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Irish Church Architecture in the Era of Vatican II

30 May, 2011

Richard Hurley is a practising architect who has been involved in Church architecture for over thirty years. This excellent book deals with the evolution of church buildings in Ireland by examining the best known churches built between the 1960s and 1990s. It traces the influence of European architects, such as Le Corbusier and Rudolf Schwarz. The author deals extensively with the role of the artist and with the vexed question of reordering and conservation.

132 pp. Dominican Publications. to purchase this book online, go to www.dominicanpublications.com.


The Legacy
Prior to Vatican II, Irish church architecture had witnessed the death throes of the two major influences on its development: the Gothic revival (1) and Classic revivalism (2) Both of these styles emerged after Catholic Emancipation as contrasting models of the kind of building which would be most suitable for worship. Their popularity suggests widespread acceptance of the notion that the Catholic Church had no particular style of building. History shows that this is not true, because the Church had, for centuries at a time, solid periods of definitive styles: Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, etc., their succession reflecting changes in culture and in liturgy.

In Ireland after 1829, the Catholic Church became more confident in its outward expression of its new-found freedom. It also became more wealthy and displayed a new-found energy in an impressive church building programme. There was a growing need for churches of large seating capacity, particularly in urban areas. The traditional ‘T’ shaped or barn churches (3) of earlier times were either forgotten about or were considered an unacceptable or impoverished image of an ancient yet vital Church. A more acceptable image was the number of impressive Gothic revival and Classic revival churches scattered throughout the length and breadth of the country.

In architectural terms little real development had occurred since Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel in the twelfth century, and the great Cistercian abbeys (4) had largely disappeared or had become mythical ruins in a misty landscape of the Celtic twilight. It is not surprising then that the newly educated Irish Church looked outwards for ideas to meet its needs, and imported them without a thought for a lost tradition. There was no other way in which the Church could move forward. Out of this quandary came the two main streams, to be followed for a very short period at the break of the 20th century by the Hiberno-Romanesque revival. Neither can British influence be forgotten, particularly in relation to the Gothic revival. Wherever that influence extended, the Gothic plan went with it. To the adherent of the Gothic revival, only Gothic could represent a full flowering of the Christian ideal. Both the Anglican and Catholic churches shared this view, to such an extent that their buildings were frequently indistinguishable, apart from individual furnishings and details. Subsequently, all Christian denominations adopted the medieval plan of nave, aisles, transepts, and chancel. This period of medievalism lasted approximately one hundred years from 1850 to 1950. Meanwhile, the seeds of the modern movement were being sown on the mainland of Europe.

One architect more than any other influenced the train of events and imposed his beliefs upon a whole generation of later architects. Augustus Weleby Pugin (1812-1852) (5), combined both religious and architectural fervour and embarked on what almost amounted to a crusade. He contended that, as a medieval architect was an honest workman and a faithful Christian, and as medieval architecture is good architecture, then you must be an honest workman and a good Christian to be a good architect. From now on, architecture ceased to be a matter of taste, it became a matter of morality. This shift in emphasis cast a long shadow, one which in architectural criticism still exists today Although he stoutly denied that he became a Catholic for architectural reasons, it might be said that he was a Gothic-driven Christian. Nor was he very flattering about Ireland: ‘I see no progress of ecclesiastical ideas in Ireland. I think if possible they grow worse. It is quite useless to attempt to build true churches, the clergy have not the least idea of using them properly.’ Nevertheless, Pugin’s practice flourished for a time in Ireland, and although his output here cannot be considered great in terms of the number of churches built, his influence can hardly be measured in purely numerical terms.

The spirit of his philosophy continued to live on through his disciples particularly in J. J. McCarthy. No doubt Pugin has his critics and some of their criticisms are valid, but his vision touched a nerve in the people and their places of worship, and reflect a subconscious yearning, reaching back to the days of monasticism. Pugin praised Gothic architecture and condemned Classical architecture because of its ‘pagan’ origins. Gothic architecture, he said, was the one Christian architecture which mirrored the redemption of man. He became so engrossed in his vision that towards the end of his life he had his puddings presented in the shape of the Gothic! He even went so far as to say that the spire was the lasting symbol of ecclesiastical authority! A number of churches in the Wexford area and his two cathedrals, in Killarney and Enniscorthy, are worthy of special mention. The long and lofty naves, particularly of the cathedrals, with a distant view of the altar in the chancel, managed to give the buildings spaces of simplicity and nobility, ideal for aspirational and silent spectator worship. Worn out from an unhappy personal life, and burnt out from work and travel, Pugin died at the early age of forty in 1852.

