Ireland is predominantly Roman Catholic, although its inhabitants are free to practice whatever religion they like. That hasn’t always been the case, and Ireland’s rich religious history has been through several phases, from the paganism of the early Celts to periods where worshipping a specific religion was made mandatory.
Ireland’s cathedrals stand as a living testament to that troubled religious part and continue to play an important role in Irish society, acting as tourist attractions, places of worship, and notable heritage sites.
Not every church can be a cathedral, and to qualify as one, you need a bishop. Although many of Ireland’s cathedrals are Roman Catholic, this isn’t a prerequisite. Some, like the Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, were built by the Vikings who’d never even heard of Christ, while others fall under the administration of the Protestant Church of Ireland.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to convert to Catholicism to visit a Catholic cathedral, nor will the Church of Ireland bar you entry simply because you’re wearing a crucifix! Ireland’s cathedrals are open to all and have something to offer everyone.
How Many Cathedrals are there in Ireland?
I had a tough time figuring out how many cathedrals there are in Ireland, partly because there are so many!
One source claims there are 16 cathedrals dotted across the Emerald Isle, but other sources indicate there are more than 50, not including those that have closed or lie in ruins!
Even the most ardent religious tourist would struggle to visit all the cathedrals in Ireland, which is why we’ve picked out the cream of the crop.
What is Ireland’s Biggest Cathedral?
St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin is the largest in Ireland, with a seating capacity of 2,400. This is nothing compared to the biggest cathedral in the world, however!
St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City can seat 20,000 worshippers – almost 10 times that of St Patrick’s!
7 Stunning Irish Cathedrals You Can Visit
#1 St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
St Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the few that doesn’t have its own bishop, so should, theoretically, be a church. When St Patrick’s was built, the Archbishop of the city already had a seat at the Christ Church Cathedral, so St Patrick’s is one of the few headed by a dean.
St Patrick’s was built in 1191 on the site of an ancient well where the saint himself is said to have drunk. Although the building reflects the English gothic style of that period, additions have been made over the years, including the landmark spire, which was added in 1749.
One of the unique things about St Patrick’s is that it’s the only place in Ireland where church scholars sing Matins and Evensong every day, filling the building with ethereal songs.
You can go along to worship at St Patrick’s or book a self-guided tour online.
#2 Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin
It’s rare for a city to have two cathedrals, and even less common for them both to be so architecturally engaging. Christ Church Cathedral predates St Patrick’s by over 150 years, having been built by the Norse King of Dublin, Sitric Cáech in 1030.
The building has been repaired and renovated on numerous occasions, and was enlarged during the 13th century, and extensively renovated in the late 19th century.
The cathedral is not only an important place of worship and the seat of both the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland archbishops of Dublin. It’s also a popular tourist attraction, with visitors and pilgrims eager to see its beauty and famous 12th-century crypt.
Full of hidden treasures, it’s also the last resting place of the famous Anglo-Norman lord, Strongbow, and one of the few places you can see a copy of the Magna Carta.
The cathedral is open daily, and you can purchase tickets online.
#3 St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
The building that stands on the south bank of the River Lee in the city of Cork only dates back to the mid-19th century, the site on which it stands has been a place of worship since the 7th century.
St. Finbarr was the Bishop of Cork during that period and is said to have established a monastery there. That building and another one constructed in the 1730s were both demolished or destroyed and eventually replaced with the existing Gothic cathedral.
Construction began in 1865, but the three spires were only completed 14 years later. Details continued to be added for some years afterward, resulting in a curious building complete with intricate sculptures, including the “Goldie angel” that floats above the sanctuary roof.
The stained glass windows are spectacular but caused controversy at the time due to the inclusion of naked human bodies. The architect, William Burges, was forced to adapt his designs to suit the more puritanical tastes of the Protestant committee members, and four of the windows remain incomplete.
Few visitors will notice those details among all the angels and saints decorating the walls and ceilings, even if they spend hours scrutinizing the building, which they’re welcome to do anytime between 9:00-13.00 and 14.00-17:30 on weekdays.
#4 St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny
Situated in the heart of the medieval town of Kilkenny, St Canice’s Cathedral dates back to the 13th century, although the round tower has stood proud since the 9th century.
