20 June 2019
Church of the Three Patrons
in Rathgar was once known
as the ‘Servants’ Church’
During my brief visit to Dublin earlier this week, I also visited the Church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar, on the corner of Rathgar Road and Leicester Avenue. This was one of the last buildings of the architect Patrick Byrne, and one of the finest of the many churches he built in Dublin.
In its early days, the church was known popularly as ‘the Maids’ Church’ or the ‘Servants’ Church.’ The church of the Three Patrons in Rathgar was built as a chapel-of-ease for Father William Meagher, the Parish Priest of Rathmines. The parish of Rathmines was formed in 1823, and a number of new parishes were carved out of this parish in the decades that followed as the suburbs of south Dublin grew and expanded.
These new parishes included Rathgar at the Church of the Three Patrons (1882), and the Parish of Cullenswood, at the Church of the Holy Name on Beechwood Avenue, Ranelagh (1906).
The foundation stone of the new church in Rathgar was laid on 18 March 1860, and the church was built between 1860 and 1862. At the time, the Rathmines Township was extended in 1862 to become the Rathmines and Rathgar Township, and later it was renamed the Rathmines and Rathgar Urban District Council in 1898.
New churches for other traditions were being built in Rathgar at the same time. Zion Church, the Church of Ireland parish church Rathgar, was founded in 1861, Christ Church, the Presbyterian Church, was built in 1859-1862, the Methodist Church on Brighton Road was built in 1874, and the Baptist Church on Grosvenor Road was built around the same time.
The Church of the Three Patron was built following the donation of £2,000 by a wealthy parishioner. Rathgar was one of the prosperous, burgeoning new suburbs of Dublin in the 1850s and 1860s, but this parishioner heard that Roman Catholics servants working in houses in Rathgar ‘found it a great hardship’ to attend Mass in Rathmines, because the time they were allowed to go to Mass was often too short a time.
A further £4,650 was raised from among the ‘humbler classes’ from their small income and from private fundraising.
However, the tolerant spirit that motivated the 19th century Protestant residents of Rathgar who helped to pay for the building had its critics. ‘The adherents of the Papacy in this country seem to be determined to brave the law and public decency to the utmost,’ The Irish Times reported at the time.
‘On Sunday last, the Protestant and quiet township of Rathgar was the scene of mob fanaticism and priestly display. A chapel, it seems, is to depreciate the value of the property of the neighbourhood and drive the Protestant occupants from the place.’
‘Processions formed and the Metropolitan Police kept the road open. There were priests in pontifical robes and the Bishop of Bombay, who blessed the foundation stone, ‘was resplendent in tinsel and embroidery.’
No attempt was to keep the occasion private, The Irish Times complained. ‘Popery was dominant and, careless of the law, marched her processions and performed her showy ritual without disguise, to the accompaniment of music and singing. If a few Protestant youths play a tune which rings of loyalty or patriotism with a fife and drum, the police immediately seize the offenders … Under the windows of the Protestant gentry all the paraphernalia of Popery was ostentatiously displayed and the people were taught that Romanism was, indeed, the dominant religion.’
The foundation stone was laid on Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1860 and the church was dedicated to the Three Patron saints of Ireland – Saint Patrick, Saint Bridget and Saint Columba – on 18 May 1862 as a chapel-of-ease for Rathmines parish.
The architect Patrick Byrne (1782-1884) was born in 1782 or 1783, and probably studied at the Dublin Society’s Schools (later the RDS).
Byrne worked from Mabbot Street, Dublin (1815-1853), and was appointed measurer and then architect to the Wide Streets Commissioners (1820-1848). He was also architect to the Trustees of the Royal Exchange (1847-1851).
His early churches included Saint John the Baptist (Roman Catholic) Church, Clontarf (1835-1838) and Saint Paul’s Church, Arran Quay (1835-1844), and in 1839, he was put in charge of AWN Pugin’s designs for the chapel at Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham.
Byrne also designed the mortuary chapel at Goldenbridge Cemetery (1835), and later he became the architect to Glasnevin Cemetery, where he designed the entrance and gate lodges, the chapel, and the O’Connell Circle and O’Connell Memorial.
His later churches included Saint Audeon’s, High Street (1841-1852), Saint John the Baptist, Blackrock (1842-1845), Saint James’s (1844-1854), where the foundation stone was laid by Daniel O’Connell (1844), Saint Pappan’s Church, Santry (1846-1848), the Church of the Visitation, Fairview (1847-1855), Church of Our Lady of Refuge, Rathmines (1850-1856), the portico of the Franciscan Church on Merchant’s Quay, the Church of Saint Alphonsus and Saint Columba, Ballybrack (1854), and Saint Assam’s, Raheny (1859-1864).
Byrne later worked from Talbot Street (1854-1864), Lower Gardiner Street and lived at 3 Waltham Terrace, Blackrock. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (FRIAI) in 1847, and was vice-president in 1855-1864. He was elected an academician of the Royal Hibernian Academy (1860).
Byrne’s church in Rathgar is considered one of the finest 19th century churches in Dublin. A number of myths about the design of the church have passed into local lore in Rathgar. One says its façade was modelled on the Library of Ceslus in Ephesus. Another says it has no windows facing the streets so local Protestant householders and residents could not see proceedings inside the church as they passed by.
Byrne designed the church in the Italian renaissance style. Because of the prominent corner, the church is oriented on a west-east axis rather than the traditional liturgical east-west axis.
Inside, the interior of the church appears quite austere, with a massive central space dominated by a giant order of Corinthian pilasters. The apse has an ambulatory, which has tiny curved chapels set into the walls. These were decorated by O’Neill and Byrne.
Statues of the three patrons rise above the high altar, with Saint Patrick in the centre, flanked by Saint Brigid (left) and Saint Columba (right). Two further niches hold statues of two other saints associated with Dublin: Saint Laurence O’Toole (left) and Saint Rumold (right).
The ambulatory behind the chancel is an unusual feature in a Roman Catholic parish church, although there is one in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin too.
The exterior was left unfinished, and never received the portico Byrne had designed to relieve some of the austerity.
Byrne’s later years were ‘embittered by painful pecuniary difficulties’ and he died on 10 January 1864 at the age of 81. His son and assistant, John F Byrne, had died a few months earlier.
His library, ‘consisting of a beautiful and expensive collection of the best works on architecture and civil engineering,’ was sold at auction in Dublin in February 1864.
The High Altar (1882) with its baldacchino is the work of Joseph Farrell (1823-1904), a member of a well-known family of sculptors.
Three side altars, the sacristy, porch and other additions (1882) were the work of O’Neill and Byrne, and a partnership formed by John O’Neill (1828-1883) and William Henry Byrne (1844-1917), a former pupil of James Joseph McCarthy. WH Byrne also designed the present façade in 1891 and made further improvements in 1906.
The paintings of the Stations of the Cross in the side aisles and the mysteries of the Rosary in the nave are also unusual features.
Ashlin and Coleman decorated part of the church in 1927 and completed the Saint Aloysius side altar in 1932. Two marble shrines designed by Ashlin and Coleman in 1936 were sculpted by CW Harrison.
In recent decades, when the church was being restored, the Three Patrons parishioners found ecumenical hospitality at Christ Church, the Presbyterian church in Rathgar.
This restoration work began in 1994 and included reproofing, insulation, pointing stonework, a new heating system, cleaning paintings and redecoration, at a cost of £500,000.