St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, is the pre-eminent Roman Catholic cathedral building in Ireland. It has undergone continuous development since construction began in 1840. Now in 2003 development continues with major refurbishment of the building fabric and the complete liturgical reordering of the interior. Rooney & McConville, Architects & Liturgical Designers, were appointed by competitive interview to oversee this aspect of the work.


The main aspiration behind the new liturgical design of the interior is to fully express the function of a cathedral as a ‘chair church’, strongly symbolic of the pastoral and teaching imperatives of a bishop. Informing this aspiration was a desire to connect with the past but not to uncritically reproduce it. In practice this meant a new sanctuary with a reinstated Marian chapel, new brass screens incorporating and inspired by the pre-1982 rood screen gates, refurbished Marian and Sacred Heart reredoses, retention of the sanctuary lamp and a refurbished baptistery.


We discerned that the previous layout had a good sense of space facilitating the liturgical action and we wished to preserve this. Shortcomings centred on the location and dominance of the tabernacle. The bishop’s throne, the cathedra, was displaced and the pews located in the dead zone behind the tabernacle had no view of the altar. In essence the cathedral was a parish church writ large. Our proposal provided a new interior truly worthy of a cathedral. To that end the cathedra replaced the tabernacle in the upper sanctuary. A new Marian chapel was reinstated behind the cathedra at the ‘East End’ of the interior, the traditional location dating from the Middle Ages. The existing massive Marian reredos regained its meaning and good use was now made of the space behind the sanctuary. The brass screen helps to reduce the dominance of the Marian reredos and focus the eye on the altar. A new ambulatory circulating around the sanctuary was introduced. Again this is a traditional element of a cathedral interior that facilitates access to the Marian chapel and accommodates processional liturgies. It also encourages viewing of the many beautiful wall mosaics to be found in this part of the interior.


The extent of the new sanctuary matched the previous one and preserved the change in floor level between a higher platform, now dominated by the cathedra and seating for the chapter, and a lower one occupying the crossing space. The new altar, as before, is in the middle of the lower platform at the architectural centre of the interior. The upper platform symbolises the diocesan assembly of bishop surrounded by presbyters and the faith community and the lower expresses the centrality of the Eucharist. The ambo and presider’s chair are at the front of the upper platform.


The new floor patterns are designed to harmonise with existing colours, materials and decoration. The main tiling takes up the diamond pattern found in the existing wall mosaics and new decorative motifs are inspired by Irish High Crosses. Areas of importance such as at the ambo, presider’s chair and cathedra are emphasised with new floor mosaics, which again take on a Celtic church theme.

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