Pugin had laid the foundations for the Gothic revival and somehow had touched the souls of the Irish people and the Irish Church. His work found an able successor in J. J. McCarthy (1817-1882) (6) who, in a very fruitful career, designed more than forty churches and four cathedrals, the most successful of which is St Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan, begun in 1861 and not completed before he died. McCarthy published his own writings in the contemporary journals and outlined his approach to Gothic revival church architecture. He was associated with Killarney Cathedral where he designed the high altar, bishop’s throne and choir screens. Pugin had started his designs for St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in July 1845, but there were difficulties because, as he explained in his diary: ‘There are great difficulties about Maynooth, the grant is quite insufficient for the building’. Pugin had included a chapel in his original scheme but it was not built and McCarthy was commissioned in 1875 to design the Collegiate chapel, an aspirational work of lofty dimensions, with one of the most famous spires of the period. Alas, McCarthy was dead before it was finished and the work was completed by Hague. McCarthy had also designed cathedrals for Armagh (1840-73), Derry (1851-73), Monaghan (1861-92), and Thurles (1865-72).

When the Irish Ecclesiastical Society was founded in mid century, McCarthy was one of three joint secretaries, and from the records, a very important protagonist in moving things on. Nor was the society confining itself to church architecture only, as can be inferred from the inaugural address of Rev. Charles Russell. The society, he said, was interested in ‘all that relates to the externals of religion’. He included painting, sculpture, church decoration, vestments, stained glass, music, engraving and illumination. In reference to the state of sacred art in Ireland, he said: ‘There is no-one who must not have felt, with frequent and painful regret, the wretched condition of Christian art in Ireland. Sacred architecture as far as quantity goes we have had in abundance, but not only has it not as a general rule been regulated by any correct principles, but it may be almost said that in many cases it has not followed any scientific principles at all. Religious painting and sculpture are almost unknown among us, glass staining and illumination altogether … the internal decoration of our churches is too often sacrificed to external effect, in other cases it is sacrificed altogether or it is regulated by principles entirely at variance with the dignity, the solemnity, and I may add the sacred character of religious worship.’ It is interesting to note that one hundred years later protagonists for change in Irish church architecture were propounding much the same message. McCarthy had been very active in the Irish Ecclesiastical Society, the only architect member of the society which included numerous members of the Catholic hierarchy. Indeed it is said that Archbishop Cullen was the man behind McCarthy for most of his professional life. Apart from his natural architectural talents, McCarthy also combined a strong sense of national and religious renewal as recorded in a number of the commentaries of the time. It is sad to contemplate the somewhat mean obituaries in both the Builder and the Irish Builder published after his death in February 1882 at the age of sixty five. Instead of praising him for his outstanding achievements, credit was given to Francis Johnson as being the father of Gothic revival in Ireland. This was of course a shocking aberration of the truth. It is indisputable that McCarthy more than any other, together with Pugin, established functional Gothic in Ireland. His work is a testimony to this. In a further development, the influence of both Pugin and McCarthy can be seen in another major cathedral in the Gothic revivalstyle, that of St Colman’s, Cobh, (1868-1914) designed by Edward Weleby Pugin (son of Augustus Weleby Pugin) and George Ashlin.

Classic Revival
During the 17th and 18th centuries, concepts of church architecture based on the work of classicists who had rebuilt London after the great fire of 1666 had been firmly established in the minds of many church authorities as being a valid form of construction to manifest its mission. In addition to function, structure and form, architecture is equally concerned with social, economical, and political forces, and the effect of these on the development of culture. Irish church architecture came under the influence of major social and cultural forces during the 19th and loth centuries – the Act of Union, Catholic Emancipation, the Great Famine, the emergence of Irish nationalism, Irish Independence and the foundation of the state, the development of the Gaelic Athletic Association, together with the emergence of the Catholic Church as a strong force in the development of Irish culture. Perhaps the greatest impact was provided by Catholic Emancipation. Although Roman Catholics accounted for the overwhelming majority of the population, they had not contributed much to the architecture of the nation throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but after Emancipation they asserted themselves by building a new church in practically every village and town throughout the land. However, as a result of the Great Famine of 1845-1849, rural communities lacked the resources to build churches of high quality It was in the years between 1850 and 1870 that a great visible change became apparent throughout the country with the establishment of seminaries, monasteries, churches, convents, and cathedrals. The whole course of Irish church history at this time, together with the dramatic cultural change ensuing can be gleaned from a census taken around 1841. According to the records, nearly 6 million Roman Catholics made up 80.9% of the population. The established Church had 852,000 members in a population totalling 7,943,000. This was equivalent to 10.7% of the population, while the Presbyterians had 8.1% and other Dissenters less than 0.3% of the population. At the same time from a total of 4,494 churches in the land, 2,105 belonged to the Catholic 80.9% (7).

