02 January 2019
The Church of the Assumption
adds to the character of
Castle Street in Dalkey
Weddings and funerals do not offer adequate time to appreciate or explore the architecture, history and liturgical emphases of a church. I was in the Church of the Assumption on Castle Street in Dalkey, Co Dublin, in recent years for a nephew’s wedding and for the funeral of Maeve Binchy in 2012, but neither occasion was an appropriate time to wander around the church and the church grounds.
On New Year’s Day [1 January 2019], as I strolled along Castle Street in search of the seven mediaeval castles of Dalkey, I decided to take some time in the Church of the Assumption, which stands opposite Dalkey Castle and the ruins of Saint Begnet’s Church, and beside Archbold’s Castle.
The Church of the Assumption is a Gothic Revival, granite Roman Catholic Church, at the west end and on the south side of Castle Street. It was built in 1841 and reordered and partially rebuilt 50 years later, is set on a north-south axis with the chancel located at the north end or Castle Street side.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the Catholic population of Dalkey increased due to quarrymen and workers providing granite for the pier at Dun Laoghaire. The Dublin to Kingstown Railway in 1834 brought more worshippers.
After Catholic Emancipation, Canon Bartholomew Sheridan (1787-1862) became the first Parish Priest of the newly-formed Parish of Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) from 1829 to 1864. This has been described as ‘a mini-diocese which ran from Kingstown to Little Bray.’
Canon Sheridan called a meeting of Dalkey residents in March 1840. A site opposite the ruins of Saint Begnet’s was leased from Thomas Connolly, and a new church was built in 1840-1841.
Later, Thomas Connolly’s son, Canon James Connolly, Parish Priest of Saint Kevin’s, Harrington Street, Dublin, would donate the site on Castle Street to the new church in Dalkey.
The church was dedicated on 26 September 1841. It is a simple Gothic Revival structure in local granite and render with a square bell tower. It is on Castle Street opposite the ruins of the tenth century Church of Saint Begnet, woman and abbot, who also gives her name to the church on Dalkey Island.
At first, the church consisted only of the present nave, the altar was where the gallery is today, and the main door was 10 metres back from Castle Street. The humble walls were pebbles, mortar and earth, coated in plaster.
As Dalkey grew in the 1880s, Canon George Harold, Parish Priest of Dalkey (1880-1894), decided to extend the church out towards Castle Street and to relocate the sanctuary at the north end. Cut granite was used to build the new transepts and sanctuary, and the handsome, three-stage, stone bell tower was added at the south end of the church.
The roof was raised, and a fan-vaulted ceiling was put in place. A gallery was built and fitted with a two-manual organ by the Dublin organ-builder, John White.
The High Altar, altar rails and baptismal font were designed in 1900 by AWN Pugin’s son-in-law, George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921), and the work was carried out by Edmund Sharp (1853-1930), who at this stage was producing altars at the rate of almost one a week in his workshop at Brunswick Street, Dublin.
Two angels by Mayer of Munich flank the reredos. Side shrines with statues of Our Lady and the Sacred Heart in white marble are dated 1897. The mosaic work on the sanctuary floor was carried out around 1915 by Ludwig Oppenheimer. The marble panels in the sanctuary were added in 1932.
The Last Supper in marble relief on the front of the altar by Ashlin and Sharp has survived the post-Vatican II liturgical changes.
The stained-glass windows over the altar are French in origin. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which gives its name to the church, is in the centre. Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid, the patrons of Ireland, flank her to left and right. These windows were restored by Abbey Stained Glass of Kilmainham in 1991.
Above the fine marble baptismal font is a painting of the Baptism of Christ executed in Rome in 1911 by G Bravi.
The plaster Stations of the Cross were restored to their original colour in 1991 by Sean McDonnell. He also sculpted the timber relief of Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who lived at Mount Salus in Dalkey during the autumn of 1854 while establishing the Catholic University in Dublin. He wrote, ‘Tastes so differ that I do not like to talk, but I think this is one of the most beautiful places I ever saw.’
In the same niche is a plaque with the closing words from a sermon Newman preached on 19 February 1843, two years before he became a Roman Catholic:
May he support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes; and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in his mercy may he give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last.
The church was renovated in 1991 for its 150th anniversary, and the porches and sacristy were re-ordered.
The icon on the Baptistry wall of Saint Begnet, Abbot of Dalkey, was written by the iconographer Colette Clarke and was installed in 2010. This icon was commissioned by Father John McDonagh, a former parish priest, to mark the Feast of Saint Begnet and was sponsored by parishioners Finbar and Maeve Breathnach.
Little is known about the life Saint Begnet, or Becnat, patron of Dalkey. She is recorded in the 11th century genealogies of Irish saints as Becnat, daughter of Colmán, son of Āed, possibly a member of the aristocratic family of Dál Messin Corb, which ruled over north and central Leinster until 700 AD.
When they lost control of these territories, their rule was confined to the Wicklow Mountains, but they maintained control of some of the most important ecclesiastical offices in Leinster and Saint Kevin of Glendalough was also a member of the Dál Messin Corb.
Saint Becnat and her churches in Dalkey and Dalkey Island, belonged to the familia Coemgeni, ‘the family of Cóemgen, and her churches ultimately came under the protection of the monastery at Glendalough.
Before working on this icon, Collette Clark researched and read about Saint Begnet and life in the seventh century when she lived.
She selected the final image of Saint Begnet as a young woman of noble birth, with Celtic looks and her head covered. The head covering was fastened with a brooch modelled on the Killarney Brooch (ca 800 AD). The garment colours come from the image of the Virgin Mary in the Book of Kells. The neck decoration is from the Book of Dunna and the pattern for the inner garment is from the Book of Kells. The bracelet is based on gold bracelets in the National Museum of Ireland and the cross on the bracelet is based on the cross in the grounds of Saint Kevin’s Church in Glendalough.
In the icon, Saint Begnet holds a staff in her right hand to show she is the shepherd of her people and in her left hand she holds the church she founded on Dalkey Island.
Finally, the name, Naomh Begnet, was placed on the panel using the Uiscial Script as this script was used by Celtic monks from the fifth to eighth centuries. The finished icon was then left to dry for some time before it was varnished using shellac varnish.
Saint Becnat’s feastday is on 12 November, as recorded in the late mediaeval Book of Obits of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Two days later, 14 November, is the feastday of Saint Lawrence O’Toole, Abbot of Glendalough and Archbishop of Dublin, who died in 1180.
The proximity of this church to Castle Street and its relationship with the nearby mediaeval buildings, as well as its three-stage stone bell tower, give a unique historic character to this part of Castle Street.