Also known as Kilkenny Cathedral, the current structure was built on the site of a Celtic Christian monastery formed by St Canice in the 6th century.
The Cathedral fell into disrepair after the town was captured by Oliver Cromwell in 1650 but was subsequently rebuilt as a Church of Ireland place of worship.
The round tower, indicative of the medieval churches of its day, is still open to the public and is one of the few remaining examples that you can still climb. It’s a challenging and steep ascent to the tower’s summit, but the breathtaking views make it worth the effort.
Visitors to the cathedral can learn more about the life of St Canice and how he defeated the Druids of Kilkenny while discovering its ancient artifacts, statues, and stained glass windows.
Simply entering the cathedral is a historical experience, taking you through one of the finest Gothic doorways in the whole of Ireland.
St Canice’s Cathedral is open to the public from 10 am to 5 pm Monday to Saturday.
#5 Galway Cathedral, Galway
This comparatively modern cathedral has only been around 1965 and, unlike some of Ireland’s older cathedrals, wasn’t exactly built on sacred ground! Instead, it stands on the site of an old prison.
The man behind its construction, Miceál Browne, was the Bishop of Galway and felt that replacing a jail with a cathedral was “the most perfect symbol of the triumph of a people who were proscribed for being Irish and Catholic.”
It’s a beautiful sentiment that resulted in an impressive building that is rather more eclectic in style than most places of worship. There are hints of Gothic, Renaissance, and Romanesque influence in various features of the building, but it somehow works, creating a warm space that’s both comforting and awe-inspiring.
Formally known as the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas, it towers above the medieval city, creating an imposing silhouette on the skyline.
Galway Cathedral is open to visitors throughout the year, and there’s no charge for entry, although you will have to pay for parking unless you visit on a Sunday when there are services and masses throughout the day.
#6 St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh
Completed in 1919, St Colman’s is only a little older than Galway Cathedral, but a great deal taller. This single-spire cathedral stretches 300 feet into the air, making it visible from almost everywhere in the historical town of Cobh.
The cathedral wasn’t the first place of worship to stand on this hilltop site, and a small church known as The Pro-Cathedral was built there in 1769.
A subsequent split within the Catholic Church meant the people of Cloyne needed a cathedral of their own, so the old parish church was demolished to make way for this one.
By the time it was completed, St Colman’s was the most expensive building ever erected in Ireland. It’s an impressive sight with its marble shrines, elaborately decorated windows, and hideous gargoyles.
From the top of the cathedral you can gaze across the seaport town to Cobh Harbour and beyond.
#7 St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare
The site of St Brigid’s Cathedral was being used as a place of worship long before Christianity arrived on Ireland’s shores.
St Brigid herself is a complex character in Irish history, being both a Celtic goddess, the Patroness of Ireland, and a disciple of St Patrick. According to some, “her influence was so strong that the Catholic Church adopted the Celtic goddess Brigid into their teachings, transforming her into the catholic Saint Brigid of Kildare.”
Either way, St Brigid’s Cathedral is both breathtakingly beautiful and steeped in history. The original cathedral was built in 1223 but was extensively rebuilt in the late 19th century, with the exception of the round tower.
Inside, stone walls and oak ceilings offset intricate architectural details, like the acorn and oak leaf carvings on the wooden stalls. The nave is dominated by a stained glass window depicting the lives of three important Irish saints – St Patrick, St Brigid, and St Columba – and a large medieval stone that acts as a Baptismal font.
The cathedral is open to the public from 10 am until 5 pm every day except Sunday.
Before You Go
Ireland’s cathedrals appeal to people from all walks of life because they help us to understand the complex religious and spiritual history of the country while astounding us with architectural delights.
Many cathedrals are home to ancient artifacts or have rooms or towers dating back hundreds if not thousands of years. They give us an insight into the architectural, political, and religious past of Ireland while inspiring a sense of awe and wonder.
The handful of cathedrals we’ve visited here are representative of the architecture, history, and spirituality you’ll find in cathedrals and churches all over Ireland. While these are among the most stunning if you can’t squeeze one into your itinerary, look around for a closer alternative – I’m sure you’ll find one!
"Like many so-called Brits, I have a bit of Irish and a bit of Scottish in my blood, which is possibly where the red hair comes from. I’ve been fascinated by the history of Ireland for years, since I discovered the story of the Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley.