10 June 2023
Was the great copper
dome that dominates
for a Russian church?
Earlier this week, during a very brief return visit to Dublin for a family celebration, two of us stayed once again in Rathmines. This urban village is a busy, bustling centre in south-side Dublin 6, but there too are quiet residential streets, leafy canal banks, Victorian terraces, a variety of flats, family homes, shops, cafés, restaurants, an army barracks and Saint Mary’s College.
Three buildings on Lower Rathmines Road are distinctive landmarks in Rathmines: Rathmines Town Hall with its tall clock tower, Rathmines Library, and the large green copper dome of the Church of Mary Immaculate that can be seen for miles around. The dome was built in Glasgow, and Dublin legend or lore says had been destined for a Russian Orthodox Church before the Revolution in 1917.
Rathmines became a separate town in 1847, and Victorian Rathmines had a reputation as a ‘Dublin Belgravia,’ according to Dr Séamas Ó Maitiú, author of Irish Historic Towns Atlas, Dublin Suburbs, No 2 Rathmines. The town council was controlled by the unionist interest until 1920. The township was incorporated into the City of Dublin in 1930.
Even in the mid-20th century, the ‘Rathmines accent’ was used in Dublin as a simple shorthand term for ‘posh’ or ‘Anglified speech,’ mocked jokingly by Sean O’Casey in The Plough and the Stars.
By the 1960s and 1970s, Rathmines was synonymous with ‘flatland’. Today it is a culturally diverse and vibrant area, with shopping centres, a leisure centre and cinemas. I have known this corner of Dublin since my childhood: my grandparents lived for many years in Rathmines, my father was born there in 1918, an uncle and aunt lived there, my sisters and two brothers had part of their schooling in Rathmines, and throughout my teens Rathmines Library was my local library. I was once a visiting lecturer in the Rathmines School of Journalism, and I worked in Rathmines for four years (2002-2006), based in Begrave Square. Until last year I regularly attened meetings in the Church of Ireland offices in Rathmines, and occasionally I was invited to preach and take services in Holy Trinity Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Rathmines.
The Roman Catholic parish of Rathmines is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year (2023). It was first formed in 1823, and is now clustered with the parishes of Harold’s Cross and Mount Argus. Rathmines area has been known for many years for the diversity of its population. The parish reflects the cosmopolitan nature of the area, with a vibrant and energetic parish life, that celebrates inclusion and diversity.
We were staying close to the parish church, formally known as the Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners. It was built in 1854 in the ‘Greek style.’ The church was designed by Patrick Byrne and later extended by William Henry Byrne who added the portico and pediment. The church was destroyed by fire in 1920 but was rebuilt and reopened by 1922.
For over 100 years, the copper dome of the church has been prominent on the skyline of Rathmines. But the story of the church began 200 years ago when Archbishop Daniel Murray officially constituted the parish of Rathmines on 12 December 1823 and appointed Father William Stafford the first parish priest. Before that, the districts of Rathmines and Rathgar formed part of Parish of Saint Nicholas Without, Francis Street.
At that time, the entire stretch of land from the Grand Canal at Portobello along the east or left-hand side of Rathmines Road as far as Richmond Hill had no buildings. A site was bought from John Chambré Brabazon (1772-1851), 10th Earl of Meath in 1824. The foundation stone for a new church was laid by his son, William Brabazon (1803-1887), Lord Brabazon, later the 11th Earl of Meath.
The Gothic church cost about £5,000, it took five years to build, and measured 90 ft long by 37 ft wide with a height of 37 ft. This first church was dedicated to Saint Mary and Saint Peter and was consecrated by Archbishop Murray on 15 August 1830. Part of the site was eventually sold to raise funds to finish the interior of the church.
By the mid-19th century, the development of the city and the increase in the Catholic population of Rathmines created a need for a larger church. During a visit in July 1848, a missionary priest, Father Gentili of the Order of Charity, described some beautiful churches he had seen in Italy and called for building a new church in Rathmines. A public meeting in September discussed a proposal for a bigger church. But Father Stafford did not live to see the project completed – he died aged 81 on 2 November 1848.
When William Meagher succeeded as parish priest, he proposed Richmond Hill as a site for a new church but was outvoted. It was decided to retain the site and to build a new church facing onto Rathmines Road. The foundation stone of a new church was laid on 18 August 1850 by Archbishop Murray, assisted by the Bishops of Dromore and Down and Connor. The church was in Byzantine style in the shape of a Greek cross, the first church built in this style in Dublin.
The new church, built around the original building, was designed by the architect Patrick Byrne (1782/1783-1864), who appears to have studied under Henry Aaron Baker at the Dublin Society’s Schools. Byrne worked first as measurer and then as architect for the Wide Streets Commissioners, and he was architect to the Trustees of the Royal Exchange.
William Meagher, parish priest of Rathmines, gave the eulogy at his funeral in 1864. He said Byrne was a ‘gifted man whose talents and disinterested care have laid us under such obligations,’ who ‘regarded the beauties of classical and mediaeval art with equal reverence.’
John Lynch of Mount Pleasant Avenue did the masonry work in the church, with stone from quarries at Kimmage and Donnybrook; the granite came from Ballyknocken. William Hughes of Talbot Street was responsible for the roof and the dome, and the plasterwork was by Hogan and Connolly of Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street).
