Northern Ireland

Down Cathedral prepares for big anniversary

The Very Reverend Henry Hull
Image caption The Dean of Down, the Very Reverend Henry Hull, says a special service is planned

As you arrive in Downpatrick, it is nearly impossible to miss Down Cathedral, which cuts an imposing figure over the town.

The hill it sits on has been a focus for worship for centuries.

It is also said to be the burial place of Ireland's patron, St Patrick.

The cathedral is preparing to mark an important anniversary - it's 200 years since the building was restored and reconsecrated.

On a cold, crisp winter's day, standing over the granite stone that marks where St Patrick is believed to have been buried, the Dean of Down, the Very Reverend Henry Hull, outlines when the 1818 anniversary will be marked.

"We will have a special service to celebrate the bicentenary of the building being reconsecrated," he told the BBC.

"We have a reference from a man called Pilsen, a local resident who kept detailed diaries of the history of Downpatrick, that on 23 August 1818 the building was ready for public worship, and certainly worship has continued since that date."

Image caption The granite stone which marks where St Patrick is believed to be buried

'Nike logos'

Churches and abbeys have been on the site of Down Hill, where the current cathedral stands, as far back as the 5th Century.

The present site was built in 1183 by Benedictine monks who had come from Beck in Normandy to Chester before building a settlement in County Down.

The monastery was used by the monks until 1543, but the site was subjected to numerous attacks over the centuries.

Dean Hull said: "The building began to fall into decay and in 1609, King James I granted a Royal Charter to install a dean and a cathedral.

Image caption A painting of the cathedral before it was restored

"However for the next 200 years the building continued to be a ruin which was used for consecrating bishops and for burials."

It wasn't until the 18th Century that funds were raised by local families and King George III to restore the site, and in 1818 the building was ready again for public worship.

Family crests adorn the walls of the cathedral and represent those who contributed towards its restoration.

"One of the humorous things we like to tell people is that today those would be our sponsors, so we might have Nike logos on the walls," added Dean Hull.

Box pews

The links with the Benedictine monks is evident as you walk into the main body of the cathedral.

Box pews, an 18th Century feature which were prevalent in churches of that era, are still there.

"When the cathedral was restored 200 years ago, the box pews were put in," said Dean Hull.

"The reason they face one another, rather than facing forward, is to reflect the choir nature of the building which is to do with the monastic feature of its heritage.

"We celebrate that history still and today in the 21st Century, we have a very close relationship with the Benedictine community in Rostrevor."

Image caption Down Cathedral cuts an imposing figure over Downpatrick

It is estimated 60,000 people from around the world visit the cathedral every year, some on pilgrimage, others to find out more about St Patrick.

Dean Hull said he was honoured to serve at the cathedral.

"One of the great privileges of ministering here is to know people have been on this site praying and worshipping over the centuries," he said.

"Although this building has gone through various changes, there is something constant that remains and we pray that will continue into the future."

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