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Where is it?

Where is this?

You'll recognise the building it's been copied from, I've no doubt, but where is this extraordinary church? Is it in some anonymous suburb of London? Is it in some mid-western state where the town planners of a century ago had big ideas? Or is it some far-flung corner of the former British Empire?

Those of you who went for the 'British Empire' option were closest. This is St Patrick's catholic church in Dundalk, in the Republic of Ireland. It is a half-scale copy of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, with a Westminster-esque tower tagged on. Here's another shot from a slightly different angle.

St Patrick, Dundalk

  Dundalk, in County Louth, is just south of the South Armagh border; this is bandit country, and the town got a reputation in the 1980s and 1990s as 'El Paso', after one of the many IRA men on the run there, drinking in a town centre bar, got disgruntled watching his horse lose a race, and took out his gun and shot the television.

Today, it is a town on the up - more than anywhere in the republic, Dundalk bears witness to the millions of pounds of European money poured into it over the last few years. It's a lively place on a Saturday night, too.

Five miles to the north of Dundalk, on the road to Newry, is St Mary's church, Ravensdale. I went to Mass here. The little church, greatly extended at some point in the last 40 years, but still retaining the former east window and altar, nestles in mountains hard against the border. Although Ravensdale is in the republic, the British army's hilltop Bessbrook base is above it on the hilltop, monitoring activities beyond Her Majesty's jurisdiction. Incidentally, it is supposed to have the busiest helicopter pad in the world.

Not far from St Mary is a hauntingly beautiful cemetery, below the brooding mountain tops. There's also a great pub, which never seems to close. Climbing the mountain, we looked down on Warrenpoint and beautiful Carlingford Lough.

Armagh is one of the most pleasant towns in the whole of Ulster. Its population is barely 12,000, but it is home to both of Ireland's main cathedrals, both dedicated to St Patrick. The photo shows the Catholic cathedral, a mighty edifice high on a hill - you can see it for miles. The fence is because they were pedestrianising the plaza around it when I was there.

The Church of Ireland cathedral, about half a mile away, is actually a bit of a disappointment despite the fine setting. It's not a patch on the province's two other Anglican cathedrals at Derry and Belfast. It is almost entirely dour late Victorian; obviously, it had a medieval foundation, but, as the guidebook wryly observes, thanks to Ireland's eventful history, it has been rebuilt seventeen times. It feels more like a parish church than a cathedral; if it was in England, I doubt it would make it into Simon Jenkins.

Many northern Irish towns are built around squares, but Armagh is around a long, delightful green called the Mall. Here is a vast bespired Presbyterian church, and a curious Dutch-style 19th century gospel hall.

Also about and off of  the Mall are the grand courthouse, fine 19th century school buildings, the Royal Armagh Observatory, and, more grimly, the women's prison made famous by the on-the-blanket dirty protest of the 1980s.

Catholic cathedral, Armagh

South of Armagh, towards the border but actually just in County Down, is the much larger town of Newry. Newry is a 19th century church crawlers paradise - there are hundreds of them (churches, not crawlers). The jewel in the crown is the Catholic cathedral, a vast gothic hulk not unlike St Andrew's in Dundalk, 9 miles away, although not a copy of any English college chapel that I've ever come across.

The sites of Derry's two cathedrals tell you a lot about the history of this pleasant little city. St Columb's, the Anglican Cathedral, fits snugly inside the walls defended by the protestant Apprentice Boys during the siege of 1689, and the church contains much memorabilia of that time, including the shell fired by James II's army with a demand for surrender inside. "No Surrender!" came the reply.

Free Derry

  St Eugene's, the Catholic cathedral, is set deep in the heart of the city's Bogside, which starts just beyond the appropriately named Butcher's Gate in the city wall; it is actually barely half a mile from its Anglican counterpart, although there was little work done together between the two until relatively recently.

Although St Eugene is a fine 19th century building, and has undergone an excellent post-Vatican II re-ordering, it is St Columb's that wins in the interest stakes here. It is that rare thing; apart from the 19th century addition of a chancel, it is an almost entirely early 17th century cathedral, the first to be built in the British Isles after the Reformation.

Because of this, it feels very different to anything in England.

One detail of interest is that the baptistery includes a memorial window to Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, writer of 'Once in Royal David's City' and 'There is a Green Hill Far Away', both illustrated in the glass. Also, the chapter house museum, which includes relics of the siege that are treated with almost holy veneration. Two people on welcoming duty inside were very friendly, although a bit sniffy about their neighbours.

