St Pat (and God) would probably be happy to accept it as an authentic act of worship.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Straining to hear Justin Welby's sermon over the awful sound quality made me mad as hell!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Too many people moving around. Directly after the service, the clergy headed over to St Patrick's grave beside the church and laid a wreath and prayed for peace in Ireland.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None. However, there was hot Irish stew and apple pie and cream being doled out generously. It was surprisingly good considering it was produced in such quantity.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – If by regular you mean once per year for this service. I can't imagine the congregation here is big enough normally to do the place justice, sorry to say.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Definitely. Coming to this event has been one of the best things I've done for a long while.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The Irish dancers around the altar – so moving.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools