History of Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral is one of Ireland’s most historic buildings and its story is fascinating.

It started life as a Viking church almost 1,000 years ago, with the earliest manuscript dating the cathedral to its present location around 1030. The original Viking church on the site was founded by Dúnán, the first bishop of Dublin and Sitriuc, Norse king of Dublin.

By 1152, it was incorporated into the Irish church and, within a decade, the famous Archbishop of Dublin Laurence O’Toole had been appointed. O’Toole, who is now the patron saint of Dublin, reformed the cathedral’s constitution along European lines and introduced the canons regular of Saint Augustine forming a cathedral priory, which was to survive until the Reformation.

John Cumin, who was the first Anglo-Norman Archbishop of Dublin, was one of the main drivers behind replacing the Hiberno-Norse cathedral with the Romanesque, and later Gothic, cathedral, parts of which survive today.

In the sixteenth century, reform again came from England when Henry VIII broke from Rome and dissolved the Augustinian priory of the Holy Trinity at Christ Church. On 22 December, 1541, Robert Castle, the last prior, became the first dean of Christ Church.

In 1562, the nave roof vaulting collapsed and the Anglo-Norman leader Strongbow’s tomb was smashed. The current tomb is a replacement from Drogheda, brought in at the time so that the business deals traditionally conducted over Strongbow’s tomb could continue. The cathedral was in ruins and emergency rebuilding took place immediately. This ‘temporary’ solution lasted until the 1870s. Since the collapse of the roof, the north nave wall has leaned out by 45cm or 18 inches.

In 1689, King James attended Mass here and, for a brief period, the rites of the pre-Reformation faith were restored. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Christ Church’s crypt was used as a market, a meeting place for business, and at one stage even housed three taverns.

In 1742, the cathedral choir together with the choir of St Patrick’s Cathedral sang the world premiere of Handel’s Messiah in nearby Fishamble Street.

Christ Church Cathedral restoration historyThe cathedral, as it exists today, is heavily Victorianised due to the extensive restorations and renovations carried out by the architect George Edmund Street (between 1871 and 1878) at the expense of a Dublin whiskey distiller, Henry Roe, who gave the equivalent of €35m in today’s money to the cathedral restoration.

More recently, to mark the millennium year 2000, the restoration of the large 12th century crypt, which is the city’s oldest working structure, was undertaken. It now houses some of the cathedral’s important collection of historical artefacts, manuscripts and silver.

Our Famous Bells

Bell ringing Christ Church CathedralChrist Church Cathedral’s Belfry houses our world-famous bells.

The cathedral’s 19th century bells — the oldest of which dates back to 1738 – range in weight from a quarter of a ton to 2.5 tons. Christ Church has a world record number of bells available for full-circle ringing.

The first mention of bells in Christ Church tower is an entry in the records for the death of John Kyrcham, ‘maker of our bells’, in 1423.

The Christ Church Cathedral Society of Change Ringers was established on July 31, 1670 and still welcomes visitors to join in-service ringing as well as practice sessions. For more information on ringing the bells, please contact our ringing master Ray Cregan at moc.liamg@yrflebccc.

On guided tours, you will be shown how the bells are rung and can even ring one of the bells yourself. Group guided tours must be booked in advance by calling +353 1 677 8099 or emailing ei.hcruhctsirhc@emoclew

As the belfry is only accessible by a narrow spiral staircase containing 86 steps, belfry tours are not suitable for those with reduced mobility, vision impairments, claustrophobia, a fear of heights or children under 12 years. Sensible footwear is required and no large bags are allowed.

If you’d like to find out more about the history of Christ Church Cathedral, there is a selection of books available in the gift shop.

Please note, we do not have a library or archive on site. If you have any historical queries, please contact our Research Advisor Stuart Kinsella at ei.hcruhctsirhc@sevihcra or see here for more information about Christ Church Archives and Publications.