There was not the same campaign in favour of the many churches built in the Classic revival style during this time. Out of Renaissance classicism grew the Baroque – the exuberant proclamation of the Counter-Reformation, of which there are few if any genuine examples in Ireland. Nevertheless there was a growing need for urban churches of very large seating capacity, and many such buildings in the Classical revival style mirrored more the spirit of Rome and less the spirit of Ireland. More and more Irish priests were beginning to be educated abroad, and also beginning to travel more extensively. When they returned to their native land they brought memories of splendid triumphant churches, complete with massive porticoes, distinctive neo-classic features and impressive interiors, some complete with gigantic Corinthian pilasters. The ideas were imported on a massive scale from abroad, and implemented in an impressive manner by many members of the clergy, particularly in developing urban areas. The buildings of Rome and elsewhere in Italy became models for a large section of the Irish church. They entered into the civic arena of architecture. The association of the idea of a church with monumentality, which heretofore was absent in the minds of the people, now became the norm. Monumentalism soon became the springboard for triumphalism, which to a large extent lasted until the advent of Vatican II, at which time it had outrun its useful existence. In all, the 19th century left a legacy of impressive neo-classic churches, which in Dublin included a quartet by Patrick Byrne – Adam and Eve’s; St Paul’s, Arran Quay; St Audeon’s, High Street; and Our Lady of Refuge, Rathmines (8). Other examples of the same scale of churches in the urban context were St Mary’s Dominican Church, Pope’s Quay, Cork, designed by Kearne and Deane and the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Limerick. Many of these churches have similar characteristics – impressive porticoes, interiors with nave and aisle separated by handsome stone classic columns, coffered ceilings and ornate plaster work. The sanctuaries had massive altar pieces, richly decorated with a wide variety of imported marble – Carrara, Sicilian, Siena as well as Galway black, or Midleton red, depending on the area in which the church was located. These churches were designed to provide the spectacle of impressive ceremonies, with distant vistas, ending in a massive altar and entablature. The focal point became the Reserved Sacrament in the tabernacle, which was housed in a profusely decorated high altar piece. The memories of such powerful symbolism of monumentalism and triumphalism became deeply inculcated in the Irish mind. This concept carried well into the years of Vatican II and still has a following even today. One of the many complexities and contradictions of architecture in the service of the church is that the Renaissance was the rebirth of classical culture, based on the rediscovery of ancient Rome. A church had always been regarded as a sacred edifice, and somehow, within the Renaissance context it was equated with the temple. This is how pagan Rome served as a model for Christian places of worship, which became so popular in our country. A brief look at the case history of the coming to be of a church in a typical Irish town through the middle and latter part of the 19th century – the Church of St Mary’s, Clonmel  will show how long the building took to complete (9). The Catholics of Clonmel had surrendered the old parish church of St Mary’s to Cromwell on the morning of the 18th of May, 1650. From then until 1850 they had worshipped in what was known as the ‘thatched chapel’, the origins of which have been lost in the mists of time. We do know, however, that the chapel was T shaped and low, and its dimensions may be gathered from the fact that it fitted easily into the present church of St Mary’s. This was built around it and roofed, thus perfectly enclosing it. Thus, Mass was celebrated in the old building on one Sunday and in the new on the next Sunday. The records tell us that it made no pretensions to architecture. We also know that it contained three galleries which were reached by stone steps on the outside of the building, was lighted by long circular leaded windows and, because the floor was 7 ft below the present level, not infrequently had divine service suspended by floods from the river. The parish was divided in 1836 and shortly after that John Baldwin, who had been educated at Maynooth College, was appointed parish priest of St Mary’s. Soon afterwards he decided that plans should be drawn up for the erection of a new church.

