St. Michan’s Church, Dublin, Dublin County, Republic of Ireland

Our guide at a crypt entrance, St. Michan’s Church.

Surrounded by apartments and industrial buildings north of the Liffey, the modest exterior of St. Michan’s Parish Church belies the historical interest and ghoulish appeal of its more hidden features.

Standing on the site of a late 11th-century Hiberno-Viking church, the current structure mostly dates to 1685. Without the ornate stonework found in cathedrals like St. Patrick’s and Christ Church, the interior decoration is almost exclusively determined by the floral patterns in the plaster ceiling and stained glass windows. This relative austerity serves to highlight, through contrast, the baroque 18th-century organ that dominates one end of the nave. According to the church’s oral history, this is the instrument on which Handel first played his Messiah.

Charming as the nave may be, most travelers visit St. Michan’s for the contents of its vaults. Sealed behind heavy iron doors, past precarious, narrow stone steps, lie the mummified remains of some of Dublin’s most privileged and notorious citizens. Spilling out of their wooden coffins, St. Michan’s long-term residents have been drawing in visitors since the Victorian era, including Dracula author Bram Stoker. Consistent with Church policy, most of the subterranean occupants are off-limits to public view, and three of the five vaults are closed completely. However, limited public access is permissible—under the supervision of the caretaker—in cases where the caskets have decayed and broken naturally, and where the bodies are either unidentified or no longer have family to care for them.

The most exposed and accessible mummies all lie in the same room and have been dubbed the Unknown Woman, the Nun, the Thief, and the Crusader. Of these, probably only the “Unknown Woman” is accurately named. The “Crusader”—whose remains post-date the Crusades by several hundred years—was over six-and-a-half feet tall and therefore exceptionally large for his time. Too big for his coffin, his legs have been broken and folded over to get him to fit. Visitors were once encouraged to shake his hand for luck, and are still invited to gently touch his extended finger, now smoothly polished from over a hundred years of strangers’ light caresses.

Mummies in St. Michan’s crypt. The Crusader lies in the coffin against the wall behind the Nun, Thief, and Unknown Woman. Image courtesy St. Michan’s Church:

Photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013, unless otherwise indicated.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Dublin County, Republic of Ireland

One of Saint Patrick Cathedral’s many stony inhabitants.

Now the largest church in Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral began as a small wooden chapel beside the well where, according to tradition, its namesake baptized early converts to Christianity in the 5th century. The first stone structure on the site was erected in the late 12th century, and much of the current church dates to work done between 1220 and 1270. The building has undergone several waves of reconstruction and restoration since then, but the most extensive modern-era renovations occurred in the 1860s with funding provided by Sir Benjamin Guinness (1798–1868) of the Guinness brewing dynasty. Neo-Gothic flying buttresses on the exterior date from this time. Today, the church is the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland.

Several impressive tomb monuments commemorate notable Dubliners, including Jonathan Swift, buried within the cathedral. Of particular note is the 17th century Boyle family tomb, which possesses an enormous, elaborate, and colorful facade that dominates the west end of the church.

In addition to the funereal monuments, the church’s interior is punctuated throughout by more purely decorative stonework. Compared to the carvings of the nearby Christ Church, Saint Patrick’s sculptural details feel heavier and less fully integrated into an overall decorative design. But what the cathedral’s scheme lacks in unity it makes up for in personality. The animal and (mostly male) human heads adorning the interior tend to be roughly life-size, deeply carved, and highly individualized, often with surprisingly expressive facial hair. Comic realism is juxtaposed with archaic abstraction, and the overall effect is one of a community of individuals in which each member demands its own scrutiny and appreciation.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, County Dublin, Republic of Ireland

Stained glass window (detail), Christ Church Cathedral. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.

In addition to being one of Ireland’s largest and most embellished houses of worship, Christ Church also has the distinction of being the country’s oldest cathedral. It was originally established by Dunan, the city’s first bishop, and Sitric, the Hiberno-Norse king of Dublin (r. ca. 995–1036). In 1186, the Anglo-Norman archbishop, John Cumin, rebuilt the church. This building stood for several centuries, and was eventually co-opted for more secular uses. The nave, for instance, once held a market, while taverns resided in the 12th century crypt.

