22 December 2014

How a once fashionable church in Georgian
Dublin became an inner city bar and café

Saint Mary’s Church on the corner of Mary Street and Jervis Street … once a fashionable church in Georgian and Regency Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I am not one to while away a Sunday afternoon in a pub. But while I was strolling around the streets between O’Connell Street and Ormond Quay after lunch yesterday afternoon [21 December 2014] I decided to drop into the pub on the corner of Mary Street and Jervis Street, now known as “The Church,” and to see what remains of Saint Mary’s Church, once the Church of Ireland parish church serving Dublin’s north inner city.

This was once a fashionable church in Georgian and Regency Dublin. But it also seemed appropriate to spend some time inside Saint Mary’s, as earlier in the day we had marked the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Christ Church Cathedral, by lighting the fourth candle on the Advent Wreath which recalls the Blessed Virgin Mary and listened to a sermon by Canon Roy Byrne on her place in the spirituality and life of the Church of Ireland.

Earlier this month, I had written on the same theme in the December editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

From the early Middle Ages, the north-side of Dublin was served by both Saint Michan’s Church and the church attached to Saint Mary’s Abbey. After the dissolution of the monasteries, Saint Mary’s Abbey was all but closed.

In the late 17th century, this part of Dublin was being developed by the Duke of Ormonde, who was the most powerful political and social figure on the island. The Butler Ormondes gave their name to Ormonde Quay, Aran Quay, and some of the streets in the area, and some leading members of the family were later buried in Saint Mary’s when a new parish was formed and a new church was built.

The Parish of Saint Mary’s was formed by Act of Parliament on 20 November 1697 from areas that had been part of Saint Michan’s Parish. Saint Paul’s Parish was formed at the same time, and the patronage of both parishes was vested in the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church Cathedral, who were the patrons too of Saint Michan’s Parish.

A new parish church for the new parish of Saint Mary’s was designed by Sir William Robinson, who was also commissioned by Ormonde to design the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. The foundation stone was laid in 1700, and the new church was built between 1700 and 1708. The church was completed by Robinson’s successor, Thomas Burgh, although the plain west tower, like the towers of many churches, was never finished.

The organ built by Renatus Harris (1652-1724), one of the two most prominent organ builders of his generation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Saint Mary’s is notable as the first classical church in Dublin and as the first church in Dublin built with galleries. This is a five-bay galleries hall and chancel, with round-headed and segment-headed windows and a steeply-pitched roof. The galleries are supported on pillars, and the galleries in turn carry pillars that support the vault.

The church displays many other outstanding features, such as the spectacular stained-glass windows and the organ built by Renatus Harris (1652-1724). Harris was one of the two most prominent organ builders of his generation, along with his hated rival, “Father” Bernard Smith. However, some of the carved figures on the organ case were later vandalised or removed.

The first Rector of Saint Mary’s was the Revd Peter Browne, who was appointed in 1698, but he held office only until 1699, when he was appointed Provost of Trinity College Dublin; later he became Bishop of Cork and Ross (1710-1735). The first church wardens were Robert Rochfort, the Attorney General, and Allen Brodrick, Solicitor General.

Canon Robert Law (1730-1789), who was Rector of Saint Mary’s from 1772-1789, was the father of the Revd Francis Law (1768-1807), who married Belinda Isabella Comerford.

The monument to Canon Robert Law, a former Rector of Saint Mary’s (Photograph: The Church)

Figures from the past

Many interesting figures have been associated with Saint Mary’s in the past:

• Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels and Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, often attended services there

• The Earl of Charlemont, the founder of the Irish Volunteers known as the “Volunteer Earl,” was baptised in the church in 1728.

• George Frederic Handel’s Messiah, which many of us are humming at this time of the year, was first publicly performed on Fishamble Street in Dublin in April 1742, but it is said he regularly practised on the organ in Saint Mary’s.

• John Wesley, the founding figure in Methodism, preached his first sermon in Ireland there in 1747.

• The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was baptised here in 1751.

• Arthur Guinness, founder of Guinness Brewery, married Ann Lee in Saint Mary’s in 1761.

• Theobald Wolf Tone, founder of the United Irishmen, was baptised here in 1763. He was born nearby at 44 Stafford Street, which was later renamed Wolfe Tone Street.

• Sean O’Casey, playwright and author of The Plough and The Stars, Juno and The Paycock and The Shadow of a Gunman, was baptised there in 1880.

Those who were buried in Saint Mary’s or in the adjoining churchyard include Mary Mercer (died 1734), founder of Mercer’s Hospital; the philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746); Lord Norbury (1745–1831), the “Hanging Judge,” who ordered the execution of Robert Emmett in 1803; Sir Boyle Roche (1736–1807), an Irish politician; and the United Irishman Archibald Hamilton Rowan (1751–1834).

The vaults once contained the coffins of James Butler (1774-1838), 19th Earl and 1st Marquis of Ormonde, two of his five sons, Lord Richard Molesworth Wandesforde Butler (1818-1863) and Lord Charles Wandesforde Butler (1820-1885), and his widow, Grace Louisa (Staples), Dowager Marchioness of Ormonde (1779-1860).

Both James and Grace Louisa had their portraits painted in miniature by the Kilkenny-born miniaturist John Comerford.

