Saturday, 26 December 2015

An old church and graveyard with
a 1,000-year history in Donnybrook

Evening lights in Donnybrook earlier this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this week, I was in Donnybrook for a family lunch. I have happy memories of time spent in Donnybrook, when I shared a flat in Marlborough Road with other people from Wexford in the early 1970s, of drama groups and poetry readings in Muckross Park, of weekends spent between McCloskey’s, Kiely’s and Old Wesley, parties in tennis clubs, rugby clubs and other friends’ flats, and then, as a student in the Irish School of Ecumenics in the 1980s, walking between Bea House of Herbert Park, and the ISE lecture rooms in Milltown Park, which together made up the ISE campus, separated by the one long corridor of Belmont Avenue.

In all those years, I often passed by the old cemetery in Donnybrook, but it has always been under lock and key. As I walked by it after lunch in Forno this week, I realised that I have never been inside this important landmark which is a part of the history and the story of the Church of Ireland and of this part of Dublin.

Donnybrook Cemetery is beside the Garda Station, opposite the grounds of Old Wesley rugby grounds, and close to the banks of the River Dodder. This is the site of an old Celtic church founded by Saint Broc and of a later church dedicated to Saint Mary.

The church founded by Saint Broc gives its name to Donnybrook (Domhnach Broc). Later the church of Saint Mary was dedicated some time ca 1181-1212 by the Archbishop of Dublin.

Donnybrook was originally part of the parish of Taney, and from ca 1274 to 1864, the Archdeacons of Dublin were the Rectors of Donnybrook, although in practice the parish was often served by an assistant chaplain or curate.

In the 16th century, the Fitzwilliam family, who had their principal seat at Merrion, built their own chapel onto the Saint Mary’s Church. Sir Richard Fitzwilliam was buried in cemetery in 1595 and Nicholas Fitzwilliam was buried there in 1635. In 1667, Oliver FitzWilliam, 2nd Viscount Fitzwilliam and 1st Earl of Tyrconnell, was buried under of a tomb of black marble in the family chapel with the inscription:

Here lyeth the Body of the Right Honourable
And most Noble Lord Oliver, Earl of Tyrconell,
Lord Viscount Fitz-William, of Meryonge,
Baron of Thorn-Castle, who died at his
House in Meryong April 11th 1667, and was
Buried the 12th day of the same month.


When he died in 1667, his Tyrconnell title died out but the Fitzwilliam family continued to hold Merrion Castle and its extensive estates in Donnybrook and the neighbouring areas, and his brother William, 3rd Viscount Fitzwilliam was buried in Donnybrook in 1675.

The church in Donnybrook was rebuilt by Archbishop King almost 300 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

In the early 18th century, the church was rebuilt by Archbishop William King (1650-1729) in 1720. King famously refused to consecrate Josiah Hort as Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin – supposedly because the letters patent incorrectly described him as being DD. In reality, King refused to consecrate him because of his intense personal dislike for the former nonconformist minister from Bath. Eventually, Hort was consecrated by the bishops of Meath, Kilmore, and Dromore, and went on to become Archbishop of Tuam.

When he died on 8 May 1729, Archbishop King was buried, as he had directed, on the north side of the churchyard in Donnybrook, which was still a country churchyard. Reportedly he was under two feet of water and nine feet below the ground. No monument or other memorial of him has been found.

The architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (1699-1733) is also buried here. Pearce was the chief exponent of Palladianism in Ireland and is best known for the Houses of Parliament in Dublin and his work on Castletown House, Co Kildare. He has been described as the father of Irish Palladian architecture and Georgian Dublin. No contemporary monument to Pearce survives but a plaque dedicated to his memory was unveiled in 1990 by Dr Edward McParland of Trinity College Dublin on behalf of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland.

Robert Clayton (1695-1758), who is also buried here, was the most prominent Deist in the Church of Ireland in the 18th century. He was successively Bishop of Killala (1730-1735), Cork (1735-1745) and Clogher (1745-1758). A friend of the prominent English Arian, Samuel Clarke, Clayton became a leader of the movement for the abolition of subscription to the formularies of the Church of Ireland. In the House of Lords, he proposed that both the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed should be expunged from The Book of Common Prayer, and in a book published in 1751, he denied the doctrine of the Trinity.

