For many tourists, one of the natural points of gravitation in Dublin is Christ Church Cathedral, a magnificent feat of architecture, history and endurance. Only a few hundred yards down the road – heard of by many more than have visited – is Dublin’s oldest parish church. St Audoen’s first church dates back to the 12th century (though possibly the 9th) and is well worth the guided tour available.
Dedicated to a 7th century French saint, the original church was built between 1181-1212 on High Street, medieval Dublin’s principal street. Over the centuries, through a mixture of declining numbers, lack of funds, and other socio-political factors, the church saw many changes to its character, shape, size, even the proportion of space covered by roofing. Central to its existence was the Guild of St Anne’s. The guild was a chantry, a monetary trust fund established to pay priests to say Masses for the spiritual benefit of certain deceased (previously privileged) people. Its members’ money led to six separate altars being built in this church.
Today, in addition to the existing, newer Church of Ireland parish church, the site contains St Anne’s chapel, which contains a visitors’ exhibition. Adjacent to it is the Portlester Chapel, home to memorial monuments for some of Dublin’s leading 16th, 17th and 18th century municipal families. Visitors can also inspect the church tower, which contains the impressive Portlester Tomb, a cenotaph erected to leading politician and chantry member Lord Portlester, and his wife. Three of the six bells in the loft are the oldest bells in Ireland.
For locals, one consequence of visiting such historical places is discovery of relatively unknown events of significance. Two emerge here.
In 1597, a massive, accidental gunpowder explosion nearby on the quays damaged the church tower. The explosion killed 126 people and destroyed up to forty houses. Though the greatest disaster of its kind in Ireland, rebuilding provided the foundations of the new city centre. Dublin’s centre of gravity shifted.
Almost one hundred years later, a dispute between the chantry and the parish church over whether the former’s vast wealth was actually devoted to charitable purposes led to an act of parliament. Against a backdrop of religious divisions caused by the Reformation, the act led to the dissolution of St Anne’s Guild and all other chantries in Ireland.
Alas, forms of devotion like that of chantry members have evolved. Amidst these medieval chapels, monuments, and stories of the past, a few dozen Dubliners gather in the surviving Church of Ireland chapel every Sunday morning. Every other day of the week, it is the visitors who hear the bells and seek knowledge. The old and the new endure.