Story of Our Church

 Refurbishing St. Mary’s:  Notes of an Architect

Kevin Blackwood B.Arch., MRIAI

See Kevin’s reflection on the refurbishment of St. Mary’s here.



 St. Mary’s Church Haddington Road 1839

In 1835 when the building of St. Mary’s Church commenced, the area was a new developing suburb. The canal was already well established and a railway line was being constructed parallel to Shelbourne Road. The barracks at Beggar’s Bush was built in 1827 as a recruiting depot. New streets were being laid out by agents of the Pembroke Estate with names such as Northumberland Road or Lansdowne and Shelbourne Roads.

The modern parish of St. Mary’s was created in 1876 when the parish of Irishtown and Donnybrook was subdivided. The old parish of St. Mary’s was established in 1787 and comprised Haddington Road, Ringsend, Irishtown, Sandymount and Donnybrook.

The dedication of the church in Donnybrook to St. Mary is of a much earlier date and owes its origin to the foundation of an early Christian convent in Donnybrook.

Donnybrook Church retained the title of St. Mary’s until 1835 when it decided to transfer the title to the new RC Church near Upper Baggot Street. The site in Donnybrook remained in use until 1866 when the new Church of the Sacred Heart was built on Stillorgan Road.

It is worth noting that the Church of Ireland in 1827 erected a church on Simmonscourt Road which is also dedicated to St. Mary.

Parish Boundary:

St. Mary’s Haddington Road is one of the 194 parish churches of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The boundaries of the parish coincide with the Grand Canal to the north. Herbert Park to the south, the railway line to the east and Upper Leeson Street to the west.

The present church substantially predates the parish. Construction began in 1835 and it was opened on 4th November 1839, the feast of St. Charles Borromeo. It was T-shape in plan and little more than a shell. Although the architect is unknown, the builder was Arthur M’Kenna and Sons, 22 Thomas Street, Dublin.

The architecture of the period, in this country as elsewhere, was dominated by the Gothic Revival style. The Gothic period, as such, occurred in architecture during 1150 – 1450 and is usually described as First Pointed (1200), Decorated (1300), and Perpendicular (1400). Its revival in the nineteenth century is generally attributed to Augustus Welby Pugin (1812 – 1852), an outstanding architect, scholar and antiquarian of the time.

Like other Churches of the time, St. Mary’s was the outcome, not only of urban expansion, but also of Catholic Emancipation (1829). The nearby Baggot Street Hospital was the only other significant building in the area at the time.

In 1898 the frontage to Haddington Road was erected to the design of J. O’Callaghan, and the Contractor was James Kiernan, followed by the bell tower designed by Walter Doolin. The tower is known as the Lee Memorial Tower after the parish priest. (V. Rev. James Canon Lee, 1876 – 1894). It cost £9,647 and added 24 feet to the length of the church making the entire length 168 feet. This facade consisting of bell tower, rose window and tourelle is a fine composition. The limestone walling, granite dressings and carved tympana in sandstone should be noted.

New side isles and an organ followed, as well as Stations of the Cross, the gift of Mrs. P. Sullivan. In the early years of the century the church grounds were laid out, while internally, benches, confessionals and electric light were added.

Visitors should note the high soaring nature of the church both internally and externally as well as the general use of pointed arches, the distinguishing motif of gothic architecture. Early photographs of the interior show the church to have decorative stencilling to the fan vaulting over the altar as well as the walls of the side chapels. This was replaced in later years to the designs of Harry Clarke (1889 – 1931) and later still by marble cladding. A suspended canopy over the high altar was another feature of the period.

Stained Glass of St. Mary’s Church

Stained glass has for long been an important element in church architecture.

Considerable interest continued to be shown in the use and success of Irish stained glass during the first half of the century, linked as it was to the Celtic Revival in general and to Hiberno-Romanesque architecture in particular. It was also an achievement not paralleled elsewhere and enables Irish stained glass to become internationally admired.

Stained glass in Ireland prior to the early 1900s was generally imported on a commercial basis. However all this was to change significantly with the establishment of a stained glass department in the Dublin School of Art in 1903. Artists such as Michael Healy, Evie Hone, Catherine O’Brien, Beatrice Glenavy, as well as Sarah Purser who, with Harry Clarke and the Earleys, were to achieve remarkable success.

The window in the baptistery was painted in 1910 by Beatrice Glenavy. It painted with the assistance of Catherine O’Brien of An Túr Gloine as was the A.E Child window located in the right hand wall of the nave and painted in 1903. The window Christo Regi Honorem in the east transept is another splendid, though later, work. It was designed by Earleys Stained Glass studio in 1940.

