ST MARY’S CHURCH, HADDINGTON ROAD
Remarks by FELIX M LARKIN at the launch of
Rich in faith, beauty and history: St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, Dublin
Patrick Claffey (ed.)
St Mary’s Church, after the 11 o’clock Mass, 19 August 2018
One of the ways we find God – or, more accurately perhaps, how He finds us – is through the art and architecture of places like this lovely church, and so it is most appropriate to celebrate this building and its art in the little publication that it is my honour to launch this morning.
And I think our appreciation of a church like this is greatly enhanced by the knowledge that we follow in a long line of people, over many generations, who have worshipped here – and for whom the beauty of the building itself and of its decoration has served as a conduit to God. Founded in 1839, it has been extended and renovated extensively on various occasions since then – most recently, under the late Monsignor Paddy Finn in 2011. Peter Costello records in his book on Dublin churches that the first church here 'was simple in style, even to having an unpaved earth floor'. Things have improved in the intervening years, and St Mary’s has long been regarded as the most important outpost of the Dublin diocese on the south side of the city. With the archbishops residing on 'The Northside', first in Parnell Square, and then – from 1890 – in Drumcondra, their auxiliary bishops reigned here as parish priest in St Mary’s for most of the twentieth century. Nicholas Donnelly, Edward Byrne, Francis Wall and Patrick Dunne are in that particular apostolic succession – auxiliary bishops of Dublin and parish priests of St Mary’s. Byrne is the only one of them who went on to become archbishop, and he was here for less than a year before he was appointed archbishop in succession to William Walsh in 1921 – not long enough for him to have left his mark here or for Haddington Road to have left its mark on him.
Nicholas Donnelly is, arguably, the most significant – as well as the first – of the auxiliary bishops who were PPs here. This is reflected in his very elaborate memorial in the east transept – not, I think, of any genuine artistic merit and so there is no reference to it in this book. He died in 1920, and all historians of the Dublin diocese are indebted to him for his histories of the parishes of Dublin, published in a series of seventeen pamphlets between 1904 and 1917. Based on extensive original research, they are regarded today as having stood the test of time quite well. Donnelly himself was what one would describe as a 'Castle Catholic', not a unionist but very much out of sympathy with the advanced nationalist and radical agrarian sentiments of many of his episcopal colleagues – including his own archbishop, William Walsh, and the formidable Archbishop Croke of Cashel. Relations were, accordingly, very difficult between Dublin Castle and the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – and it was for that reason that the Westminster government blocked Walsh’s appointment as cardinal in 1893, though his two predecessors as archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen and Edward McCabe, had been made cardinals. In these fraught circumstances, Bishop Donnelly was the back channel through which the Castle authorities and the hierarchy communicated in the days before independence. He was the low-profile go-between when other bishops flinched from doing business directly with the Castle – a very necessary and important role, which is now forgotten or, if not forgotten, is derided.
I suspect it is because of Bishop Donnelly that we have in St Mary’s the only First World War memorial in a Catholic church in Dublin, and probably in Ireland. There are some memorials elsewhere to individuals who fell in that war, but nowhere else is there a general memorial listing all who fell from a parish. Honouring those who died in the Great War despite the events of 1916 in Dublin was consistent with Bishop Donnelly’s politics, but let’s not forget that most of those from this parish who fought in the war would have been nationalists – supporters of John Redmond, who felt that serving the war effort was furthering the cause of Home Rule for Ireland as well as upholding values of sovereignty and freedom in the face of unprovoked German aggression. One of the names on our war memorial is that of Tom Kettle, very prominent in nationalist circles in Dublin and a former Irish Party MP, and he wrote in his famous last poem before being killed at the Somme in 1916 that he
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
In other words, he fought for a higher ideal than realpolitik – one that was grounded in his Catholic faith, and linked to notions of human dignity and decent standards of behaviour both internationally and in the domestic sphere. The memorial, with a crucifix as its central motif, is in the west transept – directly opposite the memorial to Bishop Donnelly. There are nearly 100 names on it, including one woman’s name – and remember that these are all from just one parish in Dublin, a grim testament to the extent of the carnage of the Great War.
The publication that we launch today is entitled Rich in faith, beauty and history – and that indeed captures the essence of this wonderful church of St Mary’s. In my remarks so far, I have concentrated on the history of the church, but this booklet is largely about its beauty – the beauty of its artefacts and, in particular, its stained glass. As stated in the booklet, the stained glass is 'central to the interior of the church ... and is one of the highlights of the building. It could be described as the Gospel in glass.' There is here an outstanding selection of work from the great phase of Irish stained glass production in the first half of the twentieth century, with work by A.E. Child, Beatrice Glenavy and Earley’s Stained Glass Studio. My own favourite window – that of 'Christ the King' in the east transept – is by Earley, as is the Rose Window at the back of the church. A beautiful panel from the Rose Window features on the cover of this book – a serene image of Our Lady, patron of this church. Our Lady’s Chapel in the west transept is also a magnificent shrine to the patron of this church, with an exquisite image of the 'Madonna and Child' on the side wall which is difficult to see properly from outside the sanctuary – but it is well worth making an effort to see it.
The third strand in the title of this booklet – faith – is, of course, what has inspired all this beauty and defined the history of this church, and one can only wonder at the power of that faith and marvel at the physical evidence of it that this building and its art represent. At the same time, we should remember the words of T.S. Eliot from the Four Quartets in reference to St John’s Church at Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire:
... You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
This is what we believe, that prayer has been valid here – hence the history and the beauty of the place. I think it is appropriate to conclude these remarks on that note. But before concluding, may I congratulate Fr Pat Claffey on his photographs and his other editorial work in this fine booklet – and thank him, and Fr Fachtna McCarthy, for their initiative in arranging for its publication. It certainly does justice to this church, so beloved of so many of us – and it is my very great pleasure now to launch it.