15 October 2018

Saint John the Baptist Church,
Clontarf, has links with Celtic
saints and Templar knights

The Church of Saint John the Baptist on Seafield Road, Clontarf, was designed by Welland and Gillespie and built in 1864-1866 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Clontarf last weekend, speaking at the Clontarf Ecumenical Conference in the Church of Saint John the Baptist on Seafield Road.

I was in the church many times in the past, on Sunday duty for a previous rector, the late Revd Derek Sargent. But Sundays seldom appropriate opportunities to photograph a church and to inquire about its history.

This Church of Ireland parish church was built in 1864-1866 to replace an earlier church about 200 metres away on Castle Avenue, on the edge of the grounds of Clontarf Castle. But the first church in Clontarf is said to have been founded in the sixth century by Saint Comgall, Abbot of Bangor, Co Down, as part of the early Christian developments across north Dublin, perhaps from a base at Saint Mobhi’s Church in Glasnevin.

Inside the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Comgall became the Patron of Clontarf and remained so until the 14th century, when the parish came under the oversight of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem and Saint Comgall was replaced as patron by Saint John the Baptist.

Clontarf was a central location of the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 between Brian Boru and the Vikings. The remains of a well supposed to have been used by Brian Boru are still pointed out on Castle Avenue, about 500 meters from the parish church.

A royal head on the west door, perhaps recalling Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

During the reign of Henry II, the lands of Clontarf passed to the Knights Templar, and when that order was suppressed in 1312, this became a preceptory of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, by then based on the island of Rhodes.

The Turks captured Rhodes from the knights in 1522, and the order re-established itself on Malta in 1530. Throughout those two centuries, Clontarf remained a possession of the Knights of Saint John. But at the Reformation and the suppression of the monastic houses, their house was disbanded in 1542, and the last Prior, Sir John Rawson (ca 1470-1547), became Viscount Clontarf.

Rawson was born in London and joined the order in 1497. who was appointed Prior of Kilmainham in 1511 and became Lord Treasurer of Ireland in 1517. He was also an experienced soldier and took part in the Siege of Rhodes in 1522. Despite being ordained, he had fathered several illegitimate children. At the Reformation, he surrendered all the order’s properties, including Clontarf, in return for a pension and the title of Viscount Clontarf.

A memorial in the church recalling members of the Vernon family of Clontarf Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

An early church on what is now Castle Avenue, close to Clontarf Castle, was rebuilt in 1609, and this remained the parish church of Clontarf for over 250 years.

Over a period more than 130 years, between 1680 and 1811, the parish had only three rectors, all members of the one family: Adam Ussher (1680-1713), who was also Archdeacon of Clonfert; his son Frederick Ussher (1713-1766); and John Ussher (1766-1811), who was buried in Clontarf when he died at the age of 92 in 1829. And another Adam Ussher was curate of Clontarf from 1743 until he ‘died of fever and pleurisy on [a] Sunday morning’ in 1745.

Abraham Stoker, son of Abraham and Charlotte Matilda Stoker of The Crescent, Clontarf, was baptised in the church on 30 December 1847. He was later known as Bram Stoker, the author of the Dracula novels. The Stoker family later moved to Artane Lodge, but Bram Stoker’s younger siblings were also baptised in Clontarf.

The East Window in the Church of Saint John the Baptist, Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A key arrival in the parish was Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness (1798-1868), the grandson of Arthur Guinness, and a partner in running the brewery, who bought lands in Clontarf and Raheny to form Saint Anne’s Estate. He married his first cousin Elizabeth Guinness and all their children were baptised in Clontarf parish.

His cousin, Dr Arthur Grattan Guinness (1813-1897), practised and lived in Clontarf from 1843 to 1848, and many of his children were baptised in the parish.

Meanwhile, the church beside Clontarf Castle had become too small for a growing suburb, especially in the summer. The trustees, including John EV Vernon of Clontarf Castle, drew up plans in 1859 and raised funding to build a second church at the Dollymount end of the parish.

However, the Rector of Clontarf, the Revd William Kempston (1854-1862), told Archbishop Richard Whately of Dublin that the existing church was adequate for the needs of the parish, and the project was abandoned.

When Kempston left Clontarf in 1862, he was succeeded by the Revd James Pratt, and plans were drawn up for a new and larger church on the present site on Seafield Road.

The turret leading to the tower and spire in the Church of Saint John the Baptist, Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The church was designed by the architects Welland and Gillespie in 1864-1866. William Joseph Welland and William Gillespie had been appointed joint architects to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in May 1860, following the death of Joseph Welland.

Both men were already working for the commissioners, and they held this appointment until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland on 31 December 1870.

During their 10 years in office, they developed an increasingly personal and idiosyncratic version of Gothic in the churches they designed. They are also known to have routinely signed designs for churches designed by other architects, often signifying their approval rather than work.

Inside the turret leading to the tower and spire in the Church of Saint John the Baptist, Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The foundation stone of the new church was laid on 9 August 1864 by John Vernon of Clontarf Castle, who had presented the site. The cruciform church, with a belfry and spire could accommodate 700 people, and was completed over the next two years.

The new church was consecrated on 14 May 1866 by Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench of Dublin.

The altar and chancel in the Church of Saint John the Baptist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness’s eldest son, Sir Arthur Guinness (1840-1915), later Lord Ardilaun (1880), was elected to the Select Vestry of the parish in 1872. But in a letter from Ashford Castle, he declined the offer on the grounds of frequent absences from the parish. He also funded the building of All Saints’ Church, Raheny.

Another connection with the Guinness family came when the Revd Robert Wyndham Guinness served as curate of Clontarf in 1871-1874 until his appointment as Rector of Rathdrum, Co Wicklow.

The porch was designed by James Franklin Fuller (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The church was originally built without a chancel. The Kerry-born architect James Franklin Fuller (1835-1924), who received many commissions from the Guinness family, including Farmleigh House, designed the chancel and porch that were added to the church in 1897-1899. The contractor was JF Lidwill. The chancel was dedicated by Archbishop Joseph Peacocke of Dublin on 17 March 1899.

The many parishioners who fought in World War I are commemorated in an illuminated scroll in the church and the War Memorial Cross erected in the churchyard.

The War Memorial Cross in the churchyard at Saint John the Baptist Church, Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Clontarf quickly became one of the largest parishes in the Church of Ireland in the mid-20th century, and a new school opened in 1952.

The centenary of the church was celebrated in 1966, and a new Parish Centre was built in the church grounds in 2007.

The Revd Lesley Robinson has been the Rector of Clontarf since 2013.

A rainy Saturday afternoon at the Church of Saint John the Baptist, Clontarf (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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