25 July 2015

Saint Catherine’s restored to its splendour
as the ‘poor man’s’ Cheadle in Dublin

Saint Catherine’s Church, Meath Street, Dublin … the beautiful interior has been restored to its original splendour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

After presiding at the mid-day Eucharist in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, yesterday [24 June 2015], I decided to take time in the afternoon to visit the Liberties and Saint Catherine’s Church in Meath Street, a church that has risen from the ashes and has been restored to its glory dating back to the 1850s.

In an arson attack in January 2012, Saint Catherine’s Church suffered extensive fire damage, along with smoke and water damage. During the fire, an explosion blew out the stained glass windows, and it seemed 150 years of architectural history had been lost within the space of a mere 20 minutes.

The explosion took out the windows, blew the top off the organ, melted the light fittings which dripped down on to the seats and the floor, and even melted the paint on the walls.”

A homeless man who admitted setting a light to the straw in the Christmas crib in the church was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The restoration and reconstruction project cost €4.1 million. Most of the cost was covered by insurance, with the additional €230,000 needed provided through local fundraising.

The church reopened at the end of 2013, when Bishop Eamonn Walsh celebrated the first mass in the restored church. A year later, the altar was consecrated by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

When I visited the church on Friday morning, I found on one hand a very different, bright and truly splendid interior, and yet, on the other hand, I was in the glorious interior that was first intended when the church opened in 1858.

The East Window by Frederick Settle Barff above the High Altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The beautiful East Window above the High Altar by Frederick Settle Barff (1823-1886) was repaired in Germany. The organ, which everyone thought was completely destroyed, was salvaged; and the Stations of the Cross were removed and restored.

The ceiling boards and insulation above the ceiling boards were removed and replaced. The slates on the roof were replaced. All stonework was stripped back to the original stone. The walls and ceilings were cleaned and repainted. The electrical works were replaced, and a complete new lighting system was installed. All the floor tiles were removed and replaced. The altar, and all the marble stonework was cleaned and polished.

The layers of paint melted away from the High Altar, revealing Caen stone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The High Altar is by Henry Lane, and for many years it was believed that this was stucco plasterwork. However, when the layers of paint melted away they revealed that the altar was made of beautiful French limestone, and all the pillars were made of the same stone.

The butter-coloured stone from Caen in Normandy is inlaid with gold mosaic tiles. A parquet floor has been fitted to replace mid-20th-century linoleum. The wooden pews have been cleaned, varnished and reupholstered. And the stained glass windows have been restored and they now reflect patches of coloured light around the golden stone.

Many of the Victorian, Minton-style Staffordshire tiles have been saved (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Saint Catherine’s was designed in the Decorated Gothic style like the ideal English country parish church favoured by AWN Pugin. The original church was funded by the Power family who were intermarried with the Talbot family, Pugin’s own patrons in Staffordshire and Co Wexford, and the craftsmen who worked on it had all been engaged in Pugin’s own works in Ireland.

The window in the south wall commemorating the Power family from Edermine, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Saint Catherine’s was built in the 1850s to replace an earlier, octagonal shaped Georgian chapel that stood on the site. Canon John Laphen’s proposals for the new church were approved by his parishioners at a meeting called in February 1852 and chaired by Sir James Power (1800-1877) of Edermine, Co Wexford.

Power was the proprietor of Power’s Distillery, and in 1843 he had married Jane Eliza Talbot, a daughter of John Hyacinth Talbot and a first cousin of Maria Theresa Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury. In 1851, at the age of 58, and almost 30 years after the death of his first wife, Anna Eliza Redmond, John Hyacinth Talbot married Power’s sister, Eliza. Perhaps through Power’s persuasive powers, Laphen’s plans were accepted immediately, and JJ McCarthy began work without delay: the foundation stone was laid on 30 June 1852 by Archbishop Cullen.

The restored open timbered roof in Saint Catherine’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

McCarthy’s plans included a nave with open timbered roof, side aisles and chapel at an estimated cost of up to £9,000. The church was complete by March 1857 – apart from the upper portion of the tower and spire – and was dedicated on 30 June 1858. McCarthy’s intended tower was never completed, and the stub was finished off later with a machiolated parapet. The side elevations include perforated buttresses and trefoil aisle windows above the stone-roofed aisles.

The interior of Saint Catherine’s Church is plain. The impressive great East Window (1862) is by Frederick Settle Barff (1823-1886), a former Anglican priest who had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1852.

The East Window was matched by an equally impressive West Window with perpendicular panelled tracery … just as Pugin advised McCarthy when it came to designing churches.

‘The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria,’ by William MacBride of Dublin, was in a similar position as the ‘Doom Painting’ in Saint Giles in Cheadle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The painting in the architrave was in a similar place to the ‘Doom Painting’ in Cheadle, but the space has been left blank in the restoration work (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Indeed, Saint Catherine’s is, for all the world, like a poor man’s version of Saint Giles Church in Cheadle, Staffordshire, which Pugin regarded as his “perfect” work.

However, the painting in the architrave, separating the chancel from the nave, has not been restored. This painting depicted ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria,’ and was by William MacBride of Dublin. It was in a similar position as the ‘Doom Painting’ in Pugin’s ‘perfect’ Cheadle, near Alton Towers, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s home in mid-Staffordshire.

Some of the unusual features in the church that have been retained though include a bust of Kevin Barry masquerading as a saint, which was installed in the early 1920s by a priest with strong nationalist views.

The bust of Kevin Barry, masquerading as a fresh-faced saint (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

1 comment:

Florence Shields said...

Patrick, I have been greatly enjoying following you journal - or at least the parts of it shared by my friend (dating back to schooldays) Judith Barden.

I found your piece on St. Catherine's Church, Meath Street particularly interesting, because I am involved with the Augustinian Church up here in Drogheda, both as a member of the congregation and a Minister of the Word, and also as a Conservation Architect. I hope you will not mind that I posted some of your photographs on to the Drogheda Augustinian Facebook Page.

I know that many of our congregation will be interested in seeing them.

Kind regards, Florence Shields, Clogherhead, Drogheda.