From the parish records the building appears to have been planned in four stages: (1) the erection of the walls and roofing, demolition of the old church; (2) completion of the interior walls, floor and ceiling; (3) provision of altars; and (4) addition of tower and portico, etc. In six days the old whitewashed church was levelled and buried beneath the floor of the new. The following Sunday, when the congregation arrived for the first Mass in the new church, they found all trace of the old gone, except for the altar and seating which had been retained. The interior was unfinished, without a ceiling and had a rubble or sand floor. By 1855 the second phase was completed and the church solemnly blessed, the interior had been painted, the ceiling was in place and the floor of the new nave paved with sandstone slabs.

The next phase was the provision of altars. The high altar was completed in 1867. It cost £2,000 and was designed by George Goldie of London and sculptured by Mr Russ. From planning to completion spanned fifty years and the church was not consecrated until the 6th November, 1936.

Coinciding with the demise of the Gothic revival and its ultimate failure to establish itself as the national style, together with the collapse of what is loosely called Classic Revivalism as a potent force in the continuation of Irish church architecture, we witness the rise of Irish nationalism which prompted the revival of Hiberno- Romanesque. The Celtic cultural revival was very strongly associated with the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Gaelic League, which were founded in 1885 and 1893 respectively. In the minds of many, the emergence of Hiberno-Romanesque architecture was perversely associated with the rise of Irish nationalism and the eventual road to independence. In the minds of some in the Catholic Church particularly, it was believed that a church building would not be true unless its inspiration and its design was sincerely Irish and recalled much that was most distinctive and suggestive in the best age of Irish ecclesiastical art. Pamphlets of the day stated quite unequivocally that a church should be designed and fashioned on the same lines as those built for priests and missionaries in Ireland nearly a thousand years before. There was also a campaign against those styles of architecture which had no relation to the past forms of building in Ireland and which did not take into account the history of the church in Ireland. These were considered entirely unsuitable and were discouraged. Greek temples in particular came in for criticism with their colonnades of columns, architraves, pediments and pilasters, a form which was then said to have been taken over by the church from the Roman empire. For similar reasons there were other forms of architecture such as Renaissance, which, having had no association with this country, were to be abandoned. The plea, if not the cry, was that our churches should be released from foreign influences, and that they should follow closely those early Celtic forms which were to be found in so many places in the country and which were known as Hiberno-Romanesque. To those who saw Celtic Revivalism as a political force, Hiberno-Romanesque architecture was seen as the product of a rapidly changing age of national progress, and equally importantly it brought people back to the early ages of the faith in Ireland.
It is an understatement to say that feelings of patriotism and religion joined forces in an effort to forge a revival of ancient Irish culture. In his book, The Collegiate Chapel, Cork, the Rev. Sir John R. O’Connell wrote very pungently about H iberno-Romanesque, its meaning and opinions about it, and left no doubt in anyone’s mind at that time what the Honan Chapel was meant to convey. He wrote: ‘Where Irish men are charged with such a duty their task will be made easier if they will rid themselves of foreign influences, and approach their task from a purely Irish standpoint. Let them concentrate their minds on the inspiration which can be drawn, on the help which can be gained, if they look to Irish history and Irish art, instead of to outside or foreign conditions, which, however excellent they may be in themselves have no relation to this country …. it seems to me that for Irishmen there is another law which ought to mould and fashion church building in this country, viz., that our churches should be freed from foreign influences, and that they should be faithful to those early Celtic forms to be found in so many places in this country, which for want of a better term are known as Hiberno-Romanesque. This style has the merit that it is the product of an age of national progress of exceptional activity and vigour. But its claim is based on grounds stronger than those of architectural symmetry and beauty. It brings us back to the early ages of the faith in Ireland. It reminds us of the labours and the works of the Saints who brought the faith to our people, and who confirmed them in it. It seems to unite us with the teachers of the church in Ireland to whom we owe so much, with the chain of faith and piety which throughout the ages has known no weakening and no breaks.’

‘The leading features of the Hiberno-Romanesque,’ wrote Archbishop Healy in his Ireland’s Ancient Schools and Scholars, ‘are well known – the semicircular arch with elaborate but appropriate ornamentation, the multiform orders in the doorways and chancel arches, with their endless variety of decoration, the exquisite carving of the capitals and other conspicuous parts, sometimes in the form of human heads of great variety, and sometimes in striking imitation of natural flowers or foliage. Then the church was not large, had no aisles, and rarely transepts, no great east window or adjoining cloisters, it was simply a plain rectangular nave with smaller rectangular chancel at the east end.’ Alas no architect or parish priest was able to sensitively construct a building to match that specification, and the ideal of matching Cormac’s Chapel or the Clonfert doorway had long disappeared. The triangular battle waged by Gothic revival, neo-classicism and Hiberno-Romanesque was bound to lead to procrastination and a drifting sense of an authentic aesthetic, as can be seen in comparing St Patrick’s, Donegal, (1935) and Cavan Cathedral (1942), both by the same architect. How did Hiberno-Romanesque become neo-classicism overnight?