Paul Cullen, who would become Ireland’s first cardinal in 1866, became Archbishop of Dublin in 1852. Following the papal declaration of the Immaculate Conception as a Catholic dogma on 8 December 1854, Cullen directed Meagher to inset the word ‘Immaculate’ in the title of the new church. Cullen wanted the church to be proclaimed a ‘Memorial Church’ to honour the new dogma.
The church was completed in 1856, apart from the portico, and was solemnly dedicated by Cullen on 19 June at a ceremony attended by 16 bishops and 200 priests.
Meagher oversaw the erection of the portico, with four massive columns and carved Corinthian capitals surmounted by a pediment. The portico, except for the wings, was completed in 1881, the 25th anniversary of the church. The statue ‘Our Lady of Refuge’ was taken from the central niche of the façade and raised to the apex of the pediment. The statue by James Farrell had been exhibited in Dublin in 1853 and was bought by Father Collier, a curate in the parish. The statues of Saint Patrick and Saint Laurence O’Toole were added at each end of the portico.
The letters DOM in gold on the façade represent the Latin ‘Deo Optimo Maximo. Underneath are the words: Sub Innov. Mariae Immaculatae Refugi Peccatorum – ‘Dedicated to God the Most High under the invocation of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners’.
In an unusual feature, the floor was 3 ft below the street level; the walls were adorned with paintings. Monsignor Meagher died in 1881 and was succeeded in 1882 by Canon Mark Fricker. Shortly afterwards, Rathgar became a separate parish.
Canon Fricker set about improving the interior of the church. He raised the floor to street level, built a baptistry and mortuary chapel, erected a High Altar, built a fine organ and refurbished the church.
On 26 January 1920, the sacristan arrived to open the church for the 7 am Mass to find the switch panel was on fire. By the time he raised the alarm, the front of the altar was already in flames. The fire spread quickly along the electricity wires and Fricker watch helplessly as flames devoured the church.
At 9 am, the dome collapsed, crashing to the ground with a sound that was heard for miles around. The next day a heavy gale damaged two stained glass windows valued at £1,000. It is said Rathmines Church was used to store weapons during the War of Independence, and reports say several members of the IRA entered the church during the fire to retrieve the weapons.
A public meeting was called in the Mansion House on 5 February 1920 to discuss rebuilding the church. The Lord Mayor presided and the attendance included the Archbishop, the Lord Chief Justice and members of Dublin Corporation.
The architect RH Byrne was commissioned to rebuild the church. The façade was relatively intact, the walls were structurally sound, but the interior needed considerable refurbishment. In a short time, the debris was removed and a temporary roof was erected.
The fire completely destroyed the original dome, and the new dome became the outstanding feature of the rebuilt church. The new large copper dome had been built in Glasgow some time previously. My father often repeated the popular claim in Dublin lore that the dome had been destined for a Russian Orthodox church before the Revolution of 1917.
Canon Fricker, who presided over rebuilding and refurbishing the church, was the parish priest for 41 years. He was archdeacon when died in 1923 and he was succeeded by Canon Hatton as parish priest, and he in turn was succeeded in 1927 by Canon Richard Fleming, a well-known Gaelic scholar.
Fleming cleared the residue of the immense debt incurred in the restoration of the church. His many improvements include the High Altar, erected in the year of the Eucharistic Congress 1932, the ‘Last Supper’ baldacchino, the altar of Christ the King in memory of his mother, the marble pulpit and many of the side altars.
Fleming died in 1947 and Father John Neary was then parish priest until he died in 1960. Monsignor Michael O’Connell was the parish priest until 1971. During his time, the High Altar was changed in 1970 so that Mass could be celebrated with the celebrant facing the people.
Canon John Pierce was parish priest when the Folk Mass started in Rathmines in 1972 with the priests of the parish, Michael Walsh, Brendan Quinlan, Joe Madden, Bert Moore and Tommy Randles. Father Aidan Burke became parish priest in 1984.
The National Transport Authority plans a bus corridor from Templeogue and Rathfarnham to city centre bus corridor, including a ‘Bus Gate’ at Saint Mary’s School on Lower Rathmines Road. Father Andrew O’Sullivan, Parish Priest of Rathmines, says this would mean no cars could access the church, with a negative impact on funerals, weddings, baptisms, and other celebrations, and on elderly people and people with mobility issues.
‘It would be a disaster for this parish church and without any exaggeration could lead to an impoverishment of the services we provide as well as the Church becoming redundant over time,’ he says in notices in the church.
As part of the ‘Rathmines 200’ programme, there is a series of organ recitals in the church at 8 pm on Wednesdays. This week’s concert (7 June) was by Gerard Gillen, titular organist emeritus, Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. Next week’s concert (14 June) is by Aleksandr Nisse, organist, Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin. Other concerts are with Judit Máté, organist, Saint Jude the Apostle, Templeogue, with baritone Gyula Nagy (21 June); and the series concludes with David Adams, organist, Christ Church, Taney, Dundrum (28 June).
• Sunday Masses in Rathmines are at 9 am, 11 am and 6pm; weekday masses are on Monday (6 pm), Tuesday, Thursday and Friday (10 am), and Saturday (6 pm, Vigil).