Ballaghaderreen has a Catholic cathedral - so why has Dublin never had one?

Church of Ireland has two - one national and one for diocese - but even John Charles McQuaid couldn’t get a ‘proper’ Catholic one over the line

It has mystified Irish Catholics for generations that, while there are two cathedrals in Dublin, neither is Catholic. Adding to this bewilderment is the somewhat inconvenient truth (for Dubliners) that whereas towns in the Republic such as Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, Letterkenny in Donegal, Killarney in Kerry, Enniscorthy in Wexford, Tuam in Galway, and Longford town – never mind Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Galway, and Sligo – all have Catholic cathedrals of their own, Ireland’s capital city does not.

A cathedral is the seat (from the Latin “cathedra”, referring to the chair) of a diocese’s bishop and his (or her, in the case of Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath and Kildare, Pat Storey) main church.

Dublin’s two cathedrals belong to the Church of Ireland, the post-Reformation State church until 1869 when it was disestablished by Westminster. St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin remains the Church of Ireland’s national cathedral, while Christ Church is the cathedral of its Dublin and Glendalough dioceses.

Dublin’s Catholic Pro Cathedral on Marlborough St in the city centre has always been a “Provisional” Cathedral, the intention being to build a “proper” one when time and money allowed. Even the formidable John Charles McQuaid, who became Archbishop of Dublin in 1940, was frustrated in his efforts to build a cathedral on a grand scale and worthy of the capital of what was then most assuredly a Catholic country at Dublin’s Merrion Square.


A site there was bought by the Church in 1930 for the princely sum of £100,000. However, most of the funds collected for the building of a new cathedral at Merrion Square ended up being spent on new churches in the rapidly growing archdiocese.

Then, in 1974, McQuaid’s successor Archbishop Dermot Ryan transferred ownership of the Merrion Square site to the city of Dublin, which opened it to the public and renamed it Archbishop Ryan Park. Following publication in 2009 of the Murphy report, into the handling of clerical child sexual abuse cases in Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese, in which Archbishop Ryan was criticised, it was renamed Merrion Square Park by the City Council.

The Pro Cathedral is also unusual in that it was built before 1829, when Catholic Emancipation was granted in these islands. It was constructed between 1815 and 1825, albeit on a side street off the city’s main thoroughfare Sackville St (now O’Connell St), as the Penal Laws which banned the practice of Catholicism were relaxed.

Following the Easter Rising of 1916 it was even suggested that the burnt-out GPO might be a suitable location for Dublin’s Catholic cathedral, a view supported by W T Cosgrave, then president of the executive council of the Irish Free State.

Now, and should Archbishop Dermot Farrell succeed in having the Pro Cathedral designated a Basilica, it will become just the third in Ireland, joining that at Knock in Co Mayo and at Lough Derg in Co Donegal.

According to a 1989 Vatican document a Basilica “must stand out as a centre of active and pastoral liturgy”. It “may enjoy a certain renown throughout the diocese,” while “the historical value or importance of the church and the worthiness of its art are also to be considered,” it said.

At Westland Row, it is proposed that St Andrew’s be elevated to become Dublin’s Catholic Cathedral and where all big liturgical events in the archdiocese would then take place. Its foundation stone was laid in April 1832. It opened in 1834 and was completed in 1837.