By the Victorian era, the building had fallen into disrepair. Its current appearance, therefore, owes much to the architect George Street, who was in charge of its remodeling in the 1870s. One of the structure’s most unusual features, a bridge that stretches across the road to Synod Hall, was added at that time. The crypt was restored later, in 2000. Today, Christ Church is the cathedral for the Church of Ireland diocese of Dublin and Glendalough, but it retains features from its varied history. A market is held (outside) on the grounds in summer, and visitors can still find refreshments in the crypt.

The church’s striking buttressed exterior has become a symbol for the city, but the interior’s sculptural decoration is arguably even more impressive. Encompassing both organic and geometric designs, the cathedral’s details are unusually complex, with delicate, layered tendrils of rock curling around empty space and finely wrought heads poking out between stony flora. The milky white marble and fluid, smoothly textured carvings lend the walls around the nave a particularly lickable quality, as if the whole structure were fabricated of firm vanilla ice cream. Downstairs in the crypt, the stonework tends to be rougher, the lighting darker. This subterranean area includes tomb monuments, a cafe, and a mummified cat and rat, as well as temporary exhibitions.

Floral capitals in Great Nave, Christ Church Cathedral. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Capitals in the Great Nave. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Great Nave during choral performance. Composite photo by Joshua Albers, May 30, 2013.


Crypt tomb monument. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Crypt tomb monument. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 30, 2013.

Dublin City Gallery–The Hugh Lane, Dublin, Dublin County, Republic of Ireland

Julian Opie’s Suzanne Walking in Leather Skirt, 2006, outside the entrance of the Hugh Lane. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.

The core collection of Dublin City Gallery–The Hugh Lane is made up of the Impressionist paintings donated by the museum’s namesake, Sir Hugh Lane, to the Dublin Corporation in 1905. At the time, however, the Corporation was unprepared to house the works, and Lane began to look for a more suitable home for his gift. He had already begun transferring paintings to the National Gallery, London, when Dublin proposed Charlemont House as a possible site for the museum. Lane agreed to the new arrangement, but died before his revised will could be witnessed. The result was a nearly 50-year dispute that was eventually resolved with the somewhat awkward arrangement of the two museums swapping the works every five years.

The current collection of the Dublin City Gallery has expanded to include a wide variety of media—from stained glass to digital arts—made by both Irish and international artists throughout the last century-and-a-half. Since 2001, the museum has also served as the new home for Francis Bacon’s former London studio. John Edwards, the bartender/model/companion who inherited Bacon’s estate in 1992, donated the studio’s contents—including its walls, ceiling, floor, and doors—to the Hugh Lane in 1998, and the gallery meticulously reconstructed the room in all its messy glory. The installation is now viewable behind glass windows and through peep-holes.

National Museum of Ireland–Archaeology and Natural History Museum, Dublin, Dublin County, Republic of Ireland

The National Museum of Ireland was originally founded in 1877 when, under the Dublin Science and Art Museum Act, the government purchased the growing collections of Leinster House (now the seat of parliament) and the Natural History Museum. Today, the NMI is divided into four branches: Archaeology, Natural History, Decorative Arts and History, and Country Life. Each branch occupies a separate building, and only the first three are in Dublin. Both the museums of Archaeology and Natural History are located within easy walking distance of Trinity College, the National Gallery, and each other, making it possible to visit all four on the same day.

Archaeology [photography not permitted in most galleries]
The Archaeology branch of the National Museum contains a variety of artifacts—including objects from Rome, Cyprus, and Egypt—although the heart of its collection comes from Ireland itself. The museum’s extensive holdings span prehistory to the Middle Ages. In addition to several of the world’s finest examples of Celtic art, they include one of Europe’s largest collections of prehistoric goldwork and Iron Age bog bodies.

Originally opened in 1890, the building was designed in a Victorian Palladian style by the Cork architects Thomas Newenham Deane and Thomas Manly Deane. The ornate interior is nearly as impressive as the collection itself. In the central court, lacey patterns of cast iron ring the balcony and support the roof like giant, load-bearing doilies, while majolica fireplaces and carved wooden panels ring the walls of other galleries.

We visited the museum towards the end of our first day in Ireland, and my initial jet lag made it difficult to absorb the copious information sprinkled throughout the galleries. If you are awake for it, though, a visit to the museum of Archaeology can be an ideal introduction to the island’s history, artifacts, and sites.

Natural History Museum

When Ireland’s museum of natural history opened in 1857 with an inaugural lecture by the internationally renowned Scottish explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, Dublin was one of the most important cities of the British Empire. As a result, the museum served as a repository for animal, vegetal, and geological specimens sent back by Britain’s agents from around the globe. Today, the museum looks much the way it did in the 19th century. The building consists of three floors of exhibition space, only two of which are open to the public: the lower floor is dedicated to the flora and fauna of the island, while the second story displays mammals from around the world.

