15 June 2013

Remembering a ‘circle of friends’ from The Irish Times

Gothic gargoyles and grandeur ... the Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, is the venue for this morning’s Irish Times commemoration service (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Once a year, I take part in an inter-denominational service in the Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green commemorating and celebrating the lives of former staff members The Irish Times.

A full year has passed since the last service, and this year’s service takes place this morning [15 June] at 11 a.m. Those who died in the past 12 months will receive special mention as the list of the dead is read out. Those who have died since last year’s service include the writer Maeve Binchy, who died on 30 July last, and the former Gaelic Games Correspondent, Paddy Downey.

Formany years, this service was organized by Deaglan de Breadun. Earlier this week, he wrote in The Irish Times: “Everyone is welcome, including former staff, as well as readers and especially letter-writers because we are all, in Maeve Binchy’s phrase, a ‘circle of friends’.”

The other participants in this morning’s service include Father Peter McVerry and the Minister of the Dublin Unitarian Church, the Revd Bridget Spain.

We have been welcomed year by year by the ministers and congregation at the Unitarian Church, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its move to Saint Stephen’s Green in 1863. As part of these special commemorations, I was invited to preach in the Unitarian Church four month ago [17 February 2013].

The commemoration continue tomorrow morning [Sunday], when the preacher at the anniversary service is the Revd Bill Darlison, a former minister in Dublin and now President of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

The Dublin-born William Robertson (1705-1783), who has been called “the father of Unitarian nonconformity,” was once Rector of Rathvilly, Co Carlow, and curate of Saint Luke’s, Dublin. His secession from the Church of Ireland in 1764 predates the formation of identifiably Unitarian congregations in England in 1773 by Theophilus Lindsey (1723-1808), by Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) and by others.

However, the Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green traces its history back to the mid-17th century and to three groups of Protestant Dissenters in Dublin: one met in Saint Mary’s Abbey on the north side of the River Liffey; the second met in the old Wood Street Meeting House on the south side of the river; and the third met in Cook Street.

These congregations had their origins in 17th century Presbyterianism. The congregations in Saint Mary’s Abbey and Wood Street merged in 1762, and two years later they moved to a new meeting house on Strand Street, where they were joined by the Cook Street congregation in 1787.

These groups were first known as Non-Subscribing Presbyterians because of their refusal to subscribe to the Calvinist tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and within a few decades they were being described as Unitarians.

The last service in Strand Street Meeting House was held on Sunday 7 June 1863 and the new Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green opened on Sunday 14 June 1863. Four years later, the Presbyterian Meeting House in Eustace Street closed, and the congregation amalgamated with the church on Saint Stephen’s Green.

The locked gates of the Huguenot Cemetery in Merrion Row … the spelling would have surprised many subeditors in The Irish Times (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The site on the west side of Saint Stephen’s Green was once known as the “French walk”, because many French Huguenots owned property there. Around the corner on Merrion Row, just steps away from the Shelbourne Hotel, the French Huguenot Cemetery is under lock and key behind a gate with a misspelled inscription that would never have passed the beady eyes of many of the subeditors in The Irish Times whose names are being read out this morning.

The church was designed in the Decorative Gothic style by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon of Belfast. Inside, the initial impression is a church designed along High Church Anglican principles. The roof trusses are supported by pillars topped with decorated with angelic figures representing images described in the Epistle to the Ephesians: the girdle of truth, the helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, the sword of the sprit, the word of God and the breastplate of righteousness. Behind the Communion Table, the marble reredos is carved with the words of the Beatitudes.

The stained-glass windows include the large Wilson Memorial Window above the Communion Table; four French-designed windows, made in Tours 1865-1868, including one showing Christ with the Little Children and another showing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; and three windows from the Túr Gloine studios, including one telling the story of the Good Samaritan.

The church is currently fundraising to spend €250,000 to restore its beautiful JW Walker Pipe Organ (1910) at the back of the church. Recently, the organist Josh Johnston announced that the appeal had reached a milestone of €100,000. Josh is playing the organ and the piano at this morning’s service for this ‘circle of friends’ from The Irish Times.

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