Founded in 1432, St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir School is the oldest existing school in Ireland. While the Cathedral’s grammar school is likely to be older, it is in its recent form dated to a mere 1547. The choir school was founded when Richard Talbot was Archbishop of Dublin (1418-1449), owing to the need for a steady supply of young choristers for the cathedral. Six minor canons and six choristers were part of the new “college” and the six boys would have been charged with singing the plainsong of the daily Lady mass. Minor canons received 10 marks and choristers 4 marks per annum for their efforts.
The original location of the school was probably to the west of the present Deanery. In 1546, it was described as having a hall, kitchen, and sixteen bed-chambers. During the Reformation, Edward VI closed the choral school and converted it to a grammar school. However by 1615, the choir school was restored. While writing about all of this in 1820, William Monck Mason says that the ruins of the ancient school were still visible at that time. Glory be to Monck Mason, who provides us with a contemporary map showing the arrangement in the early nineteenth century. The Vicar’s Choral Ground is visible bordering Kevin St.
The choir school likely had a close connection with Christ Church Cathedral as well at various points in its history. It is noted that following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 (the interregnum being the second of two times the school closed in its history) Richard Hosier held the position of “master of the song and tutor of the boys” at both institutions. Hosier’s successor Nicholas Sanderson got into trouble for his teaching methods. He was admonished for teaching the boys to “sing not by art but by rote” (Boydell).
Arrangements for those attending the “song school” were quite formal. Choristers were apprenticed to a master of song, who trained them and housed them with his family. In return he received allowance for laundry and haircuts! In more recent centuries, choristers also attended the Grammar School. The report on endowed schools in 1856—not one to hold back criticism— stated that “this is a good school”.
After the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869, the cathedral was no longer required to support the school. Support up to this point involved master’s salary, accommodation, etc. In the nineteenth century, it was more common to use schoolmasters who ran schools in the locality, as the accommodation had deteriorated so much that it would have been difficult to attract a resident master; the salary not being the most generous. While there was no onus to support a school, there was a need for choristers, and the Dean (Dean West) built a new Choir School at 39 Kevin St in 1870. We can see from Monck Mason’s map above that this building was built on a plot marked as “Dean’s Ground”. Originally an alley ran along the west; noted as Mitre Alley on Monck Mason’s map (and indeed as Myter Alley on Rocque’s 1756 map), but later named Chapter Close by OSi. An alley of sorts still exists—it is now part of the school yard with the gateway to the left of the house shown terminating the south end.
For reasons unknown, the building remained as a school for just a decade, when it became a master’s private house. The Choir School moved into the Deanery school on St Patrick’s Close, likely that one marked on the map above. There was some additional accommodation for choir practice in a room on Patrick’s St. An assessment of the school in 1909 remarked:
“The singing of this choir is admirable in every respect, and is marked by refinement and finish”.
Unfortunately the report for the standards in other subjects were not as ebullient. The school buildings were in a poor state and decayed over the course of the twentieth century. The choir school became part of the National School system in 1974, and in 1981, a new building with musical facilities were completed. Later the Grammar School also acquired new buildings, opened by Charles Haughey in 1988. These brick buildings bookend a handsome, much older, building, with a fairy-tale blue door. Behind it, is nearly six centuries of history.
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- Barra Boydell (2004) A History of Music at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, Boydell Press.
- Rex Cathcart (1994) In the Shadow of St. Patrick’s, Dublin Historical Record, 47(1), 71-76.