Monday, March 17, 2014

St Patrick and the tale of the non-disappearing cross | Chapple Family excursions in Downpatrick

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day 2012, I posted a short piece on this blog about how the very beautiful gravestone of the Saint in the grounds of Downpatrick Cathedral is a recent fabrication, and not an ancient monument. The person behind this apparent deception was the rather larger than life character Francis Joseph Bigger (1863-1926) [see also: here | here] and you can read about the whole thing in: St. Patrick’s Gravestone: A Bigger fake!

Francis Joseph Bigger
Schema of how the three cross fragments could have fit together

In that post I wrote: “During the preparation of the ‘grave site’ three fragments of a broken cross were recovered. Although searches were carried out to recover further portions, they were in vain. Bigger notes that the fragments were placed in the cathedral for safe-keeping, until such time as more pieces could be located and a reconstruction attempted.”

I’ll admit that a part of me suspected that these pieces would, most likely, be pretty difficult to find again. I’ve heard more than my fair share of stories about items brought into churches ‘for safe keeping’, never to be seen or heard from again. In many ways, this is to be expected – most churches are still ‘living’ buildings and all it takes is one cleric with more interest in the breathing congregation than the historic buildings they curate for stuff like this to get moved about and forgotten. In the century and a bit since the discovery of these three fragments I reckoned that there was more than ample opportunity for these pieces to go missing. On the other hand, I’d not been inside the cathedral for many years and couldn’t remember even if there were and historic bits and pieces on display.

Chapple Family excursion to St Patrick's grave 2014
Lowest portion of the recovered cross. Decorated panel with spirals.
A tang, possibly for fitting into a socket, is visible at the top.
This weekend (14-16 March 2014) I had my mother come stay with us. We didn’t have any particular plans other than to spend some time together with her grandchildren, catch up on the gossip from home, share some good food and some better wine. On Saturday morning the conversation turned to ‘we really should get the kids out for a run about’ and we started to talk of destinations, sights to see, and places to visit. In amongst the various places that got mentioned was Downpatrick, Co. Down. Once my mother said ‘I’ve never been there … I’d love to go’ that settled it.


Central portion of cross, decorated with roundel of low-relief-interlace.
Downpatrick is only about 20 miles from Belfast, on good roads all the way. Once we negotiated the traffic in the town (and hoards of the local youth hefting boxes of Coors Light beer about – it appears to have been on offer) we made our way up to the cathedral. We took the obligatory family photos by the graveside and began a slow meander around the graveyard to inspect and admire the other historic stones. While my children decided to play ‘rolling down the hill and not bashing into the gravestones’, I noticed that the cathedral’s front door was open. I just thought it’d be nice if I found these pieces of the cross languishing quietly in a neglected corner, or behind a curtain vying for space with stacks of excess chairs. I needn’t have worried! The three pieces of the high cross are there – directly inside the west doorway. They’re safe, well, and cared for, and they are presented on a specially constructed platform for their protection and ease of viewing. Here they are: not missing, not lost – still waiting for the day when more pieces are recovered!


Final pieces of cross, placed by Bigger under the head portion.
Possibly decorated with low relief caving of square knot-work. 

Inside Downpatrick Cathedral. The east window.
Filled with the joy of all things Patrick, we decided to venture forth into the adjacent St Patrick’s Visitor Centre. I’ve never been inside the building, but I do know the site well – in 1998 I worked on the archaeological excavation that was necessary before the building could go ahead. I don’t propose to give an in-depth review of the place and the contents of their displays, but I would like to offer a few notes. In the first place, the entrance fee was remarkably reasonable - £12 for two adults, two children, and one senior citizen … admittedly, we didn’t avail ourselves of the option to use the headsets – two excited young boys are enough fun to look after without adding further impediments! The layout of the displays are stunning, though provoking, and present a well-rounded portrait of both Patrick the man and the mythology that has grown up around him. The tour ends in an auditorium with the ubiquitous audio-visual presentation. Before you go ‘oh, not another of these’, let me assure you that this one is different! It’s a 180° screen that includes a simulated helicopter ride over the chief Patrick-related sites in Ireland (Downpatrick, Saul, Croagh Patrick, Slemish etc.) – it’s absolutely stunning, but if it lasted even one minute longer, and the helicopter did even one more swoop and dive, I’d have lost my lunch! Speaking of lunch – they have a lovely café upstairs, that’s incredibly reasonably priced. We had three cups of excellent coffee and two generous bowls of ice cream, and the lot came to around £7 – an absolute bargain for this kind of attraction. My only regret about the place is that there was no display featuring the archaeology of the site … but then again (to the best of my knowledge) it has never been published – such a shame!

The site in 1998
Bronze tweezers with blue glass decoration from the excavation of the Visitor Centre site 
All in all, my advice to those interested in Patrick and his history – from both near and far – is to come to Downpatrick and see the sights for yourselves. They’re beautiful, interesting places, set in gorgeous countryside. What’s not to like?


Inside the St Patrick's Visitor Centre

Inside the exhibition hall, linking Ireland's prehistoric and christian heritages.

Unfortunately, this s the closest we're getting to the Turoe Stone for the foreseeable future.

Reproduction of what a High Cross may have originally looked like
... in all its garish glory!

St Patrick as a bridge of literacy between pagan past and christian present

Tonsured monks tell the Patrick story.


Wishing all readers a very happy St Patrick's Day & hoping that you'll all come to Northern Ireland and visit the Saint in person at Downpatrick!