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, there are not many successful attempts at Hiberno-Romanesque revival churches. One of the best examples is the Honan Chapel attached to the University College, Cork (10) The origins of this chapel are interesting. The Irish Universities Act of 1908 which established the university colleges had enacted that whatever money might be provided for the new university or any of its constituent colleges, no part of it could be applied for the provision or maintenance of any church, chapel or other place of religious worship or observance. However, a willing patron was found in the person of Isabella Honan, who died in 1913 and bequeathed her estate to build the Honan Chapel at the university. The architect entrusted with the commission was James F. McMullan of Cork, Knight Commander of St Gregory. McMullan was not slow to delve into the Irish past and greatly pleased the authorities when he produced a neo-Hiberno-Romanesque nave and chancel church with the west front inspired by the Romanesque front of St Cronan’s, Roscrea.

The interior is notable for much of the Celtic revival art (11). Particularly worthy of mention are the magnificent stained glass windows by Harry Clarke and Sarah Purser (12), and also the mosaic floor of the centre aisle of the nave which was inspired by two poems very different in origin, one of which was an old Gaelic poem which sang the praises of God and all his works, and the other the well known Canticle of Three Children in the Fiery Furnace.

Any early hopes that pre-Norman invasion Romanesque architecture would develop into an acceptable national style died rapidly. Nevertheless, its ghost developed into what commonly became known as Irish Romanesque and continued well into the twentieth century and survived as far as the 1950s and even the 1960s.
There is a short catalogue of other examples of Hiberno-Romanesque built about this time and these include St Enda’s, Spiddal, Co. Galway, (1903-1907) designed by William May Scott. It hardly falls into the style of Hiberno-Romanesque however, having a square tower and a sanctuary which is apsidal, with three round headed windows. The congregation was a predominately rural one and the climate was damp but not cold. The interior was very dark, and must have presented an eerie ambience before electric light replaced candle light. Scott also designed St Patrick’s on Lough Derg (1926-31) a building much loved by countless pilgrims down through the decades of the 20th century Other churches of note include Newport, Co. Mayo, (1915-18) by Rudolf Butler and also Loughrea, Co. Galway (1897-1943).

History tells us it was all very confusing, architects of the ‘Celtic Twilight’ attempting to do for Irish architecture what the groups who were to create the Abbey Theatre were to do for Irish Literature.


  1. D. S. Richardson Gothic Revival Architecture in Ireland. (2 Vols New York 1983).
  2. T. P. Kennedy ‘Church Building’ in A History of Irish Catholicism. (Vol 5 Ed. P. J. Corish) Gill and Macmillan Dublin 1970.
  3. Niall McCullough and Valerie Mulvin A Lost Tradition. Gsndon Editions 1987.
  4. Roger Stalley The Cistercian Monasteries of Ireland. Yale University 1987.
  5. Roderick O’Donnell ‘Pugin as a Church Architect’ in Pugin: A Gothic Passion. (Ed. Paul Atterbury and Clive Wainwright) Yale University Press 1994.
  6. Jeanne Sheehy J. J McCarthy and the Gothic Revival in Ireland. Ulster Architecture Heritage Society 1977.
  7. D. S. Richardson Gothic Revival Architecture in Ireland. (2 Vols New York 1983).
  8. T. P. Kennedy ‘Church Building’ in A History of Irish Catholicism. (Vol 5 Ed. P. J. Corish) Gill and Macmillan Dublin 1970.
  9. Fr G. Power Parish Priests and Churches of St Marys 1320-1984. Editor Parish of St Mary’s, Clonmel.
  10. The Rev. Sir John O’Connell The Collegiate Chapel, Cork. Cork University Press 1932.
  11. M. O’ Kelly The Honan Chapel, University College Cork. Cork University Press 1966.
  12. Michael Wynne Irish Stained Glass. Irish Heritage Series Eason and Sons Ltd. Dublin 1977.


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