Clayton’s views blocked his appointment as Archbishop of Tuam, but he repeated these views in another book in 1757. He was prosecuted, summoned to appear before the bishops in Dublin, and faced censure and possible deprivation. However, before the hearing could begin, he was seized with a nervous fever and died. He was buried in Donnybrook churchyard.

Dr Bartholomew Mosse (1712–1759), who was responsible for founding the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, was buried here when he died on 16 February 1759, and his wife Jane is buried here too.

Meanwhile, the FitzWilliam family link with the church and cemetery continued. Richard Fitzwilliam, 6th Viscount FitzWilliam of Merrion who died on 25 May 1776, was buried in the family chapel. The FitzWilliam family tomb is now missing from the cemetery.

Other interesting figures from the Church of Ireland who are buried here include the Very Revd Richard Graves (1763-1823), a theological scholar and classicist. He was the author of Graves on the Pentateuch, Professor of Greek and of Divinity in TCD, Rector of Raheny, Rector of Saint Mary’s, a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, and Dean of Ardagh. His contemporaries described him as “a learned but rather ponderous preacher,” and as a “man of considerable learning and earnest piety.”

The curate of Donnybrook, the Revd George Wogan, was murdered in his house in Spafield Place, near Ballsbridge, in 1826. Later that evening, two bandits were apprehended for a highway robbery on the Blackrock Road. They confessed to Wogan’s murder and were hanged.

By 1827, the congregation was too big for Saint Mary’s and the site was too small to extend it, and so a new church was planned for Donnybrook parish.

A new Saint Mary’s Church was built on the corner of Anglesea Road and Simmonscourt Road and was dedicated in 1830. The old church was demolished and the materials were sold off, although a small wall in the middle of the cemetery is thought to be the remains of the old church.

By 1847, the cemetery was neglected and needed improvements, but continued to be used for burials.

The remains of 600 people were discovered in 1879 at a mound on Ailesbury Road. They were dated to a bloody massacre by the Danes in the ninth or tenth century, and the bodies were removed and reburied in the old churchyard.

Dr Richard Robert Madden (1798-1886), a doctor, writer, abolitionist and historian of the United Irishmen, is buried here with his father and other members of his family.

The entrance to the cemetery incorporates an arch commemorating the stockbroker Thomas Chamney Searight (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The entrance to the cemetery was originally located to the south at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy. The present entrance is beside Donnybrook Garda Station, at an archway erected by the Dublin Stock Exchange in 1893 in memory of Thomas Chamney Searight.

An inscription on the archway above the entrance reads:

This memorial has been erected by the members of the Dublin Stock Exchange to the late Thomas Chamney Searight for many years the registrar to their society. He died May 27th 1890 and his remains are buried in this churchyard.

When the main street in Donnybrook was widened in 1931, the entrance was moved back by about 15 ft. During this work, another a mass grave was discovered, and these bodies were reburied on the south side of the cemetery.

Canon Arthur Gore Ryder was the first Rector of Donnybrook (1867-1889) after it was separated from the Archdeaconry of Dublin. Many years later, the last two burials in Donnybrook were of his two sisters Elizabeth 1935 and Amy 1936, bringing to an end the continuous use for over 1,000 years of a burial ground that dates back to the year 800. The burial registers for 1712-1916 are held in the Representative Church Body (RCB) Library.

On 1 May 1976, President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh opened the cemetery after a clean-up. Then in 1985-1988, Donnybrook Community Development Committee carried out a major programme of restoration with the help of the Social Employment Scheme. This was an initiative of local people, including Dermot Lacey, later Lord Mayor of Dublin, Lar Kelly and Tony Boyle. The restoration works took three years, and included compiling a list of all the known burials in the cemetery.

There is no public access to the churchyard, but David Neary a retired Parks Department official, runs regular tours during the summer months, when dates and times are posted on the cemetery gate. The cemetery is under the care of Dublin City Council and the gates are locked, although I must return soon and ask for the key, which is kept next door in Donnybrook Garda Station.

The church and graveyard in Donnybrook were in use for over 1,000 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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