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Top 10 Churches to Visit in Ireland

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Sometimes it feels as if you cannot throw a pebble in Ireland without putting a church window into grave danger. Ireland, known as the island of saints and scholars, is dotted with church buildings. From small, early medieval oratories to Byzantine extravaganzas, from simple tributes to Neo-Gothic fantasies. But are any of them special? Yes - and the ten churches I would recommend for a visit would give you a fair impression of the different styles.

1. Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin

Dublin - St Patrick's Cathedral
Churches do not come any bigger than this - at least not in Ireland. Saint Patrick's Cathedral is the largest church in Ireland. It also is the only Irish cathedral without a bishop and was designated as the "National Cathedral of Ireland" by the Church of Ireland ... to prevent any Catholic attempts at a takeover. Apart from the imposing building itself, major attractions are historic tombs and several statues. Many visitors come specifically to see the graves of Jonathan Swift and his beloved Stella.

2. Gallarus Oratory near Dingle, County Kerry

Resembling a boat turned upside-down, this ancient church is one of the historic gems on the Dingle Peninsula. Nestling organically into the landscape it would be easy to miss too - but the comparatively massive tourism infrastructure will guide you to the stone-built oratory. Typical of early Christian churches in the West of Ireland

3. Saint Patrick's Church in Saul, County Down

Built to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of Saint Patrick's mission (working from the assumed date of 432), this small church is remarkably restrained. The campanile (bell tower) in the classical shape of an Irish round tower seems to be the only fanciful bit of architecture. A small stained-glass window picturing Patrick himself is the only decoration. A fitting tribute to a man who saw himself as humblest servant and built his first church here.

4. Saint Colman's Cathedral in Cobh, County Cork

Built on an artificial bed of sandstone and erected between 1859 and 1919 this cathedral exemplifies the French Gothic style. Rose windows, high pointed arches, octagonal towers and several fine gargoyles combine for a very continental, even Mediterranean effect - as does the whole town of Cobh on sunny days. Especially noteworthy is the Sacred Heart Chapel, decorated with Italian marble and a fine mosaic floor.

5. Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Whitefriars Street, Dublin

This Carmelite church is famous for holding the relics of Saint Valentine - but these need not be the only reason for a visit. Though reminiscent of a forbidding fortress from the outside, the interior of the church is resplendent with colorful decoration and statues. Historical pride of place must, however, go to the medieval Our Lady of Dublin.

6. Saint Kevin's Kitchen in Glendalough, County Wicklow

This church with a small round tower incorporated into the main structure is one of the few complete monuments in Glendalough. As the tower looked like a chimney the whole church was nicknamed "kitchen". Not open to the public - but you may test the amazing acoustics through the metal gate protecting the interior from visitors.

7. Saint Patrick's Cathedrals in Armagh, County Armagh

Towering on two opposing hills, dominating the "Cathedral City" of Armagh, both the Church of Ireland and Catholic Cathedrals are dedicated to Ireland's patron saint. While the old-fashioned cathedral belonging to the Church of Ireland can trace its ancestry back to the saint himself, the neo-gothic extravaganza of the Catholic Church was only built in the 19th century. Both feature several depictions of mainly Irish saints on murals, as statues and in glorious stained glass.

8. Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin

This was the first stone building in Dublin, erected by the conqueror "Strongbow" for his close associate, Archbishop Laurence O'Toole. O'Toole, now a saint, is still in residence - his mummified heart can be seen in St. Laud's Chapel. Near to the mummified bodies of a rat and a cat, both found in an organ pipe around 1860. Christchurch is unusual in having a huge crypt, cellars being a rarity in Dublin - today the crypt is a museum of the cathedral's long history where nothing seems to have been thrown away.

9. Saint Columba's House in Kells, County Meath

Hidden away between the busy N3 and Kells' round tower in a narrow back-lane, this little gem is fairly representative of early Irish churches. The steep roof and rugged construction make for an unusual if not exactly attractive picture. Provided you have a wide-angle lens, the locality is slightly cramped.

10. University Church in Dublin

Well-hidden and passed by thousands who never even notice the entrance at Saint Stephen's Green South - this is one of the strangest churches in Dublin. Built at the height of the Catholic Revival to serve the new university it was decorated in a Byzantine style. Thus looking almost out-of-place in Dublin City. The long, narrow and high church has strange proportions and a wealth of decorative detail.

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