James Butler (1774-1838), 19th Earl and 1st Marquess of Ormonde … a miniature portrait by the Kilkenny-born miniaturist John Comerford

Saint Thomas’s Parish was formed out of Saint Mary’s in 1749, and a new church was built in Marlborough Street. Saint George’s Parish was formed out of Saint Mary’s in 1793 and a new church designed by Francis Johnson was built in Hardwick Place.

In 1962, Saint Mary’s and Saint Michan’s were reunited as parishes, and Canon George Douglas Hobson (1906-1985) of Saint Michan’s also became Rector of Saint Mary’s. In 1978, the Christ Church Cathedral Group of Parishes was formed by bringing together Saint Mary’s, Mary Street; Saint Michan’s, Church Street; Saint Paul’s, North King Street; Saint Andrew’s, Saint Andrew Street; and Saint Werburgh’s, Saint Werburgh Street.

However, Saint Mary’s Church was closed on 17 May 1981 and was later deconsecrated. For a short time, the church was used by the Greek Orthodox community in Dublin as a cathedral. However, the Greek community was asked to leave the building hurriedly at the end of 1986, and the church was closed, boarded up and began to fall into decay.

All those who were buried in the vault or crypts were later cremated and placed in Saint Michan’s Church. It is said that the coffins of the Ormonde Butlers buried in the church vaults were unceremoniously dumped in a skip. Meanwhile, the churchyard had been converted into Wolfe Tone Park, a public park where the gravestones were stacked up at the southern end.

The building was used briefly as a shop, but then lay derelict for many years until it was bought by John Keating in 1997. This List 1 building was remodelled by Duffy Mitchell Donoghue in 2002-2005 and it re-opened its doors in December 2005 as John M Keating’s Bar.

In September 2007, the building was acquired by new owners and renamed “The Church Bar and Restaurant.” Today it includes a café, night club and a barbeque area on the terrace.

Many of the original monuments and decorations survive, including those to: Richard Tennison (d 1735), Bishop of Ossory; the Revd Canon Robert Law DD (1730-1789); and Samuel Newcome, the Dublin banker.

Some of the monuments on the wall had been removed to Saint Mary’s when the old Molyneux Church was closed in 1941.

A Christmas tree in the former chancel area stands where the altar once stood in Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

I was disturbed to see the chancel area, which once contained the altar and is still decorated with the tablets of the Ten Commandments and other church symbols, being used as yet another drinking and eating area on a Sunday afternoon. And I wondered, if I can find family connections in the monuments on the walls, whether the surviving family members of others who are commemorated on plaques and tablets are disturbed to see their memories continuing in this curious fashion.

I know the church should divest itself of buildings that are no longer functional and useful. But like the plaques in the Old Molyneux Chapel, could these plaques not be relocated with dignity.

Perhaps once again the argument needs to be made for an ecclesiastical museum in Dublin.

Some family connections

Meanwhile, there are some interesting family connections with Saint Mary’s Parish that I am still researching.

A 19th century parishioner of Saint Mary’s was Richard Comerford, a watchmaker and silversmith who lived at 22 Mary Street (1849) and 20 Jervis Street (1851), before moving to 6 Ship Street. Richard and his wife Eliza (Philips) were the parents of four children, who were baptised in Saint Mary’s in the 1840s, including William Comerford (ca 1842/1843-1907), established a well-known engraving business. His grandson, Charles William Comerford of 60 Kenilworth Square, was a telephonist in the GPO in 1911, according to the census returns, but I do not know if he was still there in 1916.

Another Comerford family associated with Saint Mary’s Church is that of the Revd Philip Comerford, who died in Saskatoon, Canada, on 21 December 2006 at the age of 97. He had spent 10 years as a missionary in Paraguay, before spending a long and fruitful life in ordained ministry in Canada.

Philip’s father, also Philip Comerford, and grandfather Philip Comerford, are three generations in the one family who worked on the Irish railways. From 1938 to 1948, the youngest Philip worked in the jungles of Paraguay with the South American Missionary Society. There he developed an interest in animals, particularly snakes, and he amassed a specimen collection that he kept for almost 50 years and was only too happy to introduce it to anyone who dared ask.

Philip Comerford returned to Ireland in 1948, and on 22 September 1952, in Saint Mary’s Church, Dublin, he married Maude Montgomery, of 22 Shamrock Street, off Blessington Street. The wedding was conducted by the Revd Norman David Emerson, later Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (1962-1966), and the last incumbent of Saint Mary’s while it was a separate parish.

In 1954, Philip and Maude became the parents of twins, Valerie and Henry Montgomery Comerford. In 1961, Philip and Maude emigrated to Canada with their children and he entered Emmanuel College, Saskatoon. After two years of training, Philip was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada, and was ordained priest the following year.

Philip died in Saskatoon, Canada, on 21 December 2006. His wife Maude had died before him in 1997. His funeral service took place in Saint John’s Anglican Cathedral, Saskatoon, on 28 December 2006.

His son, the Ven Dr Henry Comerford, who was born in Dublin, is an Anglican priest and an acclaimed artist. For many years, as Canon Henry Comerford, he was the Rector of Saint George’s, which was established as an Anglican mission in 1906 the same year the City of Saskatoon was created. Henry completed his DMin at Saint Stephen’s College (University of Alberta) in 1998. In recent years, he was appointed Archdeacon of the Diocese of Saskatoon.

A funfair on Wolfe Tone Square … this was once Saint Mary’s churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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