Eighty miles away, Belfast has done its best to scour itself of evidence of the Troubles. Derry positively celebrates them. The gable ends in the Bogside are one of Europe's biggest art projects; standing on the Derry walls looking down, you can read the story of Free Derry, the Civil Rights Movement, and the unhappy events of the two decades after. Also on the walls, beside the rather disturbing police station, and just to the south of where the Apprentice Boys march congregates every August, is Europes only spoken word Arts Centre.

From all the news reports of the last thirty years or so, you might think Derry a miserable place, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It is a smashing little town, smaller than you'd think - it rather reminded me of Alnwick. Unlike Alnwick, it has had more money pumped into it over the last five years than probably any other town in Europe, including the glitzy Foyleside shopping centre, which must seem a fair exchange for laying down the guns.

Apprentice Boys' drum

The coastal area where counties Derry and Antrim meet is perhaps the most beautiful stretch of coastline anywhere in the British Isles. It is also probably the most thoroughly English area of the whole of Ireland, and I do not exclude the outer southern suburbs of Dublin from this.

Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock are like something out of Sussex or Dorset in the 1950s - with the addition of dramatic cliffs thrown in. Not far off is the Giants Causeway, and the Bushmills distillery. Coleraine, just to the south, is like an old-fashioned English market town, and appears rather overwhelmed by its campus university and massive European-funded shopping centre. If the ugly, fortified police stations seem out of place anywhere in the North, it is here.

Bishop's Palace

Above Castlerock you can climb through the mist to Bishop Hervey's palace (now in ruins) and the amazing cliff-top Mussenden temple, actually the Bishop's library, looking like a prototype of the Ickworth rotunda that he would build in Suffolk 20 years later. it stands some 300 feet above the sea crashing on the rocks below. Apart from that, all there is up there is sheep.

Coming down again, I found the smashing little high Anglican Christ Church, a stunning little jewel inside of darkness and gorgeous windows. Just perfect.

Belfast has always been one of my favourite cities. It has a spirit that few English cities can match - perhaps only Newcastle, which is a similar size. Despite everything that has been thrown at it during the 20th century, it still has a buzz about it, and is currently thriving, for the same reason as Derry - the massive amount of money that has been poured into it as one of the conditions of the peace process. However, this has had an unfortunate repercussion for churchcrawlers, as we shall see.

St Anne's, Belfast

  Pride of place in Belfast must go to the gorgeous Church of Ireland Cathedral, St Anne's. Almost entirely a product of the 20th century (it was begun in 1899), it enshrines the best of all the movements of the century - Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Modernism, 1930s triumphalism, all topped off with a Festival of Britain sheen.

It is one of my favourite Anglican cathedrals. The glass is particularly good, and I love the peace chapel - everything is of the highest quality, and on a much grander scale than the Derry and Armagh Anglican cathedrals, which it dwarfs.Most noteworthy of all, perhaps, is the remarkable north transept.

The Catholic cathedral, St Peter's, is in the Lower Falls Road, and is similar to, but smaller than, the Catholic cathedral at Armagh. At one time it was surrounded by mean terraced streets, but these have all been swept away, as have the monolithic Divis Flats that once overshadowed it. In their place are pleasant cul-de-sacs and courtyards, and pretty houses designed in that curious gothic eavesy style of the 1990s.

The road layout is mainly to stop loyalist thugs driving through at high speed firing machine guns at random Catholics, but it is all very pleasant. The area at the front of the cathedral, now called St Peter's Place, has been turned into a sort of plaza flanked by what appear to be 19th century almshouses, but are all 1990s built. Inside, it is very 1890s, with wall mosaics and cast iron pillars.

Unless you are a determined medievalist, Belfast is the ultimate churchcrawlers paradise. It must have more churches per head of population than any other city on earth. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the things - you can't walk 100 metres anywhere in the city without passing one.

You find Presbyterian churches of slightly differing theologies side by side with each other, Methodist churches of every hue, towering Church of Ireland buildings facing towering Catholic buildings, intriguing little churches for Moravians, Anabaptists, Unitarians, Free Will Gospellers, Apostolics, Reformed Apostolics, Free Reformed Apostolic Anabaptist Gospellers - the list goes on and on. Most of them are delightful 19th century gothic non-conformist buildings of the highest quality.