There is a wonderful Rose Window Our Lady and the Four Evangelists painted by the Earleys in the 1920s. Because of the orientation this is best viewed a month or so each side of the summer solstice (21st June).

The rest of the windows are from overseas. St. Mary’s is fortunate to have such a rich variety of stained glass and it provides parishioners and visitors alike with an opportunity to see and appreciate European and Irish stained glass side by side.

Those around the altar reading from left to right are dedicated to The Boy Jesus, St. Brigid holding a model of the church (to honour those who collected for and contributed to the building of the apse), St. Joseph, Mary Immaculate, St. John and St. Anne. They were erected in 1879 with the building of the new apse.

The east transept has a thee light window dedicated to the Sacred Heart with St. Patrick to the left and St. Laurence O’Toole to the right.

In the west transept is another three light window, Hail Mary Full of Grace, Blessed are the Dead Who Die in the Lord, Blessed Art Thou Among Women.

The window in the west wall, Ecce Agnus Dei, was donated by a local business.

There are three windows in the east wall of the nave. They are Sanctus Gulielmus, Sancta Margarita verlooking the balcony, Jesu Corona Virginum; Haec Vota Clemens Acipe in the centre and finally, a window to the right depicting St. Michael, the Archangel. The Sanctus Gulielmus and Sancta Margarita window appears to be by Mayer of Munich.

Other features of the Church

While the stained glass is an important element there are many other features which contribute to the “arts-crafts” interior of St. Mary’s Church.

These include a fine Madonna done in opus sectile in the chapel of Our Lady. The wall decoration to the chapel, its altar and the door to the tabernacle are carried out in a similar manner. Also important are the onyx wall decoration to the Sacred Heart Chapel and the floor mosaic to the sanctuary and the side chapels. The wall decoration (diaper work) to the upper areas of the sanctuary and to the reveals of the arches should be noted.

The sanctuary also retains is piscine and rood screen. Unique for the post Vatican II era however is the Communion rail which extends from wall to wall.

The wrought ironwork to the gates of the baptistery and mortuary chapel as well as the floor tiles in these areas are of Celtic design. There is some fine marble wall panelling in the mortuary as well as the white marble pieta, signed G. Smyth.

Finally the sacristy with its timbered roof of lantern and queen post trusses, together with vestment storage units is worthy of note. In the west transept there is a memorial to those lost in the 1914 – 1918 War which contains 94 names.

Some Landmarks in Parish History

1835: Building began at St. Mary’s in the Parish of Irishtown, Ringsend, Sandymount and Donnybrook.

Parish Priest: Dr. Charles Joseph Finn

Architect: Unknown

Contractors: Arthur M’Kenna and Son, Thomas Street

1839: New Church blessed by Archbishop Daniel Murray, It had:

An earthen floor

No ceiling

No internal plastering

1842: Internal plastering completed

1844: Passage on east side added

1848: Wooden floor replaced the earthen one

1863: The Parish and districts of Baggotrath, Donnybrook, Sandmount, Ringsend and Irishtown incorporated as the “Pembroke Township” and designated as “Pembroke Urban District

1876: Dean Andrew O’Connell died – and the large parish was divided into three:

St. Mary’s, Haddington Road, Sacred Heart, Donnybrook, Star of the Sea, Sandymount

Ringsend became chapel of ease to St. Mary’s

New Parish Priest of St. Mary’s was Rev. James J. Lee

1879: High altar and apse with seven stained glass windows erected

1880s: Erection of church frontage, tower, aisles, bell and organ

1904: From 1904-1988 four Bishops served as Parish Priests

1904 – 1920 Nicholas Donelly

1920 – 1921 Edward J. Byrne – (subsequently Archbishop of Dublin)

1925 – 1847 Francis J. Wall

1947 – 1988 Patrick Dunne

1932: St. Mary’s Church floodlit for the Eucharistic Congress with upwards of forty

Priests celebrating daily mass

1947: Funeral of James Larkin, Labour Leader took place from St. Mary’s Church

1953: Joan Hammond, the famous Australian opera singer, a convert, was confirmed in St. Marys’ Church on 22nd May 1953.

1982: New Year’s Day Mass for World Peace was celebrated in St. Mary’s Church by the then Papal Nuncio, Dr. Alibrandi

1984: Severe damage caused to the tower by gale force winds in January. Some stonework fell through the roof of the church

Parish Centre opened by the late Archbishop Kevin McNamara

1989/1990 St. Mary’s celebrates the Joy of Jubilee after 150 years.