The Natural History Museum predates the founding of the National Museum of Ireland by about 20 years, making it the oldest branch of the NMI. Parts of its original collection have since relocated to other institutions―including the museum of Archaeology―but it still houses a rare collection of life-like sea creatures made by the 19th century glass artists Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka.

Unfortunately, the institution is woefully underfunded, leaving many of the specimens in tatters and causing the balcony galleries, where the majority of the Blaschkas’ models reside, to close. But the feelings of neglect and loss that permeate the galleries are no less due to the taxidermy and display choices of the past and present curators. In death, many of the animals have been assigned strong personalities, sometimes presented with bared teeth or open mouths, as if silently growling or screaming at the passing visitor. In other, more disturbing, instances, the animals appear to be frightened or startled. In one case, a tiger looks timidly upward, seemingly afraid of its surroundings. In another, a new-born zebra sits alone in its vitrine against a wall. The juxtaposition of the foal’s simulated alertness and innocence with the reality of its death and isolation is particularly disquieting. I could only wonder how it came to be there, and then wish that I hadn’t.

Still, even the more questionable curatorial choices speak to a certain—albeit dark—sense of humor that saves the displays from being purely bleak examples of monetary neglect.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.

Trinity College, Dublin, Dublin County, Republic of Ireland

Old Library, Trinity College.

Since the 17th century, Trinity College has been the home of Ireland’s most densely decorated illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells (c. 9th century). Tourists flock to the College’s Old Library and wait in lines that wrap around Fellow’s Square, just for a peek at a few of the book’s pages.

The related exhibition mostly consists of other manuscripts and reproductions from the Book of Kells interspersed with didactic information. It culminates in a small room containing the original manuscript, now divided into sections so that more of it can be visible at once. The open pages change frequently, but consistently feature both image and script-heavy selections. Photographs are not allowed, and visitors have only a few minutes in the crowded room before they are ushered out. Like a ride at Disneyland, it is hard to argue that the time and money spent trying to see the Book are truly worth the experience. And yet, for anyone at all interested in Celtic design or Medieval art, skipping the Book of Kells is unthinkable.

The same ticket also includes entrance to the Library’s aptly named Long Room, a 210 ft hall containing around 200,000 texts and the Brian Boru Harp. Made around 1220, the harp is the oldest surviving example of its kind in the country and has been prominently featured on the Euro as a symbol of Ireland.

Most tourists only come to the college for the treasures of the Old Library, but a wander around campus can be rewarding. Of particular note, the Museum Building is a Venetian-inspired Victorian structure. Each capital on the building’s exterior consists of a unique and realistic floral design, and these details are carried over into the multicolored marbled decor of the great hall. Upon entering the building, visitors are immediately greeted by the articulated fossilized skeletons of two Giant Irish Elk that seem strangely at home in their stony garden.

Long Room (1732) in the Old Library, Trinity College.
Exterior of the Museum Building at Trinity College with Arnoldo Pomodoro’s 1982 sculpture, Sphere within Sphere.
Column detail, Museum Building, Trinity College.
Skeleton of the male Giant Irish Elk in the Museum Building, Trinity College.
Staircase in the hall of the Museum Building, Trinity College.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.

Impressions of Dublin

Well, Pierce, it looks like your catch phrase caught on somewhere.

If you’re going to Ireland, chances are you will fly in and out of Dublin. The Republic’s capital is a mostly charming city of manageable size with several museums, impressive cathedrals, and numerous drinking establishments. Travelers can see a lot in a short amount of time without sacrificing the enjoyment of simply wandering in a new city. In two days, we drank some good beer, ate some good (Indian) food, and went to six museums, two crypts, two cathedrals, one church, and one library. Someone in a hurry or lodging in a more central part of the city could probably do more.

Staircase in the Long Room of the Old Library, Trinity College. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 23, 2013.
Whale skeleton in the upper galleries of the Natural History Museum. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.
Detail of window in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Dublin graffiti. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Detail of pulpit from Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Second floor of Natural History Museum, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.
One of several unique floral capitals in the Museum Building, Trinity College, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.
Detail of window in St. Michan’s Church, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Building in downtown Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Second floor of Natural History Museum, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.
Building in downtown Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Shop window in Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Dublin graffiti. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Detail of case on second floor of the Natural History Museum, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.
Museum Building, Trinity College, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.
Long Room, Old Library, Trinity College. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.
Museum Building, Trinity College, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.
Detail of window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Detail of case on second floor of the Natural History Museum, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 23, 2013.
Detail of pigment display in the Long Room of the Old Library, Trinity College. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 23, 2013.
Window in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.
Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013.

Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny, Republic of Ireland

Cloister pillars, Jerpoint Abbey. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 29, 2013.

Jerpoint Abbey was once an important Cistercian monastery and a favorite burial site for the area’s powerful families. Its general biography is fairly familiar: founded in the mid-late 12th century, it flourished until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 and soon after passed into the secular hands of James Butler, Earl of Ormonde.
[A more detailed history of the abbey can be found here, courtesy of the Cistercians in Yorkshire Project.]

Much of the church is still standing, with highlights including several ornately carved 16th-century tombs and a fortified crossing tower. However, the site’s primary draw is its unique but heavily damaged 15th-century cloister, which was partially reconstructed in the 1950s. Each of the remaining pillars consists of two simple columns framing, on the better preserved examples, large, high-relief images of saints and various medieval personages. Dragons, green men, and other grotesque or humorous figures also appear along the colonnade and under the connecting arches.

Holy Cross Abbey, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland

Holy Cross Abbey. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 29, 2013.

From Cashel we took a slight detour north in order to visit the late Gothic church of Holy Cross Abbey, located near Thurles in County Tipperary. Named for its relic of the True Cross, the abbey was restored in the late 20th century and is once again in use as place of worship and pilgrimage after spending centuries in ruin.

Holy Cross was initially founded in 1168 or 1169 by Donal Mor O’Brien for the Benedictines. However, O’Brien transferred ownership to the Cistercians in 1180, and the abbey remained in their care until its eventual suppression. The current structure was built in the 15th century and contains a number of fine Gothic details, including sculpted pillars and remnants of a frescoed hunting scene. Although much of the sculptural decoration displays an unusual degree of refinement, the abbey’s most charming and surprising features are the numerous symbols subtly carved into the interior’s stone walls like labor-intensive doodles.

Holy Cross Abbey. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 29, 2013.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 29, 2013, unless otherwise indicated.

Rock of Cashel, Cashel, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland

Rock of Cashel. View from path between the Rock and Hore Abbey. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 29, 2013.

We left Blarney as the castle and grounds were closing and made our way northeast to Cashel, arriving before nightfall. Castle-hotels are among Cashel’s many attractions, but we chose to stay at Peggy O’Neill’s B&B, one of the town’s less costly options. Our friendly host offered us the choice of two rooms: one that was large and pleasant, the other that was small and had the following view:

View of Hore Abbey from Peggy O’Neill’s B&B, Cashel. Photo by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 28, 2013.

We chose the smaller room.

Of course, Cashel’s main draw is its medieval stronghold and namesake, the Rock of Cashel. Perched at the city’s highest point, Rock of Cashel impresses with its blocky enormity and abundance of carved decoration. The fortress’s English name is a bit confusing, as it implies the building is in some way the “rock” of the town. In fact, Cashel is the anglicized version of the Irish caiseal, or stone fort, while “Rock” refers to the hill it sits upon.

Although the site itself dates to the 4th or 5th century when it was seat of the Kings of Munster, the oldest remaining structure is the round tower, which was erected shortly after Muircheartach Ua Briain (O’Brien) gave the Rock to the Catholic Church in 1101. Like most round towers, it was originally a free-standing structure. However, it was later incorporated into the north transept when the cathedral was built in the 13th century.

Art historically, the complex’s most distinctive feature is Cormac’s Chapel, the interior of which contains unusual sculptural details, vestiges of painted decoration, and an intricately carved tomb. Consecrated in 1134, the Chapel may be the first Romanesque church in Ireland, and is certainly the best preserved. Cormac Mac Cárthaigh (MacCarthy), a bishop and king of Munster, commissioned the building. The sarcophagus, which boasts an elaborate Scandinavian Urnes design of intertwined animals, probably held either Cormac’s remains or those of his brother, Tadhg. The frescoes—a rare feature in Ireland—are the oldest on the island. They were covered in the 16th century during the Reformation and only rediscovered in the 1980s. Restoration of the chapel is ongoing, and access is restricted to groups led by the site’s guides. These tours are free, entertaining, and informative, but if you prefer to spend the rest of your time exploring on your own, you can join the group for the chapel portion of the tour only.