Monday, 17 May 2021

Saint Bride’s Parish, a book review
in the ‘Irish Theological Quarterly’

The Churchwardens’ Accounts of the Parishes of St Bride, St Michael Le Pole and St Stephen, Dublin, 1663-1702. Edited by WJR Wallace. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2020. Pp. 208. Price €50.00 (hbk). ISBN 978-1-84682-835-5.

The four decades between 1663 and 1702 seem a short span for putting the details of life in city parishes in Dublin under the microscope. But this is formative epoch in early modern Irish history, for church and city alike, as Dublin and the Church of Ireland move from the immediate aftermath of the Cromwellian destruction through the Caroline Restoration, the Jacobite wars and Williamite revolution to the stability promised by the reign of Queen Ann that began in 1702.

This is Ronnie Wallace’s second volume charting the records of these parishes, complementing an earlier edition in 2011 of the vestry minutes. Together they offer a valuable resource for understanding parish life in Dublin in late 17th and early 18th centuries, and for gaining insights into how the Church interacted with the life of the City in this time of change and uncertainty.

The churchwardens were the principal, elected officers of the vestry, the committee that ran the parish. They were elected each year and presented their accounts annually, and so these accounts provide much information in a regular and structured way of life in Dublin over 300 years ago.

The three parishes that are the focus of this book formed a single unit immediately outside the city walls, to the south and east, extending along Bride Street as far as Ship Street (the site of the Church of Saint Michael de la Pole) on one end, and Golden Lane at the other, and east as far as George’s Street and Stephen Street (the site of the original Saint Stephen’s Church). Despite the unwieldy name of the parish, due to parochial amalgamations, only one church – Saint Bride’s, on the corner of Bride Street and Bride Alley – was open at this period, although the graveyards in all three parishes were in use. The parish was still not fully developed by 1662, there were few wealthy or powerful families, although there was a substantial middle class, mainly lawyers, and the parishioners were predominantly small tradesmen. Those class differences are reflected in the different charges for burials.

The opening entries show how religious divisions appeared to continue after the Caroline Restoration and the reversal of Puritanism. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was negligent in appointing priests to the parish, and the gap was often filled on Sundays by former Puritan ministers who were paid for their sermons. Perhaps the differences in payment, from 18 shillings for two sermons to £16 for four months, reflected the reception their sermons received from the congregation.

In time, the attention to liturgical detail improved. Increasing sums were spent on bread and wine, indicating more frequent celebrations of the Holy Communion, the church bells were repaired, new chairs, pews, windows, candelabra and candle holders were acquired, a new oak altar or communion table and a cloth to cover it were bought, the old baptismal font from Saint Michael’s was installed, and, eventually, in 1686, the church was rebuilt and a new organ installed.

But the wardens and vestry were busy mainly with civil matters for they were, effectively, the first rung of local government. They collected local tolls, disbursed the cess or local tax imposed on residents of the parish, using it for the relief of the poor, administered legacies for poor relief, and imposed fines for a variety of offences – from carrying goods on a Sunday, profane cursing and swearing and swearing oaths to ‘keeping a naughty house’ (pp 11, 139, 159-160). The prosecutor in the case of the ‘naughty house’ gloried in the name of Mr Rotten (p 139).

The parish maintained the public stocks in Ship Street and later in Bride Street, used for the public and demeaning punishment of people convicted of minor crimes, and maintained the parish constable, the watch or local police, and local firefighting.

Widespread poverty is indicated in references to street people, starving families and poor people who died on the streets or in frosty weather, abandoned children, and the plans to build a poor house. But there were times too when the Lord Mayor had to order the parish to care for children rather than send them outside the parish boundaries.

Although the churchwardens and vestry members were unpaid, they rewarded themselves liberally for their voluntary role, providing beer and food at their meetings, often held at a local inn.

A dominant figure in the parish at this time, Nathaniel Foy (1638-1708), was the perpetual curate or vicar in 1678-1691. He was born in the parish, a son of Dr John Foy of Golden Lane. He was suspended for not attending an archbishop’s visitation in 1678, yet was singularly responsible for rebuilding the church, and he went on to become Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (1691-1707), founding Bishop Foy’s School in Waterford.

The manuscript was heavily annotated in pencil by the Revd William George Carroll (1821-1885), who was the last rector of the parish in 1859-1885. He did much to preserve the parish records and arranged for them to be bound in 25 volumes at the expense of the parish. He was the uncle of George Bernard Shaw and baptised the future Nobel playwright. Carroll was also an innovative liturgist, strongly influenced by the Oxford and Anglo-Catholic movements.

After Carroll’s death, the parish was united with Saint Werburgh’s in 1886, the church was closed and it was demolished in 1898 as part of the sum clearance and housing programme in the area financed by the Guinness family. Many of the bodies in the churchyard were moved to Mount Jerome and the organ case is now in the National Museum of Ireland.

This volume is the ninth book in a series of texts and calendars published in association with the Representative Church Body Library of the Church of Ireland. This publication ensures the story of a lost church is not forgotten.

Patrick Comerford
Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes,
Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe

Expanded biographical note:
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, a former adjunct assistant professor in Trinity College, and has taught liturgy and Church History in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.

This book review is published in the Irish Theological Quarterly Vol 8 No 2 (Maynooth, May 2021), pp 213-215

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