Visiting cathedrals can be seen as part of the postmodern experience. The building is often but the latest manifestation or presentation of a place of worship stretching back nearly a millennium. Guide books, old views, interpretative panels and captions, cathedral tour guides, monuments, inscriptions and so on, suggest a layered past, the cathedral fabric, its furnishings and monuments as palimpsest.
Cathedral restorations are often an outcome of concerns for the state of the fabric and this has certainly been the case at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. The collapse of the nave vault in 1562 and the remedial work undertaken then is recorded in some detail in the Proctor accounts of Peter Lewis. Sometime in the mid-eighteenth century a long ungainly nave-length buttress was added to support the north nave wall and arcade. In 1829 a ‘sudden and great alarm during time of service’ forced the authorities to close the cathedral and to undertake extensive repairs under the supervision of the architect Matthew Price. Most significantly, the cathedral was substantially restored in from 1871 to 1878 by the architect George Edmund Street and with the financial support of Henry Roe. The panels in this exhibition attempt to set the context and outline the achievement of this restoration.
At play in Christ Church in the second half of the nineteenth century was a coalescence of many powerful factors: the needs of a cathedral clergy and choir, a cathedral vying for metropolitan status, the first major restoration work of the post-Disestablishment era, a wealthy benefactor, and a brilliant and busy architect. Unsurprisingly, the project was the focus of considerable contemporary attention – interior photographs taken before restoration were offered for sale as souvenirs – and reaction to the complete restoration was far from universally favourable. In response, Street produced a sumptuous volume giving his own account of the restoration campaign and its achievements. It is from this that much of the exhibition content is drawn, while copies the volume itself are also on display.
Part of the legacy of stewardship of an historic cathedral complex is the constant vigilance about the state of the building fabric and the need for timely remedial work and restoration. Again Christ Church is at the stage of requiring significant restoration and maintenance. The Dean and Chapter will undoubtedly face the challenges met in 1461, in 1562, in 1829 and those which resulted in the restoration of 1871-1878 celebrated here.
Michael O Neill Ph.D., F.S.A.