By Jennifer McKenna
The site on which the present Cathedral of St. Patrick stands is one of the most ancient, if not the most ancient, Christian site in Ireland. Ussher states that this site pre-dates the foundation of the church of Armagh by some 22 years. St. Patrick landed at the mouth of the river Boyne at Drogheda. In 433AD, he sent Loman, a priest and friend, ahead of him down the river to seek out a site for a Christian settlement. Loman landed in Trim and the local chieftain, Fedilmid, gave him land at the top of a hill on which to build a church. Given that this is the highest point in Trim, coupled with evidence found in recent archaeological excavations, the claim that the present cathedral is built on the original site given to Loman appears well-founded.
While the site may be original, the church building has been replaced and altered on many occasions. The Annals of Ulster record that the church at Trim was burned in a Norse raid in 779. In the 14th century, a very large and splendid church was built – about five times the size of the present building – only to be destroyed in the 1641 Rebellion. The chancel ruins can still be seen to the east of the present building. Again in 1660, restoration work was carried out to the nave of the building but not to the chancel. In 1803, the Bishop of Meath, Thomas O’Beirne, had the church rebuilt to its present reduced dimensions. Even since, a number of minor alterations have been made such as the enlarging of the east window and the addition of the choir stalls beside the organ, making the present building an evolution that has spanned more than 1,500 years.
The tower at the west side dates back to the mid-14th century and was built when Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York – who later became King Richard III of England – lived in Trim. It is over 75 feet high and, having been built on the town’s highest point, was meant to impress upon the visitor the importance of the place. The ground floor of the tower is stone vaulted and forms the entrance porch to the Cathedral.
Underneath the gallery wall at the west end of the cathedral is the “old font”. This is a medieval piscina that was rescued from the ruined chancel of the earlier building by Dean Richard Butler. He had it installed in the present building circa 1860 as ‘his’ baptismal font. There are many scenes depicted on the piscina together with the royal arms of England and the personal arms of Richard Duke of York, who is thought to have been a considerable benefactor of the medieval church.
Other work to the church around that time included the commissioning of “The Good Shepherd” panel in the east window. James Powell & Sons of London was commissioned to carry out the work by Alan Pendleton in memory of his parents. Pendleton paid £48-5s-6d in June 1869 (note the old photograph on the wall beside the piscina). “The Good Shepherd” is by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a very eminent and well-known stained glass designer. He was the chief designer for the stained glass company of James Powell & Sons of London. The Good Shepherd cartoon is to be found in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. This piece is a very important work of art as it was created by the young Burne-Jones and is the only example in Ireland of his early work. Indeed, only four pieces of his work were executed in Ireland. The panel was moved to the west window in 1906.
In 1906, further alterations were carried out to the building. The east window was substantially enlarged to accommodate the present stained glass window. Designed and installed by Heaton, Butler & Bayne of London, it depicts “The Last Supper”. It was commissioned in memory of William Thompson of Rathnally. Bayne was the designer of the team and almost certainly designed “The Last Supper”. He most likely designed the “King David” panel in the west window as a balance for the older “Good Shepherd” panel.
While the Bishops of Meath lived in Ardbraccan outside Navan over many years, they had no cathedral in the diocese. Trim was the traditional church where the Bishops of Meath were enthroned, but it wasn’t until St. Patrick’s Day in 1955 that the church was elevated to the status of Cathedral. The Bishop’s Throne and Chapter Stalls came later from Elphin Cathedral, which was destroyed in a storm in 1957.
When the church in Ardbraccan closed, the memorial plaques to various Bishops of Meath were transferred and erected in their rightful place in the Cathedral. Among those that stand out is the plaque in memory of Bishop Thomas O’Beirne.
During his term as Bishop of Meath from 1798 to 1823, Bishop O’Beirne oversaw the rebuilding of 57 churches and 72 glebe houses. He led a varied and colourful career as a naval chaplain, pamphleteer, poet and playwright, rector of an English parish, chaplain to the Viceroy in Dublin, Bishop of Ossory and finally, Bishop of Meath. He had studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood in France and following his conversion to Anglicanism, he graduated from Cambridge. It was ironic that when he became Bishop of Meath, his Catholic counterpart was none other than his old seminary professor and it is recorded that they got on together “very agreeably”.
Many other plaques were erected on the walls of this Cathedral in the 1800s, during the time of Dean Richard Butler, in recognition of their contribution to the people of Trim. Dean Butler himself contributed greatly to the people of Trim. He visited all the sick, regardless of creed or class. He had a private school and he taught all children, regardless of their religion. He and the local parish priest founded the Model School, which again was open to all children. He visited the jail, poorhouse and fever hospital daily, even tasting the food to ensure its quality for the inmates. He also had to contend with the Famine and it is said that no Trim person died of famine during that time. After his death, the people of Trim installed a clock in the church tower in his memory, which to this day is known as the “Dean’s Clock”. He was a writer and is best remembered for his works on the historical sites and buildings of Trim. During his time in Trim, Dean Butler was offered many prestigious positions but he rejected them saying: “Yet Trim is, and is to be, my home and Trim churchyard will be my burying place. I like the place and the people, and I could not be insensible to the regard of the people for me, and in short, I have resolved to stay”. Dean Butler’s tomb is located about 20 metres from the main entrance, on the southern side of the Cathedral.
At the back of the church under the gallery is a brass plaque to the memory of the men from Trim who lost their lives in two world wars. All the men who died are recorded regardless of their religion or rank. Until very recently, this was for many families the only public acknowledgement of the loss of a loved one. An act of remembrance takes place each November in the Cathedral.
The beautiful pipe organ is one of three “Binns” organs in Ireland. James Jepson Binns was a 19th century Yorkshire organ builder. He had his own company called Bramley Organ Works and while he was a prolific organ builder, he is best-known for building the very large and wonderful organ in London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Today, we continue to offer worship to Almighty God in continuity with those who have done so over many centuries on this ancient site. You are most welcome to join us at our Sunday service at 11.30am. The Dean can be contacted by email at email@example.com or by phone at 046 943 6698.