St Anne's, Belfast

If you find this enticing, and want to go and see them, then go now. Belfast is undergoing urban regeneration on a scale unseen in these islands since the 1960s. One of the spin-offs of the peace process was that the big multinational companies agreed to come in and build shopping centres - the North was relatively free of chainstores when the bullets were flying about. These multinationals want to buy large brownfield sites near the centre of Belfast. Presbyterians and Methodists are relatively unsentimental about their buildings, and not unreasonably are taking the money and running for the suburbs, where they can build new churches in considerable style. Great swathes of the outer town centre are disappearing under some of the biggest Sainsburys and Tescos you have ever seen. Many of the churches will be demolished.

Falls Road community project

  Depopulation is in any case taking its toll. Sandy Row, for example, a protestant area probably familiar to Van Morrison fans, is being almost entirely redeveloped. One of the grand Methodist churches has recently closed, and will almost certainly be demolished.

The Catholic Short Strand has also undergone the same experience of depopulation. The only central areas where there is no over-development at present are ones where the heritage lobby has a powerful voice, and those where communities have been unwilling to engage in the peace process. Ironically, and for these two different reasons, two places where a churchcrawler can still have fun are the Catholic Falls and the Protestant Shankill.

The Falls has really come up, and not just at the lower end. There is a spirit of great confidence, with lots of new businesses opening, but the area is very conscious that it is a tourist draw, especially for Americans. There are now Thai restaurants and wine bars, and the houses towards Milltown Cemetery are the same price as if they would be if they were in Ipswich.

The old Presbyterian church, halfway up the Falls, has been converted into an amazing community facility, with a visitors centre, a tourist information centre (you can book tickets at any of the city centre theatres here), a community restaurant, an internet cafe, an Irish language bookshop (I was very tempted by the Simpsons t-shirts in Gaelic) and a citizens advice centre.

I liked it all very much indeed - it is the best church conversion I have ever seen.

One church that probably won't survive the regeneration is the delightful little corrugated iron chapel I came across in Andersonstown, at the top of the Falls. It is set in a wide churchyard that doesn't seem to have been used for burials. Andersonstown ia one of the most hardline republican areas of all - the IRA campaign for most of the 1970s and 1980s was run from here, before Gerry Adams changed the face of Republicanism for ever. In fact, it is a pleasant area of large 19th century redbrick houses, with a reasonable 1930s and 1960s lowrise estate leading into Ballymurphy and New Lodge.

The little corrugated church is not long for this world - I predict yuppie flats coming soon. Other nationalist areas aren't quite so gentrified - visit the Ardoyne if you want a frisson of what the Falls used to be like.

In complete contrast, the intransigent Shankill is shabbier than ever. Every gable end enshrines a mural threatening the Peace Process, the British Government, Drumcree, Catholics, or the world in general.

The pretty little Anglican church of St Anne at the top of the Shankill has closed, and is undergoing conversion into a community centre. It was all boarded up and covered in scaffolding, which was a shame, since I was looking forward to going inside. The church was built in the 1890s Arts and Crafts movement style, in the shape of a shamrock, and with amazing mosaic windows. I hope they make as good a job of it as the one on the Falls.

Iron church, Andersonstown

I walked down towards the lower Shankill, past St Anne's sister church of St Matthew, known as 'Matts' - the Peace Line loomed about fifty metres beyond. I wandered on past one of Ian Paisley's free Presbyterian churches. Outside, a man with a microphone was haranguing the passers by about the day of judgement. With the flags and slogans all around, and the voice resonating from the walls, it was like a scene out of Khomeini's Iran. Further down, the Shankill Gospel Hall is built in that 1960s style beloved of seaside cinema architects. This was Johnny Adair country - now it is a land of lawless gangsters, shooting it out among the terraces after dark. The UDA have been reluctant so far to participate in the peace, and consequently businesses have been reluctant to participate in the Shankill. All around are boarded up shops and scary pubs.

Not far from the Gospel Hall, and near to the fish and chip shop blown up by the IRA in 1994 (ten people died, and the outcry did more than anything at the time to precipitate the Peace Process) I looked inside a self-styled Shankill Souvenir Shop. A bit of a contrast to the community bookshop on the Falls. Hardly any books at all here, just photocopied pamphlets with grim titles. Flags and t-shirts covered the walls. Amongst the Union Jacks and Red Hands of Ulster, there were Serbian flags and, bizarrely, Israeli flags. A T-shirt said "There are no Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. There are only ghettos waiting to be cleansed". Now, who would ever wear THAT, and where? Up the pub? At home watching the television? Blimey. I made my excuses, and left.

"Uncase the colours, unfurl the flags"


cathedrals - gable ends - churches