Beam me up — Frank McNally on the roof of St Patrick’s Cathedral, where some of the oak beams are 750 years old

A €9.4 million refurbishment has secured the cathedral’s future

There is no crypt in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, which was built at the site of a holy well on what used to be an island in the river Poddle, where the water table was too high to allow for a basement.

But the lack of an underground spectacle is more than compensated in the building’s opposite extreme, the roof, where I had the privilege of a guided tour on Wednesday.

Among the features up there are oak beams from a tree that dendrochronologists calculate was planted circa the year 1250 and cut down in 1327.

There is a lot of much newer stuff too, however, thanks to a recent €9.4 million refurbishment that replaced thousands of slates, upgraded fire protection, and in general secured the 800-year-old cathedral’s future.


One of the many problems that project had to solve, as our guide Louis Parminter explained, was “nail sickness”. No, this is not a fungal condition affecting roofers.

It’s a rusting away of the nails that hold slates in place, typically involving the loss of their heads, so that in stormy weather the slates rise up to sit (if you’re lucky) on the nail-tops.

When Hurricane Ophelia hit Dublin in 2017, 80 per cent of St Patrick’s slates were so risen. But a series of storms had also left two holes in the roof through each of which, in the alarming image evoked by Dean William Morton, “you could drive a mini car”.

The work that began in 2019 also extended to the repair of masonry, carpentry, and glazing, and the construction of new walkways between the building’s plastered ceiling and the roof, as well as better fire-proofing.

And the preservation plans were barely in place when there was a dramatic illustration elsewhere of how urgent they were: the fire in St Patrick’s similarly-aged Parisian cousin, Notre Dame. After that, visitors to the cathedral included representatives of Dublin Fire Brigade, familiarising themselves with the layout, “just in case”.

But Wednesday’s tour also took us above the new, improved roof, via the 170 spiral stone steps of the 14th-century tower, with its dizzying views of central Dublin and beyond.

On the way up there, we stopped off in the bell-ringers room, where I coaxed a note out of one of the clappers above us, but only with some difficulty.

I am clearly not cut out to rival the master ringers whose epic peals are recorded on a series of wall plaques, including one – from late January 1901 – that ran to “5021 changes” and “four hours and 10 minutes”, marking the death of Queen Victoria.

And while in the tower, too, we had a glimpse inside the workings of Dublin’s oldest clock, dating from 1560, as it whirred and clicked and cranked the hands telling time to passers-by below us on Patrick Street.

The bill for the cathedral’s recent refurbishment must have been sobering in every sense of the word. But this has not always been the case with such projects here and elsewhere in Dublin 8.

If this part of the city is surrounded and underflown by water, it has also been historically awash in a sea of alcohol, thanks to Ireland’s biggest brewery and the three great distilleries that once formed the “Golden Triangle”.

An indirect result was that the 19th-century restoration of St Patrick’s was funded by Guinness, while Roe’s Whiskey (now making a nominal comeback on James’s Street) paid for a similar but less aesthetically successful job on Christ Church.

That was relatively recent history by the standards of both buildings. The ancient oak beams in St Patrick’s, by contrast, have been silent witnesses to nearly eight centuries of turbulent events down at ground level.

Lowlights included the 1492 Chapter House standoff between the Butlers and the Ormonds (that probably didn’t launch the much later phrase “chance your arm”, despite the door with a hole in it, now one of the cathedral’s most popular attractions).

There was also the time when St Patrick’s suffered the indignity of having to stable Oliver Cromwell’s horses, his deliberate slight against the Anglican Church, which he considered a bit too Catholic.

But from a gallery just below the great stained-glass window at the cathedral’s west end on Wednesday, we also had a close-up of an even more remarkable piece of history.

The window, dating from the Guinness restoration, depicts 39 episodes in the life of St Patrick. And these include one of him examining the floor plans for his namesake cathedral, although strictly speaking, that was still 750 years in the future then.