Christ Church's crypt holds a trove of history


There can scarcely be a building in the country whose history is more closely entwined with Ireland's changing political and religious history than Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

While little, if anything, remains of King Sitric's original cathedral, recent work in the medieval crypt has revealed tantalising fragments of what may prove to be previously unknown Viking remains.

The crypt is of immense importance, not only to Christ Church, but also to the city of Dublin, and since its reopening by the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, last year it has attracted considerable attention, and rightly so.

This newspaper described it as "one of the most historically significant structures in Dublin".

Interest in the crypt will receive a further boost on May 30th when the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Ms de Valera, declares open a treasury made possible by the generosity of private donors.

Visitors will, for the first time, be able to see many of the historic items that have accrued to Christ Church over almost a thousand years.

They include such unique artefacts as the tabernacle used when James II attended Mass at Christ Church in 1689, and the magnificent Royal Plate presented by William III in thanksgiving for his victory over James at the Boyne in the following year.

Less visually splendid exhibits, yet equally unique, will be manuscripts seldom seen by the public before, for, alone among Irish cathedrals, Christ Church possesses a rich collection of manuscripts relating to the medieval past.

These include the 14th-century Liber Niger and the early-16th-century Liber Albus, telling of the foundation and early administration of the cathedral and of much else besides.

The cathedral's work to safeguard an extraordinarily important building has received tangible recognition with the recent announcement of a Heritage Council grant of £750,000 towards the cost of refurbishing and restoring the crypt "for the benefit of both the people of Dublin and visitors".

Manuscripts, too, are part of our heritage, as the writing of history is based on evidence, and much of that evidence depends on the written word. Making such documents widely accessible is a vital task.

This has been undertaken by a group of scholars who for the past five years have donated their time and expertise to researching and writing, not only a history of the cathedral, but also a series of seven ancillary volumes and a music CD.

All of which has been done under the general editorship of Dr Raymond Gillespie of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and published by Four Courts Press.

The Christ Church documents series has as its purpose to make available some of the more important writings associated with what was one of the largest and wealthiest corporate bodies in medieval and early modern Ireland.

It also focuses on the cathedral as a way of exploring the wider history of Dublin and the Church of Ireland.

THE final volume, Christ Church Deeds, edited by M.J. McEnery and Raymond Rafausse, will throw a great deal of light on many aspects of Dublin life from the records of one of the city's major land-owners.

With the publication of Christ Church Deeds, presided over in the crypt this evening by Prof Art Cosgrove, president of University College Dublin, one project reaches completion and another begins. Tonight, the first of a new series of Christ Church Cathedral Publications will appear.

Edited by Stuart Kinsella, The Augustinians at Christ Church will initiate a series of occasional publications aimed at satisfying the ever-increasing demand from visitors for information.

But there is more to the publishing of church history than answering the questions asked by our visitors. Nor is the preservation of records simply a matter of antiquarian interest.

The tendentious use of "history" has long played a part in fostering suspicion and misunderstanding between communities in Ireland.

More recently, however, an enormous change has taken place and fresh perceptions of our political past and its relevance to the present have helped to bring about reassessment and, in the best sense of the word, revision.

Similarly, new approaches to our understanding of the religious history of Ireland are also emerging, rigorous in scholarship and independent in judgment.

But historians cannot make bricks without straw, and documents constitute much of the straw. Perhaps the time has come to give proper priority to this somewhat less fashionable aspect of heritage.

Kenneth Milne is historiographer for the Church of Ireland