One of The Liberties most emblematic buildings spent much of the Covid lockdowns, locked down under scaffold. The mammoth reroofing of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, completed in summer 2021, was the most significant project seen at the cathedral since its great 1860s restoration by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness.
The brewer baronet famously took command of a massive rebuilding programme of the building, which had fallen into embarrassing disrepair by the mid-19thC. Sir Benjamin paid for the works himself, following a pattern of largesse to the National Cathedral, started by his father Arthur II and continued by his son Edward Cecil, later Lord Iveagh, and subsequent generations. Among the 1860s additions was a new roof.
The modern Saint Patrick’s Cathedral remains a busy working building; a place of worship that is also filled by day with visitors and tourists. The building requires never-ending maintenance, and maintaining a building of this scale, and with such importance to the city, sometimes calls for the most extraordinary projects.
In 2019, after years of planning, a giant scaffold began erecting around the cathedral to facilitate the reslating of its roof. “While most of the slates on the roof were in reasonably good condition, the problem lay with the iron nails holding them in place”, explains Louis Parminter, who manages the cathedral and is our guide for a tour of its roof. “Many had corroded and lost their heads, a term called nail-sickness, which meant that slates were continually being lifted off the roof by winds. Matters really came to a head with Storm Ophelia in 2017, which left many parts of the roof in a perilous state. A refurbishment was essential.”
Beneath the slate roof sits an intricate framework of timber joists – what pre-1860 worshippers would have seen looking up from their pews. “Some of the joists are known to date to the 13thC and are still vital elements of the roof structure”, says Louis. Below the joists lies a timber and lathe ceiling, plastered and painted on its underneath, giving modern visitors the impression of a stone vaulted ceiling. Its a delicate structure, vulnerable to damage from fire or water.
The reroofing project saw all the old slates carefully removed and new slates expertly fitted. The slates, known as Bangor Blues, came from a slate quarry in Pembrokeshire in Wales. The work also afforded the opportunity to improve safety and monitoring in the attic spaces, adding a sophisticated sensor system to monitor water ingress and, more importantly, fire, and upgrading walkways and fireproofing. Outside, all-important lighting conductors were replaced, and much of the beautiful stonework that crowns the cathedral was cleaned and repointed. Many of the upper windows were cleaned and repaired. “While we were up here, we found plenty that needed doing”, says Louis. “The scaffold accounted for over a quarter of the costs of the project. Erecting it was a once-in-160 year event, and so it made enormous sense to do as much as we could while it was in place.”
Climbing the narrow winding stair of the Cathedral’s Minot Tower to the attic visitors come first to the bellringers’ room – the Ringing Chamber. The cathedral has a carillon of bells, donated to it by Edward Cecil Guinness in 1897. Bellringing doesn’t need strength, but it does seem to be something of a knack to be mastered (much to my chagrin), and is perhaps more an endurance sport! Novice bellringers typically spend about 6 weeks learning the ropes (so to speak), and the often erratic tunes on Saturdays tell you there are novices at play. The walls of the Ringing Chamber are decorated with plaques of recognised bell tunes as well as memorabilia. It’s an atmospheric space.
Next stop on the winding stair is the Clock Room, housing the Cathedral’s timepiece. The mechanism runs…like clockwork, although it occasionally loses a few seconds if the mechanism slows. To counter this an old penny is put on the weight to ever so slightly speed up the pendulum. Cutting edge technology!
Back to those steps… there are over 170. Round and around and suddenly out into the light. All of Dublin can be seen from this lofty perch above The Liberties. The steeples and spires of the city’s other churches, Saint Patrick’s diminutive rival Christchurch Cathedral to the north and the myriad cranes of the modern city everywhere.
From here, tiny Libertarians go about their business in Saint Patrick’s Park in the shadow of an 800 year old building which is now better preserved for posterity thanks to its beautiful new roof.
With huge thanks to Louis and the team at Saint Patrick’s for an amazing tour. More on Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at www.saintpatrickscathedral.ie
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