In my opinion St Audoen’s Church is one of the most overlooked gems on the Dublin tourist route. It is Dublin’s oldest medieval church, still in use, and given that it has such a colourful history, with links to ‘lucky’ stones, ghosts, the Hellfire Club and the tale of a boar’s head replacing the steeple, one would think it would be far more frequented than it currently is.
St Audoen’s was erected in 1190 by the Anglo-Normans who had arrived in Dublin twenty years earlier, it was named after a 7th century French saint named St.Ouen (or Audoen). The ‘Lucky Stone’ which is now housed in the porch of the Church is a 9th century grave-slab which indicates that the Church was erected on the site of an earlier 7th century structure which is believed to have been dedicated to St Columcille.
Being located on the north side of High Street (one of Dublin’s earliest streets) it is undeniable that St Audoen’s would have played an important role in the daily life of medieval Dublin. On one side of the church steps lead down to the only remaining gatehouse of the original Dublin City Wall. The church became quite wealthy during the 14th century and was extended over the next 100 years. As with many medieval churches throughout Europe the rich were willing to pay for the privilege of a safe passage through the afterlife and many charities endowed the Church with altars.
In 1430 the Guild of St Anne was established on the site alongside guilds of smiths, butchers, bakers, bricklayers and feltmakers, each of whom erected altars at the site. One of the leading politicians of the time Sir Roland FitzEustance (Lord Portlester) founded the private ‘Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ beside St. Audoens as a show of gratitude for surviving a shipwreck near the site. Lord Portlester was Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, then Lord Chancellor before finally being made Lord High Treasurer of Ireland. In 1482 Lord Portlester erected a cenotaph commemorating both himself and his wife Margaret, depicting their effigies etched in stone, this is now housed in the tower but would have stood as the focal point of the chapel.The tower itself was badly damaged on the 11th of March 1597 when a massive gunpowder explosion happened on the nearby quays.
It seems much of the Churches money was swallowed up by St Anne’s Guild and the structure fell into a sorry state during the 17th century. The number of Protestants in the area had declined and they were unable or unwilling to fund its restoration. In 1671 the Church of Ireland Primate, Michael Boyle, ordered the church to be closed, however it remained in use intermittently over the next 100 years.
In 1755 Reverend Cobbe who was then rector of St Audoens removed the cross from the church steeple and had it replaced with a boar’s head wearing a crown! This led to the following verse, believed to have been written by Jonathan Swift,
‘Christ’s Cross from Christ’s church cursed Cobbe hath plucked down,
And placed in its stead what he worships – the Crown.
Avenging the cause of the Gadarene People,
The miscreant hath placed a swine’s head on the steeple;
By this intimating to all who pass by,
That his hearers are swine, and his church but a stye.’
By 1773 the congregation numbered few, many of the local Protestant families had moved out to the suburbs of Dublin, and the decision was made to remove the roof from the eastern end of the church. In the early 19th century the roof of St Anne’s Chapel was also removed, however this was restored and re-roofed by the OPW and now houses an exhibition on St Audoens. The old church was reduced in size during the middle of the 19th century when the current eastern wall and window was built, the parishioners then accessed the church through the tower. The tower at St Audoen’s is home to six bells, three of which date from the 15 century. The tower was heavily restored in the 17th and 19th century.
As mentioned earlier ‘The Lucky Stone’ was a 9th century grave-slab from an earlier church, during medieval times it was believed the stone had magical properties, people queued to touch or kiss the stone in the hope of gaining a cure from illness or good fortune. The Lucky Stone was moved from the church during the early part of the 14th century by John Le Decer, Lord Mayor of Dublin. He erected a drinking fountain at the Cornmarket nearby and had the stone placed beside it. The stone disappeared on many occasions over the years, turning up in Glasnevin Cemetery and Whitefriar Street Church. One of the strangest stories connected to it happened in 1826, the stone had gone missing but was found on a building site in Kilmainham, it was spotted by a watchman who reported that he had seen the stone glow and assume human form after nightfall. Workmen on the site also alleged that the stone cried, moaned and rocked from side to side when they tried to break it with a sledgehammer! It was eventually re-interred in its current position in 1888 and fixed into place to prevent any more disappearances.
Another story that has been linked to the church is the apparition of a ghost named ‘The Green Lady’. Many believe that this is the ghost of Darkey Kelly who lived in the area during the 18th century. Depending on which story is to be believed she was either an innkeeper, a prostitute, or a madam who ran her own brothel. The area was frequented by many members of the notorious Hellfire Club (a group of wealthy men interested in debauchery and the occult) and perhaps this is how she came in contact with Simon Luttrell, the Sheriff of Dublin and a member of the Hellfire Club. The story goes that she fell pregnant to the Sheriff and he accused her of either witchcraft or of killing her unborn child, she was sentenced to death and publicly burned at St Stephen’s Green in 1746. A green ghost has been reportedly seen at the bottom of the forty steps that lead to the church. Another tale says that Darkey had a relationship with a local bishop and after becoming pregnant either committed suicide or was murdered.
Other beautiful items erected in the church are the Seagrave, Sparke and Duff family monuments erected in the 16th and 17th century. A 12th century Romanesque baptismal font sits beside the main isle of the in use Church of Ireland. Standing against the wall in the tower is one of the finest examples of early Graveslab I have ever seen, which is also believed to predate 1190.
St Audoens re-eopens in late April and I thoroughly recommend paying it a visit, my thanks must go to Catherine O’Connor from the OPW who allowed me access to the church during the off season and didn’t mind waiting while I got lost in history!
GPS: 53.34348, -6.27362